Pittsfield, Massachusetts is contending with a spike in coronavirus spread in the weeks following private social gatherings at homes and in restaurants in late October. With its public school buildings shuttered until December 4th and a suspension of in-person dining at city eateries in place, public health officials have voiced concerned about what impact Thanksgiving could have on efforts to halt the surge in COVID-19 cases.
Mayor Linda Tyer spoke with WAMC on Tuesday about the ongoing fight against COVID, as well as a controversial downtown Blue Lives Matter display.
TYER: We continue to see high rates of positivity. Yesterday, we had 18 cases, and today we have six. So we have not seen sort of that slowing of spread that we would like to see. So we continue to carefully monitor the cases and make decisions that we think are going to benefit the community just in terms of slowing spread.
WAMC: A lot of the emphasis in this process seems to be on residents observing these guidelines in their private lives, in their private spaces. It seems like that's an area where the biggest gaps in the plan seem to exist, given that the social gatherings have not stopped. What's the next step for Pittsfield to enforce rules around social gatherings given that that's where the attention has been drawn to for the continued spread?
Well, you know, we have to strike a balance here, right between respecting people's privacy, but also doing everything we can to protect people's health. And so we continue to emphasize how important it is to avoid indoor gatherings, what the limits ought to be, what, you know, all the safety precautions that we've been talking about for months and months. So, you know, we continue to struggle, quite frankly, with how do we enforce the public health regulations on people in their private homes. We really have to rely on each other. There's some personal responsibility attached to the regulations. And so we really have to rely on each other. In order for us to be able to slow this down.
Much of the recent surge has been attributed to Halloween gatherings last month. With Thanksgiving around the corner, knowing that another surge is very possible should gatherings occur again for the holiday, how is Pittsfield preparing?
Well, you know, we have our COVID-19 Task Force. We are in a solid place in terms of being able to respond quickly, and make decisions as quickly as we can as we observe the outcomes of the Thanksgiving holiday. But I really have to emphasize, Josh, to your listeners that Halloween ought to be a lesson learned that it is not safe for us to gather together in large groups inside our homes. And so I really have to respectfully request that everyone is here to the guidance and to the lessons we've learned since Halloween.
It seems like with this strategy, the city is in a reactive position, rather than a proactive position. Do you see any route forward where the city could work harder to prevent these things from happening before they happen?
I don't agree with that assessment at all. In fact, we act acted really aggressively when we saw this spike in cases by limiting, restricting indoor dining at our restaurants and sending our schools, all of our schools, back to remote learning even though the state recommendation is monitor your caseload for three reporting periods. We made a decision to act quickly and aggressively and decisively to try to protect as many people as possible. So I wouldn't say that we are reactive, I would say we are proactive in making decisions that don't necessarily align- Actually, don't align with the guidance coming from the state.
Some statewide leaders, like the head of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, for some time were quite vocal about being opposed to return to in person learning, for example. So there were some folks out there prior to the government, the governor's guidance saying that these were not good ideas to reopen aspects of public spaces like schools. In retrospect, do you feel like that those warnings were unheeded?
No, I do not. Because at least in our case, in the city of Pittsfield, the spread has not been student to student or student to staff or staff to student. That's not where the spread occurred. In fact, I believe that we ought to be doing everything in our power to keep our kids in school, which is why I am so disappointed by the situation that we're in today, because it forced us to go backwards, go back to remote learning where all of our kids are now back at home. It's not good for our kids. Our kids ought to be in school. And we really need this community to appreciate how important it is to keep our schools open and to do everything we can to ensure that our schools stay open.
What would it take for you to continue the order to keep the schools closed on December 4th over the next week or two?
We will certainly be monitoring the positivity rates in the city. We will work closely with school administration, the school community and with DESE to assess whether or not it's safe to return to in person learning in our schools. But as you mentioned earlier, this all depends on what people do over the Thanksgiving holiday.
Governor Baker weighed in on the steps Pittsfield’s taken to limit the spread of the virus with rolling back aspects of the reopening plan. What was it like to hear Governor Baker weigh in on your decision making?
Well, you know, I understand that, you know, the governor has, and the lieutenant governor and his team, have all worked really hard to protect our commonwealth. And I also understand that we know here what is happening on the ground from day to day. And I, I feel like our COVID task force our public health officials, Berkshire Medical Center, we are working as a team. And we are making decisions that we believe are right for our community.
The city talked about using analysis of its own sewer system to track the spread of the disease. Any updates on that front? Did that come to fruition?
We have been doing that, and we did see increases in the presence of COVID in our sewage. But we had, we had, we had used all of our test kits that we had purchased. So we are in the process now of purchasing more test kits so we can continue that level of monitoring as well.
Pivoting for a moment, we spoke earlier this month about the presence of a Blue Lives Matter flag in Park Square. I understand that the display that's been put up as part of a private organization’s presentation for Veterans Day. But that's a very divisive symbol and some of the community have been upset to see it in such a prominent position in Pittsfield. At this point, as remains up for the remainder of the month as per the permit, what are your thoughts on that being at the center of downtown Pittsfield right now?
Well, I think when we talked about it, before, I made it clear that this was a Kiwanis-sponsored display, and that the purpose of the blue line and the red line flag was to honor fallen police officers and fallen firefighters. So in my conversations with the community activists, I have encouraged them to reach out to Kiwanis as I have done to explain why this is creating- Why this is upsetting to people in the community. So that is where that stands.
When we had first talked about it, you actually said you didn't know that it was up at the time.
I- Yes, when we first spoke about it, I asked you if you knew if it was up and you said you weren't aware of that. So at this point, do you see it as an equitable display to the Black Lives Matters events that have also taken place in Park Square?
Well, you know, I think that, you know, when we host First Amendment events in Park Square, we have been open to everyone's right of free speech, including organizations like Black Lives Matter. So, you know, we're trying to find the right balance by allowing everyone to their right of expression. This is Kiwanis Club “Park of Honor” event, and they have chosen to use those two flags to honor fallen firefighters and fallen police officers. And so as we continue to educate everyone in our community about the meaning of symbols, we are hoping that the Kiwanis Club will think differently about this when they do their event next year.
The following is a clip from Mayor Tyer’s interview with WAMC on November 3rd, 2020.
WAMC: In Park Square right now, there's a Blue Lives Matter flag waving. Is that a city-approved display of support of Blue Lives Matter?
TYER: That is news to me. So- So, I'm not aware of this flag. And are you saying that it is situated, like, in a stand in Park Square?
Yes. There's a lot of American flags set up, now there's additionally a Blue Lives Matter flag and a Red Lives Matter flag and other additional flags put out.
Have been added.
Interesting. Not aware of this. I will certainly see what I can find out about it.