The high school football field in the town of Auburn came to life again Tuesday night — not for a game, but for a tradition as old as the country: the annual town meeting.

And although more people than usual showed up, there was plenty of room for everyone to maintain a safe social distance in the era of COVID-19.

With end-of-the-month budget deadlines looming, this is a busy time of year for town meetings. But the traditional cramming into a high school auditorium is dangerous during a pandemic. So from playing fields to online platforms, communities across the state are finding innovative ways to conduct the business of local government.

"I think every municipality across the commonwealth and certainly across country has had to innovate,” said Julie Jacobson, Auburn’s town manager. "Operations are not the same. Pre-COVID days are no longer. Whatever we do moving forward, we have to do with an eye to public health and public safety.”

In that same spirit, the town of Lexington kicked off another revolution, leading a charge to change state law requiring in-person meetings. This week, Lexington held the first virtual town meeting in Massachusetts.

“Tonight, Lexington is once again making history. I dare say this will be the Zoom meeting heard round the Commonwealth,” said Deborah Brown, Lexington’s town moderator, as she opened the meeting.

“I've been in local government and a manager in local government for 33 years. And I can tell you that this is probably the most substantial, fast-paced change that has happened in that entire time,” Lexington Town Manager Jim Malloy said.

Still, moving online wasn’t simple. Malloy said the town took care to go through the legal and judicial steps to “confirm the validity” of the town meeting. The town also had to purchase an online voting system.

“It's been an interesting community building situation where people in the whole community have sort of come together,” Malloy said.

Less high-tech but effective, town meeting members on Auburn’s football field used green and red paddles to vote aye or nay. Any resident who needed further health protection could stay in their cars; the meeting was broadcast on the town’s emergency radio channel and residents rolled down their windows and put a paddle up to vote.

Auburn Town Moderator Chet Stencil ran the meeting from a podium up in the stands, overlooking the residents in folding chairs spread out on the field. He began with the usual kickoff.

“We start as we usually do, with the pledge of allegiance. The flag is right behind you on the 50-yard line,” Stencil said over the loudspeaker.

Blackstone, Mass., a small town in Worcester County, also had COVID safety in mind and moved their annual meeting to the high school parking lot. The usual ground rules needed tweaking.

"After you have completed speaking at the microphone, there are some wipes there. Do not wipe down the microphone,” Blackstone Town Moderator Mark Poirier said, repeating for emphasis: “Do not wipe down the microphone.”

But public speaking in a protective mask can be tough. Blackstone Town Finance Committee member Mary Bulso stopped the recitation of town expenses at one point to pull her mask down.

“I can’t see this,” Bulso said. “My glasses are fogging up."

Meetings aside, there’s still the challenge of conducting the daily business of local government.

Since Auburn Town Hall is still closed to the public, Jacobson also came up with the idea for a way to bring some personal connection back: by installing a drive-through kiosk outside Town Hall.

"I just thought that if you can go to a drive-up restaurant and you can go to a drive-up bank, why can't you have a drive-up municipal service?," said Jacobson.

68-year-old retiree Paul Strozina used the kiosk to take care of tax paperwork. He’s lived in Auburn for 65 years and calls the current time “crazy.” But he praised the Town Hall kiosk.

"I think this is the best idea this town has had. It makes the employees safe and also all the customers safe,” Strozina said.

Jacobson said some residents prefer to pay municipal bills in person and want the kiosk to stay. But when it comes to big revenue questions, towns will need to get nimble too: COVID-19 has slashed tax revenue.

Ed Kazanovicz, Auburn’s chief financial officer, said he doesn’t know the full extent of revenue drop caused by the pandemic, but ran through some of the now familiar losses.

“We know we're going to lose local revenue from meals tax, our restaurants have been closed for a period of time. Hotel/motel tax is going to dry up because we have five hotels that are currently closed, not generating room occupancy tax revenue,” Kazanovicz said.

So while Auburn’s unique meeting was hailed a success, Town Manager Jacobson said he hopes the real players can soon return to the field.