Saturday, April 20, 2024

City councillor Tim Toomey prepares to use his “charter right” Monday on orders about coronavirus.

As the city reported 30 new cases of Covid-19 Thursday, the largest daily jump since the spring, officials also announced that the program to test Cambridge sewage for the virus has begun. The wastewater analysis could give health officials advance knowledge of outbreaks – earlier than testing results – and might point to individual areas where infections are occurring.

The sewage testing program calls for weekly samples to be collected at three locations that cover wastewater from the entire city. The city’s announcement didn’t say when sampling began or is planned to begin, or if the city has already received results from Biobot, the company doing the analysis. Biobot is also analyzing sewage at the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority’s Deer Island treatment plant, which receives wastewater from much of Eastern Massachusetts.

According to the announcement, the city will disclose the results to the public “in the coming weeks.” Cambridge Public Health Department spokeswoman Susan Feinberg didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking more specifics.

Just an hour earlier Toomey charter righted an order to keep “Riverbend Park” – that is, parts of Memorial Drive near Harvard Square that the state Department of Conservation and Recreation closes to weekend traffic – extended past Nov. 29 so people could keep getting socially distanced exercise.

Seeking to extend

Councillors started asking in March for the City Manager’s Office to look at opening Memorial Drive as wide-open exercise space for people who had begun to chafe under the restrictions of the coronavirus lockdown. City Manager Louis A. DePasquale resisted even while allowing business to open – and even delaying the opening of Riverbend Park past when it usually opens for the year. The DCR finally said June 26 that it was opening the park for pedestrian and cyclist use on Saturdays and Sundays through the summer recreational season.

‘Acts of Violence’ (2018)

Now, with coronavirus resurging in a densely packed city, councillor Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler introduced his order to extend past Nov. 29. Riverbend “has been a sorely needed source of a joy for a lot of folks during the pandemic,” he said. “Keeping this open past then would be even more important as other activities become harder.”

Councillor Patty Nolan introduced an amendment calling for DePasquale to confer with the state and advocate for extending Riverbend Park the entire length of Memorial Drive. Though councillors – including Toomey – opposed it for a lack of input from Riverside and East Cambridge residents who would be affected by the change, there was not enough votes to keep the amendment from passing.

Concerns about masks


But the order inflamed concerns around mask wearing, or the lack of it.

“Until a vaccine can be brought to market, there’s no way to stop [coronavirus] other than to be vigilant and diligent about wearing masks. And it is not happening,” councillor E. Denise Simmons said. “I have very real and very strong concerns about the proliferation of this virus by encouraging people to go out but not having the ability to enforce that they wear masks.” (Police can issue $300 fines to people who do not wear masks, but said they so far have merely used the threat of a fine to educate.)

Then it was Toomey’s turn.

“I do walk there consistently and am troubled by the amount of young people and some older people who do not wear masks,” he said. “There’s no enforcement, and if you try to say something to someone as you’re walking and some young person is running by you without a mask, it’s quite unsettling.”

The lack of seriousness around masks and enforcement may be “why we see the increase in the number of people infected,” Toomey said.

What the science says

There is no scientific evidence of significant outdoors transmission of the virus, councillor Quinton Zondervan noted. The city’s call for masks to be worn outdoors at all times is about training people to be consistent in wearing them indoors, he said, reminding Toomey that Cambridge just went through a summer with a low rate of Covid-19 cases despite masks not being required outdoors unless you were with 6 feet of other people.

“The science tells us indoor transmission is the problem,” Zondervan said.

Toomey, though, connected the possible expansion of Riverbend Park without public input and more transmission of the disease, calling it “not appropriate and [it] could cause more unsettling increases in the cases that we’re seeing now.”

Soon after, he used his charter right for the first time Monday.

After Toomey’s second charter right, which effectively ended the meeting, Zondervan called it in a tweet a “stunning, unfortunate ending to tonight’s meeting – one of my colleagues blamed not wearing masks outdoors for the spike before charter righting the discussion around closing bars and gyms.”

“At this rate, the schools will have to close before bars and gyms do,” he said.