SUMMIT, NJ - The City of Summit Common Council, at its July 28 meeting, heard from Westfield Regional Health Department (WRHD) Director Megan Avallone who, who spoke to the virtual gathering about local trends in COVID-19 cases, contact tracing, testing, and quarantining. The WRHD is a government agency that provides local public health and environmental health services and serves Westfield, Summit, Chatham Borough, Fanwood, Garwood, Mountainside, New Providence and Roselle Park.
Avallone began on a positive note, saying that “New Jersey is doing great. We’re the only state in the nation to see a decline (in cases) in two weeks,” but added that the transmission rate has crept over 1.0 again. In Summit, there is an increase in young adults ages 17-21, a demographic that constitutes half of the town's new cases in July. She noted that middle-aged and older people have modified their behavior while young adults, on the other hand, begin with good intentions but then fail to consistently follow through with social distancing and mask-wearing.
Describing the WRHD’s contact tracing efforts, Avallone revealed some people don’t return calls, or are less than forthcoming with their information. She shared an infographic stressing that contact information is valuable, confidential, and safe -- and non-judgmental. If new cases can be found quickly, that helps stop the spread. Tracers can direct individuals to the help they need, even if it’s not necessarily COVID-related, such as mental health resources.
The tracing team, made up largely of nurses, has interviewed some 1,500 people to date.
The WRHD is currently working with the Summit Board of Education and acting superintendent on finalizing school reopening plans. It’s also starting to think about what vaccination clinics will look like when a vaccine is ready.
Council Member at Large Beth Little asked how the department reaches subjects. Avallone replied, “We’re really, really persistent,” using the phone numbers provided on the lab requisition forms filled out by those being tested. Positive cases are referred to the department for follow-up. Tracers will call, leave a message if necessary, and then text if possible. Using both her office phone and her work cell to make calls, she does run into people who are uncomfortable talking to a number they don’t recognize. In those cases, the tracer provides the Department’s office number and invites the subject to call them.
Council President Marjorie Fox asked about quarantining. The span is 10 days from when someone tests positive or the onset of symptoms, or until 24 hours after symptoms resolve, whichever is later, said Avallone. Someone who’s been exposed to a case should quarantine for 14 days. She noted that labs – there are three main ones in the US – are experiencing considerable delays in processing tests at the present time. Asked if quarantining is mandatory, Avallone replied, “We are not the quarantine police... but I think the expectation is that as members of the community, we want to protect those really vulnerable community members, and truly the best way to do that is to stay home for the quarantine period.” Fox also asked if case statistic reports could be more detailed, but Avallone responded that the health department needs to ensure any data released is non-identifying, especially in a smaller community like Summit.
Susan Hairston, Ward 1 Council Member, pointed out that Avallone is also president of the New Jersey Association of County and City Health Officials, so she’s “well plugged in” to what’s happening around the state. Hairston said that while it’s not released, demographic information is collected and monitored for trends, pointing to possible interventions. Asked about antibody testing, Avallone said the tests are improving, and can confirm if someone has had the novel coronavirus. But she warned they’re not 100% accurate, and can be cross-reactive with seasonal viruses like the common cold. The CDC has just released guidance that antibodies can confer immunity for three months, but it’s still unknown how long immunity lasts beyond that time. Consequently, it’s essential to continue to follow safety protocols. As for schools, she said, it appears the most effective viral spread is through person-to-person social interaction, not surfaces. That allows controls to be put in place to help keep students and staff safe, she said. Camp programs in the City are also being monitored and inspected to ensure safety.
Asked by David Naidu, Ward 1 Council Member, who should be tested for the virus, Avallone answered that the focus is on those who may have been exposed or who are symptomatic.
Ward 2 Council Member Greg Vartan asked whether the WRHD expects a staffing shortage when school nurses return to their posts this fall. On the contrary, Avallone said, they’re not currently using school nurses but have hired a few to help out with evening and weekend calls. The entire team is being trained on a new system to be ready in case there is an increase in cases this fall.
Henry Bassman, Hartley Road, asked what kind of FEMA and state support is being received. The WRHD has received a “small amount of funding” from the New Jersey Department of Health, and that local public health agencies have received less than 1% of the money that went to the state Department of Health. Calling her colleagues “hidden heroes” preventing the public from getting sick, she noted they have been underfunded and under-resourced since before the pandemic hit.
Karen Raihofer, Park View Terrace, wondered if she’d need to self-quarantine after a one-day trip to drop off her son at the University of Richmond, following social distancing guidelines. Virginia is on the list of New Jersey’s travel advisory states. Avallone noted the quarantine is voluntary but expected, so if individuals can quarantine, that’s the ideal. The hope is that residents will self-monitor for symptoms, and upon returning home, even if they feel their risk level is low, do the best they can to stay home for the next two weeks.
There was a short schedule of resolutions. Vartan moved two under Finance. The first canceled unspent balances from past capital improvement projects dating back as far as 2011, with savings ranging from eleven cents to $237,000. The total savings was $1,870,515.19; of that, $984,931.37 was bonded and will be returned to the capital improvement fund or the capital surplus. This will allow the City to borrow less for future projects. His second resolution amended the budget to accept a 2020 Clean Communities Grant in the amount of $39,752.48 to pay for downtown weekend trash pickup. This resolution also properly reclassified the grant money as a Clean Communities line item rather than a recycling tonnage grant line item.
