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Benton MacKaye Little Compton RI Politics

Living on COVID time: A viral anniversary

Proclamation 9994, signed by President Donald Trump on March 13, 2020, “Declaring a National Emergency Concerning the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) Outbreak.” The national emergency remained in effect until May 11, 2023. (Federal Register, 85 FR 15337, Doc. number 2020-05794)

Four years ago this month, in March 2020, the arrival of the COVID-19 era suddenly upended lives and daily routines throughout the United States—and, indeed, throughout the world. Many of us know, or know of, people who lost their lives to the virus or now live with serious consequences of being infected by it. We all experienced the events of that period at close hand and in our immediate communities. Gradually, though uneasily, most of us have returned to some semblance of “normal” life.

When then-President Donald Trump issued a March 13, 2020 executive order, Proclamation 9994, “Declaring a National Emergency Concerning the Novel Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Outbreak,” he noted that two days earlier the World Health Organization (WHO) had “announced that the COVID–19 outbreak can be characterized as a pandemic, as the rates of infection continue to rise in many locations around the world and across the United States.”

Trump’s official statement, no doubt drafted and reviewed by White House and other government staffers, was couched in sober bureaucratic language. “The spread of COVID–19 within our Nation’s communities threatens to strain our Nation’s healthcare systems,” he declared. “As of March 12, 2020, 1,645 people from 47 States have been infected with the virus that causes COVID–19. It is incumbent on hospitals and medical facilities throughout the country to assess their preparedness posture and be prepared to surge capacity and capability. Additional measures, however, are needed to successfully contain and combat the virus in the United States.”

Only a few days earlier, however, Trump had already weighed in on the virus’s impact, at least as he saw it, in language more recognizably and characteristically his own. His impromptu comments, delivered during a March 6 press conference at the headquarters of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), were prompted by dramatic announcement the same day by Vice President Mike Pence, who Trump a week earlier had named as head of the White House Coronavirus Task Force.

Twenty-one of the passengers aboard the cruise ship Grand Princess, then in international waters offshore northern California while returning from a voyage along the Mexican coast, had tested positive for COVID-19, Pence reported. Of these, according to a New York Times story, “19 were crew members and two were passengers, the vice president said, announcing that the ship, with more than 3,500 people on board, would be brought to a noncommercial port this weekend.”

“We will be testing everyone on the ship,” [Pence] said. “We will be quarantining as necessary.”

Trump, in his comments at the CDC, immediately contradicted and undercut Pence’s announcement that the 3,500 passengers and crew would soon disembark at a California “noncommercial port this weekend.” In his typically unempathetic, self-referential, and revealing way, Trump objected to the idea that the ship’s passengers should set foot on U.S. land.

“I would rather [the passengers remain on board] because I like the numbers being where they are,” Trump said, according to a March 7, 2020 story by Vox reporter Catherine Kim. “I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship that wasn’t our fault. And it wasn’t the fault of the people on the ship either, okay? It wasn’t their fault either and they’re mostly Americans. So, I can live either way with it. I’d rather have them stay on, personally.”

Kim’s own assessment of Trump’s comments early in the pandemic proved to be prescient. “Trump’s comment suggests a grim reality,” she wrote,”—  that keeping the number of Covid-19 cases low is more important to him than the actual people who have the disease — all because he wants to avoid the political fallout of a growing case count.”

Appearance over reality. Trump imagined he could stop time (and the virus), by holding “the numbers” and Grand Princess passengers offshore.

* * *

The COVID time warp

In the era of COVID-19, we’ve been locked down, social distanced, masked, vaccinated, Zoomed, and otherwise required to adapt to unprecedented disruptions of our customary routines and habits. The experience of time itself, I believe, has been distorted for many, in ways we may not yet fully understand.

At least for me, the experience of time remains wobblier and more uncertain than ever. Over the last decade, I have become a certified and certifiable “senior”—legally, biologically, medically, and in most other respects. I am in the stage of life when both the reality and the concept of time take on new meanings. Gaps of memory and confusion about the sequence and details of past events are an aspect of the personal experience of aging. The abrupt temporal boundary separating the era before Covid (BC) from that which followed (AC) compounds the challenge of making sense of the recent past.

Even the common idioms we use to describe the nature of time suggest the challenge of describing and communicating its ephemeral essence. Among other things, we all may take time, lose time, waste time, pass time, make time, spend time, bide time, buy time, do time, two time, or kill time (at least before it inevitably kills us).

I have recently been recalling the ways, at least as I remembered them, I experienced the arrival of Covid’s impact four years ago. (My wife, a long-time community health nurse, experienced that period in a quite different fashion. She didn’t lock down and rarely worked remotely. She and her colleagues kept going to work, adapting to circumstances that changed almost daily.)

There are two ways that my own experiences in March 2020 were, if not really unique, at least perhaps worth recording as a documentary record of this unusual chapter in our commonly shared history. One of these experiences affected primarily me and a few others, with ephemeral consequences related to my state of mind rather than the state of my health. The other early COVID experience involved my role as a public official and decision-maker, affecting in some modest measure the residents of my own small community, Little Compton, Rhode Island. 

A “nice event,” a “low-level risk,” or a potential “superspreader” situation?

Shortly after Trump expressed the hope that Grand Princess passengers would “stay” on board because “I like the numbers where they are,” I unexpectedly and uncomfortably found myself among, I believe, some of the first people in the U.S. who—unlike the anonymous Grand Princess passengers—were identified publicly by name as having potentially been exposed to the COVID 19 virus. 

“Coronavirus concerns raised in Shirley after recent event,” read the headline of a March 10, 2020 Lowell (MA) Sun newspaper story, syndicated by the Associated Press (AP). Many people, of course, had already been exposed to the coronavirus virus by this time. And many were falling ill from infection every day. As matters turned out in my case, the report in which I was mentioned was a false alarm. Neither I nor anyone else who attended the “Shirley event,” as best as I knew at the time, fell ill from COVID as a result. But I had been instantly thrust into the new COVID-19 age by the AP-syndicated Lowell Sun story, in which I was named as a possible link in the chain of COVID infection.

During those first weeks of March 2020, many of us followed with anxiety and perplexity the news of the coronavirus’s spread into and across the United States. At least in our corner of New England, though, few had yet significantly altered their daily routines or responsibilities in response. My schedule that week included a drive on Saturday, March 7, to Shirley, a town in north-central Massachusetts (also the terrain of my earliest years), to attend an event to which I’d been invited. The Shirley Historical Society was sponsoring that day a program to celebrate what would have been the 141st birthday of Benton MacKaye, one of that small town’s best-known former residents. I had written a biography of MacKaye, a significant American conservationist best known for his conception of the Appalachian Trail. I looked forward to gathering, partly because it would feature the presentation of recordings that had recently resurfaced of MacKaye telling stories during his 95th birthday almost a half century earlier. I knew quite a few of the people who would likely be present at the gathering. It promised to be an enjoyable day.

By this time, though, the fast-changing events and news regarding the arrival and spread of COVID-19 in the United States gave me pause. The infected and sick passengers aboard the Grand Princess, which finally docked in Oakland, California, were not the first American cases. The first reported U.S. case of COVID was that of a 35-year-old man who appeared at a Snohomish County, Washington urgent care center on January 19, 2020  with a cough and a fever. He had returned four days earlier from a family visit in Wuhan Province in China, which had already been identified as the site of the first transmission of the COVID-19 coronavirus to humans. By the end of February, 24 cases, including three fatalities, had been documented in the U.S., mostly in California, Washington, and Oregon. By the first week of March, cases were being reported from all over the country, including closer to home in Rhode Island, New York, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Vermont.

Should I make the trip to Shirley? I emailed an organizer of the MacKaye event to ask whether it would still take place; he assured me it would. (My wife made the same inquiry—and received a similar response—about an annual land-conservation conference she planned to attend, and did, at the University of Rhode Island that same day, March 7.)

The Shirley gathering was held in a senior center—a small, repurposed elementary school—immediately across the street from where MacKaye had lived, off and on, for most of his 96 years. When I arrived, the low-ceilinged, unventilated meeting room was already filled. A majority of the 40 or so people present, I would guess, were 60 years of age or (much) older. Within a few weeks, such a setting would be regarded and prohibited as a prime environment for what soon came to be called a “superspreader” event, where many could be exposed to what we came to learn was an airborne virus.

I don’t recall if by this time we were making awkward efforts to avoid shaking hands or were otherwise fist-bumping or elbow-poking our greetings. Nobody was wearing masks. And everybody had a great time, listening to MacKaye’s sometimes salty recordings from the 1970s and enjoying anecdotes related by a friend of MacKaye’s, Malcom Odell, who had recorded them at the time. A few other local folks who knew MacKaye offered their recollections. I read a passage from my book, describing MacKaye’s last days across the street just before he died in 1975. I was glad I’d made the trip to Shirley.

Two days later, on Monday, March 9, I received an email from a member of the Shirley Historical Society, relaying information that Odell, the principal presenter at the MacKaye festivities, had just learned: Odell had been exposed during the previous week to a person who had fallen ill with a confirmed case of COVID-19 in Washington, D.C., where Odell lived.

