With Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker instituting a stay-at-home order effective March 24, Berkshire County has been gearing up to support her more vulnerable citizens who have lost work, can’t leave their homes or are otherwise struggling with the vast new restrictions on everyday life.
Fairview Hospital in Great Barrington is part of a task force of police, town officials, fire, library, senior center, Department of Public Works, schools and health officials who convene every other day to assess current conditions and compare and tweak plans. Selectman Ed Abrahams said of these efforts: “It’s impressive what goes on. The police drew up an emergency preparation plan; now they just need to tailor it … They are focusing on health and not economics now … The communication is great.”
In the category of creative community initiatives, Allen Harris, CEO of Berkshire Money Management in Dalton, is offering to buy face masks from private citizens who might have hoarded them at home and donate them where they’re needed most.
Harris said he was hearing, through anecdotal conversations with the medical community, that they were running low on face masks for health care staff. He heard staff were forced to share, and that price-gouging was taking place on the open market, as Gov. Cuomo of New York mentioned in a March 22 speech.
“I figured, ‘How can we get our hands on masks that are not robbing the med community?’ There is a run on all types of food and toilet paper, as survival instincts kick in. There are layoffs, etc., and some folks who have hoarded who might need the money right now. It seemed good to say, ‘Private message me, no one is going to judge you for hoarding, and if you’ve lost your job, let me know so I can pay you a premium and you can feed your family.’
What I found is that people reached out and said, ‘I have masks and don’t know who to give them to!’
I have delivered 500 masks and have 1,000 more from a virologist in China with a Berkshire connection. This week we’ll get those. We’re going to send those to a nurse who’s a representative for the nursing association. The 500 I sent to the ICU at Berkshire Medical Center.”
Across the county, crafters with fabric and a sewing machine are following approved templates to make cloth masks at home, and Harris has also informally been offering stipends to some of those folks to recognize their work. One such woman arrived at his office with masks and, to maintain social distance, he said: “I tossed her some of the money I had to distribute to the folks who need stipends. It’s a very informal rag tag bunch of do-gooders.”
One such crafter is Cardinale Montano of Housatonic, who’s put aside her own successful bag-making business (“I’m not making bags now because it just seems so trite compared to what’s needed.”) to gear up to make supplies of cloth face masks, following CDC guidelines for the correct pattern to use, and using an online guide created by surgeon Dr. Lauren Streicher.
For would-be home crafters, she said: “There’s an important point to be made on the materials to be using. Muslin on outside and jersey on inside, which gives breathability. The particles are caught but they can still breathe.” She’s also working on tutorials to help younger sewers (like my 13-year-old daughter) get going on making their own masks.
Said Montano: “People as a whole are looking at how dependent we have been on external things to keep our lives intact. This is the deeper part of what I’m doing. We are facing a time where we won’t be able to easily access things, and there’s more awareness of the need to fend for ourselves given what we have, where we are not just purchasing, purchasing, purchasing.”
Even though restaurants have been among the most hard-hit businesses in this shutdown, resorting to take-out and delivery only, many are taking the call to give a generous step further. Among those singled out for praise is Craig Bero, owner of Pleasant and Main in Housatonic. He said he’s always held a community supper as an affordable meal option for the local community, since Housatonic is not, like Great Barrington and Lenox, known for its wealth and, he said, gets overlooked. This week at Pleasant and Main, Bero is offering a soup, salad and entrée option every night of the week but Monday for only $12 as nightly community suppers, and will deliver to those who cannot leave their homes. This week’s offering will be turkey pot pie, New England seafood pot pie, and burgundy beef and wild mushroom, among others.
Last week Bero had to let go all of his staff, so, he said: “I’m here, I’m alone, I don’t have the employees. I personally am handling every ingredient” and taking precaution and then some more to ensure the cleanliness of his meals.
