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Easthampton Mayor LaChapelle Represents Western Mass. On Baker's Reopening Advisory Board

Nicole LaChapelle Facebook

A 17-member panel of business, health care, and municipal leaders has started working on recommendations for reopening the economy in Massachusetts.

Governor Charlie Baker announced the new Reopening Advisory Board this week after he extended until May 18th a stay-at-home advisory and the closure of non-essential businesses. One of the people serving on the panel is Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle. She spoke with WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief Paul Tuthill.

I was asked by the governor and the lieutenant governor to serve.

And did they say why they wanted you on the board?

You know, Western Mass representation. And also just the work in that's going on in Easthampton around, you know, it's a nice, healthy mix of arts and culture, but also mixed-use commercial development. The road improvements, the type of grants that I've, I've prioritized over, you know, the last three years.

So they wanted to they wanted a particular perspective from Western Massachusetts? A particular perspective from a, from a small city?

Exactly. I mean, the main street here, I mean, it's kind of, main street in Easthampton, you know, is not main street of- obviously in Boston or Newton or Springfield. And on top of it, we're in Western Mass and we're a, we're a smaller city, and I think it's well established that the smaller cities in Western Mass, especially in the Pioneer Valley, they pack an economic punch. And right now, our economic punch is now in reverse, and we've got small businesses and employees families, deeply, deeply affected.

Yeah. How has it impacted Easthampton? What, you've been talking to your business owners, your business community, obviously. Everything is, everything is, everything is shut down because a lot of what you mentioned, is your kind of main street businesses, those are all considered non-essential at this point.

Yeah. It's been tough. I mean, obviously, I mean, I guess that's like a cliché at this point, but their decision, you know, the decision to, you know, how do you maintain your business your, your stock. How long does this last? Has been extremely stressful to the small business owners that I've spoken to. Some have already closed, and we are also seeing folks who are reinventing themselves. And, you know, working with there's a certain sense of camar- camaraderie in parts of our business districts of, you know, saying "Hey, go apply for PPP, and it's reopening. And, you know, this is the ElDL loan, and-". And kind of working amongst each other, as best as possible to support each other because we all you know, we're all going to survive this we're all going to get through this together regardless of what the result is at the end. So better to join efforts, than silo in a time where you know, you should do nothing but silo physically.

Let's talk about the work of this, of this new advisory board. You've been meeting, you've met for the first time Tuesday and you're meeting, what daily? And doing so remotely? What's, what's the schedule like?

Yes, so there- you know, it's, it's blocks of one hour meetings around specific industries, but also just, you know, getting ourselves acquainted with the data. I mean, this is going to be a phased approach and it's very much fueled by data and, and public trust and safety. So we're digesting- you know, it's a firehose, what's going on and, and looking I mean- the, the dance here. Someone just described this work to me as a dance, and I think it's really appropriate. as you're looking at top-line indicators of how to reopen an economy. And you have to pay attention to main street in Easthampton, in Pittsfield, Worcester, Boston, Medfield. Weymouth, Falmouth, with really due consideration, or the state as a whole doesn't come back. I mean that the idea is that everyone, you know, the best we can, we hold each other up to stand through this. And when we start coming out of it that we're all standing, you know, together and we're strengthening the parts of the state that that needs the support.

I know the governor and the lieutenant governor, and now you just said, that this is going to be a, this is going to be a "phased reopening", but I'm, I'm not sure a lot of people understand. I don't understand, what exactly is a phased reopening? What does that what does that mean?

Yeah, I mean, the governor, lieutenant governor, used those descriptors when they announced on Tuesday, and that's kind of the framework we've been given as we are starting to sift through data. And what you know, I guess that's part of the dance. What does a phased approach look like? And, you know, looking at other states, I mean, I'm really thrilled to be working on this advisory board with the governor and lieutenant governor, I, you know, it truly is- It's an honor to huge responsibility. And we're defining I mean, the one thing I really appreciate about how they structured this, is we're getting everything we possibly can on the table, and then defining what is the what is a phased approach for Massachusetts? And, and to define it from that. So there's, I mean, there's no playbook. Right? There's no playbook for this and, and to, you know, we certainly had to reopen or rebuild an economy but we've never had to reopen an economy we intentionally shut down.

The governor seemed to reject the idea of a of opening up one region of the state before the other, even though it appears that Western Massachusetts has is past the surge now, while clearly Eastern, and now perhaps, Central Massachusetts, in the Worcester area is still very much in the surge. But do you, do you think there could still be a, you know, some regional differences here are we general approach to reopening?

It's hard to say, but this is what I will say. And this is, you know- maybe off topic from this particular interview. But but something I mean, very strongly and it truly is one of the reasons why I said," Yes, I agree to do this". I was gonna say yes, in my life, but I mean, this is like, I jumped at it.

You can't say, you can't say no, right?

No, you can't. And I don't want to say no, I mean, I, you know, again, I'm not sleeping much, but I wasn't anyway, so let's put it as a deuce. Um, no, but I, I was one of the mayors who would not and chose not to, with my Board of Health, release numbers in our city of cases and deaths and whatnot. And, and the biggest reason why I did that was because there is no one data point, or two data points, or three data points that paint the impact, and then dangerousness of this virus. And so I think when I hear that from the governor, I feel he understands that as well. And certainly, you know, we're taking that into account on the advisory board. So, to say that Western Mass is past the surge, I think people need to pause and understand what that means. And the governor has been really clear, that the surge is "number of new cases", right? Well, look at Springfield, it was on the front page of the New York Times. So the cases really belie the number of cases alive, and number of deaths.


