In the April 21 virtual Bethlehem City Council meeting, city officials discussed a litany of ways in which the city is managing the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and working to mitigate its spread.
The meeting was live streamed via YouTube with no live audience, and only a handful of council members present.
Kristen Wenrich, the director of the Bethlehem Health Bureau, provided an update on COVID-19 in Bethlehem. As of April 20, there were 372 known cases in Bethlehem and three deaths.
She said the health bureau investigates all positive cases and is conducting contact-tracing, assisting infected individuals in notifying those who were in close contact with them so they can be placed in quarantine.
The bureau is also seeing an increase in household infection. If someone in a house tests positive and has a household member that is showing symptoms, they are not recommended for testing but are counted as a probable case.
“I can tell you that is not something that is being done statewide, but we felt that it was important because that is something that is now being entered into the case count,” Wenrich said. “We are looking at probable cases as well as confirmed cases.”
Due to a shortage of tests, the Lehigh Valley Health Network has put criteria in place on who is eligible for testing, reserving it for high priority groups like those who are above 65 or suffer from chronic medical conditions, Wenrich said.
The Bethlehem Health Bureau is also working with nonprofits to ensure that vulnerable populations such as the homeless and elderly are looked after. Wenrich said that portable toilets and hand washing facilities have been placed near homeless facilities.
Lastly, the Health Bureau has assigned staff to follow up on calls made by workers complaining about potential COVID-19 exposure at their workplace.
“That is the most frequent call we’re receiving at the health bureau,” Wenrich said. “Employees concerned about the conditions at their worksite. Any complaint we get, I have a staff person assigned and they’re following up with those complaints, contacting those businesses to provide education on mitigation efforts.”
Mayor Robert Donchez proceeded to share other city updates while thanking first responders and city residents for their cooperation — including the production of nearly 1,000 masks for city workers.
Donchez said all parking in garages and at meters is now free.
Year-end income tax and business privilege tax filing dates have been moved by the state to July 15. Payment for the real estate tax can now be made between May 29 and August 10.
“We understand these are really difficult times for many people, so we’re trying to show some compassion here,” Donchez said.
Donchez said capital spending supposed to total nearly $7 million this year will be deferred to 2021-22. He said he is confident in the city’s financial strength, and believes that over the last seven to eight years, the city has made improvements in its budget and fiscal stability.
Furloughing city workers is a last resort option for him, and said it’s one he hopes not to take, even as Allentown and Easton announced furloughs of over 80 city workers each.
“Especially with (people filing for unemployment), it would not be a win for the city financially,” Donchez said.
The city has cut back, however, on part time and overtime work, Business Administrator Eric Evans told The Brown and White on April 20.
Robert Novatnack, the emergency management coordinator, said only one city employee has tested positive for the virus. He said that emergency medical services are fully supplied and funded, and that first responders are taking necessary social distancing precautions when possible to ensure their safety.
“It’s a really scary and depressing time for a lot of individuals and a lot of families,” said Adam Wadron, city council president. “People are turning to question the reality of the information that they’re getting, so when we’re able to have these conversations, I think it’s really helpful for folks to hear what the data is showing and what the expert’s thoughts are.”