When the Manchester-Essex school district announced it was closing schools on Friday, March 13 as a safety precaution in the face of a potential spread of COVID-19. That day, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health had reported 96 cases of infection in the state. One was in Essex County.
Manchester Board of Health had already been reaching out to local groups planning events. After a briefing with state health officials, they warned that events with attendees over age 60 and those with “settings” not optimal for “social distancing” (read: high participant density or those that buffet-style food service) should be considered for postponement. This was a recommendation, they said. Not mandatory. Based on that, the Legion decided to cancel its annual St. Patrick’s Day Dinner (buffet). The Manchester Historical Museum decided to change its 375th town celebration lecture, “Manchester 101” from an event to an online experience on social media (density).
The following Monday, responding to predictions of the virus’ escalation and its impact on vulnerable populations (60+ and those with health preconditions) residents were facing a new reality. Eat-in service at bars and restaurants has been banned across the state, along with all gatherings of more than 25 people through April 6. Schools were closed until April 7. Sports too, with no games through May.
As of March 21, COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts have hit 525, with 41 in Essex County. Town officials in Manchester and Essex have moved on a swift series of changes. Manchester-by-the-Sea and Essex Town Halls closed their buildings to the public until further notice, with essential staff working on town business but no walk ins and phone calls and pick-ups/drop offs from residents allowed. Public libraries in both towns have followed suit. In Essex, the town moved all regular town board meeting to “virtual attendance” for the public; Manchester is exploring the same strategy.
At Manchester’s Board of Selectmen’s meeting on Monday, there were discussions of what to do in the face of these challenges. Town Administrator Greg Federspiel reported that Manchester’s Police Department, Fire/EMS Department, and vital Public Works staff will continue to operate as normal. They have adjusted dispatch protocols to screen incoming calls for possible exposure to COVID-19. The Manchester Fire Station will remain closed to the public at this time to protect our first responders. Trash and the MBTS Transfer Station are operating on a regular schedule.
Also, the MBTS Annual Town Meeting scheduled for April 6 is being postponed until May, at the earliest. Town Moderator Alan Wilson came in and told the BOS that postponing Town Meeting can seem tricky. As moderator, Wilson is legally the person authorized to make the schedule change under state law, explained that changes may only be made in 30-day increments and only from the day of the postponement. As a result, he said, we in Manchester are likely to see several “bumps” in the schedule as Wilson nudges Town Meeting to a “COVID-19 free” time.
All Manchester Parks and Recreation programs have been cancelled until further notice.
All Council on Aging programs are canceled too, until further notice, with COA vans still running for medical and food needs and are being sanitized continuously. (The COA is looking for volunteers.). Essex COA is arranging transportation for clients as well, for food and medical appointments, via Beauport Transportation.
Cornerstone Church and First Parish Church Congregational in Manchester have canceled services for March 22. St. John’s Episcopal Church in Beverly Farms will hold services, but not children’s hour/childcare. Even little delights like the Magnolia Cribbage League, which usually meets on Wednesdays at the JD Myers Pub in Magnolia, are cancelled for the foreseeable future.
Residents are encouraged to visit the town websites (manchester.ma.us and essexma.org) for updated information.
In all this, there are silver linings. Facing new rules of social behavior mandates for safety, local businesses have adjusted in creative ways. They’re open for business, Local businesses that are the lifeblood of our community are themselves adapting to new mandates for social activity and “social distancing” with creativity. From curbside service to restaurant take out to promotions on gift cards, there are myriad ways to get the same goods and services from the local community’s businesses (our neighbors!).
Separately, State Representative Brad Hill said Monday there is legislation at the state level to find ways to support local restaurants hard hit by these new mandates. BOS Chairman Eli Boling walked downtown to visit with businesses and said the town should explore ways to accommodate the loss of business.
The Boards of Health for both Manchester and Essex are reminding residents that besides "social distancing," a simple general adherence to proper precautions is the best response to stemming the spread of the virus, including:
Editor’s Note: The Cricket is determined to responsibly report the all relevant changes that impact our community as they happen in the weekly printed newspaper, online as new information comes in at thecricket.com and in our email news updates. Remember, our community is better together.