HARWICH — Looking back to 2019 and the tornado that cut through Harwich Center that July, the sense was abnormal events couldn’t get much more bizarre. That was quickly set aside in 2020 when the coronavirus made its way to our shoreline, disrupting every aspect of normal life.
In early March, the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed on Cape Cod. By March 10 the pandemic was taking hold across the state and Gov. Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency.
Working closely with Health Director Meggan Eldredge, Interim Town Administrator Joseph Powers took steps on March 15 to close town buildings to the public. Limited lobby access was allowed at the public safety facility. While town employees continued to work, offices were reconfigured to create social distancing.
Senior citizens were recognized as the most vulnerable segment of the population and Council on Aging Director Emily Mitchell, working with town chef Linda St. Pierre, implemented a food distribution program for elderly residents. With limited seating and serving capacity because of state-imposed restrictions, restaurants adapted to take-out food service.
Recognizing the potential for adverse financial impacts from the pandemic, based on unexpected health costs and the potential loss of tax revenues should conditions continue throughout the coming summer season, selectmen in late March put in place a “non-essential” spending freeze. Powers had previously put in place a hiring freeze.
On March 28, the impact of the COVID-19 virus became painfully real to many residents with the passing of Julie Bruchu Bradley, 59, a longtime sales administrator at Allen Harbor Marine Service. Shortly thereafter a second employee at Allen Harbor Marine Service, Robert LeBlanc, 87, a Millis resident, succumbed to the virus.
Eldredge and Powers worked closely to implement state and local provisions to combat the spread of the virus, but numbers continued to climb. A major uptick in the virus took hold in the Wingate of Harwich nursing home. In early May the National Guard was there to conduct testing of the residents, and the state Department of Public Health provided additional assistance. The health department reported 20 deaths at Wingate by the end of June.
“Our numbers are going to rise exponentially. However, let me make it clear our numbers will rise substantially because of the Wingate situation,” Powers told selectmen. “We know the cases that present themselves in these facilities may look concerning, but they were expected and do not present a threat or concern because it is a closed and cloistered facility at this point.”
Town officials struggled with seasonal opening of facilities such as Cranberry Valley Golf Course, and worked with the health department and recreation department to put in place safe procedures for beaches. Selectmen entered into a contract with JS Services of Danvers for $78,939 to provide continuous cleaning and disinfection of public restrooms at beaches.
As the governor's reopening plan phased in, outside restaurant service was allowed, and selectmen moved quickly to allow that to happen. Powers and Eldredge worked closely with local restaurants on serving, mask requirements and social distancing.
The pandemic forced postponement of the annual town election, which was moved from mid-May to the end of June in hopes of the virus abating in the warmer weather. There was little interest in the local electoral process this year. There were no races on the ballot and only two questions relating to charter amendments. Only 807 voters cast ballots; 346 of them came through the mail-in process established by Town Clerk Anita Doucette. Selectman Donald Howell was re-elected with 603 votes as was Selectman Larry Ballantine with 593. The two charter questions were approved.
Town Administrator Christopher Clark's leave of absence begun last fall extended to the end of June. Assistant town administrator Joseph Powers was named the interim town administrator. Selectmen put together a town administrator search committee to examine applications and recommend finalists for the position. Four candidates were brought forward and in July selectmen conducted interviews. Powers was among the finalists, and selectmen concluded Powers received the highest grade of the four candidates in the review process. But the board could not reach the super-majority vote required by the town charter to appoint a town administrator. Ultimately the board appointed Powers to serve as the interim town administrator for one year.
This year also brought a transition in the leadership of the fire department with Fire Chief Norman Clarke, Jr., a 43-year veteran of the department, retiring on July 18. Clarke served as chief since 2011. His position was filled by Deputy Fire Chief David LeBlanc, a 27-year veteran of the department who served as deputy chief for four years.
