Around Town

Southwick officials talk lessons learned during pandemic

Residents wait 6 feet apart to check into the Southwick Special Town Meeting hosted in the Southwick Regional School parking lot March 24, 2020. (HOPE E. TREMBLAY/THE WESTFIELD NEWS)

SOUTHWICK – “It’s hard to believe it has been a year since COVID started, and at the same time it seems like 10,” said Southwick Select Board Chairman Douglas Moglin.

On March 10, the one-year anniversary of Gov. Charlie Baker’s declaration of a state of emergency due to the coronavirus. Moglin reflected on the pandemic so far.

“I remember hearing back in January of 2020 ‘illnesses’ were first coming out while we were at the Mass Municipal Conference in Boston,” Moglin recalled. “In March of 2020, at my work we started preparing to distance some employees (including myself) to protect the essential employees that needed to be in the office to support customers who were directly involved in the COVID fight. At Town Hall, our new Health Agent Tammy Spencer and [Chief Administrative Officer] Karl Stinehart were working to reconfigure parts of Town Hall to be keep our town employees safe.”

Moglin said this past year was . . . different.

“Life was certainly changed, and adjustments were innumerable,” he said, noting that the town fared well overall as a community.

“We leveraged technology, where possible, to be able to continue to have meetings and conduct the business of the town. We are able to have meetings via Zoom, and some employees have been able to do some of their work remotely,” Moglin said. “We have kept the Town Hall lobby open for people to conduct business safely. We held TWO outdoor Town Meetings, and several elections were safely conducted. Our police and fire departments adopted safety protocols to protect themselves and the public and have operated with their usual level of professionalism and valor throughout.

“I am continually impressed with the ability of our local businesses to adapt to the challenges they have faced. We tried to work with our restaurants to pivot to outdoor dining, for example, by forming a ‘task force’ that went out and did all the permit and inspection tasks at once, so the town wasn’t in their way of being able to maintain their businesses.”

Stinehart said the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic was difficult, at best, as town officials navigated the ever-changing guidelines.

Poll worker Kirk Sanders stands behind a plexiglass shield at the Southwick Senior Center during the June 9, 2020 election. (HOPE E. TREMBLAY/THE WESTFIELD NEWS)

“It was tough to initially gage the impact on operations as the information on the ‘how to respond’ approach was not fully developed by state agencies, including the Department of Public Health and federal Centers for Disease Control, in the first month,” Stinehart said. “The town had to work with our Board of Health and director to gain information on the public health recommendations and do our best to stop any spread, install appropriate signage, install plexiglass partitions, mask up and social distance from the get-go. Our operation had to become adaptive to respond, and at the same time, continue services for our citizens.”

Stinehart said the town had to adopt new cleaning methods – a major component to fighting the virus – and completely change how Town Hall functioned.

“The objective was to work with each department and support their creativity — to find ways to continue services to people that needed them,” he said. “What worked one week may have had to change the next week to adapt to conditions on the ground.”

Moglin and Stinehart both touted town employees for their hard work and diligence in making sure the scheduled town meetings and elections took place.

“The town conducted five elections, early voting and two town meetings just through November alone,” Stinehart said. “We had rolling parades throughout town and multiple Zoom meetings to conduct meetings. Departments such as police, fire/ems, Public Works, Council on Aging, Town Clerk, Assessor, Select Board, library and all the others found ways to operate successfully and serve their clients.”

COVID-19 took its toll but employees forged ahead.

“Like any other organization, we had CV-19 directly impact the workforce in some fashion or another and accommodated those challenges as they arose,” Stinehart said. “We are still doing that in March 2021, a year later.”

The community had planned for a Southwick vaccine clinic, but that hope was dashed by Baker last month. Stinehart said everyone involved was “disappointed” and is hopeful that a request for a mass vaccination site at The Big E will be approved. He and Moglin said that while vaccinations keep rolling out, everyone must continue best practices to keep themselves and others safe and the community running.

Southwick Health Director Tammy Spencer speaks during a zoom meeting Feb. 22, 2021. (SCREENSHOT)

Moglin said as the light appears at the end of the tunnel, some of the new policies and protocols will remain intact.

“I think as the crisis ends, we are going to continue our digital transformation, which makes our employees more efficient and more responsive to residents and businesses,” he said.

Stinehart said moving forward, town administrators will continue to support the community. “We want to support our businesses getting back to normal operations but recognize that normal may look different for some time. Lessons have been learned. A lexicon of new words have come from the pandemic: Think smart and stay positive,” he said.

Stinehart said one of the lessons learned throughout the pandemic is how quickly things can change.

“While we look forward to the emergency order being gradually relaxed, we acknowledge we all will still need to be on guard and stay diligent,” said Stinehart. “Emotions, both positive and negative, have been experienced by all. We observed friends, relatives and coworkers experience the virus first-hand and lost some of them.”

Moglin looks forward to better, warmer, days ahead.

“As spring blooms here in Southwick, I’m heartened that vaccinations are underway in earnest, and that the supply of vaccines is growing steadily. This will enable us to partner with Agawam and West Springfield to stand up a mass vaccination site at the BigE, which will help our residents get vaccinated,” Moglin said. “We need to continue to be vigilant until these vaccinations take hold. We’ve been at this for a year, and we can see the finish line.”


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