The Winthrop Town Council met remotely on Nov. 24 for its final meeting before the Thanksgiving holiday, where COVID was the dominant theme of the evening.
Council President Phil Boncore opened on a somber note, calling for a moment of silence for Joseph Ferrino, father of Councilman Rich Ferrino, who died from the virus on Nov. 22. Boncore called the elder Ferrino “a pillar in the Italian-American community.”
“Just because we’re in the Yellow Zone doesn’t mean we’re not a high-risk community,” he said. “Wear your mask. Be vigilant.”
As of Nov. 24, Winthrop had 752 total cases, with 24 deceased (Ferrino was not yet included in the data), and 49 in isolation. Winthrop’s incident rate appears to be slowing, dropping from 51 percent to 31 percent in recent weeks, but officials predicted another surge due to Thanksgiving gatherings.
The School Committee met Nov. 23 for a marathon meeting lasting three hours. It voted 5-2 to adopt the Board of Health’s request to not open the schools for in-person learning prior to Jan. 4. Council Pres. Boncore said reopening was dependent on there not being another superspreader event.
Once schools reopen, they will be equipped with COVID test kits for students who show symptoms. However, a recent survey of Winthrop school students showed that 25 percent will not return to in-person learning even when the schools do reopen. For this reason, full-time remote teachers will be available.
The School Committee also voted to allow students to return to athletic practice on Dec. 14, in a move Councilor Rob DeMarco said “sounds like we’re putting athletics before academics.”
During the public comment period, caller Colleen Murphy said that parents were “on the verge of tears” at the School Committee meeting, but added that “they’re not doing what they’re supposed to be doing.” She suggested that in order to get children back into schools, Winthrop may have to shut down again “so parents will be more mindful.”
“If adults can’t do what they’re supposed to be doing, maybe we need to shut down again,” she said. “Our children are suffering.”
As always, Town Manager Austin Faison urged “personal responsibility” when it comes to getting the pandemic under control. He stated that the state or region was considering rollbacks in the reopening due to “a heightened level of alarm” and “scary trends.”
“This is going to get harder in the coming weeks and months,” he said. “It’s troubling and disconcerting, but our efforts are not in vain.”
Council Vice President James Letterie called Faison’s recent decision to push back the reopening of Town Hall to Feb. 1 “totally unacceptable.” He cited elderly people without internet access who are used to paying their bills in person.
“We’ve been given ample money from the CARES Act,” he said. “Now we seem to be cutting everything back.”
Faison defended his decision.
“We have not had a superspreader event in a municipal building because of how I’m managing,” he said, adding that his priority is to provide services, not to have his employees sitting in their offices waiting for the rare drop-in visitor.
“This is not unique to Winthrop,” he continued. “This is happening all over the country.”
The town manager gave a more thorough overview of how COVID-19 is impacting the community during his Fall Forum presentation later in the evening.