As it happened, Odell belonged to an Episcopal Church in capitol’s Georgetown district, whose rector, the Reverend Timothy Cole, was identified in a March 8 news story as “[t]he first person to test positive for coronavirus in Washington, D.C.” Cole later explained that he had experienced flu-like symptoms after returning from a late-February Episcopal conference held in Louisville, Kentucky.

By Monday, March 9, the Associated Press reported, Washington D.C.’s Mayor Muriel Bowser had requested that more than 500 parishioners who had recently participated in services and activities at Reverend Cole’s Christ Church quarantine themselves.  Mac Odell was among those parishioners. It was later reported that at least five of the church’s members, including its organist/choirmaster, had tested positive for and/or experienced symptoms of COVID 19.

The Lowell Sun, in its March 10 edition, picked up the story from there. “A guest speaker [Odell] at an event held at the Senior Center on Saturday notified the town Monday morning that he had previously been exposed to the coronavirus, or COVID-19,” began the Sun report, “a fact that he apparently was made aware of on Monday and did not know when he attended the Shirley event.” The story attributed the news to “a public announcement” by a Shirley selectman that Monday night.

The director of the senior center, who had attended the Saturday gathering, described it as “a nice event enjoyed by all,” according to the Sun reporter, “with speakers who knew MacKaye sharing their memories.” The story added considerable detail, including this paragraph, which was of particular interest to me:

Besides Odell, whose family lived in town during the 1970s, others who spoke included Marion Stoddart of Groton, who recalled the role MacKaye played in her efforts to restore the Nashua River, and MacKaye’s biographer, Larry Anderson, who read excerpts from his book.

According to the selectman’s announcement, the Shirley town administrator, board of health chair, and the regional health agent had also been informed of the possible exposure, deeming “the situation a ‘low-level risk.'” Town custodians had been sent to “sanitize” the senior center.

The story provided some context related to the fast-moving COVID situation in the state:

In Massachusetts, the risk level is “low,” according to the state Department of Public Health, which issues daily updates on its website. Monday’s count, reported Tuesday morning, stood at 41 confirmed cases, but the number has been rising rapidly, from only 8 last Friday to 28 on Sunday.

There have been no reported deaths in Massachusetts from the virus, and 32 of the 41 cases, as of Tuesday, were linked to a Biogen company meeting in Boston late last month. Four other cases were travel-related, the DPH said in a recent posting. But again, the risk is low, state health officials said.

“The 40 people who attended the event there on Saturday have been notified,” the selectman was reported as saying. I was one of those people. Upon receiving the email, I recalled that during most of the Saturday celebrations I had sat immediately next to Odell, who appeared to me to be the picture of health. From four years’ distance, it is perhaps hard to recall just how little everyone—including medical professionals—knew about COVID. Testing, diagnosis, treatment, preventive measures, the virus’s means of transmission—these and other aspects of the virus and the disease were mostly matters of speculation at that moment. Nonetheless, with an MRI scheduled for later in the week for an ongoing medical concern, I called my primary care physician’s office for guidance. They could offer little advice. Telemedicine visits and cancellation of elective medical procedures hadn’t yet been instituted. I was told to show up for my MRI, which I did.

But the pace and intensity of events were accelerating that week, for everyone, everywhere.

How to declare an emergency in Little Compton

The email message from the Shirley Historical Society about my possible, if tenuously distant exposure to COVID suddenly brought home to me an alarming glimpse of what we were all about to face. I had cause for concern about not only my own family and friends, however. I was then serving on the Little Compton Town Council, to which I’d been elected to a two-year term in November, 2018. Like many other public officials, whether at local, state, or national levels–indeed, throughout the world–my thoughts immediately turned to my responsibilities to the town of Little Compton and its residents. Of course, I didn’t bear this responsibility alone. Other town officials and employees shared the same concerns, questions, and uncertainty.

Events moved quickly in the State of Rhode Island and the Town of Little Compton. Indeed, on Monday, March 9, the day I’d heard about my personal chain of potential COVID exposure from the Shirley event, Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo issued the first of the gusher of executive orders that emanated from her office in the months ahead. Her Executive Order 20-02, “Declaration of Disaster Emergency,” issued a few days before Trump’s Proclamation 9994, triggered provisions of Rhode Island state law that allowed her, in her capacity as governor, “to suspend the provisions of any regulatory statute prescribing the procedures for conduct of state business, or the orders, rules, or regulations of any state agency” in order to respond to and cope with the public health emergency represented by the COVID-19 outbreak.

 

“Declaration of Disaster Emergency,” Executive Order 20-02, issued March 9, 2020, by Rhode Island Governor Gina M. Raimondo.

In other words, as long as the declared emergency remained in effect, Governor Raimondo’s word, and her word alone, was the law of the state, affecting every inhabitant of Rhode Island in many fundamental aspects of their lives. Her Executive Order 20-02 was regularly renewed, sometimes amended, and buttressed with dozens of other more specific Executive Orders.

Within days, for example, she issued orders requiring any person arriving from another state or country to self-quarantine for fourteen days, prohibiting public gatherings of more than 25 people (later reduced to five people), and prohibiting the on-site consumption of food and beverages at restaurants and bars (though allowing sale of take-out food and non-alcoholic beverages). By the end of March, Raimondo issued an executive order that, among other things, required Rhode Island residents “to stay home unless traveling to work, traveling for medical treatment or obtaining necessities (food, medicine, gas, etc.).”

Day to day life was changing fast. Local officials were forced to respond. 

* * *

The Little Town Council had last met on March 5. The next of our regular bimonthly meetings was scheduled for March 19. By the weekend of March 14-15, several city and town councils in other Rhode Island municipalities, taking their cues from Raimondo, had adopted their own emergency resolutions. Under state law, municipalities, mirroring the governor’s role and responsibility, could declare emergencies that enabled them to suspend or waive various state and local regulations, ordinances, and laws. For the duration of the declared emergency, cities and towns could then designate a top town official, such as a mayor, town administrator, or, in the case of some smaller communities, a council president, to take substantial emergency actions unilaterally, without approval by vote of a town or city council. Such unusual and concentrated authority under emergency conditions was needed (or so the law seemed to imply) so that local governments could respond promptly, without the delay involved in convening a council meeting, to the governor’s frequent executive orders and other unexpected needs and events.

By that weekend of the 14th and 15th, perhaps skittishly sensitized in the aftermath of the Shirley event, I realized that many town boards and officials had scheduled public meetings for the upcoming week. Indeed, these are typically the busiest months of Little Compton’s municipal year, as various town boards and officials—such as the Town Council, School Committee, Budget Committee, Town Administrator, Town Financial Director, Tax Assessor, and Fire and Police Chiefs—are developing budgets for presentation to voters at the May annual Financial Town Meeting. The executive orders issued by the governor to limit or prohibit public gatherings, including meetings of official bodies, were of course intended to prevent or reduce transmission of the virus. With limited guidance from the governor, towns and cities were obligated to act quickly on behalf of other town officials and residents to prevent such gatherings—while still maintaining the basic operations of town government, especially public safety operations, including the police and fire departments.

I set to work drafting a letter to my fellow Council members and other town officials describing my concerns. A town ordinance, I was aware, provided that the Town Council President “Shall call a special meeting of the Council at the written request of two Councilors.” Fellow Council member Andrew Iriarte-Moore agreed to join me in signing and sending a letter to Town Council President Robert Mushen requesting an emergency meeting as soon as possible.

Among other things, we asked “whether the Town Council should act now to aggressively postpone, cancel, or discourage public meetings in the immediate future.” Andrew and I also listed several other points that we felt required immediate consideration, including:

Excerpt from March 15, 2020 email from Little Compton Town Council members Larry Anderson and Andrew Iriarte-Moore to Council President Robert Mushen, requesting an emergency Town Council meeting to consider responses to the COVID 19 outbreak.

We further noted that, in the absence as yet of an executive order providing otherwise from the Governor, the Open Meetings Act did not (except for certain executive sessions) allow for exclusion of the public from public meetings. We noted that the OMA did, however, allowed for the convening of public meetings of the Town Council for emergency purposes without the 48-hour public notice generally required by the OMA.

We thus suggested that the Council “could convene for an emergency meeting, perhaps as early as Monday [March 16) a.m.” 

 The hard copy of the email I have (many emails from that period have disappeared from my computer) indicates that I sent it to all Council members, as well as the Town Clerk and Town Administrator, at 12:31 p.m. on March 15, a Sunday. I don’t have or recall any other emails or conversations, if any, I might have sent or received from Mr. Mushen, Town Clerk Carol Wordell, or others at the time. Those other town officials may already have been thinking along the same lines. In any event, according to the Rhode Island Secretary of State’s Open Government website, Town Clerk Carol Wordell posted an agenda time-stamped at 2:14 p.m. that day calling for an emergency Town Council meeting at Town Hall at 10 a.m. the following day, Monday, March 16. The sole agenda item for the March 16 “Special Emergency Town Council Meeting” reads:

To consider and act on any measures that should be taken by the Town Council or other Town Officials under its jurisdiction to protect the public with regard to the state and federal emergencies declared in response to the Covid-19 virus.

