From home offices and cars, Berkshire lawmakers are in battle to fight effects of crisis

Massachusetts State House. (Photo by Aaron Ye/BU News Service)

By Damian Burchardt
BU News Service

BOSTON — Berkshire lawmakers say they are working long hours every day in search of solutions to the coronavirus crisis, all while practicing social distancing — though it does not always mean working from the solitude of their home offices.

For Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, it means spending an enormous amount of time in his car so he does not miss updates from fire chiefs or public health department officers as the legislators are making painstaking efforts to ensure hospitals have enough medical supplies and adequate staffing, small businesses will not be doomed due to the statewide shutdown, and local elections can take place in a safe environment.

Mark does not have access to high-speed broadband service, similar to more than a dozen other towns in western Massachusetts. His satellite-based internet service, with a cap on the amount of data he can use every month, only allows him to exchange emails, check social media, read newspapers and send text messages — exclusively to those, however, who can receive them through the web.

But he can’t watch videos or make normal phone calls, so to attend remote meetings he has to either sit in his car parked on the side of the road or take detours while driving around areas that are still in service.

“I’ve had to spend a lot of time going out and doing things in my car,” Mark said from the comfort of his vehicle, two miles away from his house while Massachusetts was hit with an unexpected snowfall halfway through March.

“I think as more people are looking to set up these conference videos and these conference calls … it’s potentially difficult to keep up, so I’m going to have to find a way to work Zoom remotely in my car parked somewhere,” he said. “There’s going to have to be a way to do it.”

Some Massachusetts lawmakers still do come to the Statehouse despite the building being closed to the public. The lower chamber holds informal sessions every 72 hours under the state Constitution, although the turnout is significantly lower than usual.

Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, said that for the legislators, working from Beacon Hill is an individual choice. Two cases of coronavirus have been confirmed among the Statehouse staff, one of them being Rep. Mike Day, D-Stoneham, who announced his diagnosis March 25.

Pignatelli said he has completed his committee work and stays in touch remotely. But with confirmed cases now reported in the Statehouse, he acknowledged, “I have no interest to step foot in there.”

In terms of office work, he said his staff has adapted to new circumstances well, despite challenges that the inability to see each other face-to-face has posed.

Food insecurity, landlord-tenant issues — both residential and commercial — and small business assistance are among the problems he has had to address. But the biggest of them all, Pignatelli said, is unemployment.

“This is a very fluid situation that’s changing hour by hour. But giving people the opportunity to sign up for unemployment gives them some sense of security [and] is really paramount,” he said. “We’re just trying to provide people with some guidance and some calmness — that we just need to keep it in perspective. Let’s be calm, let’s be smart, and let’s stay healthy.”

Mark said, however, that the lawmakers who still go to Beacon Hill — for attempts to push a bill forward — adhere to safety guidelines. They preserve the 6-foot rule, try to sit at safe distances to other members, and don’t congregate on the floor. But suggestions on the solutions to the abundance of issues that have arisen since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak are often delivered remotely, via email or phone.

“I now spend almost all of my time with a phone to my ear from first thing in the morning until after dinner,” said Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield. “I used to drive sometimes three hours a day, just for meetings within my district. And now, all of that travel time is taken up with additional phone calls and conference calls.”

For the lawmakers, one priority is to ensure health care centers receive enough help as the number of coronavirus cases rises daily. Mark said he has been trying to convince colleges and technical schools to donate medical equipment to local hospitals, and reaching out to federal officials to help cities and towns gain access to supplies from the Strategic National Stockpile.

Another priority is to mitigate the implications of the state-of-emergency call and other orders that resulted in many local businesses shutting down for the foreseeable future. Hinds points out that understanding the ripple effects of every action the lawmakers are taking has been particularly challenging.

“There’s some clarity around the necessary public health actions needed,” he said. “But then we are finding as legislators, as constituents come to us, that it then has unintended consequences for other state regulations and functions.”

Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams, aware of the number of difficult decisions that have to be made, said he is happy to spend more time in his district to address the concerns of his constituents and assure them they will get through the crisis together.

He reeled off a list of challenges he’s had to face amid the pandemic, which included ensuring the food pantry remains open, working with local command centers and hospitals, while also dealing with proposals coming out of Gov. Charlie Baker’s office on Beacon Hill, where Barrett sits on the panel of the House Ways and Means Committee.

But while Barrett acknowledged the committee will not be able to flesh out its budget proposal as it normally would by the end of April, he thinks more burning issues are awaiting in his district.

“I’m a strong believer that I want the public to know that I’m here to help them,” he said. “It’s good that I’m in the district at this time. I want to be helpful to them, be helpful to the local governments.”

Barrett said he is particularly worried about the surging unemployment and local restaurants, whose operations have been limited to takeout and delivery services following Baker’s safety orders.

“I’m worried that some of our small-business owners will not survive this pandemic because they’ve had to close their businesses down,” he said.

Barrett served as the mayor of North Adams for 26 years before becoming a member of the city council and eventually being elected as a state representative in 2017. He said has never seen a crisis of this magnitude characterized by a similar degree of uncertainty.

“I’ve been in this business for a long time. And I’ve never encountered anything quite like this,” he said. “We don’t know when it’s going to end. We don’t know what the magnitude is. We’ve had a lot of problems getting assistance from the federal government.”

But knowing that the worst might be yet to come, Barrett claims that his district is prepared to provide additional medical beds if necessary or deliver food to the most vulnerable. “Those are the things that the command centers are working on. We are preparing for the worst,” he said.

Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, was unavailable for comment.

This article was originally published on The Berkshire Eagle.

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