As COVID-19 fades, Northborough selectmen discuss post-pandemic challenges

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NorthboroughBy Dakota Antelman, Managing Editor

NORTHBOROUGH – Post-pandemic life is slowly taking shape.

In Northborough, officials are celebrating this “new normal” while also moving to address a number of challenges ahead. 

“I may print this one out and keep it,” Selectman Leslie Rutan said, referring to her motion  to formally rescind Northborough’s local state of emergency declaration, June 14.

“It’s a big moment,” Town Administrator John Coderre noted of the decision.

That move did mark a major step nearly a year and a half after the COVID-19 pandemic first shuttered public life across the region. 

It followed Gov. Charlie Baker’s decision, last month, to end the statewide state of emergency effective June 15. Likewise, it came as local case counts remained low, with just six Northborough residents testing positive for the coronavirus in the two weeks before June 3, according to state data. 

This was far from the first step in Northborough’s reopening, though. As entities like the Northborough/Southborough Public Schools and the Northborough Free Library have revived a sense of normalcy, the Town Offices have also welcomed members of the public back for in-person visits.

“It’s really nice to see the building alive again,” Coderre said at that June 14 Board of Selectmen Meeting. “…A big part of what we do is serve the public. While you can do that online and by phone, there’s nothing like helping somebody face to face.”

As more municipal operations return to their brick and mortar homes after months of remote operation, questions do loom. 

Selectman Julianne Hirsh asked the board on June 14 how and when they would take up projects and discussions that had been formally or informally delayed by the pandemic. 

Town resident Mitch Cohen also raised questions about remote accessibility for municipal meetings as those bodies look to revert to in-person meeting formats.

In Northborough and beyond, members of the public and elected officials alike have celebrated remote meetings as a silver lining of the pandemic for the ways they’ve increased transparency in local government. 

More meetings have been live streamed and recorded, just as individuals have been able to call in from their homes to offer thoughts and concerns during public comment hearings.

“That’s been a huge win for the town,” Cohen said. 

As selectmen met on June 14, however, they stared down an uncertain future in terms of remote participation in meetings. 

At the time, open meeting law exemptions that allowed for remote meetings in the first place were set to lapse. It was unclear if and when the state would extend or codify those exemptions as the pandemic fades.

Then, on June 16, that action came as Gov. Baker signed into law an agreement extending remote meeting permissions, among other things, through April of next year.

Still waiting for such news as they convened on June 14, Northborough Selectmen were not able to determine definite plans for their next meeting later this month. 

Members did, though, discuss a variety of options and questions with Coderre. He said that the town is working with its cable access and IT departments to research infrastructure needs and potential upgrades that would allow for hybrid, live streamed, in-person meetings with remote participation for members of the public and some board members as needed.

“The public’s remote participation is what we want to preserve,” Coderre said. 

“None of this is insurmountable,” he later added.

The Board of Selectmen hold their next meeting on June 28.