Last week’s special meeting of the Board of the Mayor and Aldermen was unusual.

None of the participants was present in City Hall’s aldermanic chambers. Instead, a group picture of the board was displayed on a projection screen at the front of the room.

No audience. No public comment

Aldermen and department heads dialed in remotely to a teleconference, and Mayor Joyce Craig, city Health Director Anna Thomas and Fire Chief Dan Goonan took part from the city’s emergency operations center. All votes taken during the session were roll call votes.

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Craig, Thomas and Goonan updated aldermen and the community on the city’s response to COVID-19.

According to Thomas, a mobile unit hit city streets more than a week ago, testing 97 people over the first weekend.

“Since then we have seen over 500 people for testing,” Thomas said last Thursday. “The numbers are growing, and we are now starting to look at surge planning in local hospitals.”

“We’ve been putting together sheltering plans for years,” Goonan said. “We know the areas we have available to us, and we’re trying to pick the ones most appropriate. We are really going at this moment by moment and hour by hour. Things change rapidly.”

“The community has really stepped up, as have our department heads,” Craig said. “As of today we are providing the same services that our residents expect, just in a different way, either by phone or email. ”

Thomas said the four cases of COVID-19 confirmed by state health officials last week involving Manchester residents were not examples of community spread of the virus.

“All are linked to travel,” Thomas said. “Three were international, one was domestic.”

Craig said a decision about when to deliver her fiscal year 2021 budget address — scheduled for Wednesday — likely would be made this weekend.

The board will begin planning for one full board meeting, rather than a series of committee discussions followed by a larger meeting. They plan to place items not expected to generate much discussion on a consent agenda.

“This technology isn’t really set up to have a smaller meeting where we would call in, adjourn, then initiate another call,” said City Clerk Matt Normand. “It’s created to bring a number of people together to have a meeting, not multiple meetings back to back. This is not business as usual.”

Normand said his office secured enough iPads last week to distribute one to each board member, then bring each up to speed on using the camera feature while participating in a meeting remotely.

“That way we could have your images on the screen,” Normand said.

Thomas stressed the importance of following common-sense guidelines regarding washing hands, social distancing and staying home if you have symptoms.

“In the past week the number of cases we’ve seen in New Hampshire has tripled,” Thomas said. “When you look at what is happening in other states across the country, this is moving very quickly. It’s about keeping open the lines of communication as best we can.”

Votes related to COVID-19

The teleconference meeting wasn’t the only business conducted by aldermen last week.

In a phone poll, the board voted to approve three pandemic-related items.

The first vote ensured that all city employees will continue to be paid during the ongoing public health emergency.

City Hall is currently staffed by essential personnel only. Last week’s vote guarantees that any employee not performing their usual duties or who has been reassigned duties for any period of time will receive their regular salary.

The city can seek funding or reimbursement from non-municipal sources to cover these costs.

The second vote was an amendment to the ordinance requiring a doctor’s note during work absences. Added was language stating, “In the case of a pandemic, a doctor’s certificate may not be required for a period or periods of more than three work days.”

The third vote directed Human Resources Director Kathleen Ferguson to work with insurer Anthem to ensure employees’ COVID-19 testing is covered, as well as 100% of the cost of the initial visit at a primary care provider office, urgent care provider location or emergency room in connection with COVID-19. The directive was retroactive to March 1.

All three of these phone poll votes will be ratified at the next meeting of the Board of Mayor and Aldermen but are in effect now.

Good news from the community

One ray of hope in the COVID-19 crisis is the formation of volunteer groups of neighbors helping neighbors.

Alderman Will Stewart reported on a Ward 2 COVID-19 volunteer group — people who rallied to help neighbors who might be self-quarantined, as well as seniors and others unable to leave their homes. They picked up food, prescriptions or medical/sanitary items and even walked the dogs of people who were unable to.

As of late last week, 23 Ward 2 residents — from all corners of the ward and ranging in age from their late teens to their 70s — had responded to the request for volunteers, Stewart said.

“It is certainly refreshing that in these uncertain times that there are so many people willing to look out for, and help, those around them,” Stewart said. “The sense of neighborhood is strong here in Manchester. This is one of our major strengths and will help to ensure that we will overcome this current challenge and emerge even stronger than before.”

Paul Feely is the City Hall reporter for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. Reach him at pfeely@unionleader.com

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