Over the weekend before the March 16 meeting, I had located and printed out copies of the emergency declarations already adopted by several other Rhode Island municipalities. Given Governor Raimondo’s previously issued emergency declaration, and the others that were sure to follow (and did), I believed, as did apparently officials in other state cities and towns, that Little Compton must necessarily do so as well. My one reservation was that doing so granted considerable authority and discretion to the Town Council President, as provided in state law and our Home Rule Charter. In fundamental respects, I and fellow Council members would be ceding some of our authority to Council President Mushen.

In theory, and under normal circumstances, the Council President is “the first among equals” on the five-member board. By practice and tradition in Little Compton, the Council President, at least in recent decades, has often wielded considerable administrative authority not specifically granted to the position by state law or Home Rule Charter. In any case, as matters developed over the next several years that a town emergency declaration remained in effect, Council President Mushen, by my observation, wielded his emergency authority with restraint and discretion.

The Council convened in emergency meeting in the upstairs Council Chambers in Town Hall that morning of Monday, March 16. In addition to the five Council members, other key town officials were also present: Town Solicitor, Town Administrator, Town Clerk, Fire Chief, Police Chief, Assessor, Treasurer, and Building Official. In our own version of “social distancing,” a concept to which we were being suddenly introduced, we spread out across the large room. After listening to a livestream address by Governor Raimondo, we discussed the possible adoption and substance of a local emergency declaration.

In the absence of any other draft or text of such a declaration, I described and provided the versions just adopted by the towns of Warren and South Kingstown. Town Solicitor Richard Humphrey, as I recall, took copies of those downstairs to photocopy. Upon his return, he distributed copies to Council members. Following closely the format and substance of the Warren version, we drafted a declaration for Little Compton. 

The minutes of the March 16, 2020 emergency meeting of the Little Compton Town Council, as included in part below, document the original emergency declaration adopted at that time. The declaration was periodically renewed and amended for the next two years:

After considerable discussion the following was adopted:
Motion made by Councilor Anderson, receiving a second by Councilor Golembeske, voting in favor (Anderson, Golembeske, Moore and Mushen): To adopt the following Declaration of Emergency and resulting Emergency Ordinance:

TOWN OF LITTLE COMPTON’S DECLARATION OF EMERGENCY AND RESULTING ADOPTION OF THIS EMERGENCY ORDINANCE

On March 16, 2020, at the Little Compton Town Hall, Council Chambers, 40 Commons, Little Compton, Rhode Island, the Little Compton Town Council convened in a properly noticed emergency meeting.

Members present were: President Robert Mushen, Vice President Paul Golembeske, Councilman Moore and Councilman Anderson. Absent: Councilor Mataronas.

The Town Council adopted the following resolution and unanimously voted as follows:

WHEREAS, the State of Rhode Island has declared a state of emergency due to the outbreak of COVID-19, as set forth in Executive Order 20-20 issued by Governor Gina M. Raimondo on March 9, 2020, and

WHEREAS, R.I.G.L. §§ 30-15-12(b) and 30-15-13 as well as Section 411 of the Little Compton Home Rule Charter authorize the Town Council President to declare a state of emergency in the Town of Little Compton in the event of, among other things, an event which endangers the public health and safety, and

WHEREAS, it appears that the public health and safety of the Town of Little Compton is in imminent danger due to the spread of the COVID-19 virus, including but not limited to the number of cases COVID-19 reported to date in Rhode Island.

NOW THEREFORE, I Robert L. Mushen, by virtue of the authority vested in me as President of the Little Compton Town Council, by and through Section 411 of the Little Compton Home Rule Charter, and R.I.G.L. §§ 30-15-12 (b) and 30-15-13, do hereby order and direct the following in this declaration of the Little Compton Town Council:

1.All license holders and for all license types are restricted from any and all “dining in” services as directed by the Governor of Rhode Island and any future directives that may be invoked by the Governor or any jurisdictional authority.

2.All license holders and for all license types are restricted from gathering more than twenty-five (25) persons at any one time as directed by the Governor of Rhode Island. This restriction and limitation on occupancy is in effect regardless of the licensed establishment’s size or configuration.

3.All public meetings are hereby cancelled until further notice and will be rescheduled. In the event of time sensitive business, the Town Council President is hereby authorized to pay bills and handle day-to-day operations that may be required.

4.Town offices and departments may operate on a modified schedule approved by the Town Administrator and will be posted on the Building and Town website. Town offices and departments will restrict in-person business activities and will remain open by appointment only. The Town Administrator, department heads and public safety personnel shall reassess the situation on a daily basis. Any change to the business hours of the Town Hall shall be by the authorization of the Town Council President.

5.This Declaration of emergency and the adoption of this emergency ordinance as per Little Compton Home Rule Charter Section 411 shall remain in full force and effect for sixty (60) days unless revoked by the Town Council before the expiration of sixty (60) days.

