Hinds: Losing Summer Season A “Body Blow” To Western Mass. | WAMC

Hinds: Losing Summer Season A “Body Blow” To Western Mass.

Apr 28, 2020

Massachusetts State Senator Adam Hinds represents Berkshire, Hampshire, Franklin and Hampden counties. The Democrat is concerned about the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on his district, whose economy is heavily reliant on summer tourism. Hinds spoke with WAMC.

Interestingly, while, Berkshire County, you know, had a few unique features early on, we’re the first place with inpatient COVID care taking place, we had first community transmission, etc. We also maybe hit our peak a little earlier than the eastern part of the state. And so there have been some good trends that we've seen in terms of getting ahead of the curve and flattening the curve and really seeing some of that progress throughout April. And so that's the good news. We definitely have some areas of concern and in that category, I would put congregate housing, congregate care. It's a real vulnerability when you look at the data points and where we've seen the spikes and clusters of cases. So that's an area where we're working with our health system to make sure that we can stay ahead of it.

Specifically, long-term care facilities have taken an absolute beating during this pandemic. I know the Baker administration is making more moves to increase funding there. But from your perspective, what can the legislature do to better reinforce those communities moving forward?

Yeah, you've nailed it. We've tried to really make sure some of our frontline health care workers have hazard pay. And it's not just state employees, but also all agencies around the region. And so we'll be hearing news on that this week. And I think the other piece that you're talking about is making sure that we have the testing and the PPE available as we're starting to move towards the, you know, when we might open the valve of our social and economic restriction. Just as an example, we're not where we need to be when it comes to protective equipment, PPE. And yet, let's just say that in the summer we start to see some relief on the social restrictions. I would imagine there'll be another spike in demand for PPE as everyone is, you know, employers and others are trying to incorporate this PPE into their personal lives. So it suddenly goes beyond the health care system. And so there are these steps that we're going to make sure are in place, as we're moving forward in the coming months for sure.

Looking into the summer season, it's a big time of the year for the Berkshire economy and one that's likely not going to see a lot of tourists given the pandemic. From your vantage point, how do you balance the risk of losing a crucial economic moment for the community, given the public health needs required to keep us all safe?

It's hard to overstate how critical tourism, arts, and culture are to Berkshire County. It's our third largest industry and to have this body blow here this year, is going to have significant ripple effects not only for the institutions that are either closing or reducing their season, but all of the hotels and restaurants and Airbnb hosts and on and on. So it's easily one of the biggest challenges we're going to face going into the summer and the implications that it has for local revenue as well for our towns and municipalities. And so as we're thinking through the next round of federal support that we're lobbying for, in that category, we'll certainly be not only expanding for employers, but also assistant suits the state into the towns, because for example, we're going to see a massive reduction in occupancy, taxes and the like, and so and meals are also impacted. So you can kind of see how this really has a widespread impact not only for our region, but also in the companies directly impacted but also the towns and individuals. So we're talking through what we need from the next federal stimulus package and support package. At the very top of my list is making sure that the state is receiving flexible funds. Because we are likely going to be at that point that you're identifying and let's say that summer when we're trying to slowly open the economy, and at the same time, our local towns and cities and in the state itself will be probably contracting under the weight of reduced revenue and continued expenses related to COVID. And so if we're really serious about opening up the economy, we need to make sure that our states and towns are getting the money they need from the federal government.

A lot of communities in your constituency are seeing their budgets completely transformed by the COVID-19 pandemic. How are you talking to municipalities right now about economically planning out the next year or two, as those budgets come together?

Yeah, this is literally we are talking on a daily basis because we're going into budget seasons for our cities and towns and in the state as well. And so, we've been at the state level, planning for probably in the nature of a $5 billion shortfall from previous anticipated revenue. And we look to fill that through federal assistance through accessing the rainy day fund and then of course, any changes to the budget itself. All that then comes down to the state, the city and town level. As one example, the state treasurer said that lottery sales, which in Massachusetts are the biggest source of unrestricted local aid, they're down 30%. And so as we're going into the budget season for our towns, we're essentially saying a 1/12 budget approach may not be the worst as a placeholder until we have a better sense of where we're headed as a state. And so that's probably what a lot of towns and cities will do and then we'll kind of take it day by day.

As far as your personal beloved project, the Berkshire Flyer, obviously the pandemic is not a great time to talk about tourism, but certainly as conversations about infrastructure go, where do you see that that talk happening in these wild times about transportation in 2020?

Yeah. So you're right to point out that the Berkshire Flyer for 2020 launch date is one of the casualties of COVID. And so we decided to put that off a year. And it's still a critical piece to our infrastructure. And I would say that there's an interesting confluence of needs in investment in transportation. And I would say, on the menu of potential federal assistance to the states and to various regions, that transportation investments and an infrastructure investment package would be a critical piece to ensuring that we have sustained investment in our local towns and throughout the states. And so I would I would hope that during the next year or so we would see increased investments from the federal government into our transportation networks and our systems, and certainly connecting Manhattan to the Berkshires but also the Berkshires to Boston are at the top of my list in that regard.

At this point, where do you see the most crucial conversations happening in western Massachusetts about the pandemic?

You know, I think there's this point where we want to make sure that we're still on top of any spread. And so to me, it means if we're starting to turn the corner, we need some key pieces in place. That means testing and in contact tracing, and those types of pieces that will allow us to make an informed decision around when we would start to find our way out of this. It's hard to overemphasize though that we do have parts of the states that are still in the middle of the surge and so it's too early yet to be talking about that, but we're going to be approaching the previously determined May 4 deadline where the governor put the non-essential business and other restrictive movements in place. It's hard to see that not being extended. The question is just for how long and so we're still at a point where we need to be focused on keeping everyone safe and reducing the spread by saying it's in place.