Coronavirus in Massachusetts: Millions spent on hotels to house homeless, others infected during pandemic

MEMA spent $6M-plus in FY20, state P-card records show

TAUNTON, MA. – AUGUST 14 Holiday Inn on August 14, 2020 in Taunton, Massachusetts. State procurement cards, shows money spent on hotels so people could shelter in hotels away from family members while sick with COVID-19. (Staff Photo By Matt Stone/ MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)

The state’s emergency management agency — usually taking the lead for hurricanes and blizzards — has spent millions during the pandemic to shelter 550-plus people infected with coronavirus in hotels, records show.

The agency used a state-issued P-card, or procurement card, at hotels located in “strategic locations” to house those infected with COVID-19 who didn’t need hospitalization, but had nowhere else to go.

They included the homeless and others who had to stay away from family members, said Christopher Besse, Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency spokesman.

In total, MEMA spent $6.2 million last fiscal year ending June 30 on P-card charges — mostly for those hotels in Taunton, Everett, Revere, Lexington, Springfield and Pittsfield.

MEMA spent the most — $1.5 million — at the Holiday Inn in Taunton, according to P-card records provided to the Herald under the Public Records law. Payments were made in chunks of $125,860, mostly in April, May and June, records show.

Besse said the state is attempting to be reimbursed by the federal government under the CARES Act or from Federal Emergency Management Agency funds. He added they used a P-card to reserve the hotel space to brace for the worst.

“In order to provide a safe place for individuals with COVID-19 to isolate and to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, the Commonwealth opened several Isolation and Recovery Sites at hotels in strategic locations,” Besse said in a statement.

“These hotels have housed more than 550 individuals across the Commonwealth and provide housing and wraparound services to individuals with COVID-19 who are homeless, are unable to isolate at home due to overcrowding or having high-risk household members, and those who are otherwise unstably housed,” Besse added.

Besse said the hotels needed to be opened “rapidly” and required “timely payment on a recurring basis.” P-cards are given out to state agencies for emergency purchases.

MEMA is not alone in being forced to use P-cards fast.

The Massachusetts Military Division also used a P-card to feed Army National Guard troops. Some of those soldiers were called in to Boston after protests in late May gave way to violence and looting from Downtown Crossing to Copley Square. They left after tensions cooled. The Guard also assisted in distributing food during the pandemic, especially in hard-hit Chelsea.

How taxpayer money was spent during the pandemic — from the $2.2 trillion CARES Act to state allocations — will be scrutinized for years to come. But being decisive, a former top government official forced to deal with numerous crises said, is vital at the start.

“In the beginning of the pandemic, we were dealing with more unknowns than knowns,” the official, who ask to remain anonymous, told the Herald Sunday. “This is unprecedented. In a time of crisis you have to make decisions quickly.

“Plus, we knew dealing with the homeless, who can’t easily socially distant, would be a problem,” he said, adding he supports the job Gov. Charlie Baker is doing in Massachusetts. “There will be lots of reviews on where the money was spent, but after we get through this.”

Paul Craney, spokesman for MassFiscal Alliance, said going forward, government spending needs to be more measured.

“There was a lot of patience early on in the pandemic to figure out how to best respond to the virus, but housing the homeless in temporary hotels is not a long term solution,” he said.

“It’s important government learns how to deal with the virus,” he added, “as the private sector has.”