If ever there was a time to reconsider how we handle that venerable institution of New England democracy, perhaps this is it.

Town meetings in the age of coronavirus are going to lengths to keep people socially distant and safely separated, yet close enough to argue over a new fire truck. One wonders why technology hasn’t come along far enough to let voters monitor debate on local cable or online, and remotely raise a hand. If other government committees can meet via Zoom, why can’t town meeting?

Gov. Charlie Baker last week signed off on giving local officials even more wiggle room in light of the pandemic, including more flexibility on what constitutes a quorum at town meeting and more latitude as to where meetings may be held. If no venue in town is big enough, it’s acceptable now to meet in some other locale.

And, for many towns, avoiding spread of COVID-19 means taking the whole show outside, where the virus won’t spread as easily.

North Andover will wear masks, bring their own water and adhere to rules about staying far enough apart when Town Meeting gavels into session at Joe Walsh Stadium on Tuesday night. “Social distancing monitors” will ensure people don’t get too close, according to Town Moderator Mark DiSalvo’s four-page outline of the process.

Essex is meeting outside this Saturday morning, next to Essex Elementary School. Andover is still on track to meet at the High School on Wednesday, July 22, but Moderator Sheila Doherty bumped up the time by two hours “in order to take advantage of daylight hours, should it be advisable to conduct the meeting outdoors.”

Hard to argue with going al fresco. Fresh air might help cooler heads prevail, provided we’re not all being ravaged by mosquitoes. Still, how far do we go to replicate that feeling of coming together at the parish hall for an annual meeting?

DiSalvo, an innovator, last year tested what it might be like if North Andover’s Town Meeting were handled remotely. He experimented with a non-binding, online survey matching the Town Meeting warrant, and he’s created another such “straw poll” this year. The idea is to test if people vote on a survey the same way they would in the room where it happens.

It seems like a step in the right direction. Traditions are good, and so are flexibility and ingenuity when it comes to figuring out how to get things done.

Still, this pandemic is showing us it’s time local democracy evolved with the times.


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