The seating configuration at the meeting of the Havre de Grace mayor and City Council on Monday was quite different compared to prior meetings, as officials promoted social distancing to help slow the spread of novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, as people continue to be infected during the global pandemic.
Attendance was limited to 15 people; the mayor and council members each kept one seat on the dais between them. Five of the six city council members were present; Councilwoman Carolyn Zinner was absent, as she was caring for her husband Monday night, according to Council President David Glenn.
Chairs in the public seating area were separated by six feet. City agency directors, who would normally be on the dais, were in the audience along with people scheduled to give presentations during the meeting.
“We did this just so people can honor the social distance recommendations,” Mayor William T. Martin said before the meeting. He was referring to one of the many recommendations health officials have made so people can slow the spread of a virus that currently has no treatment, no vaccine and can be lethal, especially to the elderly and people with underlying health conditions.
The council’s agenda for Monday was busy, with four ordinances up for a vote for adoption and the presentation of the mayor’s budget for fiscal 2021. There also were presentations on the Havre de Grace Youth Sailing Program, which is scheduled to start its seven-week session in June, and the development of a statue honoring Negro Leagues baseball player Ernest Burke, a statue that will be installed in Tydings Park.
The mayor said he wanted to adhere to the council’s set meeting schedule, at least through Monday, and present the preliminary budget “so the public has a chance to look at it sooner rather than later.” The proposed budget, which must be adopted by the City Council, is available on the city website.
Havre de Grace city services, including public works, police, fire and EMS protection, are still available during the COVID-19 crisis, and City Hall is open for business, although city leaders encourage residents to conduct as much business as possible online and by phone.
“In other words, be more remote with your approach,” Director of Administration Patrick Sypolt said as he delivered his department’s regular report to the mayor and council.
Utility and tax bills can be paid online, or people can place payments made in cash or by check in a drop box outside City Hall.
“Permits can be handled online with some advance communication with our planning staff,” Sypolt said.
Many city employees are working from home, so people should call and make an appointment if they need to meet with a city staffer. Workers can receive voice mails via email notification, so staff are able to return messages, according to Sypolt.
People also can visit the city’s website for links to information about the novel coronavirus from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Maryland Department of Health, according to Sypolt.
“The way this COVID virus is changing, our response to it is changing daily, sometimes hourly,” he said.
Sypolt also addressed, on behalf of the city’s Department of Public Works, people flushing disinfecting wipes down the toilet. He emphasized that residents should not flush those wipes, even if they are labeled as flushable, because they get caught up in grinder pumps in the municipal sewage system, wrapping around the gears and causing the pumps to burn out. The wipes can create clogs in the sewer system, too.
Sypolt urged residents to put the wipes in the trash rather than flush them, as “it does a cause a catastrophic problem for us — they do not break down.”
Police Chief Teresa Walter urged residents to follow the executive orders Gov. Larry Hogan has issued in response to COVID-19, such as closing schools, closing bars, restaurants and gyms and limiting the size of public gatherings.
“We’ve never experienced anything like this in our history, to this magnitude,” she said of the pandemic.
The chief stressed that businesses and citizens who follow the governors orders are helping keep the community safe. Those who “knowingly and willfully” disobey them face up to a year in prison, a fine of up to $5,000, or both, if they are caught and their case proceeds through the criminal justice system, Walter said.
“I really do appreciate the businesses falling in line,” she said of Havre de Grace businesses. “That was fantastic, because they’re also looking out for the community.”
Erika Quesenbery Sturgill, economic development director, encouraged residents to support local restaurants by visiting their websites or social media pages to see what options are available for pickup and delivery of meals. Many restaurants around Maryland are offering those options as they cannot be open for dine-in customers.
She noted MacGregor’s Restaurant in downtown Havre de Grace has put the message “HdG Strong” on its marquee. Local businesses can visit the Maryland Business Express website for more information on COVID-19 and how they can seek federal and state assistance, Sturgill said.
“I want to thank our businesses for staying strong in this,” Sturgill said. “It’s unprecedented, and they really are pulling out all the stops to help one another and to help our citizens.”