Council juggling summer and resident employment needs

Thu, 04/09/2020 - 6:15pm
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“I think we need to start the discussion now, and start reaching out.” Councilor Chris Willi was talking about contacting island businesses, which usually start seeing at least some of their seasonal workforce arrive on the island at this time, to get their ideas on how to open the island safely for the upcoming summer season. But there is now, due to the town’s emergency ordinance, no place to stay and no work permits being issued.

The discussion on how to address the island’s tourism, hotel, marina industry and island workforce for the coming season was initiated during a special Town Council meeting on Wednesday, April 8. Since the council could not act on the agenda item, it scheduled a meeting specifically on that topic and to vote on some kind of measure to address the issue for Saturday, April 11 at 9 a.m.

The council was discussing these and other matters after a particularly sobering message about the COVID-19 situation in Rhode Island from Dr. Mark Clark, director of the island’s Medical Center.

“It’s important for everyone to know that Rhode Island is still on the uphill of the curve. We are still on the upslope. We are watching carefully to see when it levels off. Testing is more available for people who have symptoms, but they can’t screen just anybody — we are not there yet. There is still the criteria of having symptoms, to be tested.” With that in mind, Clark said “it’s important to not let down our guard.”

Council members asked Clark about when and where to wear masks and gloves in public.

“The guide for masks — you don’t need it out walking, but when you are near others, wear one,” he said. As for gloves, he said they “are tricky. Gloves do not replace washing your hands. I recommend wearing gloves, and to continue washing hands. You don’t need gloves on all day, but for certain times of the day,” said Clark. He said to throw the gloves out after two or three days of use.

All of these conversations were being held through an online meeting platform.

First Warden Ken Lacoste was the only member present in the Council Chambers at Town Hall, with other members and officials on the line including Interim Town Manager Jim Kern, Second Warden André Boudreau, councilors Martha Ball, Sven Risom, and Chris Will, town solicitor Kathy Merolla, Dr. Mark Clark, Building Official Marc Tillson, town Emergency Management co-directors Bill McCombe and Pete Gempp, and Police Chief Vin Carlone.

The council members repeatedly stated they knew they had two issues to resolve, after hearing from town residents who are not able to go back to work due to the restrictions put in place by the town’s own emergency ordinance, balanced with the needs of the seasonal workforce and the businesses that hire them.

“We have to open the island — we have to face the reality that workers will be coming,” said Boudreau.

“Are the international workers coming in?” asked Ball, who said that travel bans should keep international workers from arrive here.

“I’m not sure how it all works with the visas. We should consult with the business owners. I know some of the business owners have offered to present a proposal of how they intend to handle it when the time comes,” said Willi.

“I like the idea of talking to businesses,” added Risom.

Boudreau offered up the idea of hosting a Town Hall call-in meeting for businesses and island residents to hear and act on their needs, similar to Congressman Jim Langevin’s recent live telephone call in for questions and concerns. A date for such a meeting was not set. The council is expected to review the entire emergency ordinance, which went into effect March 23, next week. The ordinance expires on April 15.

Lacoste said the discussion about seasonal workers would go “on the agenda for next week, and have the Tourism [Council] and Chamber [of Commerce] involved.”

Risom then reiterated his support for getting at least some island workers back to work, while following protocols and orders for COVID-19. He said that crews of one or two workers should be able to work safely.

“I think there is an opportunity to not increase any risks or concerns, to allow one or two workers to go to an isolated site” to complete their work as it relates “to contractors, painters, fieldwork, plumbing, farming, electrical, and professions of that nature,” said Risom.

Boudreau said he wanted to keep in mind what Dr. Clark said about “letting our guard down” because the measures taken to keep the island safe “are making a difference. However, I do agree, people need to get back to work” but he said it should be done in a slow, deliberate and thoughtful manner.

Regarding the issue of island workers being able to return to work in a limited way, Risom asked Merrolla if she “can have something drafted up for Friday” so the council would have something to review at its Saturday meeting.

“I can have a draft, a working draft,” said Merrolla.

Harbormaster appointed

Interim Harbormaster Kate McConville was officially nominated as the permanent Harbormaster by Kern, with Kern adding, “I’m convinced she can do the job. We are ready to appoint her immediately.”

“She is going to do a fine job,” said Boudreau.

The decision to appoint McConville was unanimous.

Ball-O’Brien Park may close

Lacoste said there was an “observed situation at Ball O’Brien Park of folks that have not been following shelter in place and social distancing. Kids running around, and there’s no real solution to sanitize the equipment in an efficient manner.”

“I spoke with [Recreation Director] Dave Sniffen today, and he agrees this is something the council should consider,” said Kern. “Dave and I will operate accordingly and talk about this next week.”

Ferry and airline traffic

Town Emergency Management co-director Bill McCombe gave a quick update for Interstate Navigation.

“If you take a vehicle [on the ferry], stay in it. If you don’t, sit outside on the ferry. Wear gloves and a mask, practice social distancing,” said McCombe. “We all want positive solutions.”

As for the airport, Lacoste said, “New England Airlines is running, but flights and space are limited.”

“We’re getting updates on ferry traffic, maybe we can get a feel from Bill Bendokas on the airlines,” said Willi. Bendokas and his wife Lois own and operate New England Airlines.

Update on cable progress

Kern provided updates on the National Grid and Ørsted cable project to rebury sections of the two cables related to the wind farm. He said there have been meetings with the R.I. Coastal Resources Management Council “going back three to four weeks,” and is currently meeting with Facilities Manager Sam Bird and with Ørsted representatives. The project is scheduled to begin in October 2020.

“We now have a consultant,” said Kern, who will be working with the town to ensure the town is fairly compensated for the easements both National Grid and Ørsted need to rebury the cable.

Kern said he will be putting together a meeting with Lacoste, Bird and the consultant “next week for our approach.” He said the project has been stuck in neutral.

Risom asked if the construction timeline for the cables had changed with the current pandemic.

“When we met with National Grid, they talked about a short timeline. Have the timelines been shifted?” asked Risom.

Kern stated the start date for construction will be as planned, starting “in the fall and ending in the spring.”

Methods for sharing information with the public

The council discussed methods for “getting information out, by some other source than the internet,” said Lacoste. Lacoste offered the idea of using a radio station to broadcast updates.

Willi said, “I think using social media to the best of our ability is what we should be using now. Making all the information available, and having the public weigh in.”

The council will be looking into all options and platforms for establishing communications on COVID-19 efforts.