CITY/COVID-19 UPDATE Mayor Donna D. Holaday September 1, 2021

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Good afternoon, everyone, and thank you for joining me this afternoon for this latest update. First, I would like to begin with an update on COVID-19.  Currently, 73% of our eligible residents in the community are fully vaccinated and 80% have had one dose. Unfortunately, case numbers are increasing again, and we are now dealing with the Delta variant, which is highly contagious, contributing to the rise in cases everywhere.  Essex County is now considered in the red category of high transmission. Even with Newburyport’s positivity rate below 2%, this past month in August we’ve had 66 cases, compared to a total of 17 in July.  We’re also finding that over half of these cases are considered “breakthrough” which is defined as someone contracting the virus after being vaccinated. This is very concerning, though the good news is that the vaccines significantly lower the risk of infected vaccinated people from getting very sick, and dying. 

According to the CDC, even people with breakthrough cases carry tremendous amounts of virus in their nose and throat, and, according to preliminary reports, can spread the virus to others whether or not they have symptoms. This is why the CDC has recommended that everyone, included vaccinated people wear masks in indoor public settings.  Here in our City, masks have been mandated for our school district for all students and staff K-12.  And all visitors and staff are required to wear masks at City Hall, the Public Library and the Senior Community Center. 

I know we had all anticipated after our high vaccination rates that we would continue moving forward to pre-pandemic activities.  Unfortunately, this Delta mutation has slowed that progress but we again can keep our case numbers down but this requires each of us to continue to be cautious and follow mask mandates where established.   As we move well past eighteen months of living with COVID, much of our lives have been governed by social distancing, staying at home, and forgoing may life events.  The vaccine has made it possible for reunions after long absences of visits with friends and families.

We recently held our Yankee Homecoming festival, and our downtown and waterfront has been thriving this summer with visitors. On the one hand, it’s refreshing to have such normalcy if you will, and yet, on the other it is important to think about crowded situations and the potential of catching and spreading the virus.  We know that masks have long been hailed as an effective way of stopping the spread of COVID-19 and were a mainstay when the virus started infecting large numbers of people when this all began. Wearing masks along with being vaccinated is an overall strategy for combatting this Delta variant.  So, while I have not mandated masks in any other capacities at this point, we will be watching closely and make decisions as we evaluate the numbers. Some of our local businesses and organizations may elect to require masking once again in their highly trafficked areas. They may also choose to exceed all local, state and federal guidelines in requirements. We will support these efforts and I ask all patrons to honor those requirements as businesses and organizations choose actions to prevent the spread within their organizations and in our community. 

We are receiving much information surrounding the COVID-19 relief and the American Rescue Plan Act funding, in short ARPA. The City will be receiving $5.5M dollars to be used over the next two years.  We are still waiting on the federal distribution of billions of dollars in COVID aid that is moving through the state for deployment to the commonwealth. The state legislature is moving forward with hearings on spending plans and Gov. Baker has allocated significant funds in targeted areas including to help businesses with the crushing unempemployment insurance. 

We have formed an ad hoc ARPA committee within the city consisting of myself, senior staff and several of our city councilors. We are currently conducting extensive research on funding programs which will be forthcoming, in addition to our current status of what we know about the stimulus funds. The first extensive grant programs available at the federal level are through the Economic Development Administration with about $3B dollars; we are reviewing webinars, grant programs and applications. We are prioritizing our eligibly and project priorities that will be publicly reviewed as we move forward.  There will be opportunities for economic development, travel, tourism, and outdoor recreation projects, and building back better programs out of the COVID-19 pandemic, amongst other initiatives that we are collaborating on for consideration. We are looking at all avenues for additional funding.

Our City ARPA allocation comes with significant restrictions but one area of focus is on water and sewer infrastructure.  We have been working diligently with consultant teams on assessment of our water supply as well as treatment of our water. As these comprehensive assessments are completed, we are prioritizing needs as this could be a one-time opportunity to upgrade our systems. We also anticipate additional federal infrastructure funding becoming available and want to have “shovel-ready” projects.

