HAVERHILL — As Mayor James Fiorentini has been warning recently, city's recent outbreaks of COVID-19 has indeed moved Haverhill into the red, high-risk zone, as classified by the state.
That designation is causing the city to consider new rules to combat the spread of COVID-19, including a temporary halt of sports at Haverhill High.
Fiorentini said he has asked the Board of Health to hold an emergency meeting Thursday afternoon where he will request temporary emergency measures to keep the community safe while it works its way back to the green, low-risk zone.
The mayor said he will ask the board to adopt a rule suggested by City Councilor Mary Ellen Daily O’Brien, who is a nurse, that restaurants be required to record names and phone numbers of customers to aid in the city's contact tracing efforts.
Fiorentini said he will also ask the board to strengthen the city's mask ordinance to require that people wear masks at all times in the downtown district unless they are at a table eating in a restaurant.
The mayor also said he is considering temporarily halting school sports.
"I will be working with the school superintendent and our Recreation Department and taking a look at whether we need to place school (sports) and recreation sports on hold for a couple of weeks until these numbers go down," the mayor said.
Haverhill High Athletic Director Tom O'Brien said that as of Wednesday no changes in school sports had happened, but he anticipates changes once the mayor meets with the Board of Health Thursday.
"Currently, we have practices for boys and girls soccer, girls volleyball, field hockey, cross country and golf, with their first games scheduled for this Friday," O'Brien said, noting that no middle school sports are being conducted this fall.
The high school football season, along with cheerleading, unified basketball and girls swimming were all moved to a season that starts Feb. 22, he said.
Based on the average daily cases per 100,000 residents, each community in Massachusetts has been designated as a higher-risk (red), moderate risk (yellow) or lower risk (green) community, according to the state.
Any community designated higher risk is considered to have a high level of COVID infection, and will receive additional support from the state to address the spread of the virus.
The mayor said his office is hard at work finding ways to design a COVID-safe Halloween for residents to celebrate.
"We are going to have to come up with something else," Fiorentini said, suggesting the possibility that the traditional citywide trick or treat is unlikely to happen. "I apologize to all the kids in the city on this, but we have to put safety first."
The mayor said that over the past two weeks, the city logged about 150 new cases of COVID-19 compared to the previous two-week period when only 37 people tested positive for the virus.
Part of the increase, but not all of it, is from a recent large outbreak at the Lakeview House nursing home, he said.
About 58 people were infected, which included staff and residents, he said, noting that five of the residents were hospitalized.
Eighteen active cases in Haverhill involve a group of people who attended a house of worship that is no longer holding in-person services, Fiorentini said.
"These small clusters caused a spill into our community and we are now seeing friends and relatives from these two clusters also getting infected," he said. "For the first time in some weeks, we are starting to see some community spread."
Fiorentini said there was good news, at least up until last week, as the city's positivity rate — the percentage of tests done in the city that come back positive, — has remained relatively low.
"It is usually thought that a 5% positivity rate is community spread. We were 1.6% as of last week, well under that," Fiorentini said on Tuesday.
Percentages of the most recent testing will be released by city officials sometime this week.
The increase in COVID-19 cases, however, is a concern, the mayor said.
"We need to nip this in the bud and get our numbers back down as the last thing anyone wants is another shutdown," he said. "I will not do that unless either the governor orders it or there is no other alternative. We are nowhere near that rate."
To combat the spread of the virus in Haverhill, the state agreed to increase testing in the city.
"It is critical that we begin testing as many people as possible," Fiorentini said.
A COVID-19 testing team from the state is in Haverhill this week and will be here for two weeks and possibly longer, the mayor said.
"The state is doing this on a temporary basis in hopes our numbers will go down," said Fiorentini, who is urging all residents to be tested.
The mayor said the city is increasing its media campaign to urge people to get tested.
Free testing available
Haverhill residents with or without symptoms can get free testing and there is no need for a doctor's referral, medical insurance or an appointment. People seeking testing will, however, be asked to provide their name, address, email and phone number to receive results, which should be available 24 to 48 hours after the test.
Free testing by Fallon Ambulance Service is available in person and by drive-up through Tuesday, Oct. 6, (closed Sunday) from 1 to 6 p.m. in the Locke Street municipal parking lot, next to 125 Winter St.
Free testing will also be available from Wednesday, Oct. 7, to Wednesday, Oct. 14, (closed Sunday) from 1 to 6 p.m. in front of Somebody Cares food pantry, 358 Washington St.
The mayor is urging residents to wear masks whenever in public.
"When I go out, I am getting concerned for the first time to see so many people out without masks," he said. "I know this is tiring, and I want this to be over just like you do. It is not over. I know it will be, but right now it isn’t."
He also urged people to continue to socially distance themselves, not attend large family gatherings and to wash their hands frequently.
Watch eagletribune.com and Friday's print edition of The Eagle-Tribune for developments on Haverhill's new COVID-19 rules, including how Haverhill High sports are affected.