Biddeford City Hall will reopen to the public on Tuesday, about two months after it closed because of the coronavirus pandemic. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

City and town halls are beginning to reopen in southern Maine, two months after they closed to the public because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Municipal offices will look a bit different to people who are used to dropping in to take care of car registrations and tax payments while chatting across the counter with town employees. And those tasks may take longer as municipalities catch up with business that has been largely on hold for two months.

Biddeford and Westbrook are among the cities reopening city hall for some services starting Tuesday. Others, including South Portland and Cape Elizabeth, plan to begin allowing customers in municipal offices starting June 1. Portland City Hall will be closed to the public through June 22.

Sanford and Kennebunk are among the communities that reopened to the public last week.

“I have been overwhelmingly impressed with how this has functioned,” Kennebunk Town Manager Mike Pardue said three days after Town Hall reopened with protective shields at service counters and a new one-way traffic pattern through the building.

Municipal offices were never required to close during the pandemic because they provide essential services, but most town offices in southern Maine closed to the public and shifted at least part of their staffs to remote working beginning in mid-March.

The Maine Department of Economic and Community Development last week released a COVID-19 prevention checklist for public and community buildings, including municipal and county offices and libraries. The guidelines are similar to those released for other types of businesses, laying out protocols for cleaning, physical distancing and protecting employees.

The checklist includes requiring all staff, vendors and visitors to wear a face covering at all times except when people are alone in personal offices, maintaining 6 feet of physical distance from others whenever possible and placing partitions or Plexiglas barriers at visitor information desks and service counters. The number of people in the building is limited based on square footage.

The checklist also includes eliminating waiting areas, promoting “contactless” payment options and providing services by phone or internet to the greatest extent possible. It also says establishments should maintain a record of contact information for visitors and staff who have prolonged interactions.

After closing to the public on March 18, Kennebunk formed a six-member workplace re-engagement task force to evaluate Town Hall and identify ways it could be safely reopened. Changes to the building included installing barriers at service desks, putting directional arrows on floors to establish a one-way path through the building and allowing visitors to use only one entrance.

When visitors come to the building, a town employee has them wait in the auditorium, then directs them to the appropriate window when it is available. A tent has been set up outside where an employee can meet with residents who do not yet feel comfortable going in the building, Pardue said.

Pardue said about 100 residents came into Town Hall on the first day it was open last week, but the numbers have settled back down “to a nice rhythm of people coming in.”

“It’s nice to see people coming back into the town office,” he said. “We’ve really learned how important human contact is for us. We missed that.”

Biddeford City Manager James Bennett said getting City Hall physically ready to open for a limited set of services on Tuesday has gone smoothly. Extended glass partitions are being installed in the city clerk’s office and markers were put down to help people properly distance themselves while waiting in line.

The more difficult adjustment is preparing for what Bennett anticipates will be a very busy six weeks of catching up on car registrations, beach passes and tax payments. He estimates 35 to 40 percent of vehicle registrations in the city will be renewed during that time. Staffing has been shifted to keep up with the demand, Bennett said.

“It’s going to be extremely busy here,” he said. “We are going to have lines here and there is no way around it.”

The city clerk’s office and code enforcement office will be open for drop-in service, but all other Biddeford departments at City Hall will be by appointment only. People who are at high risk of severe illness and need special accommodations can call City Hall for assistance. Bennett is encouraging people to do as much of their business online as possible to avoid long waits at City Hall.

Westbrook City Hall will open its doors to the public on Tuesday, though the code and planning departments will be available by appointment only. The new motor vehicle, tax and city clerk hours will be 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. The city is requesting customers to wear a face covering, maintain 6 feet of social distance and to minimize the number of people from a household coming in to just those who are essential.

City officials are asking customers to have all required paperwork ready before they get in line to keep vehicle registration transactions efficient and minimize wait time. A self-service terminal for reregistrations has been set up in the lobby for those who are unable to wait in line.

The Old Orchard Beach Town Hall will reopen Tuesday to walk-in customers, but staff will schedule appointments for transactions that take longer. Town Manager Larry Mead said the staff has been focused on how to make sure people feel safe when they come into the building. There are new partitions at service counters and staff will be regularly sanitizing surfaces.

Mead said the town is waiving fees for all credit card transactions except property tax payments to encourage residents to use credit cards instead of cash.

South Portland City Hall will open to the public starting June 1, but will do business by appointment only.

Cape Elizabeth has set June 1 as a target date for restarting some town services that were halted by the pandemic. That will include opening the tax collector and clerk area for transactions. The town will require customers to wear masks during transactions and will install protective glass in those areas, Town Manager Matthew Sturgis told the Town Council in his monthly report.

In Saco, city officials are planning a soft reopening on June 1, with business being done by appointment only.

“We want to do appointments only in the beginning to avoid larger crowds descending on City Hall,” City Administrator Bryan Kaenrath said.

The city is installing Plexiglas barriers at service windows and installing a drop-box outside the building for absentee ballots. Kaenrath anticipates City Hall will reopen in July for business without appointments. He said residents should still do as many of their transactions with the city online as possible to avoid long waits and reduce the number of people in the building.


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