Holyoke’s Alex Morse adapts to the curveballs
‘This is 24/7, we want to save as many lives as possible,’ says the mayor
First in a series about mayors across Massachusetts and how they’re contending with the COVID-19 pandemic.
DON’T ASK HOLYOKE MAYOR Alex Morse about his typical day right now – there isn’t one.
“This is my ninth year as mayor, and we’ve never experienced anything like this before. So we’re doing everything we can,” Morse said. “There are curveballs here and there. We’ve been adapting to a changing environment day by day.”
A city of 40,000 in Western Massachusetts with a large Hispanic population, Holyoke had its struggles even before the pandemic. The once vibrant industrial city has a median household income of just $40,000, an unemployment rate above the state average, and long-struggling schools that are in state receivership.
The 31-year-old mayor is in constant contact with providers of health care and social services to make sure the most vulnerable Holyoke residents are cared for.
“I’m worried about whether the state and federal legislation is actually going to help the working folks of the city, the people that are often times the forgotten members of our community,” Morse said. “Times like this show who government works for and illuminates the divide in equity in our society.”
These days, Morse arrives at City Hall by 8:30 a.m. There are four people still working in the mayor’s office – Morse, his acting director of emergency management, his deputy director of emergency management, and his head of digital communications. “The four of us are continually here at City Hall, sitting as far apart as we can,” Morse said. Occasionally, someone will come in for a meeting, usually the board of health director or the head of Holyoke’s emergency management advisory council.
The building is a shell of its former self. On Friday, March 13, City Hall was closed to the public. By Tuesday, March 17, all employees were given laptops and sent home to work. Morse has pledged to pay all City Hall employees even if they get sick or have to take time off for childcare.
Morse has a daily update call with officials from Holyoke Medical Center. He is trying to find facilities – like public school gyms or spaces at Holyoke Community College – that can be used as overflow health care space, should the hospital need it. He is in regular contact with Holyoke schools superintendent-receiver Stephen Zrike to determine what students’ needs are.
One recent morning, Morse had a call with Comcast to try to get the company to provide wider internet access at an affordable price. Morse said one major problem in Holyoke is the “digital divide” – some students have Internet access at home while others do not. According to US Census statistics, between 2014 and 2018, 83 percent of Holyoke homes had a computer and 70 percent had a broadband internet subscription.
The day he spoke to a reporter, Morse was trying to set up a call with city landlords to discuss a moratorium on evictions. He was taking calls from local businesses who wanted to use their manufacturing capabilities to make masks for health care providers. He fielded another call from a restaurant that was closing for two weeks and wanted to donate its produce to a local food pantry. Morse coordinated the donation.
He has made some in-person visits – visiting, for example, a school-based site that distributes free lunches to any Holyoke family, no questions asked. But he tries to limit personal contact, to abide by public health regulations.
Typically, Morse stays at City Hall until 6:30 or 7 p.m., at which point he and his staff do a closeout briefing about what got done that day and what remains to get done the next day.
But, Morse said, “There’s no schedule here, so we’re constantly texting, emailing or on the phone after that. This is 24/7. We want to save as many lives as possible, that’s our effort. That certainly doesn’t have a time frame or schedule.”
Elected nine years ago at age 22, Morse became the second youngest mayor in state history (a 21-year-old was once elected mayor of Gardner), and one of its first openly gay municipal leaders.
He’s been on a fast track since childhood. “I would come home and he would be sitting on the front porch reading,” his late mother, Kim Morse, said in this 2011 CommonWealth profile following his election. In high school, Morse was elected to be the student representative on the Holyoke school committee. “He started licking envelopes in ninth grade for every cause,” his mother said.
After nearly a decade in the mayor’s seat, Morse declared himself ready for his next move, and it’s an audacious one. He is challenging veteran US Rep. Richard Neal in the Democratic congressional primary. With the Democratic takeover of the House in 2018, Neal became chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, but Morse insists he has not delivered as he should for the district.
Morse remains in the race but is no longer doing in-person events and has encouraged his volunteers to find ways to help people in need during the pandemic. Meanwhile, he is awaiting guidance from the secretary of state on whether a signature-gathering deadline will be pushed off. “My priority right now is saving lives and being mayor,” Morse said.Morse noted that, as mayor, he has been through deadly fires, hurricanes, and storms, but this “is on another level.”
“We, on a local level, literally our decisions will impact people’s lives,” Morse said. “We want to keep people alive in the city. We want to make sure people have the information and health care resources they need.”