He’s sourcing his comfort food ingredients from local farms, what he put up last season and through his own early foraging this season. “I have a great root cellar. We are living off all that organic produce. Last summer, I was up in the mountains all night picking berries. Now I can pull out my frozen berries for pancakes. I just spent the morning under the leaves on the mountain, to get the first ramps. I have some beautiful wild salmon fillets and ramp pesto, and today I’m working on pot pies, the first one with the salmon with leek and watercress. I am asking people to just sustain what they can, do what they can.”
How long can he go on this way?
“I can provide what I can as long as I am able to. At least I would go down with a sense of honor for the community, which is the most important element for me right now. I got a bunch of thank-you cards up on the shelf: ‘Dear Craig, what a wonderful friend and neighbor you are.’ Just for getting her some supper.”
Vern Kennedy, owner of No. 10 on Castle Street in Great Barrington, has shifted his menu to a family take-out options, charging only $50 for full meals for four people. He’s also including an automatic 20 percent tip for servers to support staff whose incomes have dropped precipitously.
As he wrote to followers: “Life throws us challenges. As a community we overcome them.”
Among other noteworthy efforts, Bizen is giving out free rolls and the Tap House in West Stockbridge is serving free lunches to children.
Here’s a list of the Berkshire County outlets that offer take-out or curbside pick and/or delivery.
The food service staff at Berkshire Hills Regional School District, according to Superintendent Peter Dillon, is feeding 100 families per day (and counting) at four different South County locations, with boxes of food provided to take home on Fridays.
The food supply chain for those meals shows no signs of interruption, and in addition to the food company Cisco, the district partners with many local food purveyors and health organizations, like Community Health Programs and Berkshire Bounty, among others.
After food needs, added Dillon, the district’s second biggest priority is social emotional support. He is sending emails every other day to families, and teachers, principals and other staff are reaching out to families regularly.
“They’re building connections, letting people know they are supported. Learning to date has been around enrichment, providing things as you would over summer to prevent ‘summer slide.’ If this [shutdown] were to continue, we might pivot to actual education.” Dillon said that educators are researching various platforms now. “This is a conversation that is local, but also county-wide through the roundtable, and statewide. The districts are waiting for guidance from state, and the state is waiting for guidance from the federal government.”
One mom reported that her son’s teacher sent out an email asking him to be her pen pal, and another mom is getting through the day by telling her son that his teacher’s “suggested” work is actually required. Dillon finished his comments with, “When we look back, our kids will remember how we responded, if we hold everyone with love and respect and calm, that would be a great legacy.”
The largest philanthropic response to COVID-19 in the county to date is a collaboration formed practically overnight between the Berkshire United Way, Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation and many other partners who have formed the COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund For Berkshire County. This agile fund has the ability to approve requests in as little as 24 hours for grants of up to $25,000, though only nonprofit organizations serving critical human needs may apply, rather than individuals in need.
Of the fund, state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, said: “What they are doing is outstanding. They’re not only raising money but also gathering volunteers. People are saying ‘what can I do to help,’ and being able to deploy those volunteers strategically is another great thing. I’m very excited.” She’s also impressed by how adaptable the faith-based organizations have been to meet evolving needs, like their grab-and-go dinners. “It’s heartening to see that.”
To meet a need to expand information outlets for South County residents, the town of Great Barrington has created an email address for those who are not on social media, where COVID-19 updates appear throughout the day. Said Abrahams, manager of the email address: “There are people out there who couldn’t find information on where to get food, what’s open, where to get tested. I said I would write back to whoever wrote in, and I would connect them with the resources or answers they need.”
This email address is: COVIDfirstname.lastname@example.org, and since there’s just one person on the other end, it is not staffed 24 hours a a day, but most questions can eventually be answered, with patience.
Lastly, just for fun, and to keep up community spirits, the Honig-Briggs family of Tyringham is posting a daily video of their family informing the community of (invented) holidays we might not have known existed. Yesterday was National Sing Out Day, in case you were not aware.
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