Good evening. I am Roberto Santamaria, your host this evening for Nantucket Pulse programming made possible by Nantucket Cottage Hospital Community Health Initiative. This is a special edition of the Nantucket Pulse program that will air weekly covering the coronavirus impacts for the island and will provide urgent updates as they unfold.
We are recording this episode at 9am on Friday, May 8th. Later in the show, I will welcome the Public Information Officer for Nantucket Cottage Hospital Jason Graziadei and special guest Wendy Hudson. Wendy is currently serving on the governor’s Reopening Advisory Council, helping the commonwealth to release a reopening plan on May 18th. Let’s begin by reviewing the decisions made by the Nantucket Select Board and Board of Health this past week.
Nantucket has not only been an outlier in its ability to crush the spread of COVID-19 here but also in its business closure orders, some of which have been more restrictive than those in most other towns in Massachusetts. The much-debated construction and landscaping moratoriums originally halted all non-emergency projects in these industries. Of the 13 confirmed cases of COVID-19 on the island, 5 of them were in construction workers and other laborers. The first phase of the Back-to-Work plan on April 21st allowed up to 4 construction workers and up to 2 landscape workers on a site at a time and only 1 person per traveling vehicle. It still did not classify these industries as “essential services” as the commonwealth has. So, only certain construction projects were permitted to resume. Furthermore, every construction project had to have received a permit before March 20, 2020, in order to resume.
Now, the Board of Health has crafted a second phase of the Back-to-Work plan that coincides more closely with the commonwealth’s policies regarding landscaping and construction. Named “Order #8”, it will allow all construction projects with up to 6 workers on a site concurrently. This order allows up to 2 people in a truck and offers companies the opportunity to petition for a higher worker limit on a case-by-case basis. Job sites with single workers no longer have to register with a Town agency. Covenant home construction can resume under Order #8, whereas it is currently prohibited. Nantucket Building Commissioner Paul Murphy applauds the end of restrictions to the types of construction projects allowed. He said to the Board of Health, “What’s being allowed in the governor’s order is being interpreted broadly and not narrowly.” He argued that if the Town was supposed to determine which projects were allowed, the commonwealth would have provided detailed instructions. He referred to his contacts with Falmouth and Dartmouth, both of which are permitting all types of construction “from frame to finish”. Order #8 is expected to be released by Monday, May 11th. Order #9 is Phase 2 for landscaping and will be released then too. Translations will be provided in Spanish.
The Select Board has been pondering the economic, social, and medical detriments of the COVID-19 restrictions. There have been anecdotal reports of domestic abuse and substance abuse rising. According to the Select Board, the Nantucket Food Pantry is seeing requests for food assistance at levels 8 times higher than normal. Rental assistance requests are about 4 times the normal amount. These secondary impacts provide compelling information that the Select Board is weighing against the need to flatten the curve of COVID-19’s spread. Along with my department, we are consulting studies, talking to other towns, and considering the advice of academic institutions. The long term plan remains uncertain, especially for the tourist industry. The question of self-quarantine for out-of-state travelers becomes tricky when applied to tourists visiting the island for a few days. To this question, Select Board Chair Dawn Holdgate said…
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Janet Schulte, Director of Culture and Tourism for the Island, has said that a survey to island businesses shows 89% of respondents expect to lose at least 25% of their revenue through June. What is certain is that the Town will not impose rules that are less strict than the commonwealth’s. As a reminder, the Massachusetts Stay-at-Home Advisory expires on May 18th.
The financial impact on the Town’s finances might be at the level of millions of dollars. In order to prepare, Director of Municipal Finance, Brian Turbitt, has prepared several projected Town budgets for 2021 that assume different levels of decreases in income. The largest source of income for the Town by far — property taxes — is not expected to decrease. However, sources at the next highest levels might. For example, Mr. Turbitt is looking at 30%, 40%, 60%, and higher decreases in Motor Vehicle Excise Taxes and Room Excise Taxes. The difference between the highest estimate and the lowest estimate is about $6 million of income. The Town does have some financial cushions. Moody’s has upheld the Town’s AAA credit rating. The Town does have some free cash to use, it can skip contributing to the Other Postemployment Benefits Trust Fund for one year without a credit rating downgrade, and it can save an estimated $400,000 by not filling currently empty positions. The school district also is planning for various levels of decreased funding. They have three budgets. The first assumes a decrease of $300,000. They can mitigate its effects by retiring teachers and replacing them with new, cheaper teachers as well as not filling unnecessary staff vacancies. The next level assumes a $500,000 decrease and entails more significant cuts in staffing. The last level is considered “catastrophic” and assumes a $1 million loss in funding. There would be substantial staff cuts to handle that decrease in funding.
The commonwealth has just relaxed its closure policy for non-essential retailers. Now, up to 3 employees — for businesses 10,000 square feet and smaller — may go to the store to package, ship, and/or deliver orders. All deliveries must be “no-contact”, so a local business could drop off an item to a customer’s porch, mailbox, and so on. All employees must stay 6 feet apart and wear masks. Also, the store must have easily accessible hand sanitizers and handwashing facilities. No sick employee should come to work and everyone should check his/her temperatures. If it is above 100 degrees, that employee should stay home. If your non-essential business does not have a brick-and-mortar store — and all workers can maintain social distancing — then it may continue operations.
The commonwealth has created a Reopening Advisory Board with 17 members from across Massachusetts with two Nantucketers. They are Linda Markham, the president of Cape Air, and Wendy Hudson, co-founder of Cisco Brewers and owner of Nantucket Book Partners. They have discussed cleaning procedures, industry-specific-protocols, social distancing, personal protection equipment, needs from the commonwealth, and many other topics with 23 different industry associations and community coalitions. These organizations represent over 100,000 businesses and over 1.4 million workers in Massachusetts. They include businesses in retail, high-tech, life sciences, travel, tourism, restaurants, banking, and construction. They also include the Black Economic Council and the Latino Chamber of Commerce. Next week, the list will include museums, cultural institutions, gaming businesses, and sports organizations. A common theme from these diverse voices is the need for childcare and transportation infrastructure in order to support the return of their workers. The Advisory Board’s work will help craft the phased reopening plan that comes out on May 18th.
We are happy to be joined by Wendy Hudson, who serves on this board. Wendy has served on commissions for the commonwealth before, including the Economic Development Commission and Rural Policy Advisory Commission. I also want to welcome Jason Graziadei to this discussion. Welcome to both of you.
We will continue to provide you with updates on the Coronavirus and impacts for Nantucket. This week, Nantucket Pulse debuted a wellness segment series hosted by Natalie Ciminero with our local health PROFESSIONALS ON CHANNEL 18 AND NCTV18.ORG. Please share this with friends and family, ITS DESIGNED TO CONNECT OUR VIEWERS WITH LOCAL HEALTH PROFESSIONALS THAT CAN HELP US TAKE CARE OF OURSELVES AND OTHERS AROUND US. It’s important that communications remain in place as events continue to unfold and we all remain connected. It’s crucial to get the facts from your local news sources such as the Inquirer and Mirror, 97.7 ACK FM radio, and NCTV Channel 18. Please stay tuned to see a special message to our essential workers from the community.