Virus notes: Boston construction grinds to halt
State House closing to visitors; schools closing, meals continuing
IN THE LATEST chapter in the near-total shutdown of the region, Mayor Marty Walsh announced that all construction projects in Boston would be halted as part of the all-out effort to prevent spread of the coronavirus among workers.
“Effective tomorrow, we are suspending all regular activity on construction sites in the city of Boston,” Walsh said in a briefing outside City Hall on Monday afternoon. “To prevent spreading the virus, we want to make sure those workers are safe.”
Dormant construction cranes along a city skyline where they have stood as a prominent sign of Boston’s booming economy will become perhaps the most visible sign of how the coronavirus pandemic has ground many aspects of the economy — and daily life — to a halt.
Walsh said the order would take effect on Tuesday and that all construction sites must be secured by Monday, March 23. He said “skeletal” crews could be maintained at construction sites to maintain their safety and security. He said the order would not apply to emergency construction work, including road repairs and work done by utilities.
Walsh also announced that all Boston Public Library branches would be closed as of 6 pm today.
State House closes to public visitors
The People’s House will be closed to the people.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Karen Spilka announced Monday at a press conference that as of the close of business, the State House will close to the public. All tours will be cancelled.
Legislators, constitutional officers, staff, employees and invited guests will still be allowed to come in. So for example, a lawmaker will be able to invite someone into the building for a meeting.
“To keep the health and wellness of employees and staff here, we feel that is the best thing,” Spilka said, noting that there would be no point in disinfecting the building every evening “only to have lots of people and tourists come to the State House during the day, and re-infect a lot of it.”
The State House is generally filled with tourists, lobbyists and interest groups. But even before the order, virtually all public events were cancelled, and many offices were working remotely or with skeletal staffs.
Gov. Charlie Baker on Monday announced the formation of a $10 million emergency loan fund to help small businesses impacted by COVID-19.
Massachusetts has created similar funds for other disasters, including the 2018 Merrimack Valley gas explosions and the 2015 snowstorms.
The fund will offer up to $75,000 per business, with no payments due for six months. The money will then be paid back, both principle and interest, over 30 months, with no penalty for prepayment. To be eligible, a company must have 50 or fewer full or part-time employees and must be able to document a negative impact from coronavirus. The Massachusetts Growth Capital Corporation, a quasi-public small business financing organization, will administer the fund.
AA meetings shifting online
One consequence of the statewide shutdown is the fraying of an important lifeline for people in recovery from alcoholism and other addictions. Because nearly all 12 Step meetings are held in public facilities being closed down, such as churches, meeting halls, and courthouses, many recovering alcoholics and addicts are left without a place to go for the support they get from the hundreds of daily meetings around Massachusetts. With an estimated 21 million people in the United States suffering from some form of addiction or substance abuse, the closure of the meeting spaces could have a serious effect on recovery.
A loose word-of-mouth network has popped up and some members of 12 Step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous have begun hour-long meetings online on various videoconferencing platforms such as Zoom, Skype, and Facebook. The meetings aren’t generally publicized and information gets passed by word of mouth.
Most meetings follow the same format as the regular meetings except there is no donation collection or coffee. One of the nagging issues is how to get the word to newcomers to the programs who may not have connections or knowledge of how to access the online meetings.
The website for the eastern Massachusetts district of Alcoholics Anonymous has some information as well as a phone number for inquiries about online meetings. Narcotics Anonymous, which has been at the vanguard of using technology for connecting addicts for several years, has a list of online meetings as well as phone meetings. Debtors Anonymous and Overeaters Anonymous are also working to ensure their members have someone to talk with or listen to, either through online meetings, telephone or podcasts.
Education department sets up school lunch reimbursement plans
As all schools in Massachusetts shutter, there is concern about how students from lower-income families will be able to get free and reduced-price lunch.
A message was sent on Saturday from the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) to district nutrition directors and business managers informing them that the US Department of Agriculture approved a waiver request from the state allowing schools where at least 50 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced priced meals to continue providing meals to students during school closure.
The meals will be packaged for pick-up at designated locations. On Friday, DESE sent a guidance out to school districts and existing Summer Food Service program sponsors detailing how to be approved to serve meals during a school closure. They included information on how to get USDA reimbursement in the future.
Schools that have less than 50 percent of students receiving those meals can choose to provide meals at their own discretion, but DESE can’t approve the meals for USDA reimbursement. In that case, non-federal funds would have to be used to cover the costs of the meas.
“These schools should focus on households of enrolled free and reduced-price students, ensure proper meal counting, and adherence to the federal meal pattern is maintained in the event we receive a new USDA guidance allowing federal reimbursement,” said the letter.
In Boston more than 70 percent of public school students rely on meals when they get to school. “The Boston Public Schools is committed to meeting the needs of the community we serve, and that is especially true during times of uncertainty. With all hands on deck we are addressing this emergency head on,” Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said in a statement.
Boston’s schools will close Tuesday for at least three weeks to stem the spread of COVID-19. In the meantime, students will be able to pick up meals at 47 locations throughout the city. The city has an online map showing those locations and when they will be open.
The “grab and go” meals are being provided in partnership with Project Bread, YMCA of Greater Boston, Boston Centers for Youth and Families, and other community organization.
Families are advised to follow social distancing — at least six feet between yourself and others — when picking up meals and that anyone who is sick remain at home.
eBay ads jump on virus bandwagon
It’s perhaps not surprising that people are trying to make a buck off the COVID-19 crisis by selling toilet paper at $50 a roll and hand sanitizer at $150 a bottle.
But some vendors on eBay are offering more unusual virus-related items – T-shirts saying “Keep Calm and Wash Your Hands” for $22 and key chains with a wash-your-hands reminder for a mere $10.
There’s also a useless “Virus Oral Fluid Test Kit” from Australia for $85. “One drop of the patient’s blood is applied to an antibody reagent strip which will react within 10 minutes with highly accurate results,” the ad claims. “If results return positive, call emergency services immediately.”Then there’s this eBay ad from Wisconsin. “Stay safe and quarantined from COVID-19! Rent my master bedroom for only $6,999,” it reads. “You may shut yourself in the room and never come out until the crisis is over! Two windows to escape in case of fire or other emergency. WiFi is available. Netflix and Amazon Prime service available. …Seller will deliver food and water through the master bedroom door with minimal contact by handling all food and water with gloves and a dust mask.”