By SCOTT JACKSON
City Councillors on Friday set aside $500,000 for Quincy’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, including funds to purchase personal protective equipment for first responders, acquire a tent for a mobile testing facility if needed, and overtime pay for the city’s public nurses and other personnel.
Councillors voted 9-0 in favor of the appropriation during an hour-long special meeting held by videoconference, the first time the body has met in such a fashion. The money will come from the city’s snow and ice removal account, which had roughly $1 million remaining in it prior to the vote.
Chris Walker, Mayor Thomas Koch’s chief of staff, said the $500,000 could be the first of several appropriations the council would be asked to approve related to the pandemic. Walker said the administration would spare no expense in its response to COVID-19, the disease by the coronavirus, which has infected more than 234,000 people worldwide and killed nearly 10,000.
“Our concern is the safety and well-being of the people of the city. We will find the money,” he said. “We are prepared to weather any storm and it is going to be quite a storm.”
Walker identified three areas where the $500,000 could be spent.
The city plans to buy personal protective equipment for first responders, including masks, gloves, and reusable suits that can be disinfected. The equipment would primarily be for police officers, Walker said, because firefighters’ gear provides them with protection. Some of the equipment will also be set aside for Department of Public Works employees who respond to emergencies, like sewer backups, in individuals’ residences.
The city has worked with Brewster Ambulance to source the personal protective equipment, Walker said, and was prepared to purchase it once the appropriation was approved.
The $500,000 would also include funds to purchase a tent for a mobility testing facility that could be located in the city. While the city would be setting aside funding for the tent, Walker said Koch would not have the final decision on whether such a facility would open in Quincy.
“This isn’t happening tomorrow. There are already some in the area,” Walker said. “When the call comes, we will be ready to go.”
South Shore Health, the operator of South Shore Hospital, has already opened a mobile testing area at Union Point in Weymouth. If a similar facility were to open Quincy, Walker said it would likely be on the grounds of Quincy Medical Center, but that is subject to change.
He also noted there would certain criteria to determine who was eligible for testing at the site.
“There will not be under any circumstances a testing free for all,” Walker said.
The third area the city is looking to use the $500,000 for is overtime for the nurses of the Health Department and other personnel, he said.
The $500,000 could be spent on other items related to the city’s response, depending how the epidemic unfolds.
During the meeting, Walker also provided councillors with an update on Quincy Medical Center. The hospital closed in 2014 though the emergency department site remains open.
Walker said Koch has reached out to FoxRock Properties – the owner of the hospital and the surrounding site – to discuss the status of the building. FoxRock, Walker said, was “absolutely willing,” to allow it to be used for any purpose deemed necessary.
A substantial capital investment, however, would be needed before the hospital could be reopened. That could require the assistance of the Army Corps of Engineers.
“It is not a functioning facility,” Walker said. “That being said, it does not mean it is impossible.”
Eastern Nazarene College in Wollaston has also offered its dorm rooms if necessary, Walker said.
While the city could make available those sites or others, Walker noted the city would not be able to provide the equipment or personnel necessary to operate them.
“We would happy to build a field hospital, but we don’t have the ventilators, the doctors or the nurses,” he said.
Several of the councillors who spoke at the meeting applauded the work Koch and other city officials, including Health Commissioner Ruth Jones, have done in recent weeks amid the outbreak.
“It is important to show even in times of crisis we have a functioning government,” said Ward 4 Councillor Brian Palmucci.
“The mayor has really set an even-keeled tone at a time when people’s anxiety is high,” Ward 3 Councillor Ian Cain added.
Councillor Anne Mahoney said it is important residents continue to follow city and state orders in relation to the outbreak.
“They do feel draconian at times, but it is important to follow the rules,” she said.
As part of those rules, the state has banned gatherings of more than 25 people through April 6. Walker said the Quincy Police Department has been asked to enforce that rule since it came into effect.
Friday’s council meeting was the second city meeting held remotely this week. On Thursday, the Affordable Housing Trust Fund Committee set aside $1 million for rental assistance for hospitality workers impacted by the outbreak.
Walker said the details of that program are being worked out. The Quincy Chamber of Commerce and Quincy Community Action Programs will both be involved in administrating the program.
Gov. Charlie Baker has suspended the state’s open meeting law in response to the pandemic, allowing local boards to meet remotely. Council President Nina Liang said her colleagues would likely meet again via teleconference at their next regularly scheduled meeting on April 6.
Liang also thanked her colleagues for their participation in the meeting.
“Everything is stopped, but this is the time we all can’t stop,” she said.