SPECIAL COUNCIL MEETING (3/16/20)
The big issue was: The Town’s continued response to COVID-19.
My last column was unfortunately prescient. It will indeed be a while before I sit in the Town Room or see town officials again in person. Town Manager Paul Bockelman declared a state of emergency in Amherst on Monday at 4 PM. The main repercussion of this is that Town Hall is now closed, along with the previously-closed libraries and public school system, and our local government is working remotely. Tax bills have to be paid online or by way of the Town Collector’s drop box. Town Committees are also taking a hiatus to allow town staff to adjust to working from home. These measures will be reconsidered on April 3rd.
Later Monday evening, the council called a special online meeting to address COVID-19. It had no provisions for public participation. I watched the meeting on Amherst Media from the computer in my study, looking out at the trees darkening in my yard, and grew increasingly lonely despite the laughter of my wife and kids filtering in from the next room. Although hearing about the measures that the town is taking to mitigate the effects of the virus lifted my spirits, a discussion surrounding social distancing was disheartening. Even more worrisome are the economic impacts that these measures are already having on Amherst.
The Bad News
The bad news is that the closure of the colleges and university along with social distancing and the closure of dining in restaurants are having an immediately detrimental effect on town residents. With Judie’s Restaurant closing and the partial or complete closure of other businesses in town, low-income workers and small business owners are in jeopardy. State Representative Mindy Domb and State Senator Jo Comerford, who both called into the Council meeting, said that ideas for economic relief were being discussed at the state and federal level, but that no plans were yet in place for helping pay people’s rent or otherwise survive job losses. Bockelman said that the town’s economy would also be impacted by the loss of meal taxes, water and sewer use taxes, and parking fees.
Bockelman said that the town is currently working on a program called “Resilience Amherst” to help residents who are most vulnerable by organizing people who want to help. Assistant Town Manager Dave Ziomek said that current food programs are continuing for public school students and the elderly, and that Craig’s Doors Shelter is operating with the usual number of beds, but with social distancing protocols imposed. Ziomek said that these programs could use more volunteers since many of the students who usually help have left town.
The Uncertain News
An exchange between town Health Director Julie Federman and Town Councilor Alisa Brewer sowed considerable uncertainty. Brewer, who said that she has an elderly family member living with her, suggested that people should not be getting together socially with other people in their own homes because they could be asymptomatically transmitting COVID-19. She mentioned hearing of a couple inviting another couple over for dinner, and implied that such gathering should not be taking place. Federman hesitantly agreed.
In her role as Health Director, Federman’s opinion carries significant weight. Her response made me concerned that the Town was taking stronger measures than either the state or the federal government were recommending. As of this writing, only limited parts of California have enacted shelter-in-place orders. Should Amherst be doing the same, even implicitly?
Federman said that despite chatter otherwise, there have been zero confirmed cases among Amherst residents so far. As per an email from School Superintendent Michael Morris, one parent of a child in the school district is presumed positive. Putting two and two together suggests that the parent lives in a surrounding town.
In a follow-up call, Ziomek confirmed that there have been no cases of COVID-19 among Amherst residents. He said that the town was recommending that everyone practice social distancing by keeping six feet apart in public and private, but acknowledged that the town can’t tell people what to do in their private lives. He said that there has been no serious discussion of imposing shelter-in-place restrictions in Amherst.
Right now, he said, if you think you have COVID-19, testing is still extremely limited. It is currently being restricted to people on the front lines of emergency care and people at increased risk for severe illness. If you have symptoms, stay home and contact your primary care physician by phone.
He reiterated that Town Hall is still working, albeit remotely, and urged people to call the appropriate department if they have specific questions. Calls will be returned, he emphasized. For specific questions related to COVID-19, his office can be reached at 413-259-3122. Federman’s office can be reached at 413-259-3101.
The Good(ish) News
Now for the good news: The town’s four heads of “Incident Command” all reported calmly that the town is currently safe and sound. Fire Chief Tim Nelson said that our EMS and firefighters have long planned for an emergency of this sort and have enough coverage to keep service running as usual, even with increased demand. That students are gone is surely a help. Police Chief Scott Livingstone said the same, noting that there were officers who could even step in as dispatchers should the need arise. Superintendent of Public Works Guildford Mooring said that water and sewer safety were also secure. He asked that people be extra careful not to flush wipes, given the likelihood of their increased use and the big mess they make of our water treatment system.
Federman had just gotten off of a 1000-person conference call with the CDC (Center for Disease Control) and had much to report. She said that there have been about 3000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. so far, with 45 confirmed cases in Massachusetts and 119 presumptive positive cases. She urged people to use the state’s website as a reliable source of information, which she has been doing. These numbers are changing quickly, she said, and she was right—they already have, and not for the better.
Federman described how scientists are characterizing COVID-19 as a respiratory illness passed through the liquid droplets that typically enter the air through sneezing or coughs, and that the nose and mouth are the sole pathways for infection. Washing with soap and water for twenty seconds is all that’s necessary, she said, to remove the virus from one’s hands or elsewhere. The reason for the six feet of separation currently recommended by the CDC for social distancing is to keep this liquid from easily traveling from one person to another. She said sunlight also seems to kill the virus, and it doesn’t seem to last long on surfaces outside of a living body.
It’s been shocking to watch how quickly normal life crumbles. The town, Bockelman said, felt sad when he passed through it earlier in the day because it was so unusually empty for this time of year. I have become increasingly worried about the delay of multiple state primaries for the presidential election, and the potential delay of the election itself.
While we are currently facing a health crisis, it’s important to be equally attentive to the economic and political fallout from the response to this crisis. Isolating citizens can prevent the spread of disease, which is why I agree that it’s better to be safe than sorry in a crisis like this one. But social isolation can also become a disease of the body politic when people are separated from friends and loved ones for significant periods of time and are denied the ability to gather or protest in person.
There was much discussion among councilors about how to include public participation in future online meetings. This should be coming soon. I’ll be happy, when the time comes, to return to the Town Room. Online meetings are hard to watch and harder to follow. I’m anxiously awaiting the passing of the first wave of COVID-19, the end of the emergency and the restoration of normality. Otherwise, I’m trying to help however I can, and spend quality time, laughing along with my family. We’re planning on eating out at the remaining open restaurants, either at home or having a picnic outside, as often as we can afford to. How are you feeling? What are you doing to cope?