Photo: Mike Widmer, Belmont Town Moderator
While many people are hailing a return to normalcy after two years of Covid-19 restrictions, one of Belmont’s annual traditions will for the third time be presented virtually due to health concerns.
“I am recommending to the Select Board that our upcoming Annual Town Meeting be held remotely,” said Belmont Town Moderator Mike Widmer in a memo emailed to Town Meeting members by Town Clerk Ellen Cushman on Friday, May 18.
Widmer said he will bring his recommendation before the board at its Monday, March 21 meeting.
Widmer noted the decision will only effect Segment A – the non-budget agenda on the warrant – that begins May 2. He did strike a hopeful note saying Town Meeting could meet in person in June for the the fiscal portion “if [Covid] cases continue to decline significantly.”
The long-time moderator said the decision was made “reluctantly” after meeting with town officials, health experts and moderators from other towns.
“Personally, I would much prefer to meet in person. While we have successfully conducted the Town’s business using remote access, we have missed the personal and social connections of meeting in person. The debates, the camaraderie, the faces, the laughter, the applause, even the groans are all part of our local democracy, and are largely missing in virtual meetings,” said Widmer.
But after consultation with Belmont’s public health officials, Widmer did not believe it is safe for 300-plus individuals to meet in a confined space for four or more hours over several sessions. While many members would be willing to take the risk, there are those who themselves or family members continue to be susceptible to the virus and its potentially deadly effect.
While some towns’ legislative bodies, such as Needham, Reading and Winchester, will meet in person in the spring, Belmont has two distinct disadvantages to do the same. First, Belmont’s 294 Town Meeting Member body is larger than all but a few towns, and, second, its available indoor spaces have more impediments than most other municipalities.
For example, if a recommendation by heath officials is followed to leave an empty seat and row between participants, only 178 people could meet in the Chenery auditorium and 215 in the new High School theater. And an attempt to convene in the Wenner Field House would be quite costly as the athletic floor will need to be covered and audio/visual equipment installed.
“Many of you will be pleased with this decision, many not. I do hope you will understand that it was made in good faith after many conversations and much reflection. I hope you will bring that same good will to Town Meeting where we will be discussing important and likely contentious issues,” said Widmer.