State leaders and municipal CEOs from across the state convened on Zoom to discuss continuing challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Pictured are (top row, l-r) MMA Executive Director Geoff Beckwith; Sean Cronin, senior deputy commissioner at the Division of Local Services; Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, (middle row, l-r) Dr. Larry Madoff, medical director at the Bureau of Infectious Disease and Laboratory Sciences at the Department of Public Health, Jana Ferguson, assistant commissioner at the Department of Public Health, and Heath Fahle, special director for federal funds at the Executive Office for Administration and Finance, and (bottom row) Thad Leugemors, assistant director for recovery and mitigation at the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency.

A creeping increase in COVID-19 cases, Halloween, and the second round of Coronavirus Relief Funds were the main topics of conversation when state and local leaders talked today in the 22nd regularly scheduled conference call convened by the MMA.

After seeing daily new case numbers primarily in the 200s through June and July, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health has been reporting new case numbers in the 300, 400 and even 500 range since August. There’s some speculation that the increase could be due to the return of thousands of college students and more indoor activity due to cooler weather, but Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito said “significant trends are not apparent at this time.”

“We continue to look at the data, but we’re not seeing a particular reason why this is happening,” she said.

All but 29 of the state’s 351 cities and towns were considered safe enough to move to Step 2 of Phase 3 of the state’s reopening plan as of yesterday. Before coming off the list, any of the 29 communities would need to see three consecutive weekly health reports indicating that they are no longer designated red. Likewise, it would take three consecutive reports with a red designation before a city or town would be required to move from Step 2 back to Step 1 of Phase 3.

The DPH assigns the red designation to a community that has seen an average daily incidence rate of more than eight per 100,000 people over the previous two weeks.

While the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has encouraged school districts to use the DPH’s red, yellow and green designations to guide their decisions regarding remote, hybrid or in-person learning models, Polito reminded local leaders that the requirement to revert to Step 1 after three reports in the red zone would apply to the business activities allowed under Step 2 (such as indoor performance venues, certain indoor and outdoor recreation activities, fitting rooms in retail stores, and more, with restrictions), not to schools.

Communities have expressed concerns about the volatility of the designations, where an outbreak at a single facility can cause a community to jump from green to red in a week. This is why the administration is urging communities to look at trends over three reports, which would capture four weeks worth of data.

Massachusetts has administered more COVID tests per capita than any other state, according to the DPH, with more than 4.4 million tests administered to more than 2.3 million individuals (some of whom have been tested more than once).

Dr. Larry Madoff, medical director at the Bureau of Infectious Disease and Laboratory Sciences at the Department of Public Health, addressed two different ways to look at the test results: the percentage of all tests that come back positive, which has been consistently around 1%, and the percentage of tested individuals who test positive, which has been just above 3% since late September. Madoff said the DPH reports both rates, and said state leaders look at a range of data, including raw case numbers and hospitalization rates, in their decision-making.

“All of these are in our assessment,” he said. “Please be assured that we’re not focusing on just one number.”

With children looking forward to annual Halloween events, there were questions about state guidance on trick-or-treating and other popular activities. Polito said these decisions are best made at the local level, and steered local officials to guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC identifies low-, moderate-, and high-risk Halloween activities, and recommends avoiding “traditional trick-or-treating where treats are handed to children who go door to door,” as well as indoor costume parties and haunted houses.

Coronavirus Relief Fund
Heath Fahle, special director for federal funds at the Executive Office for Administration and Finance, gave an overview of the Commonwealth’s CARES Act Coronavirus Relief Fund – Municipal Program, specifically regarding the Oct. 1 opening of the Round 2 application period, which runs through Oct. 30.

Fahle said Round 2 applications are being approved on a rolling basis, with the goal of getting funds into the hands of municipalities as quickly as possible. The application for Round 2 is a password-protected online Excel workbook template. Municipalities must also certify that they will comply with the rules of the program.

Fahle’s office created a presentation on the program for municipal officials, and he said the Oct. 1 webinar hosted by the MMA provides additional details. His department recently created a web portal in order to expedite responses to specific questions from municipalities – often within a day or two – and created an FAQ document, which was updated on Sept. 30.

Eligible uses of the Coronavirus Relief Fund must meet three conditions:
1. They must be “necessary expenditures incurred due to the public health emergency with respect to … COVID-19.”
2. The expenditures must not have been budgeted as of March 27, when the CARES Act was enacted.
3. The expenditures must be incurred between March 1 and Dec. 30, 2020.

The U.S. Treasury has clarified that to comply with this rule, goods must be delivered and used or services must be rendered by Dec. 30, 2020. Fahle said the Treasury allows for stockpiling a “reasonable amount” of goods such as PPE, and that a municipality may prepay for goods or services to be delivered after Dec. 30 if it would typically do so “in the normal course of business.”

In Round 2, municipalities can apply for their “remaining eligible amount,” calculated as the total eligible amount minus any Round 1 distribution plus other adjustments as described in the state guidance.

The fund cannot be used to address revenue shortfalls due to COVID-19, and Fahle said cashflow support is no longer a permissible request in Round 2. The Executive Office for Administration and Finance has posted a listing of Potential Municipal Uses for the Coronavirus Relief Fund.

In order to maximize the amount of federal aid available to pay for the budgetary impacts of COVID, municipalities are advised to seek reimbursements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for allowable expenses. Coronavirus Relief Fund dollars may be used as the 25% match for FEMA-eligible expenses.

As a requirement of participation in the program, municipalities must file quarterly reports on fund-supported spending.

“You cannot apply for funds through the quarterly reporting process,” Fahle said. “That is just to tell us how you’re spending the money, so that we can tell the federal government.”

Fahle called the federal program “complicated,” in part due to the changing rules from the Treasury, and acknowledged that it has been challenging for municipalities.

Coronavirus Relief Funds are allocated directly to Boston and the municipalities of Plymouth County, which administer their own programs.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts created the CRF Municipal Program to distribute up to $502 million to municipalities to address unanticipated costs incurred as a result of the public health emergency caused by COVID-19. Round 1 of the program, which opened on May 15 and closed on June 12, distributed approximately $96 million to 258 cities and towns.

Audio of Oct. 6 call with administration (36M MP3)

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