Out of an “abundance of caution,” a number of popular events in Hamilton Township have been postponed until further notice, Hamilton Mayor Jeff Martin said March 12.
The March 14 St. Patrick’s Day Parade—one of the largest events in the township each year—has been pushed, as has the annual State of the Township address and performances of musicals at Hamilton High School West and Reynolds Middle School.
The state announced March 12 six new presumptive positive cases of COVID-19 in New Jersey, bringing the total to 29. Thirty-seven more are under investigation.
There have been no positive cases in Mercer County yet, but the virus has been found in residents of four surrounding New Jersey counties: Burlington, Middlesex, Monmouth and Somerset. One of those Burlington County residents is a doctor at Mercer Bucks Cardiology-Jefferson University Hospitals in Robbinsville. The 62-year-old male, who recently traveled to Italy with his wife, was asymptomatic when he returned to the workplace for one day on March 3. Italy is one of four countries the Centers for Disease Control has identified as a “Level 3″ or high-risk.
“We’re certainly in uncharted territory,” Martin said. “We’re dealing with a threat that’s unique. It’s a threat, in an emergency situation, that we cannot see or smell or touch.”
Martin’s announcement comes on the same day that New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy banned gatherings of more than 250 people within the state in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19, a novel coronavirus that the World Health Organization has declared a pandemic.
The one gathering of 250 or more people that has not been cancelled as of yet is school. Hamilton Township School District superintendent Scott Rocco said the state Department of Education has not offered guidance as to why a school building—all of which contain more than 250 people in Hamilton—does not qualify under the governor’s orders. He said he expects to hear more news from DOE by midday March 13.
Hamilton School District superintendent Scott Rocco said the state has not offered guidance as to why school buildingS do not qualify under the governor’s orders.
A statement issued by the school district March 11 said that HTSD alone cannot close a school or schools, even for remote learning, without state approval and have that day still count toward the required 180 days of instruction. However, if the state or local health department ordered schools closed, remote learning would count as a school day.
In the meantime, the school district has implemented a beefed-up daily cleaning and sanitizing plan, using both mechanical and chemical cleaning methods to focus on common touch points. Among the areas of focus are door knobs, sinks, water fountains, computer keyboards, student desks, chairs, cafeteria tables and chairs. The district also has deployed more hand sanitizer dispensers throughout its facilities.
The district has also developed a remote learning plan for students so that instruction may continue at home should schools close. A survey of students taken March 9 showed 83% have the capabilities for online learning at home. HTSD teachers are preparing two weeks’ worth of online lesson plans. The remaining 17% of students will be given textbooks and other materials to take home from school, so that more traditional learning can continue while school buildings are closed, Rocco said.
Martin said the township has received advice from medical professionals in Hamilton to avoid meetings of 50 people or more, which would include gatherings of nearly every township board or body including township council. Martin said he has spoken with township council president Rick Tighe about having the head of every township department review the agenda to see whether there’s any critical or time-sensitive items that need to be passed by the council so that township business may continue.
The advice also means the cancellation of Martin’s first “town hall” meeting with residents, which had been scheduled for Wednesday, March 18. The township job fair has been cancelled. The proposed Wawa by the Whitehorse Circle—a contentious item within the township—was removed from the March 12 planning board agenda, and discussion postponed to a later date.
The township senior center has cancelled all activities through next week, but the building itself is open for seniors to use. Meals provided by the county are still available; a senior center staff member will be stationed outside the center to greet seniors needing meals. The staff member will then radio inside to request a meal be brought out for the person needing one.
The township court system will hear a decreased number of cases each day, and has asked that only the defendants appear to minimize the number of people in the building at one time.
All meetings scheduled for the Hamilton Township Free Public Library have been cancelled. Work schedules for library staff may be altered, and precautions have been taken by limiting which computers within the library can be used by the public, Martin said.
He added that all township employees will not be charged sick time if they are required to self-quarantine due to potential exposure to COVID-19, as long as they have a doctor’s note.
School, events cancelled in Robbinsville Township
Meanwhile, in neighboring Robbinsville, superintendent Kathie Foster announced all Robbinsville schools will be closed Friday, March 13 for staff development. Teachers will use the day for lesson planning in the event that additional school closure is necessary.
All after-school activities scheduled for the afternoon of March 12 and all of March 13 were cancelled.
The township, in conjunction with the Robbinsville Irish Heritage Association, announced March 12 that the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade scheduled for Saturday, March 21 has been cancelled.
Robbinsville and Hightstown Municipal Court also has been cancelled for next week, as well as the Miry Run town hall meeting scheduled for Tuesday, March 24.
“We are in constant contact with health officials regarding the spread of the virus and the many merits of social distancing during these extraordinary times,” Fried said. “My primary responsibility is to keep our community safe. We are doing everything in our power to do just that by limiting large assemblies and encouraging personal responsibility with proper hygiene and health-oriented habits.”
Robbinsville has suspended all senior center activities beginning Friday, March 13 through at least Sunday, March 22. The township, in a statement, said the suspension was done out of an abundance of caution in order to minimize the risk to the community in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.
Other suspended activities include hydroponic farm tours and visits, YMCA activities, morning exercise program, yoga, bingo, scheduled presentations and health screenings and art club. Mercer County Nutrition Program lunches will still be available for pickup between the hours of 11 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, though eating inside the center will not be permitted. Meals on Wheels will not be impacted, and donations to the Robbinsville Food Pantry will still be accepted.
Additional school event cancellations include: Pond Road fifth grade social, March 13; FIRST Robotics competition, March 14 and 15; Attitudes in Reverse Parent Education Night for grades 7 to 12, March 16; Child Assault Prevention Program for first grade parents, March 18; and the Pond Road sixth grade social, March 20.
For more on how Mercer County has prepared for COVID-19, click here.