Forum Hears How Businesses, Seniors, And Students Are Surviving The Pandemic

By: Ed Maroney

Topics: COVID-19

Booksmith Musicsmith is among the Orleans businesses that have closed permanently during the pandemic.  ED MARONEY PHOTO

ORLEANS — Townspeople got a report last week from the front lines in the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic. Assistant Health Agent Alexandra Fitch, Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Noelle Pina, Nauset School Superintendent Tom Conrad, and Council on Aging Executive Director Judi Wilson shared their stories with a virtual Orleans Citizens Forum audience Sept. 24.

“It became clear we had to decide what our essential services were,” Wilson said. “The population that we serve are the people most at risk from COVID. Of 174 deaths on the Cape, most have been older adults. There have been people from Orleans in that mix. We decided early on that transportation was an essential service, that obtaining food was essential, and providing information.”

After a two-and-a-half week shutdown, the COA began offering rides again. “We only transport one person at a time on the bus,” said Wilson. “We sanitize after every passenger.”

Keeping seniors fed was another major concern. “A lot of us are ordering food online, but a lot of people we service don’t know how to use technology or can’t afford (it),” Wilson said. “We established some relationships early on with (the regional) Certified Emergency Response Team (CERT) and worked with Brian Junkins at Friends’ (Marketplace). The Friends (of the COA) did cash management, we took orders over the phone and picked them up, and we used the CERT team to deliver.”

In addition, the COA continues to provide warm meals to between 60 and 70 people two or three days a week. “The Nauset school system helped us through the end of June,” said Wilson. “In July, our own staff took on the cooking. We have a commercial kitchen. Our staff does a lot of the delivery. It lets us keep eyes on people who live alone and don’t have a lot of formal support.”

The need for information was great. “Our building was closed to the public, but we were open the whole time,” Wilson said. “At times, we would be getting 100 phone calls a day… We have lots of older adults in this town that don’t have family, don’t have people to count on. We’re working on helping people create emergency plans.” The COA cut down on the use of volunteers because so many of them are in the age group most threatened by the pandemic, but they’re now involved in delivering meals and groceries.

“The impact of social isolation after six months is very real for someone who lives alone,” said Wilson.

Limited activities have begun at the senior center, including an outdoor chair yoga class in the garden that evening. “We’ve had a knitting group and have a very active art group,” she said. “We’re not doing indoor fitness, (but) all of our fitness classes are on community access cable TV and our website.”

The center “has laid off staff,” Wilson said. “Our day center program is closed. We are not unlike local businesses that have had to lay off staff.”

COVID-19 “has completely changed the economic landscape in Orleans,” Pina said. “Some businesses are seeing double-digit increases and some are gravely damaged. Restaurants need your support. I worry about our restaurants, who have steadfastly served our year-round population, that we’ve loved in the cold months.”

The local real estate market “has soared,” said Pina. “The sale of residential units is up significantly and inventory is low. Sales of boats are up exponentially. Trash haulers have found people shifting from seasonal to year-round service.” For accommodations, “Cape Cod has the best occupancy rates in Massachusetts, but still down significantly from last year.”

It’s “truly sad,” Pina said, “that our arts and culture venues were sideswiped by COVID. Our artists have been crippled. With current event restrictions, many planners are canceling events.” Retailers, she said, “have reported they’ve done just OK, but your dedication to shopping locally will make a significant difference.” She noted the permanent closure of several businesses, including Nauset Grill and Booksmith Musicsmith.

Finding employees is difficult, said Pina, and she called for discussion of public preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds as well as “after school activities for all families who need them.” Noting that “Cape Cod lacks an economic development division of county government,” she urged creation of one to “sell our region as open for business.” In addition, “We need economic development staff at the municipal level and economic development committees.”

Businesses aren’t the only institutions looking for workers. “We thought we had a robust number of substitutes for teaching in the classrooms,” Conrad said. “When we opened up school, a number decided at the last minute not to come in. If you have a background in education and want to give back something to the school community and system, we’d love to have you call our HR office and possibly do some substitution for us.”

