Holyoke Mayor Morse declares state of emergency over COVID-19, public schools closed 

  • Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse speaks during a press conference outside of his office at City Hall on Friday, March 13.  STAFF PHOTO/MICHAEL CONNORS

Staff Writer
Published: 3/13/2020 7:55:56 PM

HOLYOKE — Mayor Alex Morse announced Friday afternoon that he had declared a state of emergency in the city over the global COVID-19 pandemic — the same day the announcement came that the city’s public schools will close for at least two weeks.

During a press conference outside the mayor’s office at City Hall, Morse said that he officially made his declaration Thursday, and noted both the federal and state governments have also made similar declarations this week.

Stephen Zrike, the receiver-superintendent of the city’s public schools, told reporters that the school closure begins Monday and that a tentative plan is to reopen on March 30. Zrike said all school-related activities and events are canceled, but school-age students can pick up breakfast and lunch at five schools across the city every day from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. during the closure.

“Our priority right now is slowing down the spread of the coronavirus in our community as much as possible,” Morse said, noting the state of emergency allows the city to be eligible for expenses to be reimbursed.

Morse said the city’s second priority is to inform the public about the disruption of several city services. City Hall and its annex will be closed to all public walk-ins, though it will remain open for city staff; those seeking assistance at City Hall can call or email and an appointment may be made if the matter is urgent, Morse said. The city is evaluating a work from home policy for some city employees, he said, adding employees will not have to use accrued time off if they or their children are sick.

The Holyoke Senior Center, the Holyoke Public Library and Wistariahurst Museum are all closed, though the senior center will still provide lunch by either pickup or drop-off, and social services will visit seniors if necessary.

Holyoke Gas & Electric will remain open, but Morse encouraged citizens to use online transactions. The Holyoke Housing Authority is curtailing public visits to administrative offices and encouraging tenants to contact them for appointments. City parks, along with sports and other events, are canceled until further notice, Morse said, and Community Field will not be staffed as usual and bathrooms will be closed. Permits will not be issued for future events, he said. 

Morse said he has requested that all city boards and commissions suspend public meetings until further notice unless necessary. City Council President Todd McGee has suspended council meetings for the next 30 days, according to Morse.

Students looking to continue picking up breakfast and lunch will be able to do so at the front doors of the Maurice A. Donahue Elementary School, Holyoke High School North, Dr. Marcella R. Kelly Elementary School, H.B. Lawrence Elementary School and Lt. Clayre P. Sullivan Elementary School each day from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m, Zrike said.

Parents looking to pick up medication from school nurses can do so Monday and, with the closure, the projected last day of school will be June 23. The schools are looking at possibilities for staff to work from home, Zrike said.

There will also be optional work for students online and eventually at food distribution locations, Zrike said. Later in the press conference Friday, Morse said officials will work over the weekend “exploring the potential of certain sites being open in the city for children of those parents that frankly just can’t afford time out of work or don’t have the privilege that some people have to work from home.”

Sean Gonsalves, the director of the city’s board of health, said many of these efforts help to “flatten the curve” of coronavirus infections, reducing the stress put on local medical facilities such as Holyoke Medical Center by delaying cases over a longer period of time. He also said canceling school minimizes potential exposure to the virus.

“We cannot allow our city resources to be overwhelmed by a sudden demand of services,” Gonsalves said.

“Waiting for the virus to take hold in Holyoke before we decide to act would not be a suitable or safe choice,” he said.

Morse said the city was looking at reallocating Community Development Block Grant funds into food shares and food pantries. 

“Some folks may purport that many people who are making decisions are overreacting,” Morse said. “But if we’re overreacting, we’re doing exactly what we need to do because we need to do our part ... everything that we do locally affects people all across western Mass. and across the state.”

Also speaking at the press conference was Holyoke Community College President Christina Royal, who announced earlier Friday that the school will suspended in-person classes for one week beginning March 23 — the week after spring break.

Michael Connors can be reached at mconnors@gazettenet.com. 


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