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Salem's COVID-19 Response - Mayoral Debate Fact Check (Question 3) - October 18, 2021


On October 18, 2021, the Salem News and The Frederick E. Berry Institute of Politics at Salem State University hosted a Salem Mayoral Candidate Forum, at the Sophia Gordon Center at Salem State University. A panel of current Salem State University students questioned candidates for the mayoral position: incumbent Salem Mayor, Kimberley Driscoll, and challenger, Ward 7 City Councillor, Stephen Dibble.


The third question the candidates were asked was about Salem's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and specifically, how we can take an approach that is safe and inclusive for everyone during these challenging times. A transcript of their answers, followed by research we have done related to portions of their responses, follows. In order to watch the video of the this question, follow this link, and begin at minute 23:28:00.

 

Question: “Mayor Driscoll, This question was submitted by a student at Salem State, who asks, ‘Salem is an internationally popular destination because of its rich history. Is there anything more we can do as a community to make it more safe and inclusive for everyone during these challenging times of the COVID-19 pandemic?’”


Driscoll: Thanks so much for that question, and we’re certainly a very popular destination this month! We’ve seen some of the biggest crowds we’ve ever had in an October season, after last year obviously needing to tell people not to come. It just wasn’t safe. What a difference a year makes. A year ago, we didn’t have a vaccine. We certainly had mask mandates in place, both indoors and outdoors. We were telling people not to come to our city because the nooks and crannies in Salem – all the history that people come to see, frankly 12 months out of the year, but most assuredly in October, it just wasn’t safe. Over that last year with COVID, we’ve done a number of things to try to make our community safe, open and strong. That includes, right now in October, we’re one of the few communities on the North Shore that still has a mask mandate indoors. Knowing how many people are traveling here – still – from around the country, we want to make sure that we are not only keeping residents safe, but particularly our front line workers who are at these events and activities, these functions, every single weekend and opportunity they’re happening. We’ve put in place a testing mandate for anyone attending any large-scale event – 100 people or more you’re required to have a negative test prior to gaining entry. We think that’s an important component, because we know all of our under 12 population has not been vaccinated yet – they’re not eligible for the vaccine. Some of the work I’m most proud of over the last year to keep our community safe – I think that’s what your question was referring to with respect to COVID – has to do with the number of testing opportunities we’ve had in our community. We’ve partnered with the State. We have testing in Salem right now, 7 days a week – 2 partnerships with the State’s ‘Stop the Spread’ testing, and one rapid test. Those are extra steps and precautions that we’ve taken to ensure that our visitors and most assuredly the people who live here are safe, and when we first started this pandemic, on this journey, which we’re all learning our way through, we were vital in terms of working with our small business community. One, to provide PPE at a time that it wasn’t readily available, to ensure that we could pivot, and protect our small business owner who were so concerned, not only about their public health of themselves and their staff, but their public wealth. We went from having a 3% unemployment rate to an 18% unemployment rate. By working together, checking on seniors – Salem Together – that program, we had 500 volunteers working in earnest to make sure we were doing wellness checks, providing meals, our food pantry quadrupled. I’m so proud of the resilience of our community, and we did that in concert with our Board of Health, ensuring as we went through this journey over this last year that we were allowing science to lead the way, and putting ourselves on the road for a positive trajectory once we are out of this pandemic.


