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City Manager Talks Cambridge Emergency Shelter, Discourages Street Closures in Council Meeting

Cambridge City Hall sits on Massachusetts Avenue.
Cambridge City Hall sits on Massachusetts Avenue. By Steve S. Li
By Maria G. Gonzalez, Crimson Staff Writer

Cambridge City Manager Louis A. DePasquale discussed developments regarding the City’s emergency COVID-19 shelter and discouraged city councilors from closing several streets to vehicular traffic during Monday’s city council meeting.

The City Manager’s office announced Cambridge would open the War Memorial Recreation Center and Field House to shelter homeless people during the COVID-19 pandemic in a statement released last Wednesday. The War Memorial, which is part of the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School campus, will also serve as a temporary shelter for those who are unable to properly isolate or self-quarantine due to their housing arrangements.

According to the City Manager’s statement last week, the War Memorial is the “only existing site that meets both the physical space and activation time requirements needed” to effectively practice social distancing.

Guidance provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Massachusetts State Government encourages people to stay at least six feet apart and avoid congregating in large groups — recommendations that are particularly challenging to follow in homeless shelters with limited space.

DePasquale informed city councilors that the city has created a webpage and a twenty-four hour hotline for the War Memorial shelter. He also thanked Harvard and MIT for their contributions toward the effort.

Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui and DePasquale announced matching donations of $250,000 from each university on Monday afternoon. The funds will help cover costs associated with the creation of the shelter.

Cambridge Police Commissioner Branville G. Bard Jr. also spoke about additional measures the Cambridge Police Department is taking to prepare for the opening of the emergency shelter. Bard said he is instituting “neighborhood security twenty-four hours a day” around the shelter from a “dedicated group of officers” who serve in the family and social justice unit of the department.

"They're used to dealing with vulnerable populations and the same issues that may arise from the clientele that the temporary shelter,” he said.

Claude-Alix Jacobs, Chief Public Health Officer at Cambridge Health Alliance, said the shelter is “not yet ready for opening day” but will open by next week when the city has “all the protocols in place.”

Jacobs also said the city’s efforts to address the COVID-19 crisis coincide with National Public Health Week — an annual observance designed to highlight issues that are important to improving the public’s health.

“We typically have a display here in City Hall, we have signs on the front lawn, and we talk about this,” he said. “It's not a festive endeavor — by any stretch of the imagination — but just know that you have a strong team in place here to make sure that all those who live, learn, play, and pray here in the City are safe and protected.”

The City Council also discussed two policy orders which requested various Cambridge departments to determine the feasibility of closing Memorial Drive and other neighborhood streets to non-essential traffic. According to the policy orders, the closure of several streets would create more room for residents to go outside while maintaining social distancing practices.

Jacobs, DePasquale, and Bard discouraged city councilors from following through with the measures.

“This runs counter to what we have been recommending and proposing for weeks now,” Jacobs said. “Our sense is — that given that you close the streets — you run the risk of now having, in our opinion, de facto block parties,” he added.

During the meeting, Councilor Patricia M. Nolan ’80, who proposed the measure to potentially close Memorial Drive, said that she was “stunned” by this response.

“I would totally understand if we were telling people stay inside, this is a lockdown, but a shelter in place is a very different modality” Nolan said.

“It seems to me it's exactly now that it's essential we provide enough space for all residents of Cambridge to safely get outside for at least a few minutes a day,” she added.

Councilor E. Denise Simmons said that she was more inclined to support Jacobs, DePasquale, and Bard.

“As difficult an inconvenience it may seem, it's better for us to be inconvenienced for a moment than devastated for a lifetime,” Simmons said.

More than twenty residents offered their opinions of the measures during the public comments section of the meeting.

After more than an hour of debate, city councilors voted 5-4 to “table” the policy orders and discuss street closures at a later date. Councilor Dennis J. Carlone, Councilor Marc C. McGovern, Councilor Timothy J. Toomey Jr., Simmons, and Siddiqui voted in favor of tabling the amendment. Vice Mayor Alanna M. Mallon, Councilor Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler, Councilor Quinton Y. Zondervan, and Nolan voted against tabling the amendment.

—Staff Writer Maria G. Gonzalez can be reached at maria.gonzalez@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @mariaagrace1.

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