State leaders and municipal CEOs from across the state convened on Zoom to discuss continuing challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Pictured are (clockwise from the top left) MMA Executive Director Geoff Beckwith; Sean Cronin, senior deputy commissioner at the Division of Local Services; Dr. Larry Madoff, medical director at the Bureau of Infectious Disease and Laboratory Sciences at the Department of Public Health; Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito; and Jana Ferguson, assistant commissioner at the Department of Public Health.

Heightened demand for COVID-19 testing, vaccine distribution plans, and the use of federal CARES Act dollars were the main topics of a conference call convened by the MMA today for municipal CEOs with state leaders.

Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito said it’s “very good news” that two companies have asked the federal government for approval of COVID vaccines and plan to manufacture 40 million doses by the end of the year. She said the federal government has asked states to submit vaccine distribution plans by Friday.

Polito said the state will employ, with adjustments, “a very robust, proven system” that is used each year to distribute the flu vaccine. Asked about plans to ensure that the vaccine reaches every resident, including those without cars or access to public transportation, Polito said state officials will make “whatever enhancements” are needed to deploy the vaccine “rapidly and equitably.”

The lieutenant governor said many residents heeded the advice of public health officials by reducing travel and the size of gatherings over the Thanksgiving weekend. She said train travel was down about 70% from a typical Thanksgiving, air travel was down 60%, and vehicle traffic was off by about 5% to 8%.

She thanked local officials for helping to encourage smaller gatherings and promoting the holiday season-oriented GetBackMass campaign, which stresses public health protocols. With widespread distribution of a vaccine still months away, she asked local leaders to “just keep emphasizing that everyone has a responsibility” to control the spread of the coronavirus.

Polito acknowledged the surge in demand for COVID testing both before and after the Thanksgiving holiday, and encouraged local officials to use the resources on the Department of Public Health’s COVID-19 Testing Guidance website to address local needs.

Local leaders continued to express concerns about access to testing, particularly in rural areas, and the availability of funding for testing programs after the federal CARES Act deadline of Dec. 30.

Sean Cronin, senior deputy commissioner at the Division of Local Services, said state officials have concluded that it is allowable for communities to use CARES Act money to purchase testing before Dec. 30 even if the tests are not able to be processed by the end of the year.

“If you get it all invoiced by Dec. 30, we seem to think that that would be eligible,” he said.

In addition to state offerings, Polito said communities have three options to bring in testing:
• Hire a mobile testing provider
• Purchase self-test kits for residents and distribute them or hire a vendor to mail them
• Organize testing using municipal employees and an agreement with a lab to process the tests

If they aren’t already doing so, she advised communities to consider CARES Act funding for testing needs. She said state leaders are considering regional testing sites in the central and western parts of the state as part of “the next phase of the plan.”

Because many testing sites are located outdoors and use tents, Polito said the state is currently reviewing its testing strategy for the colder months and expects to have more information by the end of this month.

Local leaders shared their concerns about potential labor shortages at key positions this winter – particularly teachers and snowplow drivers – if a number of municipal employees need to quarantine because they have been in close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. Local CEOs asked if asymptomatic employees could be allowed to continue working while awaiting test results in order to cover these key areas, where staffing is already stretched thin. They noted that clearing roads is a public safety issue, and a shortage of teachers could force a school district to switch from an in-person or hybrid model to fully remote.

Polito said she would be discussing the plowing issue in meetings with stakeholders, and that deploying the National Guard to clear local streets is a possibility if it becomes necessary.

She said the administration would discuss the teachers issue and get back to local officials.

Asked about the pending expiration on Dec. 31 of expanded leave provisions under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, Polito said it’s unclear what Congress might do in a lame duck session or when the new administration takes office in January.

Grant opportunities
Polito highlighted four grant opportunities aimed at economic recovery under the new Partnerships for Recovery program, all of which have deadlines this month.

Applications are due Dec. 4 for the fourth round of the Shared Streets and Spaces program, which provides grants ranging from $5,000 to $500,000 to improve plazas, sidewalks, curbs, streets, parking areas and other public spaces to support public health, safe mobility and commerce.

The new Local Rapid Recovery Planning Program provides technical assistance by consultant teams with expertise in strategies to stabilize business districts. An explanatory webinar is set for Dec. 9, and the application deadline is Dec. 18.

Applications are due Dec. 18 for the Urban Agenda Grant Program, which provides grants of up to $100,000 and is primarily seeking proposals that intend to develop or implement COVID-19 economic recovery strategies.

The new $10 million Cultural Organization Economic Recovery Program targets nonprofit cultural organizations negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The application deadline is Dec. 11.

Fiscal matters
Cronin said the Executive Office for Administration and Finance recently notified municipal finance officials about reconciliation requirements under the federal Coronavirus Relief Fund, and that formal guidance is expected to be issued by Dec. 14. Municipalities must reconcile their estimate of expenditures against what they actually spent.

With a pending federal deadline of Dec. 30 to use CARES Act funds, Cronin said there is still some time to use them.

“If you have authorization left, go spend it,” he said, adding that the expenditures must meet federal guidelines.

Cronin also urged local officials to get their tax rates into DLS for approval as soon as possible. He said the agency is bracing for a December crush, and submissions were down roughly 20% in November.

“Get it in as quickly as possible so we can turn it around for you and you can issue your third quarter tax bills,” he said.

The Zoom meeting was the 26th regular conference call with state officials convened by the MMA during the pandemic. Also participating in the call were Jana Ferguson, assistant commissioner at the Department of Public Health, and Dr. Larry Madoff, medical director at the Bureau of Infectious Disease and Laboratory Sciences at the Department of Public Health.

Audio of Dec. 1 call with administration (20M MP3)

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