I mean, there's, you know. I mean, there's something- look at Chelsea. So and I think the, anyone, you know, accusing the governor of not taking a hard line or doing something like this, you know, good for him, for staying the course because, I mean, he's seeing data that you know, I can't even imagine. But if there is not 1 2 3 4 pieces of data or data points, that, that give us a true picture. And, and we don't even know. I mean, there's so many questions about the virus itself. So, a regional approach. I, you know, I- way above, you know, my pay grade, and way above the data not not only that I have access to but honestly that I would understand. You know, I'm representing small cities, I'm looking at, you know, the dashboard all the time, and looking at other states and seeing, you know, what's happening there and, and every time I think I understand something, I see something like the number of Springfield death, deaths and just horrified.

Are you, as a member of this board, are you being, are you being lobbied now are you hearing from, from businesses and industry groups saying, you know, "open us up first", are you getting that kind of that kind of feedback?

No. I mean, the folks, you know, a lot of people say "congratulations". And a lot of folks said "Oh my gosh, you know, you're stepping into, you know, a whirlwind." And, um, but, you know- and certainly the biggest, the biggest special interest groups that I've been pushed by, have been parents who have begged for schools to open as soon as possible so they don't have to work from home with their kids.

But that's not gonna happen.

Right. And then from their kids who are saying, "It's okay", if they don't go back to school in the fall. So, I mean, that's mostly, you know, and I see that when I go grocery shopping, you know, every two weeks, so, but, you know, that's tongue in cheek. I mean, I but that's-  no, it's been, you know. We've talked to a couple of press outlets, but no, no big push. And, you know, it's a matter of this is what the work is, we're defining it. We're thinking you know, really carefully about how to do something historically, that's never been done, what the repercussions are, you know? You're thinking in the moment, and then you're trying to think ahead to this fall, right? And, and pass that to 2022, and think what is a measured, cautious approach.

You expect that this board is going to stay- how long do you expect that you're going to be at this work? I mean, I know the lieutenant governor said that they'll you'll, you'll have initial recommendations around May 18. But, you expect that your work is going to continue, as you said into the summer and into the fall as you you know, plot the, plot the long game here.

Um, well, I think my work as mayor, it's certainly- but I, as the group, I'm not sure. I mean, right now, it's, you know, we have the 18th, you know, our charge- at the 18th to start putting together, you know, some outcomes, you know, possible outcomes, possible, you know, tools for the governor and lieutenant governor to, you know, to put the to put the way forward, to solidify it but right now there's so much work in front of us. I'm just focusing on literally getting ready for the next meetings, and organizing my notes and, and listening to my fellow Western Massers.

What, what, what message do you have for people about, about this whole thing? Obviously, you know, polls show, people support what's, what's happening as far as the, you know, as far as the restrictions they they recognize the need for this. Yeah, we haven't seen these protests against it that have happened in some other states. But people are getting antsy. I mean, you know what, and I know it right. I mean, that people want this to people, and people want some, they want some answer as to when will things begin to get back to normal? So what's, what's your message?

You know, very non-sexy words: cautious, patience, compassion. You know, antsy now, how we're feeling internally, is it dictating the course of the virus? The virus is its own thing. You know, there's nature, there's life and then and then there's this virus, there's data. And I would ask for patience and, you know, and, and caution. You know, the sunny days, I've never been worried about sunny days more in my life. When I see the sun come out in the morning and folks are packing up to get out of the house and go on my bike path. You know, I'm, you know- the back of my house and I cringe, I literally cringe. I don't go on my bike path- I shouldn't say mine, It's ours. The Manhan Rail Trail. I, if I don't, my dog and I don't get out there by 9:30 in the morning, you know, 10 o'clock, I don't go on it. It's the weather's is nice, because it's going to be too crowded and it won't be safe. And that's, that's the other- it's safe. I mean, it's easy to, you know, while this work is being done about the opening, there is not a switch to be flipped. There is not. There are cautious, gradated, gradated moves and policies and practices that will need to be put into place and refined, maybe even rolled back and put back into place, as we navigate this. I mean, we're not dealing with a known entity in this virus. And we might do something that starts another unintended, unintended consequence that will revise not only this plan, but just, you know, how we thought we were going to live post-pandemic and I would just, you know, plead for patience and compassion and, and be very cautious. Be very, very cautious. We, um- you know, it's not sexy when our answer is wearing a mask and washing your hands, right? Staying home, staying physically distant, apart. Socially distant. It's really hard. It's hard on the economy, it's hard on, you know, our, our, our wellness, both physical and mental and behavioral. But, but we need to take a breath and know truly that if we're not following this we're putting ourselves at risk and our families at risk and people that we will never meet, but might infect or could infect us.

The record-setting tenure of Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno. The 2011 tornado and its recovery that remade the largest city in Western Massachusetts. The fallout from the deadly COVID outbreak at the Holyoke Soldiers Home. Those are just a few of the thousands and thousands of stories WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief Paul Tuthill has covered for WAMC in his nearly 17 years with the station.
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