REGULAR COUNCIL MEETING (3/9/20)
The big issue was going to be: Lincoln Avenue parking—but quickly became coronavirus!
I had planned on writing about the renewed debate on parking on Lincoln Avenue, but the response by officials in Amherst to COVID-19, aka Coronavirus Disease 2019, has overridden all other concerns. This has been an extremely fast moving story that kept changing as I worked on it. Each day new developments streamed in. By the end of the week, big things were happening here on an hourly basis.
COVID-19 is a new, flu-like respiratory disease not previously reported in humans. Symptoms can—but don’t always—include fever, cough and fluid in the lungs. Like other respiratory viruses, it generally spreads through droplets from coughs and sneezes. COVID-19 was first reported in Wuhan, China in December.
At the end of Monday’s council meeting on March 9th, Town Manager Paul Bockelman focused on Amherst’s response to COVID-19. “We’re on it!,” he said, and so far the Town and State (unlike the federal government) have been. The town had already been taking measures to protect our first responders, including fire fighters, EMS, and town staff, and Bockelman calmly assured the Town Council that Amherst will keep running.
The Town’s response team is being led by Health Director Julie Federman and Emergency Management Officer and Fire Chief Tim Nelson. The town is posting updates to the local situation on its website, which reads (as of this writing), “the risk of infection in our area is low, and there is no ‘community-level’ spread of the virus.” As yet, there have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Hampshire County. There have been 6 officially diagnosed cases in Massachusetts and 102 presumptive cases.
On March 10th, Governor Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency in Massachusetts. On March 11, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. On March 12, I received an email from Council President Lynn Griesemer in my capacity as Chair of the Public Art Commission, saying that all non-essential town meetings were cancelled through April 3rd. By the end of the week, all of the major colleges in the area and the university had been closed indefinitely, and the Amherst Regional Public Schools were closed until at least March 30th.
On Friday the 13th(!), at the morning “Cuppa Joe” that Paul Bockelman regularly holds for the public, I had what may be my last face-to-face meeting with town officials for a while. Social distancing was practiced—we all sat a seat away from each other—and I learned that Governor Baker had suspended Open Meeting Law so that state and local government could begin meeting remotely.
Griesemer expressed significant concern over the spread of the virus, and said that up-coming council meetings would either limit the number of residents allowed to attend in person or move online. The suspension of the in-person requirements for open meeting law will help keep the government functioning by reducing the risk of infection for elected officials and staff. She said that she expected the next regular council meeting to proceed as scheduled on March 23rd, but was unsure whether it, or other mandatory government meetings, would take place in person or online.
Although LSSE and other non-essential programs have been temporarily halted, Assistant Town Manager Dave Ziomek said that the services that help our most at-risk populations, like the Wednesday Bread and Produce Program, will continue. This program, which gives older residents free food, has been modified from a pick-your-own selection to pre-bagged selections to help decrease the risk of infection. Ziomek said the situation in town, like elsewhere, was still in flux, and that all town-wide emergency policies would be re-evaluated on April 3rd.