COVID updates, anti-racist resolution, resilience hub
By Brian Z. Zayatz
On Thursday, April 16th, the Northampton City Council held its 9th meeting of the year, via Zoom. All councilors were present.
The agenda was shuffled to allow city and hospital officials to present first so they would not have to stay on the call unnecessarily late. The first to present was Cooley Dickinson Healthcare CEO Joanne Marqusee, who had some good news to start. The number of COVID inpatients at Cooley Dickinson had dropped from the previous week, from the high teens down to twelve, which was still far lower than the anticipated volume of 50 or more, for which the hospital had tripled its ICU capacity. She did not think this was the peak yet, but worried that with this hopeful news the public would begin to take social distancing less seriously, which would result in another spike in cases.
Marqusee also reported that she has been participating in regional conferences with other hospital CEOs to discuss resource sharing, but had found so far that this was not necessary. CDH has been able to expand its criteria for testing, and can now test everyone at the hospital, as well as conduct on-site testing for vulnerable groups such as people experiencing homelessness, as long as they are displaying symptoms. If you are experiencing symptoms of COVID, there is now a better chance that you will be able to get tested; you can arrange this through a primary care physician or via the Cooley Dickinson COVID hotline, 1 (888) 554-4234. Marqusee also said that doctors were finding that people were waiting longer than normal to seek medical attention for non-COVID issues, and advised that people with other medical issues should still seek help. The hospital has confined patients with respiratory issues to a separate wing, and have adapted to provide video consultations when possible. Remote translation services are also available.
She ended with a brief summary of the hospital’s finances, which has taken a hit due to higher expenditures on PPE and other equipment and training, as well as lower revenues due to people avoiding hospital visits in general. Government assistance has so far only made up for about ten days of losses, but they have not had to enact any pay cuts or furloughs so far.
Next the city’s Health Department Director Merridith O’Leary presented, who alluded to the city’s hiring of eight additional public health nurses (there is usually one) to help do contact tracing for COVID patients in Northampton and the surrounding communities. (City Council would later suspend rules to do two readings and ultimately pass a financial measure to formally authorize this sharing of resources.) O’Leary had more to say about testing, informing the council that hospitals around the state are conducting about 6,000 tests per day, but that this number is still far too low, resulting in reported infection numbers that are “extremely arbitrary” and “mean nothing.” Currently, tests are being prioritized for healthcare workers and other first responders, some essential workers, and people in congregant living. The next priority group once testing expands further will be those identified during contact tracing.
O’Leary also spent some time discussing the city’s emergency shelters at NHS and the Quality Inn on Conz St. The NHS shelter has 56 cots in the school’s gym and has typically seen 50-55 guests per night. It is staffed by ServiceNet volunteers and has a police officer on duty at all times. The fire department has been delivering meals, with breakfasts prepared by the jail and lunch and dinners by the college. Transportation is provided to different resource centers, such as laundromats. O’Leary stated that the shelter has “standards” to which guests are expected to adhere, and they are asked to leave if they do not. It is a dry shelter and if guests are not present by 9 PM, they forfeit their spot for the night. The Quality Inn is being used as a quarantine space for those who have recently traveled, those displaying symptoms (temperature is checked upon entry), and those who have been identified by contact tracing, and at the time of this meeting had three guests. Councilor Jarrett (Ward 5) asked how many people are being turned away and what other options exist for those individuals; O’Leary replied that 12 people have been turned away so far, that people have been coming from Amherst, Berkshire County and even Worcester, and that there are other shelters in Amherst, Greenfield, Pittsfield, and Springfield.
Councilor Foster (Ward 2) asked O’Leary to address questions she’d been receiving from constituents about her decision to close parks in the city. “Typically, any type of regulation or order that I’ve ever made in the past has been evidence based and data driven,” O’Leary prefaced, adding that the novelty of the virus makes it difficult to know what actions are necessary. “I’ve gotten a lot of criticism about overstepping or going too far, but at the end of this if all I have to say is I’m sorry for trying to protect the health and welfare of my community, I’m willing to own that.” Waiting for the CDC or the Governor to issue an order, she feared, could be risky. Councilor Dwight (At-Large) remarked that she had nothing to apologize for.
