Northampton council condemns antisemitic comments, expands outdoor dining

  • Main Street and Northampton City Hall. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Jill Slattery fills flower boxes to prepare for the 2021 “Summer on Strong” outdoor dining experience in Northampton. The City Council on Jan. 21, 2022, cleared the way for expanded outdoor dining in downtown Northampton and Florence Center due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 1/23/2022 5:13:49 PM
Modified: 1/23/2022 5:12:33 PM

NORTHAMPTON — The City Council unanimously praised the Board of Health for its work to address the COVID-19 pandemic and condemned the antisemitic public comments at the board’s Dec. 28 meeting in a dual-purpose resolution that passed on Thursday night.

The council also OK’d an order expanding outdoor dining at the three-hour meeting.

Councilors Jamila Gore, Karen Foster, Alex Jarrett and Rachel Maiore introduced “A resolution condemning antisemitism in our community,” which passed its first reading in a vote of 9-0. The council then suspended the rules to allow for an immediate second reading and the resolution again passed unanimously.

“Antisemitism exacts a heavy toll on our Jewish community members, and like all forms of hate, seeks to create a larger environment of fear, division, intimidation and oppression for all residents,” the resolution reads. “The City Council … calls on all local public officials, residents, and visitors to stand in solidarity with our Jewish family, friends, neighbors, and community members and condemn and denounce antisemitism in any form.”

At the Dec. 28 Board of Health meeting, nearly 80 people participated in public comment, almost all of them against the idea of implementing a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for everyone 5 and older who enters an indoor business. One person criticized the board as “unelected, rich, Jewish doctors” while another asked members if they planned to put unvaccinated people into “camps”; a third person used swastikas as their Zoom profile picture.

The board never made a motion to vote on a vaccine mandate, and Public Health Director Merridith O’Leary announced last week that members “will not be discussing vaccine requirements at future meetings unless data suggests that such a requirement would be necessary or beneficial.”

Councilor Maiore, who represents Ward 7, said the resolution affirms that antisemitism is not welcome in Northampton and that there can be “no neutral response” to hate speech or hate crimes.

“We’re with you, and we will walk beside you as much as possible, no matter what, when these kinds of arrows are thrown at anyone in our community,” Maiore said. “It’s critical that we model being active allies and bystanders. Silence simply is not an option.”

But Maiore lamented that the resolution would not do “what we long for it to do: to end the targeting of the Jewish community (and) to spare our Jewish family, friends and neighbors the pain and the fear” of continued discrimination. Antisemitism, she said, furthers an “outrageous world history” of genocide and scapegoating.

“It doesn’t leave you, believe me. When you get hurt by what’s happened here at the Board of Health, it stays here forever,” Ward 6 Councilor Marianne LaBarge said, pointing a finger over her heart. She recalled an incident in 2007 when a fellow councilor made disparaging remarks about her Greek heritage on the radio.

“I know how these people are feeling, my Jewish friends who have been attacked,” LaBarge said. “It stays there.”

In May 2020, the City Council passed “A resolution denouncing anti-Asian, anti-Asian American and xenophobic discrimination” in response to a reported rise in hate crimes nationwide and the use of slurs like “kung flu” to describe COVID-19.

Expanded outdoor dining

In other business Thursday, councilors also passed an order to allow expanded outdoor dining in the city until November as a way to battle the economic side effects of the pandemic.

The order grants Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra the power to create and manage “Covid-19 Restaurant Response Zones,” areas in Northampton and Florence that are zoned for business where outdoor dining would be allowed. Any city ordinance that conflicts with outdoor seating would be temporarily suspended.

“The city council finds that again encouraging, promoting and facilitating the reopening of businesses and restaurants by temporarily allowing certain activities … will greatly facilitate economic recovery,” the order reads. “Parking spaces in the zones may be re-designated as outdoor table service areas, at the Mayor’s discretion,” and areas where parking currently is not allowed could become parking spaces.

Sciarra said that planning is underway for another iteration of the “Summer on Strong” outdoor dining experience that the city created last year. Traffic was cut off from Main Street to Strong Avenue and restaurants filled the street with tables.

Amy Cahillane, executive director of Downtown Northampton Association, said the outdoor dining option “was one of the first things that made people feel comfortable coming to downtown” after the onset of the pandemic.

“For many of our restaurants, outdoor dining was the difference between staying open or closing, between layoffs or retaining staff, between barely scraping by and paying monthly expenses,” Cahillane said. “We’re still very much deep in the COVID weeds.”

Unless the council extends the timeframe, the order will lapse on Nov. 15 and any suspended ordinance will return to its full force.

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