Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito speaks at the new mobile COVID-19 testing site at Patriot Place in Foxborough on April 5. [Joshua Qualls/Governor’s Press Office]

Four weeks into the Commonwealth’s COVID-19 state of emergency, and a week or so ahead of an anticipated surge in the number of cases, the weekly conversation among local officials and top state leaders shifted to pressing issues such as sheltering, protecting first responders, and ongoing fiscal concerns.

The discussion was the third in a series of conference calls the MMA is convening with key state officials every Tuesday afternoon during the COVID emergency.

Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito and Division of Local Services’ Senior Deputy Commissioner Sean Cronin went over highlights of a law signed last Friday that eases certain requirements and deadlines for municipalities, particularly on fiscal matters such as property tax billing, passing local budgets and deficit spending during an emergency. The DLS has issued two bulletins to provide guidance to local officials on the law, one last Friday and an addendum today focused on notification to taxpayers.

Cronin said the DLS has set up a special email account, COVID19DLS@dor.state.ma.us, to field any municipal finance-related questions resulting from the COVID emergency.

At this time, Polito said, the administration is unable to provide information about the potential impact of the COVID emergency on the state budget or local aid for fiscal 2021 – a topic that will be discussed at a summit of state budget writers and economic experts on April 14. She said it is also yet to be determined when or whether students will return to public schools this spring.

Polito discussed last week’s updates to the guidelines regarding essential services that may continue to operate during the state of emergency. All non-essential businesses must keep their physical workplaces and facilities closed to workers, customers and the public. She said the extensive online guidance and FAQs will answer most questions, and it is modified on an ongoing basis whenever any area may be unclear.

She also discussed updated guidance regarding construction activities. She said local boards of health are empowered to enforce safety protocols at construction sites, and are advised to inform project owners of any issues and to pause activities until the infraction is corrected to the satisfaction of the local board. If local inspectors are overwhelmed, she said, the state can connect them with third party resources.

Polito said the Department of Public Health would release today new restrictions on grocery stores in order to protect the health of workers and shoppers. Food retailers will be required to limit the total number of customers and workers in their stores to 40% of their maximum permitted occupancy. She said the restrictions were carefully crafted, and retailers and local authorities are not permitted to substitute their own standards.

Due to a recent influx of visitors, particularly to Berkshire County and the Cape and Islands, for “leisure” purposes, she said the administration issued an order last week limiting the use of hotels, motels and other short-term rentals to essential workers, including first responders, and vulnerable populations.

Polito highlighted recent developments to increase the availability of personal protective equipment, including a shipment from China arranged by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and the repurposing of a New Balance factory in Lawrence.

The administration and CVS today announced the opening of a new rapid testing site in Lowell, which will enable on-the-spot COVID-19 testing and results at no cost, with another site slated to open in West Springfield later this week and one coming later in Central Massachusetts.

A COVID-19 testing site dedicated to first responders opened at Suffolk Downs in East Boston just over a week ago, and a second opened outside of Gillette Stadium in Foxborough on Sunday.

The administration is also boosting efforts to test patients and staff at nursing homes, and has issued guidance for responders to emergency calls from such facilities.

Polito also mentioned the $150 billion Coronavirus Relief Fund in the federal CARES Act – including $2.7 billion for Massachusetts – to help governments address the costs of the pandemic. She said the funds will be distributed to the states, which will then distribute funding to cities and towns.

In addition to the CARES Act, the major disaster declaration for Massachusetts signed by the president on March 28 allows for reimbursement of up to 75% for eligible local government expenses related to emergency protective measures. The disaster reimbursement process is similar to that for major weather events and is familiar to many public safety personnel.

“It’s really important that you are tracking all COVID-19 expenditures separately in your accounting,” Polito said, “so when it’s time to be able to access CARES Act funds or to apply for reimbursements through the [federal] disaster declaration, that you’re organized and already have a system for tracking these expenses.”

She said the administration is awaiting word from the U.S. Treasury Department as to when the funding will be available.

Sheltering
The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency provided a detailed update about the agency’s efforts to find or build safe shelter spaces for the homeless and for essential workers.

New regional isolation and recovery centers will house those who have tested positive for COVID-19 or whose health care provider determines they are exhibiting COVID symptoms and are likely positive. Regional sites will be up and running in Lexington and Pittsfield by the end of the week. Early this week, MEMA published FAQs for cities and towns regarding Federal Emergency Management Agency reimbursement for quarantine/isolation solutions.

In addition, MEMA is partnering with homeless shelters and communities to establish shelter sites to quarantine those who may have been exposed to COVID, but have not tested positive. Due to limited space at existing homeless shelters, MEMA is working with providers to set up heated tents, often beside the shelters, so the population can practice adequate social distancing. They are also working with communities to identify school gyms and field houses that can be used to temporarily house healthy individuals.

MEMA is in regular communication with shelter providers about their needs and to provide guidance. Communities that are setting up facilities are advised to check with MEMA first in order to ensure the maximum possible federal reimbursement.

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. Early this week, MEMA published FAQs for cities and towns regarding Federal Emergency Management Agency reimbursement for quarantine/isolation solutions.

Department of Public Health guidance allows first responders who may have been exposed to COVID-19 but are not exhibiting symptoms to return to work provided that they undergo symptom monitoring and wear a protective mask on the job.

Audio of April 7 call with Administration (35M MP3)

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