Nearly three-quarters of Haverhill residents infected with COVID-19 live in nursing homes or have spread the disease to other people in their households, new statistics show.

Mayor James Fiorentini said finding ways to isolate virus victims who cannot properly distance from relatives or others has been a challenge as coronavirus grips the city. 

"If a family member gets sick, they're supposed to completely isolate from the rest of their family using their own bedroom and bathroom — which is a higher level than quarantine — but a lot of people can't, won't or don't do that," the mayor said. "It's really a problem."

As of Tuesday's press time for the Gazette, 671 Haverhill residents had been infected with COVID-19. Twenty had died. Fiorentini said Tuesday that 74% of the total count is a combination of long-term care situations and family members spreading the virus. Of that 74%, 42% are patients and staff of nursing homes and 32% are infections passed on by family members, the mayor said. The rest of the infections are spread in other ways in the community, he said.

Finding ways to isolate infected residents has become such a major concern that Fiorentini is considering following Chelsea Town Manager Tom Ambrosino's lead and renting hotel space for Haverhill people who need to distance but don't have the ability to do so. Fiorentini said Chelsea has been forced to use hotel space due to its infection rate, which is higher than all but one New York City borough.

As an added measure to stop the spread, Gov. Charlie Baker issued an executive order that went into effect Wednesday, ordering all residents over the age of 2 who are physically able to wear a mask or face covering to do so in public places. 


Enforcing use of masks

Fiorentini said he's talked with the Police Department and Inspectional Services Department about the governor's mask order, but is largely relying on local businesses to enforce the mandate. 

"If police see people who aren't wearing masks, they're going to ask them to put one on. We're also going to ask every store to put up a sign that says 'no mask, no service,'" Fiorentini said. "We can much more easily police the few hundred retail stores there are in Haverhill than police the 60,000 people. Mostly we have to rely on people and their good sense to do this. The numbers leveling off is all because people are complying."

As numbers level off, plans to reopen the city are slowly starting to take shape. On Monday, Fiorentini opened the brush dump at the Highway Department yard on Primrose Street for the season on an appointment-only basis. He said things have been "going great" there.

He said his plan is to allow residents to drop off grass, leaves and brush, along with recyclables, by booking appointments on the city's website until the initial influx of customers clears. When that happens, appointments will be necessary only on Saturdays, he said.

Residents have been complaining about the dump being closed as they give their yards a spring cleaning and have nowhere to get rid of the debris.

Fiorentini said he hopes to have City Hall open for business on May 18, the same day the governor's stay-at-home advisory is due to expire. The mayor is in the early stages of forming a reopening committee, he said, and is taking special care to look out for the city's restaurants and small businesses.


Efforts to help restaurants

To combat the worries of Fiorentini and others about the financial suffering of restaurants, the Board of Health is set to consider a proposal that would allow eateries to sell groceries, mixed alcoholic drinks and other household products on a take-out basis. City Councilor Colin LePage brought the idea forward after seeing it successfully implemented in metro-Boston towns. His idea was supported by other city councilors. 

"I think it's good for neighborhoods, because some folks who have to get in a cab or get on a bus to go to a grocery store might (instead) be able to walk to a restaurant around the corner from them and get some food that way," Councilor Michael McGonagle said.

The council also voted to ask the Board of Health to consider letting restaurants sell sealed mixed alcoholic drinks as a way to boost revenue during the COVID-19 pandemic. McGonagle said such a measure — which would also have to be approved by the city's License Commission and state Alcoholic Beverages Commission — could net a 20% gain in revenue for struggling restaurants.

During the crisis, restaurants in Massachusetts have already been allowed to sell beer and wine with take-out and delivery food orders.


Graduations taking shape

As remote learning in Haverhill continues, school officials at Whittier Regional Vocational Technical High School this week assured members of the graduating class of 2020 they will not be forgotten. Superintendent Maureen Lynch said that instead of a traditional graduation, a virtual senior awards ceremony will take place May 20 at 6 p.m.

Whittier will share a graduation ceremony video with students and their families May 28 at 6 p.m. A tentative in-person social for students and staff is planned for the fall, with a traditional graduation ceremony for the Class of 2020 scheduled for May 2021, Lynch said.

Haverhill High School's senior class activities are still being finalized and details were not available by press time.

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