By ELLEN ZOPPO-SASSU
Last year at this time, it is doubtful any of us would have seen the challenges of 2020 coming our way. We have been confronted with creating and adapting to new ways of learning, working and living among stressors we have never experienced before. But for all of the hardships, 2020 also provided a unique opportunity to learn many lessons.
As mayor, I was especially fortunate to have such a strong team of City Council members, committed volunteers serving on boards and commissions who continued to conduct city business and city employees, all of whom were willing to step up and step forward to do whatever needed to be done.
Here are a few areas that I would like to highlight:
As the Bristol Central High School students returned from their February Italian trip and we as a city went on high alert, I began saving covid related emails into a separate folder.
Today, there are more than 400 emails in it, ranging from responding to citizen concerns; working with departments to coordinate access to Personal Protective Equipment; ensuring the city had the technology to pivot to remote learning on the Board of Education side and work from home remote issue on the city side; reaching out to Social Service Agencies to continue to provide a safety net of shelter and food; interpreting executive orders and submitting for FEMA reimbursement; working with the Chamber to assist local businesses; working with the Health District to create a response to the public health threat; and working with Bristol Health, Community Health Centers and others to set up testing sites.
Mobilizing department heads to meet weekly to share resources and information was a critical tool in creating a cohesive partnership across department lines. The emails, phone calls, virtual meetings, in person meetings and site visits led to a substantive response that led to Bristol having the lowest infection rate among cities its size for the first five months. For several weeks starting in March, many city department heads and employees were working seven days a week. Some still are.
We found out that the human spirit is capable of withstanding an incredible amount of stress and disappointment. School ceremonies and rituals, sports and performing arts were abandoned and teachers and students were sent home. Community events, including concerts and the Mum Festival were canceled. Nursing care centers closed to family and friends, and were hit the hardest with virus related deaths. The Senior Center and Parks programs moved to virtual programming, and staff at the Senior Center and Youth & Community Services took to calling their seniors and families with service needs to check in during these periods of social isolation.
The Mayor’s Office launched the All Heart Hotline and churches and social service agencies stepped up to provide a response to the food insecurity issues, while the United Way and City collaborated for the Farmers to Families program that distributed more than 16,000 food boxes July to December. Dozens of citizens volunteered to work at the School Lunch distribution sites, and at the Foodshare mobile sites, while community groups and families donated dinners to the St. Vincent DePaul shelter for three months.
To date, we have lost more than 100 Bristol residents to this virus. We mourn their loss as we also work to protect others and stop the spread. Covid also affected the mental health of many, requiring empathy and compassion from those providing services. The Parks & Recreation Department leadership, amidst some criticism, was also adamant about keeping parks and playgrounds open so people had an outlet to be outside. Police, EMS and fire saw an increase in calls and needed to modify their responses accordingly. Last spring, the city participated in conversations concerning diversity and the Black Lives Matters movement. The strength of the police department’s existing community policing program made these thoughtful and peaceful events, as opposed to what other cities saw.
There’s nothing like being an elected official in a global pandemic. Even in the dark days of April and again in November, when the infection rates peaked and covid-related deaths increased, I was inspired by the compassion and dedication of our city employees, as well as the All Heart stories of people and organizations helping our most vulnerable populations. I am also grateful for the highly trained staff and equipment that we have on hand to respond when necessary, in any circumstances, like in August, when we had city employees from multiple departments work together for seven days straight to restore order after Storm Isaias.
The year in review is a kaleidoscope of images of a city in action, with public servants who went to extraordinary lengths to respond to multiple crises that were never imagined. We also discovered issues like food insecurity, the digital divide and how critical quality child care and early education programs are to working families. Having lived through 2020, I am confident that we as a community are poised to tackle these larger policy issues as well as anything else that 2021 brings with optimism, creativity and a renewed sense of purpose.
Ellen Zoppo-Sassu is mayor of Bristol.