At an initial cost of $25,000, this is one of hundreds of projects across the region using federal CARES Act money to promote public safety.

Residents, workers and visitors can get real-time details about the COVID-19 pandemic, and local merchants will be able to promote their businesses, as new e-ink screens and 42-inch displays are installed in downtown Amherst.

“Because they can help spread health information, we realized this project would benefit those without reliable access to technology,” says Brianna Sunryd, the town’s communications manager, who helped lead an initiative to obtain the Soofa solar information and emergency communication kiosks.

At an initial cost of $25,000, this is one of hundreds of projects across the region using federal CARES Act money to promote public safety, to aid families and people who have been directly affected financially by the pandemic — and to protect town and school employees from the spread of infection.

As December ends, cities and towns are doing the last work in identifying projects that can be reimbursed through either the CARES Act or the Federal Emergency Management Agency. A second COVID relief bill, this time for $900 billion, has passed Congress, but doesn’t include aid for local governments.

For most communities, an emphasis for the initial CARES Act money has been on improving the physical structure of school and municipal buildings, such as through new ventilation and air handling equipment, installation of plexiglass barriers, and purchasing safety equipment, personal protective gear, hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies.

But the money also has given towns the ability to have remote meetings and make sure public officials and municipal employees can connect and work remotely, to reduce the food insecurity that has been exacerbated by the loss of jobs, and to otherwise help out people whose livelihoods have been affected.

A two-page memo from the state explains that uses for the money can range from first responder costs and Board of Health staffing to short-term rental and mortgage support and unemployment claims. The state has set up a portal that allows for quick review of any proposed spending and for municipal officials to ask questions about whether a project qualifies.

This has caused consternation, at times, as Holyoke city officials sought direct cash transfers to families, with prepaid debit cards to be used for clothing, food, rent, and technology for those with children in preschool through fifth grade. The project was rejected.

In Northampton, where the city has received $1.78 million and is eligible for $2.53 million, $957,963 went to the schools for expenses including HVAC upgrades and technology, including Chromebooks, computer software, and remote learning preparation and training. Money also went toward breakfast and lunch to-go meal programs.

City departments shared $656,091.

“A significant portion of these funds has also paid for additional public health staffing to carry out investigation, education, and enforcement activities, including our COVID-19 ambassadors, COVID-19 compliance staff (and) overtime for public health nurses and support staff,” Mayor David Narkewicz wrote in an email.

Signs in business districts, recreation areas and along rail trails have been bought with the money, as well as personal protective equipment and hand sanitizer for distribution to the public. Money also was used for hardware and software for city employees to work remotely, other HVAC upgrades and plexiglass barriers in offices, and port-a-potties downtown.

Finally, $130,000 went to efforts and organizations addressing food insecurity, including the Northampton Survival Center, Grow Food Northampton and Manna Community Kitchen.

In Amherst, the town matched $10,000 from the CARES Act to $5,000 provided by the Downtown Amherst Foundation, the fund established by the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce and Amherst Business Improvement District, to create December Dinner Delights. This program provided 100 meals twice a week to 30 qualifying families, and also financially supported the participating local restaurants.

Significantly more money, including $1.53 million for schools, includes software, planning time, school distance learning expenses, devices for students and staff and incremental costs of special education services required under individual education plans for a remote, distance, or alternative location.

Another $790,000 went for personal protective equipment and $480,000 for cleaning and disinfecting buildings, with $137,000 to pay for five additional firefighters and paramedics. “So if they got ill or we needed force support,” said Town Manager Paul Bockelman.

In Easthampton, where close to $1.41 million was received, Mayor Nicole LaChapelle said most of the funding, or 62.6%, has been allocated to technology, with the next biggest category directed toward meals at 12.5% and travel at 9.7%. Smaller allocations went toward reimbursement for expenses including salaries, personal protective equipment and costs related to quarantine.

Southampton has been approved for $223,430 in CARES Act funding, said Town Administrator and Chief Financial Officer Ed Gibson. The $160,000 spent so far has bought personal protective gear and other equipment for first responders and municipal employees, cleaning and disinfecting supplies and contact tracing services; and paying public safety employees for extra hours related to the pandemic.

The town is “expecting to spend the remaining funding on additional PPE, social distancing applications, contact tracing and remote IT technology and cleaning and disinfecting supplies and services,” Gibson said. The town has applied for an additional $322,000 in funding, which Gibson said would mostly go toward remote technology support for students and town departments, additional social distancing measures at the library and Council on Aging, meals for the senior population and Community Cupboard.

In Williamsburg, $33,034 was spent on PPE, staff for contact tracing, a tent for town meeting, “and to offset school costs above and beyond the school CARES Act funding,” Charlene Nardi, town administrator, wrote in an email. There was also $99,321 for air purifiers for six town buildings, PPE, and “the extra funds will be used to help support the extra local school costs associated with remote learning,” Nardi wrote.

In Hadley, $471,000 is available.

“That is gratefully appreciated by the town of Hadley,” said Deputy Town Administrator David Nixon. “We’re trying to utilize all of that money for the town during the pandemic.”

Hadley Fire Chief Michael Spanknebel, as emergency management director, worked with FEMA to determine what qualified for that reimbursement, while procurement officers have done the same with the CARES Act portal.

“We anticipate everything we’ve asked for meets someone’s critieria along the line,” Nixon said.

Hatfield is eligible for $289,000 and spent around $243,000, the largest expense being $77,660 for new HVAC systems at the schools and $26,100 for student laptops.

Belchertown was pre-approved for $550,000 in CARES Act funds and its primary expenditures have been for technology upgrades at Town Hall, such as a new phone system, cleaning supplies, and covering the cost of extra shifts during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“With a number of town employees working remotely, we need to invest in the technological infrastructure to do our best to maintain services for residents and taxpayers,” Select Board member Edward Boscher said.

Westhampton has so far received around $144,000 in CARES Act funding, according to Planning Board Chairwoman Susan Bronstein, and has spent around one-third of the funding. The town plans to spend much of the money by the end of the month, according to Bronstein. Funding so far has supported the town’s schools, library, Town Hall, election safety measures and other public health protocols, Bronstein said.

The remaining spending will go toward “a lot more of the same,” Bronstein said, such as cleaning, disinfecting and other measures to maintain public health in buildings used by the public.

In Worthington, $35,458 spent so far from CARES Act mostly went to the R H Conwell Elementary School to cover expenses related to teaching students outside in tents. Just over half of the $48,735 used in Chesterfield went to New Hingham Regional Elementary School. The remainder went for renting a large tent for its annual Town Meeting and the cost of a public health nurse to do contact tracing and other public health tasks.

On the town side, Plainfield’s money is going toward personal protective equipment for first responders, health board staff, remote technology equipment, and plexiglass guards at Town Hall. For schools, $11,000 will reimburse the Mohawk Trail School District for remote-learning devices.

Bockelman said CARES Act has been an essential program with clear-cut directives. “They’ve been very responsive to that process, the state did very well with it,” Bockelman said.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is not subject to an arbitrary expiration deadline, however,” Narkewicz wrote, “which is why I have been part of a broad coalition of local and state leaders — including Governor Baker — calling upon the leadership of Congress and the President to fund an extension of CARES Act and other critical funding programs aimed at combating both the public health and economic catastrophe brought on by this deadly virus.”

Originally published at Gazette net