NORTH ANDOVER — Town officials are displeased with the governor's statement Tuesday that he will not change the “red zone” designation for the town because of the recent coronavirus outbreak at Merrimack College.
“I don't think it makes sense for us to change a program model for 351 cities and towns for one or two outliers,” Gov. Charlie Baker said.
On Sept. 30, North Andover was designated a high risk or “red” community by the state following a COVID-19 outbreak at the school, where 93 students had tested positive by that time. During that same period, only 16 cases were reported among town residents, outside of the Merrimack outbreak.
Last week the Board of Selectmen voted unanimously to ask Gov. Charlie Baker to reconsider the “red zone” designation for the town, pointing out that most of the college's cases occurred in a dorm that is technically in Andover. The town suggested separating the numbers at colleges and universities from towns' totals.
After Baker's announcement, the town must wait for the state to reevaluate North Andover's risk designation next Wednesday using data from two weeks prior.
“It's an unfortunate position that the governor has taken that he will not reevaluate the red designation that has been placed on North Andover, considering that we would be green status had we not had an outbreak that was not controllable within our jurisdiction,” said Select Board Clerk Richard Vaillancourt.
According to Town Manager Melissa Murphy-Rodrigues, the town would need to have an average daily case rate of four to eight cases per 100,000 people in the town's population to become “yellow.” Towns become “red” if their average daily case rate over the last 14 days is more than eight cases per 100,000 people.
Rodrigues says the state concluded that North Andover had an average daily case rate of 34.5 cases per 100,000 residents when the “red” designation was assigned to the town on Sept. 30.
“Without the Merrimack cases we would be more like six,” she said.
Not changing the “red” designation for North Andover means that the town can't move to Phase 3 Step 2 of the reopening process, which allows indoor and outdoor performance venues, gyms, museums and libraries to open capacity to 50% and permits the reopening of fitting rooms in retail stores, among other things.
Town officials say not moving forward in the opening process is detrimental to the town's businesses, which have not only taken a hit from the pandemic but are still recovering from the Merrimack Valley Gas Disaster of 2018.
“The town's people and the businesses have been doing the right thing and to be arbitrarily penalized ... and to be told 'We cannot make that accommodation' — I think it's hurtful to the people in this community,” said Chris Nobile, the chair of North Andover's Board of Selectmen.
He later added, “I also think that the citizens have earned this consideration. We have done the right thing as a community and our businesses have suffered, we just recovered from the Columbia Gas disaster and now you are telling places like Smolak Farms, 'You are still restricted.'”
State Sen. Diana DiZoglio of Methuen, whose district includes North Andover, said that if the governor doesn't budge on the “red” designation, then he should fund a bailout package for the small businesses in North Andover.
“As the governor knows, our small, family-owned and operated businesses struggled to remain afloat in the wake of the gas explosions and have seen these challenges only exacerbated by the COVID-19 emergency,” she said.
“While the governor and his administration loosen restrictions in other communities, this red designation is liable to have a significant, negative impact on North Andover small businesses. Outside of the contained, isolated incident at Merrimack College, North Andover has proven successful in containing COVID-19 and is committed to doing so moving forward. If the governor will not budge on the designation, I hope he is simultaneously preparing to fund a bailout for those local businesses that persevered in the face of the explosions but won’t survive this pandemic.”