Rather than sitting next to one another on a dais at the Verona City Center, the first Common Council meeting since the COVID-19 crisis hit the city took place on a computer screen.
With alders visible sitting in their homes, they reviewed what has been happening in the city since the threat of the virus changed life for everyone across the city, state and world.
City department heads were all online during the meeting, with each giving updates on what they were doing.
City administrator Adam Sayre told the council a hiring freeze is now in place for the city given the uncertain nature of future department schedules.
Recreation director Casey Dudley said he was waiting for guidance from Gov. Tony Evers and state and county public health officials regarding scheduled summer programs. Under the March 24 Safer at Home order, all playgrounds are required to be closed through at least April 24, when the order is currently scheduled to end, and many other forms of recreation are prohibited.
“Really we’re in a holding pattern,” he said.
Dudley noted there is a possibility that mass refunds would have to be issued, especially for the scheduled soccer program.
Trash pickup and other essential services will continue as normal, public works director Theran Jacobson told alders, with an exception. Curbside bulk pick up has been suspended and Dumpsters at the Public Works building are being provided as an alternative, Jacobson said.
Recycling continues at the recycling center, except for items that would involve human contact, such as tires and e-waste, which require fees.
The police department continues to enforce the state order, although police chief Bernie Coughlin told the council the department had issued only one citation – in a case that involved repeated violations at the Reddan Soccer Park. Since then, signs have been put up at the park over the fields stating that they are closed to the public.
Acting fire chief Dan Machotka told the council firefighters are still responding to calls as usual, although fire inspections of buildings are suspended except for new building occupancy.
Fitch-Rona EMS chief Patrick Anderson said the department is lucky to have plenty of personal protective equipment of the kind that has seen shortages nationally, after a joint call was put out with the City of Fitchburg fire department asking for donations. Those donations included N95 respirator masks needed for healthcare workers dealing with COVID-19 patients.
In an email to the Press from March 12, Anderson said the department had become “extra vigilant” when cleaning the ambulances and had started conversations about planning for future operations, should there be staffing shortages because of possible infections or quarantines.
Fire, police and EMS department heads all noted that they are working together to assess which department members need to respond to emergency calls when departments respond together to minimize potential contact with the illness.
Alders disagreed over sick pay changes for those working with the fire department.
At issue were the number of hours firefighters who might be sick with the virus would receive, and whether they would have to receive a positive COVID-19 test in order to become eligible for those hours.
Ald. Katie Kohl (Dist. 2) was concerned that requiring tests showed a lack of trust in city employees and that differing schedule structure meant firefighters might need more hours off in order to meet the guidelines for a full two week recovery and quarantine period.
“I think that could create morale issues,” Kohl said.
Ald. Evan Touchett (D-4) said there should be parity in the hours that each first responder department receives and said the COVID-19 test was necessary to ensure that the hours only be used for instances where employees contract the virus.
The council voted to give firefighters 80 hours on a vote of 4-3.