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City Council Members Say Pandemic Has Shifted Priorities, Timeline for Reopening Remains Unclear

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Cambridge City Council members Alanna M. Mallon, Marc C. McGovern, and Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler say shifting the Council’s priorities toward the coronavirus pandemic has been frustrating, but necessary.

The City of Cambridge declared the pandemic a public health emergency on March 12, shortly after Massachusetts Governor Charlie D. Baker ’79 declared a statewide state of emergency on March 10.

Since then, the City Council’s agenda has largely focused on dealing with the immediate effects of the outbreak, including measures to support front-line workers and small businesses. Moreover, Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui and City Manager Louis A. DePasquale have worked to open an emergency housing shelter, activate the Mayor’s Disaster Relief Fund, and implement testing in nursing homes.

Council committee meetings, however, have been cancelled and issues such as the Affordable Housing Overlay — which aims to streamline permitting processes for affordable housing developers — have been put on hold.

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Sobrinho-Wheeler said this shift in priorities is disappointing but necessary in an interview Friday.

“We have priorities like housing, like transit, and they're gonna continue to be issues in Cambridge,” he said. “It's disappointing to have to put them aside for a minute, but this emergency and responding to the outbreak in cases has absolutely been the number one priority.”

McGovern also said other issues must “play second fiddle to this crisis” so city councilors can spend more time working on keeping residents safe and healthy. For McGovern, this has included engaging in “a lot more constituent work,” such as checking in with senior citizens, buying and delivering food, and referring residents to city support services.

McGovern said canceled meetings, along with measures to support businesses and tenants, will have come “first and foremost” when the city regains a sense of normalcy.

Sobrinho-Wheeler, who has filed a proposal to use video conferencing for City Council committee meetings, said the additional meetings are an important part of discussing issues exacerbated by the pandemic.

“We should think about having them again to talk about housing, to talk about transit, to talk about municipal broadband issues that aren't separate from the pandemic — they're really related when we talk about the city's response,” he added.

The Cambridge Public Health Department has reported 706 residents have tested positive for coronavirus since the outbreak began, and has confirmed 42 related deaths.

In an interview Sunday, Mallon, the city’s vice mayor, said she thinks it is “really hard” to consider reopening the city because of a lack of available testing kits.

“I would like for us, as a city, to be able to test all of our front-line employees to make sure that they are not asymptomatically carrying the virus,” Mallon said. “And we simply do not have that testing capability right now.”

“I don't think that there's a universe where we ever are going to flip the light switch and everything goes back to the way it was,” she added.

—Staff writer Maria G. Gonzalez can be reached at maria.gonzalez@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @mariaagrace1.

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