GORHAM — With an unknown number of COVID-19 cases in town, the Town Council Tuesday unanimously approved an emergency ordinance that paves the way for a shelter in place order if one becomes necessary.

Phillips

Town Council Chairwoman Suzanne Phillips said Wednesday the board, in a teleconference meeting, voted 7-0 to pass the emergency ordinance, which will be in effect for 90 days “in case we need to use it.” Most surrounding towns have similar ordinances in place, Phillips said.

An emergency management team, consisting of department heads and public safety chiefs, is “managing the situation” in Gorham, she said.

Gorham students and teachers, meanwhile, are dealing well with the distance learning put into place when school buildings shut down as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, said Superintendent Heather Perry.

During Tuesday’s council meeting, there was no opportunity for public comments because of the teleconferencing, but Phillips said she has heard from some residents about the potential of a shelter in place order. Some people believe such an action would be a government overreach while others advocate local action, she said.

Phillips said she doesn’t know how many cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, exist in Gorham, but “the rumor mill is rampant.”

She noted that the Maine CDC advises towns in Cumberland County to assume they have several cases. There were 87 cases in Cumberland County as of late Wednesday morning.

Town Manager Ephrem Paraschak, Phillips said, is on a temporary leave of absence due to a family emergency, and Tom Poirier, community development director, is acting town manager.

Poirier said the town manager in consultation with Phillips has authority to declare a state of emergency for up to five days. After that, the Town Council would have to act.

Provisions of the emergency ordinance could prohibit or restrict movements of people and vehicles within the town. It would empower the town to order people evacuated from hazardous areas in the town. The ordinance would impose penalties on violators from $100 up to $500 plus the cost of prosecution.

Besides an epidemic or pandemic, emergencies covered by the ordinance could include fire, flood, earthquake, riot or any man-made or natural disaster.

“We’re looking to keep Gorham safe,” Poirier said.

At the schools, the immediate focus has been on “establishing strong lines of communication with families” and setting class expectations to lay the foundation for distance education, Perry said.

And everyone in the school department has been helping out.

“Every staff member from bus driver to program director, from educational technician to classroom teacher and everyone in between has dropped everything, focused on doing what is needed for students and made it all happen,” Perry said. “I have teared up several times this past week just thinking of all that they have accomplished in such a short a period of time.”

School lunches are being offered at four satellite locations from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday. The locations are Little Falls Recreation Center, 40 Acorn St.; Moody’s Collision Center, 200 Narragansett St.; Phinney Lumber, 519 Fort Hill Road (Route 114); and Friendly Village Community Center in South Gorham.

The program is feeding 250 students per day.

Former Town Council Chairman Michael Phinney of Phinney Lumber praised the community spirit.

“It’s hard times,” Phinney said.

The Backpack Program is also distributing food on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays at the same locations.

Schools are delivering to some homes on an as-needed basis.

Breakfast is likely to be added next week. The following week, the community as a whole could be added under Operation Feed Gorham with the assistance of Cindy Hazelton, director of Gorham Recreation Department.

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