After the arrival of the pandemic, Nauset went to all-remote classes for the spring. In the background, task forces were meeting to plan a suite of educational options for the fall that included in-school learning, all-remote, and a hybrid of the two. The system’s elementary schools are buzzing again with students, though a small percentage of families has chosen remote learning. The middle school population is split into two groups, each of which is in-school two days of the week in rotation, and instruction on Wednesday is all-remote. The high school, where air system repairs are under way, will be all-remote until Oct. 15 when a hybrid program similar to the middle school’s will begin.

“One thing I have found through this journey is the importance of socializing for our students and having the opportunity to see each other,” Conrad said.

Nauset lost close to 65 percent of its school bus capacity due to pandemic restrictions, he said, thanking parents who have volunteered to drop off and pick up their students. Noting that it takes nearly four months to become a bus driver, Conrad said, “We’re doing everything we can to keep our drivers as healthy as we can, and the students who get on those buses.”

That effort extends to the school buildings, where nurse’s offices now have separate areas for seeing symptomatic and asymptomatic children. Although there are nurses in each of the system’s buildings, the department is considering finding additional help for the winter given the extra work ahead in tracking any COVID-19 contacts during the always busy cold and flu season.

In response to a question from a viewer, Conrad said he’s been “talking about the possibilities of using some of our schools” to provide a safe learning space for “remote” students whose parents can’t be at home with them. “We’re really interested in how each of our schools can help each other,” he said. “It’s not out of the question to combine a couple of communities to share in a remote learning initiative. I’ve been in public education 40 years-plus (and) I never fully understood the responsibility public education has for child care, for parents’ ability to go to work.”

Responding to another question, Fire Chief Geof Deering said his staff has done a walk-through at Nauset Regional High School in Eastham, which is designated as a regional shelter. They’ve paced off a set-up that allows the COVID-required 110 square feet per person as opposed to the usual 40. “If there’s a significant weather event, we could employ that facility, using guidance from Barnstable County,” he said. For a smaller-scale incident, “we would look at putting people up in hotels through the Red Cross so it’s not a congregate environment.” Like the schools, “our biggest focus is education,” Fitch said of the health department, “followed closely by enforcement and case management.” She urged everyone to go to www.town.orleans.ma.us/health-department for access to links about the pandemic, including safety procedures and testing locations. Staff can be reached by phone at 508-240-3700, ext. 2450.

There have been 31 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among Orleans residents since March, and one remained active on Sept. 24. “This is not necessarily an accurate picture of what exists in the community,” Fitch said. “It’s really imperative that you practice personal responsibility. If you let your guard down because that number feels safe to you, your actions could dramatically change the situation.”

Precautions include flu shots, and it appears Orleans is getting the message. A town flu clinic scheduled for Oct. 14 is already full and “we are exploring holding another,” Fitch said, “and looking into clinics especially for school teachers and children.” Meanwhile, she suggested people call ahead to confirm that pharmacies are offering flu shots. As for an eventual COVID-19 vaccine, she said its distribution will be determined by the state, noting there will likely be “two options: a drive-through clinic or an emergency dispensing site that would allow us to deliver the vaccine to a lot more people at a quicker pace.”

“It’s going to be a long winter,” Wilson cautioned later in the meeting, “despite what we’re hearing about a vaccine coming soon. We live on Cape Cod, not in a metropolitan area. (We) know (a vaccine) will be prioritized to health care providers and emergency personnel. Realistically, we’re planning for a long period of time here where we’re gonna have to continue doing what we’re doing. We are taking the issue around isolation very seriously. When people can’t gather for the holidays, it’s going to be very real.”

Moderator Kevin Galligan, who chairs the select board, noted that each speaker “not only gave us good information, but you put an ask out there. People in our community do like to volunteer and help. Tom, if I had even five minutes in my schedule, I would volunteer to teach.”