By ELLEN ZOPPO-SASSU
March marks one year of living with covid in communities. So much has happened over the last 12 months it actually feels like a longer span of time. Yet, similar to the hint of spring that gives us hope as we endure the winter the City Council members and I hope this spring will be very different than last year. During my weekly grocery shopping trip yesterday, I couldn’t help but compare the difference from last March - the tense silence as people shopped, the empty shelves, working with the Chamber to distribute masks and other PPE to businesses, reduced traffic on the streets and a general unease on what the future held.
As the local economy continues to slowly reopen, there are a series of intertwined economic, public health and public relations dilemmas we are discussing at City Hall, including how we can support businesses to reduce the risk of infection while working to increase consumer confidence so people patronize them, which is one piece to the larger scenario.
The best comparison of what the “new normal” will be can be compared to a dimmer switch - the idea that as restrictions loosen, the businesses will still not be fully open nor fully closed but will balance against the weight of local infection and hospitalization rates. Fortunately for us, our data has been tracking in the right way, showing reduced infection rates according to the Bristol-Burlington Health District, along with Bristol Health and the community health centers - agencies that have valiantly filled the role of testing, contact tracing and now vaccinating.
Another challenge we face are the many social/physical distancing policies that are difficult to enforce. The tension between government restrictions and residents’ and businesses’ civil rights is a constant topic, with some criticizing the policies for going too far and others for not going far enough. To date, Bristol has not had to issue tickets for Sector Rule violations, preferring instead to make personal visits or call the businesses that generate complaints to ensure they have the resources to follow the rules, understand the rules and will commit to following them to avoid financial penalties.
The pandemic has also revealed the need to upgrade policies and systems including transportation, social services and economic aid to businesses. Repurposing sidewalks, parking lots and sections of the road - unthinkable due to zoning restrictions in normal times - became the norm last summer as the city expedited outdoor seating to ensure proper distancing. This is one small example of how the emergency measures taken during the pandemic may prove to be viable permanent solutions. Distance learning, safe schools and working from home has fast-tracked our discussions about the digital divide and a broadband network. Resolving food insecurity has become a priority of the city along with the United Way.
As state and federal relief efforts fail to provide businesses the working capital they require like the Payroll Protection Program (PPP) and the State DECD grant programs, Bristol is currently considering how to make strategic investments to help the local businesses that have been holding on for the last year. Many of these investments would require federal assistance to help cope with the economic downturn caused by the pandemic, such as what was promised in the Coronavirus Relief Fund that passed the House this past weekend, and was headed to the Senate.
The tragic loss of more than 130 Bristol lives due to covid-19 will leave an indelible mark on the community as the Spanish Flu did in 1918, the scores of Bristol men lost to war and the devastation of the Flood of 1955.
Yet, as the calendar marks the year, there is cautious optimism as we take stock of where we are now. The business loss was small, a testament to both the resiliency and determination of our small business community and the customers who steadfastly stood by them. The Economic Development Team, which includes our Building and Land Use divisions, has never been busier. More than 16 new businesses started during the pandemic and accessed City of Bristol assistance to do so, while the assessor noted 157 additional business accounts on his books, many of them home-based. Dozens of businesses accessed the first round of PPP funding, bringing hundreds of thousands of dollars to their bottom lines, and many restaurants were selected for the State assistance program.
The down time may have also allowed business leaders to thoughtfully plan their new chapter. To date, we have options on the remaining downtown Centre Square parcels with the exception of one, and all of the remaining lots in the Southeast Industrial Business Park are also under contract. Within the next 6 months, there will be construction on Main Street for that mixed use building, at the corner of North Main and Rt. 6 for the Kind Care assisted living facility and the state DOT project in the West End. This is in addition to the Memorial Boulevard project, expansion of the Doubletree Hotel, the 36 townhouses on Main Street and the proposed development across from City Hall. There are several other initiatives in the works the City Council and I will be excited to unveil in the coming months as we, along with the state and country turn the page on this covid chapter of our collective history.
Ellen Zoppo-Sassu is the mayor of Bristol.