OPINION: TOWN COUNCIL FOR NOOBS – SAFE AND SOUND?

Special Council Meeting (3/23/20)

The big issue of the week (and the foreseeable future): COVID-19.

It’s hard to believe that it’s only been a week since Amherst officially entered a state of emergency.  Unlike last week’s rainy gloom, a typical New England spring snow shower fell as I watched the latest Town Council meeting from my study on Monday night. 

I struggled to write this column. I don’t know what to think about the COVID-19 pandemic because I’ve had trouble gathering information I trust, and I don’t want to contribute to misinformation. I’ve begun to limit how often I check The New York Times because its headlines are frightening, and I find myself worrying about both the disease and how we’ve been treating it. 

The Good(ish) News Continues
At least things have remained calm in Amherst. Not much has changed since last Monday. There are still zero reported cases of COVID-19 in town. As of Monday at 4 p.m. there were six confirmed cases in Hampshire county and nine deaths total in Massachusetts, and surely this number will continue to grow

All of the town’s first responders—police, fire, DPW, town hall staff—are in excellent condition and ready to handle any emergency. Town Manager Paul Bockelman reported that there has been a significant drop in police calls, and that the police have added foot patrols downtown to make sure that closed businesses remain secure. Town hall is still closed and non-essential town meetings remain on hold until at least April 3rd. Town Council will be meeting virtually, every Monday at 6:30 PM instead of every two weeks as long as the situation continues. You can view these meetings online, as I have been doing, on Amherst Media, Channel 17

Lines of communication among town staff remain open and strong. Council President Lynn Griesemer has been in daily contact with Bockelman, who has been in daily contact with School Superintendent Mike Morris. Although Bockelman and Griesemer expressed concerns about the town budget moving forward, they reiterated that town finances are solid, and that we have enough money saved to help us get through this.

Morris said that last week the school distributed 2058 meals in 13 locations around town to families in need, and that the district has now partnered with UMass food services to continue this program. Public school educators have continued to stay in touch with families. My son attends Wildwood Elementary. His teacher and the principal have been in regular email contact with us, sharing good cheer and fun assignments to work on. My daughter’s preschool at UMass has been doing the same.

Several times during the council meeting, different speakers said that there are significant volunteer needs in town. Craig’s Doors is safely up and running, and has plans to keep services going even if someone there is ill. They do need people to set up beds and to help with other tasks. If you can help, contact Director Kevin Noonan at kevin@craigsdoors.org. Mary Beth Ogulewicz, Director of Senior Services in Amherst, said that they need help with food delivery and other programs. Call her direct number, 413-259-3114, for more information or to volunteer.

The Big Change
The big change since last week took place earlier in the day, when Governor Charlie Baker issued a statewide order calling for stricter measures to be taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19.  The order, which is similar to ones refereed to in other states as “shelter-in-place,” calls for the closure of all non-essential businesses and a prohibition on gatherings of more than ten people.

Businesses related to first response, healthcare, and the food industry, including restaurants for take out and liquors stores, are permitted to stay open. Gas stations and automobile repair shops have been allowed to stay open, although bike shops have not. Many big-box stores can remain open because they sell necessary home goods. There is a long list of what qualifies as essential; if you think that your business qualifies, you can petition to stay open, which a local bike shop owner I spoke with said they are doing. The order calls for non-essential businesses to stop working in person, but encourages them to keep working virtually. The Amherst Chamber of Commerce is maintaining a list of open businesses in the area

The limitation on gatherings applies to “any confined indoor or outdoor space.” It “does not prohibit gatherings of more than ten people in an unenclosed, outdoor space such as a park, athletic field or parking lot,” although it does prohibit recreational activities that include close physical contact, such as basketball. The violation of this order can result in a criminal penalty of up to $300 per instance.

The Council’s Response
Bockelman and town Health Director Julie Federman gave long, informative presentations, which were followed by questions from the council.

Federman tempered her comments from last week, acknowledging that people who live in the same household will necessarily have close contact with one another. She is no longer recommending that we social distance from our roommates and loved ones unless they have a confirmed case of COVID-19, in which case they should self-quarantine at home, in a separate room, as much as possible. 

Federman also said, “Staying at home means people need to stay at home.” I found this message confusing given the legal right that people still have, even under Baker’s new orders, to shop, go outside for exercise, even be together safely in groups of ten or less inside. Later in the evening she encouraged healthy people to go outside.

