Sunday, July 14, 2024

City Manager Louis A. DePasquale, seen in 2018. (Photo: Ceilidh Yurenka)

As city councillors on Monday intensified their pressure to close indoor dining and gyms to reduce the rising tide of Covid-19 cases here, it became clearer why City Manager Louis A. DePasquale has resisted the move for weeks: The city is working with other communities to persuade Gov. Charlie Baker to roll back reopening and, with legislators, provide economic support to the businesses and employees who will be hurt.

On Tuesday, the governor announced a rollback but it mostly matched the restrictions already in place in Cambridge and didn’t close indoor dining or gyms.

The same day as the regular City Council meeting, DePasquale and the leaders of 13 other cities and towns had outlined the requests in a letter published in CommonWealth Magazine, the journal of MassINC, the nonprofit think tank. Among those who signed the letter was Sean Fitzgerald, town manager of Swampscott, where Baker lives. Boston mayor Martin J. Walsh wasn’t on the list; Somerville mayor Joe Curtatone was. Others included the mayors of Newton, Lynn, Holyoke and Framingham and town managers of Chelsea and Arlington.

The letter asks for “targeted, temporary rollbacks of the state’s reopening plan, with a focus on reducing activities that are sources of transmission, especially those that allow for gatherings of people from outside our households.” Those rollbacks “must be coupled with a relief package to support businesses and their employees. States across the country, such as New Mexico, California and Rhode Island, have passed state-level relief packages to help businesses and provide basic necessities to the most vulnerable residents.”

Despite the increasing pressure from councillors, DePasquale didn’t mention the letter but did give hints of its goals. “Cambridge cannot solve this alone,” he said in answer to a pointed question from vice mayor Alanna Mallon. Any shutdown must be regional, and “we do not have the finances to keep small businesses and restaurants afloat if we shut them down,” DePasquale said.

“The state hopefully can help us with that. And that’s what the discussions we’re having right now is, how can we work with the state to come up with plans if we do. We have to do some different things to help these restaurants and small businesses to stay afloat during this time and let their employees collect unemployment,” DePasquale said.

Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui, who works closely with DePasquale, said: “It’s painful that the the state itself is not acting when it should be. And so we really have to. It’s really disappointing.” Asked on Tuesday whether Cambridge is working with surrounding communities to get action from the state and if so, what action, Siddiqui referred the reporter to the CommonWealth Magazine letter.

Expert Advisory Panel 

Monday was the third council meeting when councillors sought a shutdown of indoor dining and gyms. It carried more weight than before because the public schools will end their limited in-person sessions after Wednesday, since the rate of new coronavirus cases has exceeded a preset trigger point. And councillors found out only last week that the Expert Advisory Panel, a group of volunteer scientists that city officials often point to when talking about Covid-19 policies, had voted in favor of ending indoor dining, gyms and similar indoor business activities on Nov. 12. Councillors didn’t know about the vote because the city didn’t post minutes of the panel’s meetings from late October and November until Dec. 1.

Mallon pointed to other suggestions from the experts that the city didn’t adopt, including handing out flyers at testing sites before Thanksgiving to warn residents that “a negative test didn’t necessarily mean that you could go eat with grandma.”

“I am concerned that we have this group of experts that volunteer their time, and have these great suggestions every week. And we’re just not using them to communicate to our restaurants, to our community, to our residents during this really troubling time in the pandemic,” Mallon said.

“How are we really looking at what they’re telling us and implementing it for the health and safety of our residents and the safety of our small businesses?” she asked. DePasquale responded: “I think for the most part, we’ve taken everything they’ve done and tried to put it in place. We’re not always going to do 100 percent.” Chief public health officer Claude Jacob, in answer to a question along the same lines, made it clear that “they are advisory to us and to the commissioner of public health and to the city manager, and we take their recommendations and tie that into our overall response efforts.”

Disagreement among officials

The questions and answers when DePasquale and Jacob gave their weekly Covid-19 reports followed a familiar pattern. As councillors asked for more action by the city amid alarming figures, DePasquale and Jacob said the city’s infection rate was lowest among similar-size communities and Cambridge performed more tests than most. DePasquale suggested that increased testing was producing more cases.

Councillor Quinton Zondervan emphatically disagreed. He continued his criticism of the city’s Covid-19 dashboard that reports cases and other trends and statistics daily. The percentage of positive tests, which is increasing but still below 1 percent as reported by the state and city, is actually above 4 percent on the dashboard itself, Zondervan said, referring to a weekly graph that shows the percentage of individuals who test positive; that’s as opposed to positives among all tests for the virus. If people are getting multiple tests, as occurs in Cambridge when colleges test students and staff as often as three times a week, that can depress the percentage of positive tests.

“Our numbers are not up because we’re doing more testing, they’re up because the virus is spreading rapidly to our community,” Zondervan said. “You can’t eat with a mask on. So if we’re telling people keep your mask on and go to a restaurant, that is a contradiction in terms.”

“If we don’t do all the other things that we possibly can, then we’re going to end up in a situation like California, where we’re gonna have to shut everything down again. So I think we really have to get over this idea that because we have the lowest numbers in the state, that somehow we’re doing great – where we’re not going to be doing a lot more so that we can lead everybody else so that they can bring their numbers down.”

Defending approach

Zondervan tied the lack of action to the schools closing, saying, “It was clear weeks ago that we were on a trajectory that would cause us to have to close the schools. Yet no action has been taken to prevent that. We don’t seem to have a plan to drive down the number so that we can actually reopen our schools anytime soon.”

DePasquale said linking failure in closing businesses to ending in-person learning in schools is “not fair.”

“It’s not an accident that our numbers are where they are. And I do think that’s because of the work of the Cambridge Public Health Department, our advisory committee and the city team. And I just think somehow that I’m not trying to be defensive, but that gets lost on Monday nights. And I have to be the one to remind the public that I’m really proud of the effort the city, my team and the advisory committee has done to make Cambridge one of the safest – if not the safest – city in the state,” DePasquale, in a rare personal comment.

Missing data

Councillor Patty Nolan wanted to know why the city had received three weeks of data from its new program of testing sewage for the virus within city limits but had not made it public. “Now, if the data is not reliable, then tell us that,” she said. “If it is reliable, then what does it show?”

City Engineer Kathy Watkins said the city had received results from sewage samples from three sites but couldn’t add samples from the fourth site until this week. Fewer samples lead to “noisier” data, she said. “And so we’re also trying to understand, you know, what level of specificity we have with the data. So what does that data point tell us?” Watkins said. The public health department is looking for trends in the data, which is the “most valuable” information, she said.

Minutes of the Nov. 19 Expert Advisory Panel meeting indicated concern about huge swings in virus levels and asked whether such data should be made public.

Nolan wasn’t satisfied with the explanation Monday. “I guess these explanations are not really adding up to me to why we still haven’t seen the data when the Expert Advisory Panel has seen it,” she said. “And if, as Miss Watkins just said, well, there’s more noise in the data, then publish the noise – put those error bars really high.”

“We haven’t seen the data. That’s the point. We’ve seen a map and no data, and it’s been around for three weeks. So really, let’s get that as soon as possible,” Nolan said.