Tyer rallies Pittsfield to ‘crush the curve’
Uses website, weekly address to keep residents informed
PITTSFIELD MAYOR Linda Tyer said the first coronavirus death in her community on March 22 hit her hard.
“That really felt like a moment when this COVID-19 disease had a very real and heartbreaking impact on our city,” she said. “I felt deeply, deeply sad for what our families are going through.”
There have been two more deaths in Pittsfield since then and a total of 10 in all of Berkshire County, three of them on Sunday. The number is high for a county of roughly 127,000 people, so high that the New York Times in a recent article ranked the county ninth in the country in terms of deaths per 1,000 people. The Times article conflated Pittsfield and Berkshire County, causing some confusion.
“I did get a lot of panicked people responding to it, but I had to explain to them that they took the county numbers and not just Pittsfield,” Tyer said. “That doesn’t diminish the fact that the county is experiencing COVID-19 at a higher rate than other counties in the Commonwealth.” (Only Franklin County has had more deaths per 1,000 people.)
“We are watching this very, very closely,” she said. “If there is a point when we feel that more rigorous interventions are needed, we will act swiftly to implement them.”
The 55-year-old Tyer has spent most of her adult life in public service, first working for the Lenox Public Schools and then taking the job of city clerk in Pittsfield before winning a post on the city council in 2009 and the mayor’s job in 2016. She was reelected last year in a close race and began her second term in January.
Pittsfield is a former mill town and once a company town under General Electric. Tyer says the community was just starting to redefine itself and bounce back from the 2008 recession when COVID-19 came along and shut everything down. Tyer is worried about the city’s future, but she is more worried now about the immediate safety of its residents.
“I would say that a majority of the people in our city are taking the stay-at-home and social-distancing recommendations very seriously,” she said. “However, there are people who are skeptics who continue to think that this is not serious and that worries me a great deal. My job has been to be in regular communication and to share facts and to be on as many platforms as possible, to reassure people that, yes, this is serious and your city officials are doing everything they can to protect you.”
Getting the facts out isn’t easy in Pittsfield. The city is part of the Albany television market, so residents hear more about what’s going on in New York than they do about Massachusetts. Baker’s near-daily press conferences can only be live-streamed, so Tyer has tried to fill in the gaps. [For more on this, check at the end of the story.] The city has a COVID-19 dashboard on its website, detailing the spread of the virus as well as information on school grab-and-go meals, daycare facilities, and what’s open and closed.
Tyer tapes a weekly address at the local community access television station, which is posted on Facebook and the city’s website on Fridays. The address is heavy on local news – six members of the police department testing positive for COVID-19, how the city is helping the homeless, and the closure of the skate park and removal of basketball hoops at playgrounds to enforce social distancing. Tyer also tries to rally the city’s residents.
“The predictions from public health officials are unnerving,” she said on Friday. “We are living through a frightening time and we do not have to accept these predictions as our fate. If we all stay home, keep our distance, and wash our hands, we can crush the curve. So let’s do this.”
While her public focus is on stopping the spread of COVID-19, she is already thinking about ways to restart the local economy and finance a municipal government seeing its tax revenues steadily decline. She has not shut down local construction projects; even so, the city’s revenue from building permits is down 50 percent.
She or a member of her inner circle watch every Baker press conference and she gives him high marks for his handling of the pandemic so far. “He is doing the best he can to make decisions around the public health element of this as well as the impact to the Massachusetts economy. I think he’s been decisive. He has provided municipal governments with a number of relief valves,” she said. “I know that there’s a lot of people who want him to declare a shelter in place and I understand the difficulty in making that decision. We could make that decision locally. Where we are today, we don’t feel like we have to impose those restrictions. We are well aware that that day may come, but that’s a pretty big leap for people. So we’ve been saying, pleading, and begging people to stay home and to keep social distancing and wash their hands.”
Tyer said she thought Baker’s list of essential businesses that can remain open was quite broad. She said Pittsfield’s Board of Health has fielded a lot of calls from employees who felt their work was not essential yet they were being ordered by their employers to report to work. She also was surprised to see package stores allowed to remain open while recreational marijuana stores were ordered to close. “I don’t quite see the distinction,” she said. “I don’t know for sure what the rationale was.” (Baker has expressed concern about people traveling from other states to buy pot in Massachusetts.)
In her Friday address, Tyer repeated the governor’s prediction that the surge in cases will start this week and continue through at least April 17. In an interview, Tyer said she thinks the COVID-19 crisis is going to go on longer than we would prefer.“There are certain people in the United States who feel that Americans are invincible, but this is showing that we are going to suffer the same experience that we’ve seen other countries go through and there’s a lot to learn from those that went before us,” she said. “I think we are still not at our peak in the United States or even here in the city of Pittsfield or Massachusetts. We’re probably going to be looking at probably May before we hit our peak. I’m not a scientist or an epidemiologist or a statistician, but that’s where my gut instinct is based on all the information that I get every single day.”
CLARIFICATION: Bob Heck of Pittsfield Community Television says he is airing Governor Baker’s press conferences live on the City Link channel as well as PCT’s Roku and Apple TV app, “PCTV Select.” The press conferences are also being aired live on community radio station 89.7 WTBR-FM, he says.