Ward 2 Council Member Steve Bowman’s sole Law & Labor resolution authorized the transfer to a distribution liquor license from D&M Liquors to Cambridge Wine Cellar, LLC, at 320 Springfield Avenue. Bowman noted how it was encouraging to see a business opening at this time.
Naidu’s sole Administrative Policies & Community Services resolution confirmed the mayoral appointment of Justin Joffee as a new member to the Technology Advisory Committee. Vartan abstained in this vote.
A trio of Community Programs & Parking Services resolutions was moved by Ward 1 Council Member Danny O’Sullivan. The first awarded a bid for the resurfacing of the pools at the Family Aquatic Center to CFM Construction of Sterling in the amount of $463,307.50. O'Sullivan noted it’s been 14 years since the pool was last resurfaced, well past its expected eight- to 12-year lifespan. CFM Construction opens and closes the pools annually. Work will begin at the end of the swim season.
His second resolution awarded a bid for the Broad Street Garage repair project, in the amount of $308,770, to South Shore Construction of Woodbridge, a firm which has worked for Summit in the past. The work will be done between August 1 and 23, during which time the garage will be closed and permit holders should use the Broad Street East lot. The bid is $61,000 below the engineer’s estimated cost, in part because the work will be done on weekdays rather than incurring overtime costs. Funds for this project are already in the Parking Utility capital improvement fund. In February, Council approved a professional services agreement with Boswell Engineering to oversee this project; they will be on site to superintend.
O’Sullivan’s final resolution allowed the YMCA to erect a tent and use about a dozen spaces in the Library / YMCA parking lot for outdoor exercise from August 1 to October 15 from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. In a survey, 286 YMCA members said they were interested in outdoor classes. The YMCA will have to comply with a number of state and local requirements, and will bring all gym equipment inside overnight.
Little had three Capital Projects & Community Services resolutions. The first authorized a change order for the Wallace Road improvement project, which increased $1,870.88 because of the actual quantities of materials used. The project mitigated a long-standing flooding problem. Little’s second resolution awarded a $63,960 bid for the Fall City-wide tree planting to SJC Lawn Care, who also performed the Spring planting. One hundred and seventy trees, many of them native species, will be planted within the City right-of-way as part of a plan to add 1,000 trees in memory of late Council member Matt Gould -- $24,000 of the project is funded by Greening Union County grants.
Eighty trees have already been planted this year, and the County will be planting 150 trees in the Fall. Property owners receiving trees will be notified; they can comment and choose a species. Paul Cascais, Department of Community Services director, added that the trees are guaranteed for a year, so that in addition to watering the trees if needed, property owners should report any decline in the tree’s health to the City.
The final resolution amended the professional services agreement with the City’s redevelopment attorney, Maraziti Falcon, LLP, reducing the final contract amount to not exceed $30,000.
All resolutions passed.
Ordinarily the consent agenda is voted on as a bloc, with little fanfare, but Vartan added an item from the floor, authorizing the City treasurer to pay bills from now through August 14, the end of the next billing cycle. The Council will review those payment requests at its first September meeting following the August break.
The amended consent agenda passed.
In public comments, Esperanza Urrego, owner of Esperanza’s Salon and Spa at 32 Maple Street, wanted to know if there were rules governing people offering cosmetic and stylist services in a client’s home. She explained that after being closed for three and a half months, her salon and others are now allowed to reopen, but only with strict COVID hygiene standards being practiced. She expressed dismay at seeing independent hairdressers using social media to promote their services at discount prices in private homes. She asked how the community could be encouraged to support salons. City Solicitor Matthew Giacobbe said that any cosmetology practitioner must be licensed by the state, and services must be offered in a licensed facility, where inspections ensure they’re safe and hygienic. As the Council has no jurisdiction, he suggested Urrego report violators to the state Division of Cosmetology, agreeing that people “should go to licensed facilities.”
Eileen Kelly, Woodland Avenue, wondered why Summit received none of the $6 million in small business grants announced by the governor over the weekend, and whether the City would pursue those. Radest explained those funds were distributed on a formula based on wealth and demographics, and Summit does not meet the criteria.
In her mayor's report, Radest noted that The Mayor’s Forum on Diversity will hold an online discussion on August 8 at 9 a.m. to examine issues of systemic racism and ethnic bias. She urged everyone who’s able to tune in to do so, remarking, “It is only by embracing and understanding our differences that we can create opportunities for marginalized citizens and strengthen our community.
She also provided an update on the CARES Act relief. An additional $15 million has been provided to the state’s Economic Development Authority’s small business emergency grant program. While the program is oversubscribed and no new applications are being taken, these funds will be put towards existing requests.
City Administrator Michael Rogers reminded residents that estimated tax bills were sent out and payments are due August 1; penalties will be assessed beginning August 11.
Dog and cat license renewals are due August 31.
In her Council President’s Report, Fox noted that the New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT) has extended approvals for outdoor dining and expanded public spaces on Maple Street through August 30. She encouraged residents to support those businesses.
New Jersey Transit has received more than 245,000 masks from the USDOT and Federal Transit Administration, to be distributed at numerous stations and customer service offices. Masks are required on all trains and buses.
The Common Council’s next scheduled meeting is September 1.