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Cambridge City Council Holds Special Meeting for Pandemic Updates

The Cambridge City Council examined the city's response to the coronavirus pandemic Tuesday.
The Cambridge City Council examined the city's response to the coronavirus pandemic Tuesday. By Steve S. Li
By Justin Lee and Taylor C. Peterman, Crimson Staff Writers

The City of Cambridge held a special meeting Tuesday to update residents on its ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Various city officials shared news about Cambridge’s initiatives to mitigate the impact of the pandemic. Some of the policies they highlighted include the extension of outdoor dining for restaurants and the city's plan for reopening schools.

The meeting comes as the city reports 100 confirmed COVID-19 deaths and 1,394 confirmed cases as of Tuesday afternoon. City Manager Louis A. DePasquale relayed those figures at the opening of the council meeting, reminding residents to stay alert.

“Sadly, this week, we marked our city's hundredth death caused by COVID-19. This milestone serves as a solemn reminder that we are still in the midst of a public health crisis,” DePasquale said. “We must remain vigilant in adhering to the practices that will minimize the spread of the virus.”

DePasquale said that, despite the city’s fatalities, Cambridge is performing well. The city has had the lowest case count among Massachusetts’ largest cities in the last 14 days.

“I want to bring home again that all we've put in place, I believe, has had significant impact on COVID,” he said. “The city is slightly over one-tenth of 1 percent positive testing administered to Cambridge residents during my last update.”

Chief Public Health Officer Claude Jacob said “vigorous testing” has been a “key ingredient” to the success of the city at controlling the virus, in addition to support from other city departments, organizations, and the Broad Institute at Harvard and MIT.

“Cambridge is the only non-hot spot city in the Commonwealth providing this free mobile COVID testing for asymptomatic individuals,” he said.

Councilor Marc C. McGovern and Jacob both said Cambridge requires a customized response that may not always be identical to those of neighboring towns or Massachusetts as a whole.

“Making decisions for the state is far more varied than your individual city,” McGovern said. “What I've seen is that a lot of the cities — Cambridge, Somerville, Boston, Framingham — have all taken more strict steps than the governor.”

“Some folks would say, ‘Well, look at what Belmont’s doing.’” he added. “Cambridge is not Belmont.”

Still, Jacob said each city's response plays an important role in mitigating the effects of the virus.

“Massachusetts serves as one of the most decentralized public health states in the nation,” Jacob said. “We are still required on the ground locally to customize and look at the relative risk in our municipality.”

“We are required to have, not ordinances or regulations in conflict — they must align with our state level partners — but we do have the option to have a higher bar, which is what you tend to see based on the decisions we make here,” he added.

The City of Cambridge has sometimes opted for stricter provisions than the Commonwealth. Last week, the Commonwealth issued a series of standards for restaurants to address COVID-19 — among them a limitation of 10 people per dining party.

“Following the governor's announcement last week, the city issued an emergency order that kept the limit of table size at the maximum of six,” Matthew Nelson, assistant city manager for community relations, said.

Ellen Semonoff, assistant city manager for human services, gave updates about school reopenings in the city. The Cambridge Public School District is conducting learning remotely but is offering in-person options for preschool to third grade, students with disabilities, and English language learners.

“Because of the state COVID related regulations, we're operating currently at just below 60 percent of our normal capacity,” she noted. “Many families did choose to defer their slots until January, so despite the reduction in our capacity, we were able to serve all of the families who had registered for preschool for this fall.”

Semonoff said community programs have also allowed students to connect in-person, while following social distancing guidelines.

“A number of parents have shared with our staff that they've used our outdoor sites as places for their children to meet new classmates that they've seen online, but never had a chance to meet,” she said.

Despite Cambridge's relative success in managing COVID-19, city leaders said they are still mourning the residents who passed away during the pandemic.

“COVID-19 has had a terrible toll on many of the Cambridge community. I want to express my heartfelt sorrow to the families who have lost loved ones to this virus,” DePasquale said. “We are working tirelessly to ensure the city is doing everything we can to prevent the loss of life in our city to the COVID-19.”

—Staff writer Taylor C. Peterman can be reached at taylor.peterman@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @taylorcpeterman.

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