Dibble: Well, absolutely, I think we need to follow the science, across the board. Back when COVID first hit, we all needed masks, but people could not find them. You could not buy them anywhere. I immediately took action, and with the help of many of our neighbors, they started sewing face masks – washable, cloth face masks, and we delivered. I immediately began delivering masks 7 days a week to over 6,000 homes in Salem, to try and keep everyone safe. That was done the first instance of when COVID first hit. We took action immediately. 6,000 homes. Also, with my good friend over here, Domingo Dominguez, City Councillor, working as a team, we handed out some 7,000 small jugs of free hand sanitizer to Salem residents, businesses, churches, schools, non-profits, anyone who wanted one got one. This administration has flipped back and forth. Politically, not following the science. To cancel Memorial Day parade, and tell veterans to stay home. Do not come and pay your respects to the cemetery. But I was there. I was at the cemetery, like I have been every year out of respect. Well, three days later under the same exact COVID rules, Kim openly bragged at the Pride day, raising the flag at Riley Plaza, saying and waving her hands, ‘we invited you and everybody attended. It’s one of the biggest events we ever had.’ The COVID rules are the same. Hardly anybody wearing a mask at the Pride day. I’ve attended the Pride day. I’ve marched in the parade out of respect for everybody, every year I’ve been a councillor. Well, you can’t have it both ways. The same week – tell the Veterans to stay home – where’s the science? We’re not following it. So, when we look at things like this, you know we have, um, I’ve attended both events like I said, but Kim puts up walls. She’s used the Black population. She’s ignored Salem United, on and on. She’s called the residents of the Willows elitist. She posted on her Facebook page, if you want a single family home, you’re a racist. Mayor Usovicz, met with – the previous mayor, Mayor Usovicz, met with religious leaders… oh! (crowd noise)... Mayor Usovicz met with religious leaders and Kim Driscoll decided she said she was going to do the same but instead she locked the door and kept them out. This is in their words.

 

Here is the research, conducted by Salem 4 All, in response to some of these statements by the candidates:

 

Driscoll:


1. "We went from having a 3% unemployment rate to an 18% unemployment rate."


TRUE


From the Department of Unemployment Assistance section of the website for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, we can see that these figures are consistent with those determined by the Commonwealth.



Driscoll:


2. "...Salem Together - that program we had 500 volunteers..."


UNABLE TO VERIFY


On April 15, 2020, approximately one month after Salem began taking COVID-19 related precautions, the following article was published in the Salem News, in which it was reported that approximately 600 volunteers had signed up to participate in the program at that point. Aside from this news article, we were unable to independently verify these numbers:

Click here to learn more about the program, and the activities of the volunteers over the past year.

 

Dibble:


1. "I immediately began delivering masks 7 days a week to over 6,000 homes in Salem"


UNABLE TO VERIFY


Councillor Dibble reported several times over Facebook and through other channels at the beginning of the pandemic that he was coordinating the distribution of hundreds of cloth masks, sewn by several volunteers in his ward. While it is true that he was distributing masks through a coordinated effort, we were unable to independently verify the number of masks he and this team distributed. According to the numbers Councillor Dibble provided in this update that he posted on Facebook on April 9 of 2020, just under a month after Salem had begun COVID-19 precautions, he had personally distributed 3,370 masks, and was planning to continue the effort, though he reports here that only 600 had been to “homes in Salem” at this point. It is unclear how long this effort continued.



Dibble:

2. "7,000 small jugs of free hand sanitizer to Salem residents, businesses, churches, schools, non-profits, anyone"


UNABLE TO VERIFY


On April 30, 2021, just shy of one year after Salem began COVID-19 precautions, Councillor Dibble shared this status update on Facebook, indicating that someone had donated "hundreds of jugs" of hand sanitizer to be distributed in a similar fashion as the face masks had been the year before. It is unclear how long, or in what fashion the distribution of hand sanitizer proceeded, and whether these "hundreds of jugs" were the beginning or the same as "7,000 small jugs", as we were unable to find any additional documentation of this effort.


Dibble:


3. "To cancel Memorial Day parade, and tell veterans to stay home. Do not come and pay your respects to the cemetery. But I was there. I was at the cemetery, like I have been every year out of respect. Well, three days later under the same exact COVID rules, Kim openly bragged at the Pride day, raising the flag at Riley Plaza... The same week – tell the Veterans to stay home..."


MISLEADING


We found this timeline of regulations listed on the New England tourism website:

The dates of the two events in question were as follows:

  • Memorial Day Parade: May 31, 2021

  • Pride Flag Raising: June 3, 2021

While it is true that these two events fell during the same phase of regulations, they appear to have fallen under different specific sets of rules. Outdoor gathering limits were at 250 people at the time, while the guidelines for parades indicated that they should be limited to 50% of their previous capacity.


This article about the Pride Flag Raising from the Salem Gazette indicated that it had been a "banner year" for the event, with an estimate of about 150 attendees.


This flyer from the city's Veteran's Services Department was sent out indicating that the city's Veteran's Agent was asking the public to view the event from home, online and later on SATV.




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