Northampton mayor has personal experience with COVID-19

Narkewicz helped set up a homeless shelter from his sick bed

Sixth in a series on municipal leaders across Massachusetts and how they’re contending with the COVID-19 pandemic. Here are previous stories on Chelsea City Manager Tom AmbrosinoHolyoke Mayor Alex Morse, a second on Morse,  Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer, and Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone

NORTHAMPTON MAYOR DAVID NARKEWICZ has a unique distinction among Massachusetts mayors responding to COVID-19: he has lived through the disease itself.

Narkewicz, 54, starting feeling sick on March 23, toward the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, and publicly announced three days later that he had tested positive for the virus.

“Many people said to me it really hit home when I was positive because I think at this point we didn’t have many positives out in our area in Hampshire County,” Narkewicz said. “I think people joked I got it just to force people to take it seriously, which was clearly not my intent, but I do think it had an impact.”

Like every city and town leader, Narkewicz has been leading the city through an unprecedented pandemic. He is grappling with budget shortfalls and school closures. And for about a week, he was doing it from isolation. He set up a city homeless shelter from his bed.

Narkewicz has no idea where he contracted the virus. A week before Gov. Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency, Narkewicz was holding large town halls related to a $2.5 million property tax override. There was early voting taking place in City Hall. As mayor, he was in constant contact with people.

When Narkewicz started experiencing flu-like symptoms – a sore throat, a low-grade fever, chills – and learned he had been in contact with city public safety officials who had COVID-19, he got a test. After 48 hours, the results came back positive.

In many ways, the mayor was lucky. He never had respiratory symptoms and did not require hospitalization. He avoided the type of breathing problems and fatigue that have made other patients unable to get out of bed.

He had already closed city offices and started working remotely, so his staff was not at risk. Narkewicz isolated himself in the guest bedroom of his house to avoid infecting his wife and college-age daughter. Neither of them got sick, although they both self-quarantined for 14 days. Narkewicz said a public health nurse interviewed him about his contacts, but he does not know what kind of contact tracing was done.

“I needed to get extra rest, but I was able to work remotely from my isolation chamber as it were, and continue to confer with our emergency team and continue to have daily briefings and make decisions,” Narkewicz said. “I was not incapacitated that I couldn’t carry out my duties.” He participated in  Zoom conferences, took phone calls, and answered emails.

By April 3, after 72 hours without symptoms, the city’s public health nurse gave Narkewicz clearance to leave isolation.

By that point, Narkewicz had completed what he sees as one of the biggest accomplishments of Northampton’s COVID-19 response, helping set up a new shelter for the homeless population. The city’s two existing shelters were mostly geared toward overnight visitors and didn’t allow for social distancing. City officials worked with service provider ServiceNet to close those shelters and open a new one in the high school gym that offered 24/7 shelter, health screenings, and other services, with social distancing precautions in place. Anyone who shows symptoms of COVID-19 is isolated at a separate hotel.

The shelter opened April 1 and, as a result, Narkewicz said the city has been able to avoid an outbreak of COVID-19 among the homeless population.

As of Wednesday, Northampton had 167 confirmed cases of COVID-19, according to state statistics, a relatively low number given its population of around 28,000. But Narkewicz said he does not put too much stock in the state numbers, since many people had symptoms of COVID-19 before testing became widely available and were simply instructed to stay home.

Especially in areas that have been less hard-hit by the virus, some have been calling to reopen the economy. The Daily Hampshire Gazette reported that a group of President Donald Trump supporters was planning a rally in Northampton on Saturday calling for the city and state to loosen restrictions. Similar rallies are being held nationwide.

Narkewicz said he wishes Trump would disavow the rallies, which Narkewicz said endanger participants and first responders. “I think it’s misguided. It puts people at risk,” Narkewicz said.

The mayor said he is in contact with the city’s business community and with other western Massachusetts mayors about reopening, although a lot depends on Baker’s orders. But he is being careful. Northampton was one of the first municipalities to require that people wear facemasks when entering businesses. “Obviously I want us to err on the side of caution,” Narkewicz said. “I’d much rather be accused of being too cautious than rushing like some communities in other parts of the country.”

Meet the Author

Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

As for Narkewicz’s personal behavior, he is taking a similarly cautious approach. Although many scientists believe that someone who contracts COVID-19 has at least short-term immunity, the science is not certain, and Narkewicz said he continues to take the same precautions he is asking of constituents. He is working remotely as much as possible, limiting social contact, washing his hands, and wearing a mask when going into businesses.

“This is a virus that’s new and didn’t exist, that we’re learning more about every day,” Narkewicz said. “I don’t know if I can classify myself as immune or a super worker. Until I know that or someone can certify that, I have to continue to take all the normal precautions I’m asking residents to take.”