Town Planner Charleen Greenhalgh also officially retired at the end of November. Greenhalgh served the town over the years as assistant town planner and assistant town administrator. She is now serving part-time for an interim period while a search is conducted to fill her position.
Community members spoke out for inclusiveness and tolerance during a Black Lives Matter rally in Harwich Center in June. An estimated 1,000 people gathered at Brooks Park and marched through the village, led by Police Chief David Guillemette. The event was organized by two Monomoy High School eighth graders, whose initial plans had to called off due to safety concerns.
Residents of West Harwich have been working over the past several years to put provisions in place to protect the historic character of the village, especially along Route 28 from the Herring River to the Dennis town line. The area has become known as Captains’ Row, a reflection on the many ornate homes built along that stretch by sea captains in the mid-1800s. A proposal to locate a major retail complex along Route 28 including the demolition of the circa 1870 Captain George Winslow Baker house put preservations efforts into high gear. The historic district and historical commission invoked a one-year demolition delay on the removal of the structure and provided time for neighborhood activism to come together. Selectmen filed an application with the Cape Cod Commission seeking a district of critical planning concern, which the Barnstable County Commissioners approved last December.
Greenhalgh, who shaped the documentation for the DCPC, then began shaping provisions for a West Harwich Special District. Voters approved the West Harwich Special District zoning amendment unanimously at the annual town meeting, eventually held in September, conducted outdoors at the stadium at Monomoy Regional High School.
The delay in pushing the annual meeting into the next fiscal year meant the town would start FY21 with no approved operating budget. The state department of revenue put in place provisions allowing municipalities which had not yet approved a budget to conduct monthly spending based on one-twelfth of the current budget. Given the uncertainty of weather conditions in late September, selectmen worked at reducing the size of the warrant, removing controversial topics likely to prolong debate but considered not time sensitive. The board also voted to reduce the quorum size from 150 to 100 registered voters.
Weather cooperated and more than 300 voters attended, seated in the open air with socially distanced seating spread across the field. It took less than four hours to conclude the 46-article annual town meeting, and voters approved a $68.9 million operating budget for FY21.
Affordable and workforce housing needs get a lot of attention in 2020, but development of projects, usually sought through unit density waivers under state 40 B provisions, often face neighborhood opposition. That was the case when Chatham developer Chris Wise put forward a proposal to develop 100 dwelling units on 12 acres off Route 137 in East Harwich. The project called for 25 affordable housing units.
This year saw a transformation of the former Handler’s Auto Parts property across from Doane Road, including the removal of a large structure which opened up a water view from Route 28. While no decisions have been made on development of the 3.14 acre site, the clean up of the property and new grass surface is a major improvement.
A quarter of a mile west on the corner of Sisson Road, site modifications are now underway on the Emulous E. Hall Trust property where plans have been approved to locate an 18-hole miniature golf course, just north of Bud’s Go Karts.
The new Cape Cod Regional Technical High School, located just east of the former school facilities, opened its door to students in September.
Many of the enjoyable annual community events also fell by the wayside due to the pandemic. The Wednesday Port Summer Nights music concerts were canceled along with the Cranberry Harvest Festival’s crafts fair and music festival. The annual Hometown Parade and fireworks sponsored by the chamber of commerce were silenced.
As the colder weather returned, COVID-19 numbers began to increase once again and new restrictions were implemented. Restaurant are feeling the pinch. Selectmen have received notice from a few local restaurants of planned extended winter closures.
“What we need to remember is that the pandemic has affected all of our small businesses and industries that have and will again bring business to the Cape,” said Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Cyndi Williams. Restaurants took the hardest hit this year, she said, but she praised the way they remade themselves. Restaurants and small businesses started thinking outside the box and created a safe atmosphere for staff and customers, she said. Many small retail businesses did not have online services but built them up and found through curbside pickup and other delivery options that there was still customer supported, she said.
“The good news is that we haven’t had any businesses close their doors for good due to the pandemic. We have welcomed new businesses and new owners to iconic businesses,” Williams said.