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Local governments take the lead, collaborate, and improvise to manage crisis

Library Director Jason Homer puts on gloves before handling library books at the Morse Institute Library in Natick. Although the library has locked its doors due to the coronavirus, they have not shut down completely.
Library Director Jason Homer puts on gloves before handling library books at the Morse Institute Library in Natick. Although the library has locked its doors due to the coronavirus, they have not shut down completely.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

NATICK — It had been four days since the town’s first case of coronavirus was confirmed, two days since the patient’s school-age children were presumed positive, and one day since the superintendent canceled school events and field trips but not classes. Hundreds of high school students had protested that inaction hours earlier on Thursday, walking out of a school they claimed was failing to protect them.

On Thursday night, Superintendent Dr. Anna Nolin was flanked by members of Natick’s School Committee, Board of Selectmen, and the Board of Health at an unorthodox joint meeting where they announced schools would shut down for at least a week and life as they know it in this Metro West community was about to change dramatically.

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“We have to take care of each other as a community,” Nolin said, urging parents to monitor their children’s contacts while schools are closed to prevent group socializing and to better contain the spread of the fast-moving virus.

Concerned parents had been reaching out to officials for days, saying schools should already have been closed. Behind the scenes, town leaders were grappling with the risk-benefit analysis — one that changed dramatically Thursday, when additional new local cases were confirmed. And they were conferring with their counterparts in 13 surrounding communities trying to figure out a regional plan for containing an outbreak the national government did not seem capable of managing.

“The thing with this particular virus is everything is relatively new and we’re kind of learning as we go,” Jim White, Natick’s director of public health, said at the Thursday night meeting, pointing to the lack of direction from federal officials. "We’re always looking for and requesting a lot more guidance as far as what we can do to try to address the situation.”

A national emergency with rapidly changing circumstances and stuttering leadership out of D.C. has thrust local government officials to the front lines of life-and-death decision-making. At this time of year, they would typically be dealing with issues like coyote breeding and the imminent spread of ticks, said Michael J. Hickey Jr., chairman of the Natick Board of Selectmen. Now, they’re ushering in Natick’s new normal: Schools shut down on Friday, for a week, at least. The senior center closed, as did the Recreation and Parks Department.

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Along the way, they are brainstorming modern solutions to nagging problems. Concerns were spreading nationally about how poor students who rely on school lunches would be affected by school closures. In Natick, officials announced they would provide grab-and-go breakfast and lunch (at the back doors of Natick High School, from 8 to 11 a.m. each day next week.) How to pay for it? That’s a problem for another day.

On Friday, Natick’s library started offering a lux treatment, care of coronavirus: curbside delivery to your car.

Residents can order materials online, then wait in one of six assigned parking spaces outside Morse Institute Library for them to be brought out by an employee. Library director Jason Homer said the idea had been proposed previously as a way of reducing parking congestion. After mulling it Thursday morning with two employee proponents, he returned from a noon coronavirus town meeting with immediate action: “We’re doing it tomorrow.”

“It was a good kick in the pants," Homer said.

The coronavirus crisis has required an unsettling amount of improvisation — upending the norms of local governance even for those who direct it.

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The emergency meeting Natick officials held Thursday night was convened without the public advertising notice that is required. And because of the obvious irony that came with calling a public meeting to discourage public gatherings, they urged the public to stay away, and instead watch a livestream on the town’s government channel.

The meeting was well underway when the Baker-Polito administration announced an emergency order temporarily permitting local officials to enact such technology-based workarounds to the open meetings law so governments can respond efficiently to the outbreak.

The picture of that outbreak was changing so rapidly throughout the week that the town’s public message had to be repeatedly revamped. A memo drafted Wednesday for town volunteers changed even before it went out; by Thursday, nonessential meetings were being discouraged.

“Today’s directive was even more acute,” Hickey said. "The messaging has evolved in a very short time.”

That left local officials struggling to explain to an often critical populace the steps they were taking on a crisis that was spreading like wildfire.

“We received a lot of e-mails, online traffic about how we needed to close many days ago," Nolin said. “I needed everyone to understand that a coordinated town and regional response was required in order for this closure to actually be the most meaningful it can be. While that might have been frustrating, the actual status has not changed until today.”

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By the Thursday night update, six Natick residents were positive presumptive for coronavirus and 10 had self-quarantined. Three residents were determined to not be infected and six had results pending.

But Nolin stressed that the town had been preparing for this possibility in recent days and coordinating with private-sector partners to ensure that, if and when schools closed, students weren’t gathered at another location. Often, private programs will host children on snow days, Nolin noted.

“What we couldn’t have was a private business saying, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll run a day care when school was closed and then we’d have another grouping of students and we would have another potential infectious situation,” she said.

Local officials always bear the brunt of their neighbors’ complaints about the issues closest to home, but the stakes felt unusually high this time, the pace of decision-making particularly urgent.

“In moments like this, whenever we have had a community crisis, local is what it’s all about — the local response, the local care, the relationships, that’s what gets stuff done and makes people feel cared for,” Nolin said. “That said, it’s been a really rough and sometimes lonely week because people don’t understand the direction that we’re moving in and we’re moving so fast.”


Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert