Masks, emergency sick leave and Zoom: Borough Council updates COVID policies

Borough Council Voting

CHAMBERSBURG – At Monday night’s biennial organizational meeting, the Chambersburg Borough Council (100 S. Second St., Utility Addition Building) updated its COVID policies for 2022.

The changes affect the wearing of masks on borough property, the management of employee-to-employee COVID transmission, and the use of the video conferencing platform Zoom to participate in local government.

As of Jan. 3:

  • The wearing of masks on borough property is now voluntary for all employees and visitors.
  • Emergency Sick Leave (ESL) and Emergency Family and Medical Leave (EFML), which provide compensation for borough employees when they are asked to stay home as part of COVID mitigation efforts, have been renewed for six more months.
  • Council members can participate and vote in meetings using Zoom as long as six of the members are physically present; the public can continue to participate in meetings using Zoom.

Mask policy discussion

Prior to September 2021, the borough’s mask policy allowed vaccinated people to choose whether or not they wanted to wear them. Masks were required for unvaccinated people. The borough didn’t have the ability to ask or determine people’s vaccination status, so it relied on the honor system.

In September, that policy was reversed, and face coverings were required for all visitors, guests and employees on borough property in almost all circumstances. In accordance with the CDC’s recommendations, there were exceptions for people alone in private offices or vehicles, and people working outside who could distance more than six feet apart.

Dr. Raghavendra Tirupathi, an infectious disease specialist with Keystone Health, weighed in via email recommending that the new council keep the current policy in which face coverings are required in all circumstances allowing for the small number of exceptions. Tirupathi has advised the council in the past on COVID mitigation measures.

Sharon Bigler, Fourth Ward

When the issue was opened up for comment, councilmember Sharon Bigler left the table and addressed the other council members from the podium reserved for public comments.

“I’m going to stand here, not as a councilperson, but as a citizen who in a couple of weeks will be starting chemotherapy,” she began.

Bigler was one of three council members wearing masks during the meeting.

“The community is people,” she said. “It’s not buildings. It’s not land. It’s not the Southgate Mall. It’s people. That’s what you’re here for.”

Bigler said that the wearing of masks protected vulnerable people while they worked or visited borough property, and that the council owed them that consideration.

“It’s a nightmare,” she said, “and you can say what you want: they were old and they had this and they had that, but you know what? In the end, it didn’t matter. They didn’t want to die. Nobody does.”

Bigler added: “I implore you, start thinking not just of yourselves and what you want, but of these people who are coming in, and some of them will be on chemo or oxygen or whatever else comes up. Take care of them.”

Kathy Leedy, Third Ward

Leedy then spoke of the borough’s potential obligation to protect its employees. She suggested that the motion should be tabled until they received feedback from the unions. She also inquired about the contingency plans that borough had made in the event that an entire department comes down with COVID in the absence of the mask requirement.

Samuel Wiser, solicitor, responded to Leedy’s questions regarding the unions. He explained that the safety requirements proposed by the borough, as the employer, are considered to be not negotiable. Accordingly, the unions were not consulted regarding previous mask policies, either.

“We have not consulted with the unions because it is council’s prerogative to set that policy,” said Wiser.

Leedy then asked if input from the borough employees should be taken into consideration.

“If the council would direct that we approach the unions to ask for their opinion on this matter, we would do that,” said Wiser.

The council did not take up the matter further.

Alice Elia, First Ward

Councilmember Alice Elia voiced concern that now was not the time to be making changes to the mask policy. She also expressed support for extending the mask requirement for another month and reevaluating at that time, but that was not the motion before the council.

Elia then asked Paul Flohr, the borough’s health and safety programs manager, about the impact of COVID in borough employees.

Paul Flohr, health and safety programs manager

Flohr said that there have been 79 cases involving full-time employees, eight involving part-time employees and 194 managed cases since November 2020. Managed cases include children, spouses and anybody that lives in the home. Some of the issues he has seen with COVID in borough employees include a heart attack, induced diabetes and long-term oxygen issues.

“When you look at that, now at the middle of our highest spike of the 20 months that the pandemic’s been going on, it’s hard for me to say, ‘Let’s peel everything back,’” said Flohr.

He said that the overwhelming majority of COVID cases were introduced from outside of the workplace.