One project that our ARPA ad hoc group has supported is the longstanding drainage issues is the Phillips Dr. neighborhood.  I am pleased to announce that this past Monday, the City Council unanimously approved the appropriation of roughly $4.3 million from various sources for the funding of the Phillips Drive neighborhood and drainage improvement project.  The neighborhood which includes Phillips Drive, Drew Street, Sullivan Drive and Ryan Road, has been plagued by flooding and drainage issues since it was built more than 50 years ago. We recognize the $4.3 million dollar cost but also know that there are other funding streams that may drop in time to apply to this project. A loan order will be utilized using money from the water enterprise fund for work related to the water lines, and we are also open to other funding possibilities. Our ARPA Ad hoc group voted to allocate $1M from our $5.5M dollar stimulus funds to this project, and was also voted on by the council. We plan to put the project out to bid in about two months with the goal of starting work on Philips Drive next spring.

We also met this month with Congressman Moulton and discussed the status of the funding of $2.4 M dollars earmarked for the bulkhead project at the waterfront.  We hope the funding will come through, but it takes time for bills to be approved at subcommittee levels and then to the House floor for passage. We also discussed the Merrimack River dredging project status and are working collaboratively to ensure this project stays on track.  We continue to work closely with the US Army Corp of Engineers and anticipate the dredging project to go out to bid shortly.  We hope the dredge will begin by late October in order to protect properties and our infrastructure as hurricane season approaches.  The Merrimack River dredge will result in approximately 220,000 cubic yards of sand being placed on Reservation Terrace to replace/restore the lost primary dune.  The dredge is also critical to improve the current conditions in the harbor and river that pose a navigational hazard for many vessels.

Sand removed by the project will be beneficially reused for beach restoration, which as most of us know has experienced severe coastal erosion over the past decade. In the interim, we have a short-term coir bag and wood pilings project designed and permitted for the greater Reservation Terrace area, but the project is on hold with the dredging project so close.

Senator Elizabeth Warren was also here for a meet and greet with members of our community. We discussed the many challenges in Washington, and the status of the infrastructure bill which Senator Warren anticipates passage in mid-to-late September.

And so, the school year begins. The school committee held their semi-annual retreat on August 12th and engaged in a new approach to updating the five-year strategic plan. This will be an important tool to help guide our school district over the next 5 years. Last week I had the opportunity to welcome new teachers who began work with their mentors. This mentor-mentee program is so helpful to support new teachers in our district.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has implemented a mask mandate for all staff and students at K-12 public schools.  Although we had all hoped we would be in a different place with the virus, we will still be able to gather as a school community, with masks, and I thank all the staff, especially our teachers for once again stepping up in these still very challenging times for the schools. Newburyport schools officially started yesterday.

The school district is also hosting a vaccination clinic at the Nock Middle School for the Pfizer vaccine which will be available for anyone ages 12 and older. This vaccine has full approval from the US Food and Drug Administration for those ages 16 and older and has been authorized for emergency use for those 12 to 15. The Clinics will be held September 9 and September 30.   Please come and get vaccinated if you have yet to do so.

Some upcoming events of interest to share with everyone.  The Vietnam Moving Wall hosted by the Yankee Homecoming Board of Directors will be here from September 2nd through the 6th at Plum Island Airport. Opening ceremonies are tonight at 6 pm.

Also, The Field of Honor, an Exchange Club signature event is now in its 12th year. The annual event pays tribute to veterans, current military personnel, first responders and personal heroes, with a display of more than 300 US flags flying atop 7 ½ foot poles at the Bartlet Mall. A special 20th 9/11 anniversary memorial event will occur on Saturday, September 11th at 8:30.

Lastly, though at this juncture we are not planning on implementing additional mandatory directives surrounding COVID-19, I’m strongly urging residents and visitors to wear masks while in indoor public settings, particularly if crowded.

To repeat, masking by a healthy vaccinated person helps minimize the chance of catching and spreading the Delta variant to others, either vaccinated or unvaccinated, whether they be close family members or friends, or people you encounter in the community. I strongly encourage everyone to take advantage of late summer, early fall and to do as much as possible outdoors, and to wear a mask whenever you are indoors with people outside your family.

To all of you who are eligible and not yet vaccinated, please get the vaccine now.

I hope you can get outside during the sunny, dry parts of this upcoming Labor Day weekend and enjoy yourselves.  Thank you.