North Adams City Councilor Says Reopening Policies Unfair To Small Businesses | WAMC

North Adams City Councilor Says Reopening Policies Unfair To Small Businesses

May 22, 2020

Keith Bona is a long-serving member of the North Adams, Massachusetts city council – as well as the owner of Berkshire Emporium & Antiques in the Northern Berkshire city’s downtown He tells WAMC that efforts to govern the community of around 13,000 have been hamstrung by the COVID-19 pandemic and the budgetary concerns it raises. Bona says he disagrees with State Representative and former Mayor John Barrett about how the region needs to reshape its economy moving forward.

BONA: He did bring up a point about, you know, getting high speed internet. And then that that makes sense. I mean, that's something we've needed. And of course, during the middle of everything happening now, that would have been beneficial to have set up long before now. But you know, he also talked about how it's going to be devastating in North County, and it is. It's going to be devastating. We're going to be hard hit, and I think it would have been equally as devastating as it was 10, 20, 30 years ago. You know, we pretty much have the same amount of industry, when it comes to diverse industry here in the past 10 years, as we've had in the past 50 years. You know, we have a number of small manufacturers, we have art and culture. And that's what we had in the 27 years that he served. So for him to say that we put all our eggs in our basket in the past 10 years, we actually have the same amount of diverse industry here in the past 10 years as we've had in the past 40.

WAMC: So I'll turn that question to you. Given that Northern Berkshire County, like the rest of the country, is going to face a continuing economic downturn, what do you think the best move is for that region to survive these troubling times?

You know, it's gonna be challenging. And I think what even makes it more challenging is we still don't know what limitations the future is bringing us. We don't know, as these doors open, you know, what are going to be the restrictions. A lot of times we get, you know, boost of financial benefits from events and larger cultural activities, and those right now are either being terminated, deleted, you know, we don't know when they're going to return. So the rest of this year is going to be extremely challenging. It's going to be in survival mode, as is, you know, for retail stores, like one that I own, you know, 25% of our annual budget, annual gross income just disappeared. So, you know, we’ve got to try to make that up and at least to cover our expenses. I don't have those answers right now. I think it's really to put ourselves in survival mode.

I know as the city council, we have our finance committees, we're looking at our budget. I mean, the state hasn't even told us yet what they're going to be giving us, other than saying it's not going to be good. You know, they're going to be making cuts. We just don't know what. So we could be talking our budget being $1 million deficit, it could be $4 million, you know, and well, again, as a city, we can't have a deficit. So it's going to come down to cuts or tax increases that make up what the state is cutting, but we don't have those answers yet.

Your store is located in downtown North Adams which has been struggling for some time, but due to its proximity to MASS MoCA, which brings in a huge number of visitors to the region, it's gotten a big boost from that presence. With MASS MoCA closed for the season, how are things as both a civic leader and a business owner looking in downtown North Adams?

Well, I mean, you're seeing more some of the smaller businesses try to come up with creative ways, with more online marketing and selling but it's such a small piece compared to what we were doing. And it's also not what some retailers want to do. That's not what their intent was, to be a warehouse and shipping department. They want to see customers and talk with customers. They want to have a space where people can come in and browse. So as is right now, with everything being shut down, and then we've got two more two or three more weeks before they say we might be able to do curbside pickup. And I think curbside pickup is ridiculous. It's – to limit us to that, it's again, not going to help us survive. I have 20 rooms. You can see maybe part of one from outside. You can't see the rest. And for me to put all these items online just isn't feasible and economical to do. So, you know, that's just me, every store is a little bit different. So to make one set of rules for everybody just doesn't make sense.

North Adams city council meets next week to discuss the issues of the community. I'm interested – what is on the docket this week, and will anything that the city is working on directly address these concerns that you have as a business owner?

So our meetings have been very short. I mean, our last meeting literally consisted of the mayor giving a COVID report of what the city's doing and procedures. And, at this point, again, without knowing what the state's going to do financially, it's really hard for us to work on a budget, but the agendas have been pretty minimal because we haven't been able to have the committees or staff or get the information as we would have three, four months ago. So pretty, pretty minimal agendas.

Something you've drawn attention to as a leader in North Adams has been about access to testing in Massachusetts. You’ve identified a disparity between Berkshire County and say, Cape Cod. I wanted to hear you talk a bit more about what you found in your own research in testing availability in the Commonwealth.

We have one official site that's in Pittsfield. And you know, there are people who said they can get tested through their doctors, and they can make an appointment. But when you look at the state map, what the state put out for COVID testing sites, Berkshire County shows one and actually you can go almost into the next county quite a ways too before you see anymore. And then once you hit about central Mass going east, you see a lot of testing sites. Now around Boston, you would expect that, but when you look at Cape Cod – and Cape Cod has a population of just over 200,000. Berkshire County has a population of 130,000. So Cape Cod’s are one and a half times larger than us, but they have 13 times more testing sites. So then you think, okay, maybe it's because they're doing much worse with the virus. And that's not the case, you look at the number of the cases, it's pretty much equivalent to the per capita rate that Berkshire County has. So I have to ask myself: Well, if the state doesn't feel we have the need to have more testing sites out here, which I believe we do. For older people or people that have vehicles that are in North County, they don't want to be traveling an hour down to Pittsfield to get a test if they're just feeling a little under the weather. However, you know, they should be getting tested because these are people we don't want wandering around if they think they just have a cold and maybe they have something else. And again, we know that this virus, you don't have to show any symptoms to actually have it be positive and you can still spread it. You know, there should be definitely more convenient testing for essential workers that are around patients, around a lot of people every day, and the Cape has set that up. Even this week, they are still adding test sites. They just added a drive thru. They have test sites at pharmacies, they have test sites at high schools, they have test sites in hospitals. And we have one that literally is an hour away from much of Berkshire County. So if the state feels okay, they don't need more test sites out in the Berkshires because they must be healthy, we're not concerned about their cases, then why do we have to follow all the other same strict rules that a metropolitan Boston does? Doesn't make sense.