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Our members are the local governments of Massachusetts and their elected and appointed leadership.
Mayors from across the state this morning asked a number of top-level state officials for help on a range of municipal challenges arising from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Among the topics discussed were:
• How best to protect the health of local first responders
• What to do about an array of existing state laws and union contract provisions that can hamper a swift and effective response to a public health emergency
• What to do about activities that require approval by local boards by a specified deadline
• Whether to send property tax bills as scheduled, and how to waive penalties for late payment
“This is all uncharted territory for everybody,” said New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell, president of the Massachusetts Mayors’ Association, to open the call. “And having a strong working relationship with state government is very important to cities and towns.”
Participating in the conference call meeting of the Mayors’ Association were Gov. Charlie Baker, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, Attorney General Maura Healey, Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency Director Samantha Phillips, and Sean Cronin, senior deputy commissioner at the Division of Local Services, among others.
The administration and attorney general tried to help the mayors sort out which issues can be resolved under local authority, which can be resolved by the governor through his executive powers, which would require changes to state law, and which are in the hands of the federal government.
Gov. Baker said the administration is in daily contact with federal officials, and urged local officials to contact Cronin at the DLS and Lt. Gov. Polito with their state-level questions related to the COVID emergency.
The administration has a COVID Command Center to coordinate the public health response and an Emergency Response Center to connect with local emergency operations centers and focus on public safety issues.
“This is a team effort, and that’s when we’re at our best,” said Lt. Gov. Polito. “You are literally the front lines, and that’s more evident now than ever. … I’m proud of your efforts, and I’m here for you.”
Polito noted the administration’s announcement yesterday of an initial $5 million in emergency funding for local boards of health throughout the Commonwealth, and said the administration is looking into whether the statutory cap on hours worked by retirees can be raised so former municipal employees can be returned to the front lines during the current emergency.
Several mayors expressed concern about protecting first responders who are being asked to go into homes where residents may be carriers of the coronavirus, but the responders are unaware of potential exposure due to tight federal health privacy laws (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA). Healey and others said that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has issued guidance that the privacy rule “recognizes the legitimate need for public health authorities and others responsible for ensuring public health and safety to have access to protected health information.” This guidance indicates that the Department of Public Health and health providers may share the identity and addresses of COVID-positive patients with first responders, who must, in turn, protect the privacy of those patients.
Along these lines, Greenfield Mayor Roxann Wedegartner asked if COVID-19 testing could be prioritized for first responders, and Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera asked about the shortage of respirator masks needed to protect first responders and health care professionals.
Discussing the expected increase in demand on the state’s hospitals, Gov. Baker, a former Health and Human Services secretary and CEO of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, said he’s concerned about having adequate trained personnel, particularly if health care providers fall victim to COVID-19 themselves.
“I do think the staff issue is going to be as big a deal as the total number of hospital beds,” he said, adding that remote care, or telehealth, can be emphasized in order to protect providers.
The governor said he is asking the federal government to release more of its stockpile of personal protective equipment to Massachusetts.
The administration agreed to quickly gather more information about a number of questions raised by the mayors, including:
• How to provide child care for first responders and other municipal employees who must work during this emergency
• How to handle quarantine sites for homeless individuals
• Whether golf courses can be forced to close (The governor strongly suggested that all residents avoid “non-essential activities.”)
• How to postpone an upcoming local or special election (to protect the health of the public as well as election workers, who are often retirees and at higher risk of COVID)
• What financial aid can be made available to small businesses and the self-employed
• What to do about demands for local inspections (at a time when the health of anyone visiting homes could be at risk)
• Whether the Massachusetts National Guard has trained medical personnel that can be employed in the state’s response
• When it might be clearer whether schools can reopen on April 7 or further delayed (so communities can plan a reopening process)
Cronin, of the DLS, said cities that are not able to get their annual budget approved by June 30 – the day before fiscal 2021 begins – can enact a one-twelfth budget to cover the first month or two of the fiscal year.
Some mayors asked whether they could delay sending property tax bills. For cash-flow reasons, Newburyport Mayor Donna Holaday suggested it might be better to encourage people to pay tax bills online while waiving penalties and fees for those experiencing hardships.
(The DLS can be contacted at COVID19DLS@dor.state.ma.us for COVID-related municipal finance issues.)
MEMA Director Phillips said the agency is preparing to launch a drive-through COVID testing pilot with CVS in Shrewsbury, and is looking into additional locations. One issue they’re studying is the related public safety needs for crowd and traffic management.
Phillips also advised local leaders to track all expenditures related to COVID response in the event that federal disaster aid becomes available.
She said her agency is in the process of assessing the state’s health care capacity, including intensive care unit beds and post-acute care recovery resources.
MEMA and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health are holding a COVID-19 conference call for municipalities every Thursday morning.
Though a local declaration of a state of emergency has limited weight, the mayors were told that it’s a good idea to do so, either by mayoral action or with approval of the city council, depending on the requirements in the city charter. Guidance is available on the MMA website.