Northampton Survival Center closed over COVID-19 concerns


  • Northampton Survival Center Program Director Sarah Pease gives a tour to visitors in June 2018.  GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING 

Staff Writer
Published: 3/28/2020 5:23:38 PM

NORTHAMPTON — The Northampton Survival Center and the Hilltown Pantry in Goshen have closed through at least April 12 as some paid staff went into self-quarantine due to COVID-19 concerns.

Heidi Nortonsmith, executive director of the Survival Center, said Saturday that four staff members went into self-quarantine either because they felt sick or wanted to protect themselves and others from COVID-19 — though she stressed none are confirmed to have the disease.

“I do not know if they have COVID; they don’t know if they have COVID. No one can be tested,” Nortonsmith said. “We’re being told that the cautious and responsible thing to do is to not be sick and in contact with other people.”

Nortonsmith said the organization is closing for two weeks as a means to gather more information, saying that the center could be closed for even longer. 

In total, the Northampton Survival Center has a small paid staff of seven people as well as one part-time employee at their Goshen branch and a volunteer network of hundreds of community members, Nortonsmith said. The center gives out food to low-income people in the area typically every weekday. 

On any given weekday, there are around 70 volunteers and seven employees coming in and out of the building, according to Nortonsmith. 

The center’s volume has doubled in the past three weeks as 1,200 to 1,500 families had come to the center, Nortonsmith said. She said the center was, at times, giving up to two months worth of food away to single families coming through. Operations had been moved outside to keep people safe, she said.

In an effort to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 through social distancing measures, the center has narrowed its daily volunteers to just six. And with only three staff members not in self-quarantine, Nortonsmith said, operating the center was no longer feasible.

“There’s only so much you can do with a paid staff that is down to three people,” Nortonsmith said. “It’s very much a volunteer-enabled organization but it’s not a volunteer-run organization.”

The Northampton Survival Center had enough groceries, Nortonsmith said, saying that the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, where the center gets its food, has stayed open.

Even with the closure, Nortonsmith said the organization was working “behind the scenes” with partners for alternative means of food distribution. She said the organization was working with the city, Grow Food Northampton, the Council on Aging in the Hilltowns and others to help meet need.

Nortonsmith said she feels optimism in the fact that the community is partnering with the center “in all sorts of ways that we wouldn’t have even thought of a few days ago.”

The Amherst Survival Center, an organization separate from Northampton’s, is still open on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., according to its website. There, volunteers are giving out pre-packaged to-go meals and pre-packaged boxes of food from its pantry.

Lev Ben-Ezra, executive director of the Amherst Survival Center, said her organization had also reduced staff and volunteers in order to properly social distance. 

According to Ben-Ezra, the Amherst Survival Center has seen a four-fold increase in the number of new households applying for food from the pantry. There also has been an increase of people reaching out for more food after already receiving some, Ben-Ezra said.

“We’re seeing a lot of need,” Ben-Ezra said. “And with unemployment at an all-time high, we are expecting that need to grow.”

Michael Connors can be reached at 
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