Mayor Narkewicz gave a quick update at the beginning of the meeting, but later presented more thoroughly on the financial impacts of COVID on the city. Budgeted revenues from the third quarter of FY2020 (Jan-March) are down $365,000 from last year, or about 2%, the vast majority of this loss being from lost parking ticket revenue and lost ambulance revenue. For the fourth quarter, projections are that the city will be down $1.5 million compared to last year, with losses from roughly the same sources as well as excise taxes on hotels, which see their peak during commencement season, as well as meals and marijuana. The city will likely be disproportionately impacted in this regard compared to other cities, as a relatively large part of the city’s budget comes from these excise taxes. The state is potentially facing up to $5 billion in lost revenue, and it is unclear at this point what that will mean for city budgets. Both the state and the city do have relatively strong “rainy day funds” (called the Stabilization Fund in the city’s case) for unexpected situations like these.
The city has also increased expenditures during the COVID crisis, including overtime for city employees, purchasing of PPE, establishing emergency shelters, and technology allowing city employees to work from home. Hopefully, Narkewicz said, up to 75% of this will be reimbursed by FEMA.
Given these uncertainties, and projections of coming up another $1.5 million short in Q1 of FY2021, Narkewicz has proposed several changes to the budget for FY2021, which is due in early May. Essentially, the plan boils down to only funding critical projects, among these planned construction at North King St. and Damon Rd./Exit 19, while delaying others. Some programs and services would be cut or scaled back, and some city employee vacancies would not be filled. Northampton Public Schools has already adjusted its budget for next year downward. Additionally, the Mayor decided to delay implementation of higher property tax rates per the Prop. 2 ½ override vote that took place in early March until FY2022.
The council voted in favor of a resolution denouncing anti-Asian and anti-Asian American discrimination and xenophobia. Only two people spoke during public comment, which took place an hour and ten minutes into the meeting, and both spoke in favor of the resolution. Councilor Maiorie, who introduced the resolution alongside Councilor Foster, said she considered the resolution part of a collective bystander intervention. Councilor LaBarge (Ward 6) asked if incidents of discrimination had already taken place in Northampton, and Councilor Maiorie (Ward 7) replied in the affirmative and that she had heard reports from people she knew. The resolution passed its first reading unanimously and will be presented to a number of state and national officials should it pass second reading next week.
Per recommendation of the Mayor’s Panhandling Work Group’s 2019 study report, the City Council addressed a financial matter that would allow the allocation of donations to be used for “ongoing planning and potential implementation” of a community resilience hub. The resilience hub was originally imagined as a space that would serve as a day center for “those at the frontline of chronic stress (i.e. frontline communities, including homeless, Single Room Occupancy (SRO) residents, those living in extreme poverty, and climate vulnerable populations),” but could be adapted to be a resource center for all residents in the event of climate disaster. Mayor Narkewicz reported that he has heard interest expressed from members of the public in making significant donations towards the establishment of the resilience hub (it was unclear if this interest had anything to do with the COVID-19 outbreak), and that this financial order was not a vote on the resilience hub itself, but merely allowed the directing of donated resources towards further planning. As of now, there is no location chosen; a call to architects to work on potential designs has been put out, and the location would have to be considered knowing what kind of structure the hub would be, and who would run it. The order passed first reading.
The question of allocations for invasive species control came up for its second reading, and Councilor Jarrett had done some additional research on the issue and spoke to his decision on how he would vote that evening. “I am a believer in the scientific method,” he began, “but I also see how science is corrupted by the profit motive of large corporations,” referencing the fact that studies of the safety of different chemical pesticides are often funded by the companies that manufacture them. Additionally, while the pesticides in question may have been studied somewhat rigorously, the additives that make them stick to the plant long enough to work often have not. Jarrett believes the risk to the public is likely minimal—probably greatest to those who apply the pesticide—and recognizes that this proposal has the intent of getting the invasive plants under control enough for manual removal to become more feasible. Therefore, Jarrett supported the allocation in question, but he hoped that in the future less “militaristic” approaches to invasive species control, and said he would be less likely to support a measure like this if a similar proposal came back in a few years. The allocation passed second reading unanimously.
Councilor Jarrett also asked Council President Gina-Louise Sciarra (At-Large) to establish a new committee that would pursue implementation of the recommendations of a previous committee on pesticide use. Councilor Sciarra explained that this was not something that they could discuss since it would have to be its own agenda item, or else it would violate the spirit of open meeting laws, since members of the public would have had no way of knowing that the matter was to be discussed otherwise.
The ordinance to allow change from one conforming use to another on lots with non-conformities came up for its second vote. Councilor Quinlan (Ward 1) noted that he would be voting against the ordinance again, as he did not think the Council had engaged requests from the public to consider the issue more thoroughly rather than trusting the rest of the process. All other councilors voted in favor, and the ordinance passed its second reading.
Brian Zayatz is a regular contributor to The Shoestring. Photo courtesy of Facebook.