NEW BEDFORD — Flanked by top city officials, New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell today declared a state of emergency as the city braces for the inevitable arrival of the novel coronavirus and COVID-19.

"I want to begin by saying that the virus is coming, if it's not already here," Mitchell said. "While there has yet to be a confirmed case in Greater New Bedford, we should not be fooled."

Mitchell said with limited available test kits and strict federal protocols on who gets to be tested, it's been difficult to know who has and hasn't been infected. He said outbreaks in China and elsewhere have shown that the virus has the potential to spread so fast that it overwhelms healthcare centers.

The mayor described a strategy is to "flatten the curve" of viral spread – essentially, to get ahead of the problem and prevent a sharp and sudden spike in illness.

He encouraged a city-wide effort to contain COVID-19, including careful personal hygiene and "social distancing." For instance, people should use "elbow bumps" instead of handshakes, wash their hands often, and avoid touching surfaces when out in public.

As part of his emergency declaration, Mitchell announced the following:

All non-essential public community events greater than 100 people will be postponed or canceled. The Mayor’s State of the City Address will be postponed.

All special event permits will be reviewed by the city's health department. Starting Monday, permits for indoor activities greater than 100 people will be revoked. Mitchell strongly discouraged private indoor events of greater than 100 people.

On Monday, all three senior centers in the city will be closed until further notice. The City will close the adult day facility in Brooklawn Park, but provide families "a reasonable opportunity to find alternate care during the day."

All indoor events at the Buttonwood Park Zoo will be postponed or canceled.

City attorneys are reviewing yesterday's executive order from Governor Charlie Baker that would let public boards and commissions meet remotely, using technology, instead of meeting in person.

"The city will take every step consistent with the law to minimize the attendance at board and commission meetings, including the deferring of items for which board action is not urgent,"  Mitchell said.

The mayor said the city's custodial staff is "strenuously cleaning buildings."

In addition, all out-of-state employee travel through the end of April will be postponed or canceled, as will any non-essential employee travel of greater than twenty miles. The superintendent announced a similar curtailment of school field trips.

Certain city employees are being encouraged to work from home, and private employers able to provide similar accommodations are encouraged to do so.

People are being asked to pay their city bills online or through the mail instead of coming into City Hall. Payments can be made at the city’s website, www.newbedford-ma.gov.

"We've been focused on getting our buildings clean for the past several weeks," said Anderson. "It doesn't mean there isn't a level of anxiety there, and we're being prepared in the event that we have to do something different where students may have to do some remote learning. But as of right now we're still in session as we plan to be..."

The following is a transcription of Mitchell's remarks:

“Good morning.  There’s a great deal of anxiety in our city, across our country and indeed around the world about the effects of the coronavirus outbreak.  Nothing quite like this has happened in our lifetimes, so it is understandable that people are on edge.  I am here today to provide an update on the city’s latest efforts and to help you stay informed, prepare yourself and your family, and take actions to stem the spread of the virus.

“I want to begin by saying that the virus is coming, if it’s not already here.  While there has yet to be a confirmed case in Greater New Bedford, we should not be fooled.  As has been well chronicled, the limited number of test kits in the United States has inhibited the ability of the medical community to determine with confidence who has been infected.  And we know, based on the recent outbreaks in China, Italy and other places, the virus has the potential to spread faster than our healthcare system can address.

“Our work has been focused on three goals: to slow the transmission of the virus in our city and region, make preparations to continue essential city services, and ensure the heath and safety of city employees and our residents.  The strategy is to “flatten the curve” of viral spread, that is, to slow the transmission of the disease so that our health care system can keep up with the flow of patients until the virus eventually peters out.   Getting out ahead of the virus through appropriate social distancing and encouraging proper hygiene is essential.  That is why, even though residents in our region may not be infected yet, we have been taking proactive steps, including the cancelling of this weekend’s half marathon.

“Our decisions are informed by the advice of health care experts, and are consistent with guidance from federal and state agencies.  Every morning I am briefed by our health director and our public safety agencies on the latest developments, so that as the situation evolves, we can make informed decisions in the public interest.  Under the authority vested in me under law, I have declared that a state of emergency now exists in New Bedford.  The authority allows the mayor to suspend certain rules concerning procurement of good and services, and generally affords the mayor the ability to take reasonable steps to ensure public safety.

“This is one of the challenges our city and our country faces in which the actions of private individuals is indispensable to success.  More than anything else, proper hygiene is a must.  Wash your hands thoroughly and frequently, with soap and hot water.  Make sure your loves ones do the same.

“Be especially conscience of what you touch.  Avoid as much as possible highly touched surfaces, such as railings, door knobs, and elevator buttons.  Don’t touch your face. Stop shaking hands.

“And again, if you feel sick, go home and call your doctor.

“All of these measures and more, along with links to relevant state and federal guidance, can be found on the City’s website. We’ll continue to push out more updates so that you and your family remained informed, and I ask you to share with others.

“Our work here is about serious preparation, not panic.  Each of us has a role to play to ensure the health and safety of our fellow New Bedfordites.  I thank you in advance for your understanding, but more importantly, for the role you play in this collective effort.”

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