Launched at the very beginning of the pandemic, a weekly hourlong update organized by Johnson town officials has become must-see TV, with special guests and musical acts.
First held March 13 by the Johnson Emergency Management Team, the COVID-19 response updates are a regular Friday fixture at 5 p.m., conducted via Zoom. This Friday’s meeting, May 29, will be the 12th, and the featured speaker will be Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan.
The musical guest, as always, will remain a secret until the meeting.
Eric Osgood, the Johnson Select Board chairman and head of emergency management, said he’s learned a lot about new ways of getting a message out.
“Two months ago, I didn’t even know what Zoom stood for,” he said.
Now, he and town administrator Brian Story handle most technical aspects of the meetings — Osgood acting as a moderator of sorts and Story manning the chat, mute and “raise your hand” controls.
As restrictions slowly get lifted, Osgood plans to wind down the Friday meeting over this summer. There will be a couple of more weekly gatherings, then down to a couple a month and, eventually, fewer.
But the meeting is as helpful as any statewide press conference, and a whole lot more fun.
Green Mountain Access Television has all of the meetings available on its website, with some minor editing to smooth out some of the live sessions’ rough edges.
Here’s just a sampling of speakers who participated in updates, as well as at least a few minutes of Q&A:
• U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, who talked about the federal level aspects of COVID-19.
• Daniel French, secretary of the Vermont Agency of Education, who talked about things like prom, graduation and remote learning.
• Health Commissioner Mark Levine, with the latest data relating to cases of the virus.
• John Mandeville, head of the Lamoille Economic Development Corp., with advice on the Paycheck Protection Program and other economic help.
“With very few positive aspects of living during a pandemic, the Select Board of Johnson have certainly been doing great work keeping citizens informed,” said state Rep. Matt Hill, a Johnson native.
The weekly meeting was originally meant to keep people safe and healthy and send them into the weekend with the most recent COVID-related news. But it quickly became apparent that people’s mental health was also being affected after being shut in, and they were craving some sort of connection.
“For a medium that removes us so we don’t have to be in the same room, it’s been remarkably unifying,” said select board member Doug Molde.
Hence, the musical guests at the end of each hour. Lisa Crews, the town’s recreation coordinator, lines up the artists each week and they play songs that are uplifting, soul-searching or topical. An early one featured Johnson resident Isaac Eddy and his two daughters singing a made-up ditty about all the good things about Johnson.
Chris Lyon played guitar once, and Sam Averbuck another time; Heather Reid Dunn serenaded everyone with a little bagpipe music.
One time, Liana Nuse, sister of select board member Kyle Nuse, played cello from Edinburgh, accompanied by her boyfriend, with whom she’s sheltering in place — “It must’ve been midnight there, so that was nice of them to stay up,” Osgood said.
State Rep. Dan Noyes, also representing Johnson and a regular participant in the Friday meetings, said the platform “allows that important interaction that has been severely lacking during this pandemic.”
“I really like ending on a positive note,” he said of the music. “It’s a good way to start the weekend.”
Last week, Autumn Chamberlain played an encore performance. The Northern Vermont University student had played for a Friday meeting in the middle of the controversy over the short-lived decision by the Vermont State Colleges chancellor to close the Johnson and Lyndon campuses.
That meeting, which featured Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe and nearly 200 people in remote attendance, was an example of how valuable and nimble the weekly meeting has been, said Osgood.
He said the experience he and Story gained with previous installments allowed the Ashe Friday to go off without a hitch. It helped that the people participating were civil, even in the very active chat box; that’s not a given when scores of people fired up about an issue have free rein to “speak” their peace.
Some think the lessons learned from the Friday meetings can still be useful after things go back to normal, even as the Friday meetings are scaled back and likely phased out over the summer.
Hill said Johnson has set the bar high for municipal meetings, and he applauded people for showing up every week. He also sees more people participating in legislative matters, attending floor debates and committee meetings via teleconferencing, and then offering feedback.
“People are paying attention and doing their homework. It is truly great to see,” Hill said. “Hopefully, some of these, possibly new, traditions persevere as we transition to normal life.”
Molde said he’d like to see the regular select board meetings offered via Zoom, so more people attend them.
“Sometimes, what we do at select board meetings is opaque,” Molde said. “The town profits from greater participation and dissemination of information.”
Osgood said sometimes people just can’t make it to meetings in person, so teleconferencing is a boon for them.
“Sometimes, it’s a lot easier for them to stay in their living rooms,” Osgood said. “Especially on those cold, wintry nights.”