As Vermont slowly reopens, town clerks part of first wave
WILMINGTON — Town Clerk Susie Haughwout recalled being nervous when the coronavirus pandemic first hit Vermont.
"Now, I'm in a routine," she said in a telephone interview Thursday. "I've figured out how to do things safely and I kind of feel like I know what I'm doing now."
Things have been relatively quiet in her office in downtown Wilmington, even though Gov. Phil Scott updated his state of emergency order last Friday to allow services run with a single worker. That allows appraisers, realtors, municipal clerks, attorneys, property managers and pet care operators to resume operations as long as no more than two people are present at one time. It's part of the first phase to reopen Vermont's economy.
Haughwout and Assistant Town Clerk Patricia Johnson have desks that are pretty close together.
"They're not exactly 6 feet apart," Haughwout said.
When the governor's executive order closed down businesses and offices, Johnson and Haughwout decided they'd only go into the office one at a time to retrieve information for customers. With the governor's addendum to the order last Friday, Haughwout decided she wouldn't mind allowing in one customer at time on days she's in the office if they followed protocol.
As of the interview, Haughwout had only helped one customer in person. An attorney called her after seeing a notice she issued Monday referring to office protocol.
"He was all masked up, he washed his hands," she said. "Everything was fine."
Haughwout said she's "very fortunate" to have land records accessible online that go back to 1781.
"That suffices for most people," she said with a laugh.
A couple of attorneys who visit her office regularly were encouraged to use the online portal earlier in the pandemic. One of the attorneys who had technical difficulties setting up an account "wrote me that everything got straightened out," Haughwout said.
Her office hasn't seen many requests for marriage licenses, a service it's not providing again just yet. A couple planning to have a wedding this summer inquired as they wanted to come up this month and elope.
Haughwout said she told them their state had a travel restriction. And Vermont required a self quarantine for 14 days if they did come, something she didn't tell them but was aware of at the time.
"This isn't essential," she recalled saying. "You're just going to have to keep your eye on when both of our states open up."
One challenge for Haughwout involves training Therese Lounsbury, who will take over as appointed town clerk after she retires Thursday. Haughwout said she sent her over reading material to go over.
On Monday, Haughwout announced via email that her office would be "open by appointment to attorneys, appraisers, realtors and other real estate needs." She cited an addendum to the governor's order saying that employees should wear masks over their face and stay 6 feet away from people. They should have "easy and frequent access to soap and water or hand sanitizer."
The order says all common spaces and equipment must be cleaned and disinfected at the beginning, middle and end of each shift. No more than two people should occupy one vehicle when conducting work.
Kelly Pajala, town clerk of Londonderry and state representative for the Windham-Bennington-Windsor district, made a similar announcement via email Monday. She said her office would allow for researchers to access the vault again.
"We will ask you to estimate the amount of time you will need in the vault so we can make multiple appointments in one day," she wrote. "You will be required to wear a mask to enter the office and use hand sanitizer ... We will wipe down the public computer, copier and tabletop workspace between appointments."
Pajala still anticipated most business will be conducted by email, phone calls or using a pick up/drop off system at the back door.
"Please have patience with us while we work out the kinks to this new process," she wrote. "We will do our best to get researchers in and out while keeping everyone safe. Stay Safe and Healthy."
On Monday, Brattleboro Town Clerk Hilary Francis told the Reformer the Municipal Center is still closed including her office. She said her staff members are still available by phone and email during normal business hours, "and we are doing everything possible to help the public."
"Marriage licenses are the biggest hurdle, but in an extreme situation we will work by appointment and take safety measures to issue a license outside of the building," she said in an email. "Vital records requests and dog licenses can be issued through email or mail, and land recording can be submitted through the postal service as well. Our land records are online back to 1945, and if someone needs assistance prior to that, we will work with them through scans and emails so they can find the correct book and page number and we can get them the requested documents."
In his regular updates to the community regarding COVID-19, Brattleboro Town Manager Peter Elwell encouraged residents to confirm or update their voter registration address by visiting mvp.vermont.gov, or register to vote at olvr.vermont.gov.
"Depending upon how the months ahead unfold regarding resumption of normal social interaction, the August primary election and November general election might rely more heavily on absentee ballot voting or other processes," he wrote. "In preparation for those elections, it is important for all voter roll to be up to date."
He said the town clerk's office can help with voter registration issues.
Reach staff writer Chris Mays at firstname.lastname@example.org and at @CMaysBR on Twitter.
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