State flags Amherst, Sunderland, Holyoke as high risk for COVID-19 

  • Signs near Amherst Town Hall remind people that masks are required. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 10/8/2020 7:41:03 PM

Amherst, Holyoke and Sunderland are all being labeled higher risk for COVID-19 infections after each saw a significant rise in their average daily case rate over the past two weeks.

On Wednesday, the communities joined Springfield as the only ones in western Massachusetts exceeding eight daily cases per 100,000 residents, according to data reported by the state’s Department of Public Health.

“This rate of infection and designation as a red community has significant implications and far-reaching consequences,” Amherst Town Manager Paul Bockelman said in a statement. “We, as a community — all members of our community — must redouble our efforts to fight the spread.”

With the University of Massachusetts reporting 133 individuals testing positive this semester, most of these since an outbreak that began at an off-campus party Sept. 18, Amherst saw a two-week case count of 95, working out to an average of 16.76 cases daily per 100,000 residents.

Holyoke’s two-week case count was 62, with an average daily incidence rate per 100,000 residents of 10.75, while Sunderland’s two-week case count was just 11, though that more than doubled the 10 infections tallied since the pandemic began in March, and resulted in an average of 20.67 cases a day per 100,000 residents.

But there is uncertainty about the specific impacts of being placed into the red zone by the state.

One possible impact is delaying the second step of Phase 3 of Gov. Charlie Baker’s reopening plan, where only cities and towns in the green, gray and yellow categories for three straight weeks can move to the next phase.

The latest reopening phase, which started Monday, allows indoor and outdoor recreation businesses to open, such as rollerskating rinks and laser tag, outdoor gatherings in public and at event venues to have up to 100 people, and indoor and outdoor performance venues to have up to 50% capacity or 250 people.

But Bockelman said most of these don’t exist in Amherst, and another aspect of the reopening, allowing bar seating at restaurants and up to 10 patrons at a table, has not been requested by most restaurants in town.

Sunderland Town Administrator Geoff Kravitz said similar conditions for businesses exist there. “The practical impact on the business community is not particularly significant,” Kravitz said.

More important, Bockelman said, is the stigma attached to being coded red.

“It is not a very nuanced designation and can do a disservice to a community that is ahead of every other community in its testing and monitoring,” Bockelman said.

Similar to Amherst, Kravitz said Sunderland residents should recognize the infections that caused the town to become a red zone are all affiliated with UMass.

“It’s isolated to university students, who have entirely cooperated with contact tracing and following up on that,” Kravitz said.

Business leaders describe the move to red as adding to the worries for merchants, especially if they won’t be able to participate in the next steps and phases of reopening.

Gabrielle Gould, executive director of the Amherst Business Improvement District, wrote in an email that the designation adds to the stress for business people and a possible loss of consumer confidence.

“While many have done a remarkable job pivoting to online and takeout, the threat of a second wave and the upcoming election has many on tenterhooks waiting to see,” Gould said.

Restaurants, Gould added, have already been seeing a dip in business as colder weather approaches, and outdoor dining becomes less appealing.

“We are still working on heaters to extend (outdoor dining) and our focus is turning to supporting small local businesses with takeout, shop local,” Gould said.

Andréa Marion, executive director of the Greater Holyoke Chamber of Commerce, said COVID-19’s continued negative financial impact comes along with the ongoing spread of illness.

“Because we are finding ourselves once again in a red zone, I think it’s up to us as a community to adhere to the guidelines provided to lower the number of cases in our city,” Marion said. “If we take the necessary precautions now, it could help us exponentially in the long run.”

Marion added that business owners who continued to operate have felt an emotional toll due to the temporary closures, and letting go of longtime employees.

Effects on schools

Public schools don’t appear to have been affected by being put into the red category.

Allison McDonald, chairwoman of the Amherst and Amherst-Pelham Regional, said the elementary and secondary schools had already continued remote instruction because of significantly lower thresholds in an agreement between the school district and teachers union.

“Ultimately, the red designation for Amherst this week is not impacting the ARPS schools because our own guidelines triggered a change to our plans late last week,” McDonald said.

But Superintendent Michael Morris said that some neighboring school districts are canceling high school athletic events due to Amherst’s red designation. Called off so far are Thursday’s girls soccer game and volleyball match, and Friday’s boys soccer game.

Kravitz said both Sunderland Elementary and Frontier Regional schools are doing hybrid instruction models, and because there is no evidence of spread to children or families, it doesn’t put that in jeopardy.

Amherst’s acting Public Health Director Jennifer Brown re-emphasized the need to follow COVID-19 prevention guidance, mask-wearing, social distancing, and hand washing.

“Remember that an infected individual can spread COVID-19 before they have symptoms, which is why social distancing and maintaining a minimum of 6 feet from others is critical,” Brown said.

Bockelman said he will continue his request from the state to establish a community testing site to serve Hampshire and Franklin counties, noting the closest for the general public is at the Holyoke Community College campus. He is also asking for epidemiological support for reviewing and analyzing data being collected.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.
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