He also said that renewing the mask requirement could help prevent work-related [transmission] of the virus, which can become a worker’s compensation issue.

Flohr stressed, however, that the most effective tool he had to mitigate work-related COVID transmission was the use of emergency sick leave, which would be discussed in its own right later that evening.

Thomas Newcomer, Second Ward

Councilmember Thomas Newcomer said that his own research and the increasing number of vaccinated people in the region signaled a continuing transition through the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I would like to move that we not require masks in the borough for borough employees on borough property,” said Newcomer.

He added: “However, if people choose to wear masks, that’s their option. They can wear a mask. They can wear a mask here at council, but I believe that we have reached that period where we should not be requiring masks.”

Allen Coffman, President of Council, First Ward

Following a period of public comment, Chambersburg Borough Council President Allen Coffman spoke of his experience in an army reserve unit that dealt with biological, radiological and chemical materials.

“I can tell you my army reserve experience, talking about stuff that’s just as deadly or more deadly, it might take a couple of minutes to take you out,” he said. “If [masks] really worked, folks, think about it for a minute, the army would issue you masks, but the army issues you more than masks. It puts you in what they call a MOPP 4, Mission Oriented Protective Posture.”

He added: “If you think just a simple covering over your nose and mouth will protect you from things that will kill you, you’re wrong.”

The motion to make the wearing of masks voluntary for all employees and visitors passed 5-4.

COVID sick leave discussion

Through December 31, 2021, the borough manager had maintained an allotment of emergency sick leave and emergency family and medical leave. The leave was given to employees to address times when they missed work pending COVID testing or when a member of their family or household has been diagnosed with COVID. The extra allotment of emergency sick leave is given as needed so it doesn’t burden the employees’ own allotment of sick days.

The federal government made it a requirement for all employers in 2020, and then the borough extended that same policy through 2021.

Borough Manager Jeffrey Stonehill and Health and Safety Programs Manager Paul Flohr both spoke in favor of continuing the policy through 2022.

“It does not necessarily cost money,” said Jeffrey Stonehill, “but it does cost productivity.”

He added that the loss of productivity caused by paying one employee to stay home would be significantly less than if that employee came to work and infected other people throughout a department.

Flohr described the policy as a management tool rather than a mitigation tool, “and it’s the only tool we’ve got.”

“We’ve been very close to losing our gas and electric departments two times since this started,” said Flohr.

At the time of the meeting Flohr had five people, three AFSCME and two non-bargaining, on COVID leave that expired Jan. 1.

“They’re wondering how they’re going to get paid,” said Flohr.

He again stressed that while masks, handwashing and other efforts help, it is the sick leave policy that most effectively prevents spread among borough employees.

The motion to extend the emergency sick leave policy for six months, at which point it would be reevaluated, passed unanimously.

Zoom policy discussion

As a solution to occupancy restrictions in place during the early stages of the pandemic, the borough introduced Zoom as a way for the public to participate in council meetings remotely. The video conferencing platform is also used by borough employees internally to conduct their own meetings.

Since the borough would continue paying for the service for internal use, the cost wouldn’t change regardless of how the council voted.

The law states that as long as a quorum of council is present in person, other members of council can participate and vote by Zoom.

A quorum is defined as “half plus one.” Since Chambersburg Borough Council has 10 members, a quorum would consist of six people.

There is no requirement under the law to allow the public to attend by Zoom. The decision is entirely up to the council.

Councilmember Kathy Leedy spoke in favor of continuing to allow participation over Zoom for safety reasons.

“Given our earlier vote this evening where masks will be optional, I don’t believe that the price of admission to viewing your government in action should be putting your life at risk, so I would definitely be in favor of keeping this,” said Leedy.

Councilmember Alice Elia said that the hybrid meeting format has allowed more people to participate.

“It allows us to be more transparent in the way we govern,” she said. “It allows more people to participate. I think that most of us are elected to represent the people in our community, and the more people we can allow to participate in our meetings, the better.”

At the time of the vote, approximately 20 members of the public were observing the proceedings through Zoom. Several of the public comments throughout the meeting were made over Zoom.

The motion passed 5-4 allowing councilmembers to participate and vote using Zoom as long as a quorum of members is physically present. The motion also allows the public to participate in council meetings using Zoom.

[Featured image caption: Chambersburg Borough Council holds a vote at their biennial organizational meeting on Jan. 3.]