Curtatone stresses boldness in addressing COVID-19
‘We must be uniform and acting in sync with each other’
Third in a series about mayors across Massachusetts and how they’re contending with the COVID-19 pandemic. Here are stories on Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse and Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer.
FOR SOMERVILLE MAYOR Joe Curtatone, a key part of governing has been data collection. Before the coronavirus pandemic, his administration regularly touted its analytic efforts on many aspects of daily life. The attention to data helped the city flag the outbreak of coronavirus long before other cities were paying attention—in January.
“We were looking at predictive modeling,” said the eight-term mayor. “It was clear we were going to get hit by this, but there was a question of when.” Even with that intel, Curtatone said he would “never would have anticipated taking on such a crisis of this magnitude.”
Curtatone starts the day at his home in the Ten Hills section of Somerville, reviewing Slack, with dozens of channels of communication on public safety, immigrant affairs, health care, housing, and more. By 9, he’s at his “ghost town” City Hall office, ready for a daily briefing of his executive command staff. Somerville’s emergency response team has been working remotely, and has had a consultant from disaster relief organization ReadyZoneHQ on board for more than six weeks.
Those digital meetings, which Curtatone organized, were designed to get the ball rolling on shutting down schools and public spaces. Somerville was one of the first cities to shut down its schools, town meetings, and governmental operations.
“We weren’t getting a lot of communication from the Commonwealth at the beginning, especially on the closure of schools,’ said Curtatone. “It wasn’t until we started instituting some shelter-in-place rules that the governor put in the shelter-in-place advisory.”
Although Curtatone lauds the attention Baker has put toward the pandemic, he sometimes thinks the governor needs to move faster. “When you have a health crisis like this changing rapidly and exponentially every day, we can’t be incremental in our approach. We must be bold, we must be uniform and acting in sync with each other,” he said.
Curtatone said he saw the need to shut down schools early on. A case of COVID-19 in a parent would pop up in one school, prompting a deep cleaning. The school would stay closed for a couple days, but just as it opened another person would have to be tested with symptoms, starting the process over again. “We were relegated to this whack-a-mole approach,” Curtatone said.
So the mayor convened a meeting with 30 municipalities on March 13, sharing models epidemiological experts had provided to Somerville’s public health officials. As school districts started closing, Curtatone and more than 30 elected leaders sent a letter to Baker the next day asking him to shutter the schools statewide.
Baker responded on March 15 and March 18, with orders shutting them down.
“He made the right call shutting down the schools,” Curtatone said, but he would have liked the governor to also issue a mandated shelter-in-place order. “Our goal is simple, to disrupt transmission from person to person, and that needs to happen on a massive scale.”
The city has been active in trying to reduce the pain of the shutdowns. The economic development division launched a free, multilingual, one-on-one coaching service for businesses affected by COVID-19. Property tax deadlines were extended until June 1, with no late fees for the first month Interest and penalties on water bills were waived for the next 2 ½ months.
Curtatone shut down all non-essential construction, keeping that in place even after Baker urged mayors to lift their local measures. “Sometimes you have to put down your foot & say no,” Curtatone tweeted. “The construction stoppage will continue in Somerville. We tried to keep it open & it’s just not safe. The sites will stay closed to prevent the spread of #COVID19.”
Curtatone joined Baker for a press conference on Saturday at the site of the former Kmart in Assembly Square that has now become a location for Ohio company Battelle to run a facility expected to eventually decontaminate 80,000 masks a day. Curtatone found the location and took control of it using his emergency powers.
“Cleaning tens of thousands and sanitizing tens of thousands of these N95 respirator masks per day will help give the highest level of protection to our health care workers and we need to protect them because they need to care for us as we become ill,” said Curtatone.
In his almost daily YouTube address, streamed through Somerville City TV, Curtatone starts with “Hi, it’s Mayor Joe.” In a recent one, he canceled all public events through the end of June. That included Somerville’s beloved Porchfest, a day where bands play on porches, and thousands of people wander the city sharing food and drink and listening to live music.
“I understand the importance of these events to the social fabric of our community, but we’re trying to do the responsible thing at this time,” he said, adding that not doing so could be “catastrophic.”
Curtatone said there’s one silver lining of the coronavirus epidemic — getting home to have dinner with his wife and four boys (three teenagers and a 12-year-old) and going on “socially distanced” walks together. The mayor is all about social distancing, or what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has described as staying six feet apart or more from others to prevent the spread of coronavirus.“Please, take #SocialDistancing seriously so my messages don’t have to get to this level too,'” wrote Curtatone on Twitter a few weeks ago, referring to a popular video on Twitter showing angry Italian mayors yelling at citizens who weren’t paying heed to social distancing directives. One threatened graduation parties with a flamethrower.
“If it takes Italian mayors yelling at people to stop the spread of #COVID19, I can do that (in Italian even),” Curtatone tweeted. “You don’t want to see my Italian side come out on this!”