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Our members are the local governments of Massachusetts and their elected and appointed leadership.
With the expected surge of COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts now in sight, the weekly call between the Baker-Polito administration and local officials from across the state raised a number of questions that can’t be answered just yet.
Will the state of emergency – and restrictions on public gatherings and non-essential businesses – be extended beyond its current endpoint of May 4? Will town meetings be able to be held by June? When will schools reopen? Will communities be able to hold Memorial Day observances? Uncertainty about the future was a recurring theme.
“We are in what we’ve described as the eye of the storm, approaching surge time,” said Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, who participated in the call while travelling to a field hospital being set up at Joint Base Cape Cod. “We will continue to monitor the numbers. We will continue to advise you and make decisions. And we will be doing this with enough time – hopefully before May 4 – so you can, as municipal and school leaders, make decisions accordingly.”
Preparing for the surge
Polito said current models project the surge to peak on April 20, with about 2,500 new confirmed cases per day expected during the surge period.
“It appears that we’re on an upward slope to that number,” Polito said.
She said the administration is currently focused on preparing for the surge, boosting access to testing, and reducing community spread of COVID-19, but state leaders are also discussing the May 4 date and the prudent path for reopening public facilities and workplaces that have been deemed “non-essential.”
Asked when it will be safe to resume large gatherings, Dr. Larry Madoff, medical director at the Bureau of Infectious Disease and Laboratory Sciences at the Department of Public Health, said, “Predictions are very hard to make. … I don’t think we’ve come to an answer on that question.”
Polito said the state has been working with partners to set up temporary field hospitals in Boston, Worcester and the Cape, with more sites coming soon, to supplement hospital capacity in order to treat the coming surge of cases.
She also gave an update on the state’s testing capacity, which is currently third in the country, trailing only California and New York. She highlighted last week’s opening of a rapid testing site in Lowell, which will enable on-the-spot COVID-19 testing and results at no cost for as many as 1,000 patients per day, as well as testing sites established specifically for emergency responders, health care workers and grocery store employees, and mobile testing capabilities that are focusing on long-term care and assisted living facilities.
For residents and employees who do not fall into these categories, Dr. Madoff reminded local officials that testing is recommended only for those who are exhibiting symptoms, and that testing asymptomatic individuals “doesn’t tell you what could happen to them in the future. They could be in an incubation period.”
He urged employers to focus on monitoring essential employees for fever or respiratory symptoms, and making sure they don’t report to the workplace if they’re symptomatic.
Fiscal and operational matters
Another key area of uncertainty is the effect of the COVID disruption on state and local revenues. The state revenue picture was the topic of a virtual hearing that was just wrapping up as the conference call with the administration began. While the impact is expected to be dire for fiscal 2021, state budget writers have a ways to go before they have pinned down numbers, and the annual state budget process is certain to lag well behind its usual schedule.
MMA Executive Director Geoff Beckwith said he is working with other state municipal leagues and the National League of Cities to urge the federal government to enact a stimulus package that would provide stabilization funds directly to cities and towns “to make up for lost revenue and preserve essential services during the coming recession.”
Polito and Sean Cronin, senior deputy commissioner at the Division of Local Services, discussed legislation signed last week – the third in a series of so-called “municipal relief” bills enacted so far during the COVID emergency – that addresses a number of public education deadlines and requirements, and provides budgeting flexibility for regional school districts.
Polito and Cronin acknowledged the ongoing need for additional legislation to address requirements and deadlines that are untenable during the emergency.
In response to a number of questions about provisions in the second municipal relief bill, particularly regarding local property tax delays and the waiving of late payment penalties, Cronin said the DLS was working on an FAQs document to provide clarification [since released here].
Regarding the highly anticipated federal assistance coming to Massachusetts state and local governments through the CARES Act, Cronin said the Executive Office of Administration and Finance is awaiting guidance from the U.S. Treasury Department. Aid to all Massachusetts cities and towns, with the exception of Boston, will flow through the state.
Cronin reminded local officials that CARES Act funds will be used to reimburse cities and towns for emergency expenses, but are not available to help make up for lost local revenues attributable to the economic disruption caused by the COVID emergency.
Asked if the Department of Revenue would be able to certify new growth by year end on its regular schedule so cities and towns can rely on this to plan fiscal 2021 budgets, Cronin said it depends on how long the emergency goes on and when local assessors are able to complete the necessary field work. If it appears that this may become a problem, he said, a legislative fix would be considered.
Local officials said they are currently challenged by the requirements of the state’s public records law, particularly at a time when most cities and towns are closed.
Elizabeth Denniston, the governor’s deputy legal counsel, said state officials share the concern.
“The public records law does continue to be in effect,” she said. “We just ask that you do your best to try to communicate with the [records] requestor to allow for more time and to work through it.”
Local officials asked about the availability of regional and local quarantine sites for first responders, the homeless, and those from assisted living facilities.
Tom Mangan, the liaison between municipalities and the COVID-19 Response Command Center, said the state is working to set up regional isolation and recovery centers for homeless individuals that have tested positive for COVID-19 or are deemed by a clinician to have COVID. (Regional sites have opened in Lexington and Pittsfield.) On the assisted living front, the Executive of Elder Affairs is working closely with these facilities, and mobile testing is being expanded for them.
In last week’s call, MEMA Director Samantha Phillips said the state is not maintaining a central listing of hotels and motels that may be available to house first responders, adding that identifying appropriate sites is being done at the local level, with MEMA provisioning technical assistance. MEMA has published FAQs for cities and towns regarding Federal Emergency Management Agency reimbursement for quarantine/isolation solutions.
Today’s discussion was the fourth in a series of conference calls the MMA is convening with key state officials every Tuesday afternoon during the COVID emergency.
• Audio of April 14 call with administration (30M MP3)