There were only a few comments from councilors. Alisa Brewer told Federman that she needed to do better in communicating with the public, and Federman agreed. Evan Ross asked if town construction work would continue outside, and Bockelman said it would. Shalini Bahl-Milne and Darcy Dumont asked for an update on Craig’s Doors, which I touched on above.

Cathy Schoen asked two questions. She wondered about the very elderly people living in places like Applewood, and if they should be taking vans together to go grocery shopping. Federman replied she would pursue an answer in dialog with these communities.

Schoen then asked if the town would be enforcing penalties for violating Baker’s order. Bockelman had said earlier that people should stop calling the police to let them know about people congregating too closely in public. He said that the town saw its role as educating the public, not penalizing them. There are no plans to enforce the order in Amherst with fines or otherwise. 

Difficult Questions
Along with worrying about the spread of COVID-19, I have also been worried about the rise of authoritarian power. As a progressive democrat I hate to parrot the logic of the current U.S. President, but I can’t stop thinking that the intensity of the response to COVID-19, if it continues too long, could end up being worse than the disease, particularly for those with income, housing and food insecurity, poor healthcare, and no social safety net. Texas has banned most abortions as unnecessary medical procedures, and Ohio and other states are trying to do the same. Primary elections continue to be postponed. The stock market is reaching losses that rival Black Friday. From where I sit in Massachusetts, this these are all scary events.

I asked the following questions of Jo Comerford, our State Senator: Do you support an indefinite suspension of people’s right to free association? At what point do we stop being a democracy and start living under martial law? At what point does the harm to our economy and other social institutions become worse than the deaths caused by COVID-19?

Her response was: “I will disagree when it comes to [refuting] stay-at-home measures. I believe they are critical to help stop the spread of COVID-19. All public health guidance points in that direction. This is not an authoritarian grab. Quite the contrary. It’s good public health, science-based action. We will come out of this—and be able to continue working for the kind of robust and democratic Commonwealth we each value.” 

I agree with our lawmakers that significant measures are necessary, while recognizing that following best practices during a healthcare emergency is not mutually exclusive with authoritarian power grabs. I don’t trust the President or his advisors, although I have faith in our local government, however critical I might be of it at times. I feel lucky to live in Amherst rather than Philadelphia, New York or Boston, where I once lived. Despite the snow, the view from here is still rosier than in much of the outside world. People are pulling together, not panicking, and remaining calm

Ultimately, I think it’s necessary to maintain healthy skepticism toward our leadership and be watchful of the potential for manipulating the pandemic to bad ends while trying to follow scientific evidence as best as any of us are able. It makes good sense to stick to the governor’s orders for now and the foreseeable future. But if the elections are delayed or more significant steps are taken to curb our civil rights, I’ll be out marching in the streets, six feet apart from whoever will join me. I assume that in Amherst I won’t be out there alone. 

Perhaps I’m overreacting because of my strong, anti-authoritarian streak—family lore says my great grandmother was an associate of Emma Goldman. We’re all concerned about each other right now and struggling with the situation in different ways. In a few weeks things will look differently, one way or the other. Until then, I’m going to do what the rest of us are doing: hang in there, follow the Governor’s orders, and help take care of myself and those around me.

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5 thoughts on “OPINION: TOWN COUNCIL FOR NOOBS – SAFE AND SOUND?

  1. One thing I did hear at the end of the meeting I found disturbing: Evan Ross said OCA will be putting together interview questions for ZBA candidates. Insofar as ZBA operates under the radar of internet and newspapers how can he possibly know what to ask?

  2. Echoing a comment I made earlier about the zoning bylaw: how can ZBA or Planning Board (or ConCom or …) hearings or decisions be held or made absent the OML? In other words: as long as the OML is suspended, so should any statutory deadlines that stipulate failure of the ZBA or PB or … to act within a certain time constitutes a default approval.

  3. FYI, in response to the above comments: I didn’t mention that the Town Council voted unanimously to approve delaying the school and library budgets by a month until April 1st and the Town Manager’s budget for the town by a month until May 1st. This will give the town more time to assess how the economic fallout from the COVID-19 measure will impact the town’s finances.

  4. In further response to the questions above, a councilor reassured me that town staff has long been focused on preventing “accidental” actions, including failure to take action, by our various town multi-member bodies such as ZBA and the Planning Board. Staff is extra attentive to these issues now given the current situation.

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