RESOLUTION AS APPROVED:
Robert L. Mushen
President, Little Compton Town Council
Dated: March 16, 2020

ATTEST:
______________________________
Carol A. Wordell, CMC
Clerk, Town of Little Compton

* * *

Resistance and Adaptation: Town Beaches; Financial Town Meeting

Adoption of the initial federal, state, and town emergency declarations in mid-March 2020 represented only the beginning of a process of response and adaptation to the arrival and impact of COVID-19. As a legal, political, and practical matter, Little Compton officials, I believe, had little choice but to align town policies with those encompassed by the steady stream of increasingly restrictive executive orders issued by Governor Raimondo in the ensuing weeks and months. Her regular, almost daily press conferences, with the impressive, unflappable director of the state Department of Health, Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, at her side, attempted to re-assure Rhode Islanders that state officials were doing all they could to respond firmly and fairly to the unfolding public health crisis. Raimondo’s performance, at least initially, earned approval from most Rhode Islanders.

As the pandemic dragged on, however, an element of public fatigue and frustration set in, perhaps diluting the impact of the efforts and messaging Raimondo and Dr. Alexander-Scott provided. In any event, in January, 2021, Raimondo was nominated to be U.S. Secretary of Commerce by newly elected President Joe Biden. Her nomination was subsequently and overwhelmingly (84-15) confirmed by the U.S. Senate. She resigned as Rhode Island’s governor, succeeded in that office by Lieutenant Governor Dan McKee. Raimondo took office as head of the Department of Commerce on March 3, 2021. Dr. Alexander-Scott carried on for almost another year, resigning as state Director of Public Health in January 2022.

Town officials and citizens adapted quite readily to remote meetings by Zoom. As a Council member, I found that the technology, whatever its limitations, didn’t substantially hinder town boards from conducting their necessary business or discourage citizens from observing and participating in public deliberations. In fact, the Zoom’s video screen framework provided a face-to-face structure of conversation that, at least from my close perspective, cooled the sometimes-tense atmosphere and heated rhetoric generated when political combatants occupy the same physical space.   

In Little Compton, the effect of some of the Governor’s executive orders, as implemented at the local level, fueled public pushback, however. On March 28, 2020, Raimondo issued Executive Order 20-14 prohibiting “[a]ll gatherings of more than five (5) people in any public or private space such as an auditorium, stadium, arena, large conference room, meeting hall, library, theater, place of worship, parade, fair, festival, park or beach.” [emphasis added] The state Department of Environmental Management promptly announced the closing of “all state parks and beaches, along with their parking areas.” 

Meeting on April 9, 2020 for the first time by Zoom, but without yet providing for citizen participation, the Town Council considered how to comply with the governor’s recent Executive Order 20-14.  With support of the Beach Commission (which had previously met by Zoom), as well as The Nature Conservancy (which owns and oversees adjacent Goosewing Beach), all the Council members, according to the meeting’s minutes, agreed that vehicular access should be restricted at the town’s public beaches. Reviewing those minutes, I’m reminded that I supported “a robust closure at this point, robust signage and robust enforcement.” The Sakonnet Times quoted me as adding that “if we don’t do it now it will only get harder as the weather improves.” From past public discussions and controversies regarding South Shore Beach in particular, I well understood the deep passion residents felt for that beach and for their right of access to it. Given our limited state of understanding at the time concerning how the virus was transmitted, however, I felt that my responsibility, and that of my fellow town officials, was to err on the side of caution, and to follow the guidance (which also had the force of law) of Governor Raimondo and Dr. Alexander-Scott.

Town Solicitor Humphrey, noting our recently adopted emergency declaration granting the Council President authority to exercise emergency actions, advised that a Town Council vote was not required to limit access to the town’s beaches. Thus, President Mushen subsequently issued “Special Directive 3—Town Beaches,” calling for installation of barriers and signage “to temporarily restrict the parking areas at South Shore Beach, Town Landing, and Lloyd’s Beach.” The measure also provided that 1) it did not “prevent pedestrian passage on or along the beach and parking area” and 2) that it “shall provide secure access for emergency and maintenance vehicles.”

Sakonnet Times April 16, 2020 article regarding the closing of the parking lot at Little Compton’s South Shore Beach as a response to the COVID 19 outbreak.

The limitation on parking to access the town’s beaches, I think it’s safe to say, was not popular with many town residents. By early May, though, Governor Raimondo began gradually to eliminate or reduce some of the restrictions included in her previous executive orders. A May 9 Executive Order 20-32 substantially lifted the previous stay-at-home order. An extensive May 29 Executive Order 20-40, among many other things, raised the limit of social gatherings to 15 people and declared the opening of “all state parks and beaches subject to limits on use, parking, capacity and other restrictions.” The Beach Commission and other town officials revisited the previous measures to close the parking area at South Shore Beach. However, the revised protocol for opening South Shore Beach called for the installation of gate to control access to the beach parking area. Citizens quickly mobilized to join a petition with over 400 signatures calling for removal of the gate. At a June 18 virtual meeting of the Town Council, a citizen who organized the petition campaign stated her concern “that the gate will be a permanent fixture to close out and block access to the beach.”

