With COVID-19 cases in a current and steady decline, Havre de Grace officials plan to reopen City Hall and City Council meetings to the public next month, plus the council recently approved a slate of community events for the spring and summer.
“It’s time to open City Hall,” Mayor William T. Martin said during a council meeting Tuesday night. “It’s time to bring people back in here to the council meetings.”
The mayor said he met with administrative staff Tuesday to discuss bringing municipal employees back to work in City Hall, which has been closed to the public for much of the pandemic over the past year. Some city staff work in the building while others work remotely.
Martin plans to have employees come back to work next week, with City Hall scheduled to reopen to members of the public March 1, giving people the ability to pay bills and permit fees in person. A City Council meeting is also scheduled for that day, and officials plan to allow the public to attend. Attendance at council meetings has been strictly limited to city leaders, with the mayor and council members sitting a seat apart on the dais and wearing masks.
Seats in the council chamber will be spread out to promote social distancing. The number of people in the chamber will be limited to 38, including the mayor and members of the council, plus attendees must wear masks, according to a public hearing notice for March 1.
The public will be able to weigh in on Ordinance 1049, which establishes maximum setback limits for dwellings in the city’s National Register Historic District covering the downtown area and prohibits “front-load garages” on properties along “certain streets,” according to the ordinance, which was introduced for a first reading by the council Tuesday. The public hearing is scheduled to start at 7 p.m. on March 1.
The mayor said he also hopes to open meetings of other city bodies, such as the Board of Appeals and Planning Commission, to the public next month.
“That’s if things continue to trend the way they are,” Martin stressed. “If there’s an uptick or any kind of sign of danger with the COVID numbers, then we’ll take it from there.”
The mayor highlighted how COVID-19 cases have been declining in Harford County and the Havre de Grace ZIP code in recent weeks — Harford County had 12,129 cases, with 225 confirmed and four probable deaths as of Wednesday, and the Havre de Grace ZIP code of 21078 had 815 cases Wednesday, according to the state’s COVID-19 dashboard.
Case rates for Harford County have been going down since the end of the holiday season, when local cases followed statewide and national trends of massive spikes in new cases. Harford’s rate of people testing positive has declined over the past month and a half, from a peak of 9.01% on Jan. 7 to 5.11% Tuesday. The number of new cases also has dropped, from 41.05 cases per 100,000 on Jan. 12 to 15.66 per 100,000 as of Tuesday.
Statewide, the number of acute and intensive care hospital beds being used to treat COVID-19 patients has dropped from a peak in early January, as well as the number of deaths, according to the state’s dashboard.
More and more people in Harford County and Maryland have been able to get vaccines in recent weeks, although there have been multiple complaints about limited supply of doses and significant challenges in reserving appointments to get a shot. County health officer Dr. David Bishai discussed those challenges along with racial disparities in the rate of local vaccinations in a virtual forum with Harford Community College this week.
Mayor Martin urged people to keep their hopes up and encouraged them to “just hang in there — we’re all in this together, and we’ll all get the vaccine soon.”
“If the numbers continue to trend down, it’s our greatest desire to get this building of the people opened up to the people as soon as we can,” he said of City Hall.
Easter, Independence Day events
The council unanimously approved applications for spring and summer events Tuesday, including the annual Easter egg hunt and Independence Day festivities.
The egg hunt, coordinated by the Havre de Grace Recreation Committee, is scheduled for noon on Saturday, April 3 in Concord Point Park. Steve Gamatoria, the mayor’s chief of staff who presented the details on each event, joked that the hunt would end at 12:03 p.m., which drew laughs from some council members. The egg hunt is known for being over in a matter of minutes as children race through the park to pick up as many plastic eggs as they can.
The next event is the Carnival on the Chesapeake, sponsored by the Havre de Grace Independence Day Commission, scheduled for Tuesday, June 14 through Saturday, June 19, in the swale of Tydings Park and adjacent Yacht Basin parking lot.
The carnival will be operated by Houghton Enterprises of Pennsylvania, which has operated prior carnivals for the Independence Day Commission — the carnival serves as a major fundraiser for the commission’s Independence Day events. The commission keeps 25% of carnival ticket sales, according to Gamatoria.
The event has been “a class carnival” under Houghton’s management, said Gamatoria, who noted that the company operators have been “very receptive to working with the city on any of our requests.”
The Independence Day events, all scheduled for Sunday, July 4, include the annual downtown parade along Union Avenue. The theme of the parade, which is scheduled to start at 2 p.m. and have about 100 entrants, will be “honoring our health care heroes,” Gamatoria said.
Next will be the Independence Day concert at Hutchins Park, featuring the bands More More More from 5 to 7 p.m. and Here’s to the Night from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. Another concert, featuring the Maryland Military Band, will happen at Concord Point Park starting at 7:30 p.m.; that event is expected to end around the time fireworks go off around 9:30 p.m.
A COVID-19 protection plan has been submitted to the Harford County Health Department for the Easter egg hunt, and similar plans for the carnival and Independence Day festivities will be submitted prior to those events, according to Gamatoria.
Independence Day festivities, which typically draw thousands of people to Havre de Grace, did not happen in 2020 because of the pandemic.
“We’re optimistically thinking that by the time the Fourth of July comes [in 2021], we all can celebrate our nation’s independence a little less guarded this year,” Martin said.
He thanked the council for its approval of the event applications, noting that “gives the commission the go-ahead to start working in earnest to get these events going.”
“It’s no small task,” the mayor said. “It’s a lot of work to do, but it’s a labor of love with the members of the commission, so we look forward to working with them and hopefully it’s a good event.”
Councilman Jason Robertson, who served on the Independence Day Commission before being elected to the City Council, mused on how “we are living in some interesting times” amid the pandemic and other historic events.
“Let’s remember that we’re all friends and neighbors, and let’s just be kind to each other” he said. “Sometimes, that’s easier said than done, but maybe if we all just do that, we’ll get out of this thing together.”