I took the opportunity to read a document provided to the Council, in the form of questions regarding the gate posed by the Beach Commission and answers provided by Police Chief Scott Raynes, in consultation with Fire Chief Rick Petrin. Among the questions and answers were these:

1.Should the gate be removed when the Covid pandemic is over, or should the gate remain in place?

We do not believe the gate/structure should be removed. It could certainly be used in the future during any type of weather related emergency or other natural disaster resulting in the need for closure of the beach as it relate to public safety. We also believe that the gate/structure itself is aesthetically pleasing and does not take away from the natural beauty of the area.

2.If the gate remains in place, should it be permanently open, except in the event of a public safety issue
such as the one cited below:

We believe it should remain open 24 hours a day 365 days a year. Closure of the gate would be at the discretion of the two Chiefs in emergency situations. Any other request to close the gate should first be brought to the attention of both [Police and Fire] Chiefs.

3.If the gate is to remain in place, would it be for the intention of securing the parking lot from vehicular access during an emergency, such as, for example, the imminent threat of an approaching hurricane?

Yes.

The Chief’s responses appeared to allay some of the concerns raised by citizens. The gate has remained at the entrance of South Shore Beach. As Chief Raynes predicted in 2020, there are public safety reasons and occasions other than global pandemics to control vehicular access to the beach parking lot. 

In retrospect, given what has been learned about the transmission of the COVID 19 virus, the risk of viral transmission at outdoor venues such as beaches may be quite limited. However, given the fraught and uncertain circumstances of those early months of 2020, I can’t say I have any serious regrets about joining with fellow town officials to restrict access to the town’s public beaches at that time.

Financial Town Meeting

As a Town Council member in those early months of 2020, I became closely involved in another issue facing some of the state’s smaller communities, especially those, like Little Compton, which adopt annual municipal budgets and levy local taxes at a Financial Town Meeting (FTM), where voters traditionally gather at close quarters and in substantial numbers. Before serving on the Town Council, I had served eight years as elected Town Moderator, presiding over the annual Financial Town Meeting. I had also served on the Budget Committee for a few years, as well as on two Charter Review Commissions. I was thoroughly familiar with current FTM procedures, as set forth by state law and the town’s Home Rule Charter. 

The FTM customarily convenes in the auditorium/gymnasium of the Wilbur McMahon School. The town’s Home Rule Charter, which took effect in 1995, requires a quorum of five percent of the town’s registered voters for a Financial (or Special) Town Meeting. In recent years, with about 3,000 or more registered voters, a quorum thus consisted of at least 150 voters. We have always achieved that quorum, if sometimes barely. If there were consequential or controversial issues on the FTM warrant, attendance might reach 250 or more voters. Governor Raimondo’s several emergency declarations concerning public gatherings prohibited indoor meetings of anything remotely close to that size.

How, and in what form, could we hold a legally valid Financial Town Meeting under these circumstances? To the frustration of town clerks, town administrators, town councils, and other local officials, however, the Governor temporized about how communities adopting local budgets at financial town meetings or budget referendums (which would require voters and poll workers to gather physically for day-long voting) could legally adopt a budget prior to the beginning of the next fiscal year. For Little Compton and many other Rhode Island communities, the fiscal year begins each July 1. 

Along with Town Administrator, the Town Clerk, and the Council President, I participated in several conference calls, sponsored by the RI League of Cities and Towns and including officials from other towns, to discuss alternatives. A consensus developed that state legislation would be required to allow alternatives under the immediate emergency conditions. During these conversations, it was suggested by those in close contact with the Governor’s office that Raimondo—so bold in issuing executive orders over many other matters—had concerns about the limits of her emergency authority. As I recall, these qualms may have related to home-rule and other provisions of the Rhode Island Constitution and General Laws regarding municipal budget-setting and taxing authority not otherwise specified in state law. These fundamental legal sources did not specifically take into account or permit remote or virtual meetings of voters.

Based on my initial experience learning about and using the Zoom remote meeting platform that the Town Council and other town boards began to use to conduct its business in remote meetings, I believed that Zoom, though not designed for the unique form and requirements of New England town meetings, could be adapted for Little Compton’s FTM.

To test the concept, I organized an ad hoc “mock” remote Financial Town Meeting, enlisting some members of the Little Compton Democratic Town Committee, of which I am a member, to play the roles of voters and town officials. I assigned myself the role of Town Moderator. The experiment revealed a variety of glitches and quirks resulting from the use of Zoom to conduct a Financial Town Meeting. But participants in our mock FTM suggested procedures for addressing these concerns.

Other town officials were not as enthusiastic as I was about the prospect of conducting a remote Zoom FTM as a substitute for the traditional form of face to face, large-scale public “town meeting” of voters. That practice, as best I could tell, had taken place annually and without interruption in Little Compton, in substantially the same form, since at least the early 18 century—that is, for three centuries or more.

Without a voter-approved budget and a tax levy to provide sufficient funding for it, the town would have to scramble to keep town departments functioning. For a variety of reasons, it gradually became apparent that a Zoom Financial Town Meeting, though unprecedented and untested, was the only viable, safe, and, as events developed, legal alternative for executing this essential annual exercise of voter-controlled town governance.

The governor and the legislature kept municipal officials in suspense, as the July 1 date for the beginning of the fiscal year in many communities loomed closer. The Town Council had already postponed the customary mid-May FTM date. By early June, a bill had been filed in the Rhode Island General Assembly that would authorize a community to convene “a town or district meeting by remote, electronic, virtual or other means; provided, that the governing body finds that the convening of a town meeting would jeopardize the public health or safety of persons within the city, town, or fire district.” Though not formally enacted until June 24, its prospective passage allowed for setting June 30, the very brink of the new year, as the date for a remote Zoom FTM.  Voters who planned to participate were provided instructions on how to pre-register for the meeting in the Budget Committee Report printed and mailed to each voter.

Town Clerk Carol Wordell and Town Moderator Scott Morrison in particular prepared for and executed a Financial Town Meeting, well attended by remote voters, that allowed a considerable measure of meaningful and serious citizen debate about several important issues. Many voters later told me that the Zoom version of Financial Town Meeting was in some ways more productive and civil than in-person FTMs they had previously attended.

I am a traditionalist concerning the democratic value of in-person town-meeting government, especially in a town as small as Little Compton. I was gratified that the Zoom experiment—which was repeated the next year—worked as well as it did. But I was glad and relieved when we were able to return to our traditional in-person form of Financial Town Meeting in 2022.

Conclusion

I have recently read a richly informative and wise book about the experience of living through the first COVID year in a quite different variety of American municipality, New York City. 2020: One City, Seven People, and the Year Everything Changed, by Eric Klinenberg, a New York University sociologist, relives that experience of the first year of the COVID pandemic through the lives of seven New Yorkers, representing each of the city’s five distinctively different boroughs. Klinenberg is a respected scholar who writes in a clear, readable, and accessible style.

“The numbers leave little doubt that New York City, suffered more COVID deaths—at least twenty thousand—than any city in the world during 2020,” Klinenberg writes. “On a planet full of hot spots, Gotham, with its blaring sirens, overcrowded hospitals, and fleets of storage trucks holding dead bodies, was a hellscape like no other.” Little Compton, for all the genuine problems, challenges, fears, and illness its residents experienced at the same time, was hardly a hellscape by comparison with New York City. Indeed, Little Compton became a refuge for generally more affluent residents of New York and other cities. Klinenberg identifies this migration to illustrate the social and economic inequities that determined how different people and communities survived or suffered during that first COVID year.

In the final pages of his book, Klinenberg’s scholarly, fact-filled, but empathetic social portrait of New York City gives way to a more alarmed, and alarming, diagnosis of what he sees as the frayed and fragile condition of the nation’s “social bonds” and “social cohesion.”

Klinenberg briskly but bluntly depicts the political context in which the nation’s muddled, contentious response to COVID played out during that consequential Presidential election year.  “No democratic society can survive without a healthy supply of social solidarity,” he concludes. “Crises, we know, can be switching points for states and societies. No matter how poorly suited the nation’s political leaders were for the challenge, or how polarized its people had grown, there was at least a chance that the pandemic would help the U.S. discover its better, more collective self. That did not happen.”

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For a variety of personal reasons, only partly related to living in and through COVID time, I had decided by late June 2020, the deadline for filing declarations of candidacy for election, not to run for another Town Council term at the November 2020 General Election. This past Christmas day, December 25, 2023, having avoided contracting the COVID virus for almost four years, I woke up with a scratchy throat, followed by a fever and other symptoms similar to a bad cold. A COVID test was positive. I was laid low for several weeks.

Are citizens and government officials prepared for the appearance of another pandemic disease or natural catastrophe as dangerous and widespread as COVID-19 has been? If nothing else, we can be sure that constantly evolving pathogenic microbes are not standing still. ♦