New Bedford, MassachusettsAt the heart of Fishing Vessel William Lee is a miniscule area to share meals. Crew members pack around a table just a few inches from an electric stove, which is outfitted with metal guards to stop piping-hot cookware from sliding onto them as the boat rocks on the Atlantic Ocean. About seven people will spend anywhere from 10 to 12 days at a time sharing these close quarters as they search for scallops, a famously lucrative and sustainable New England fishery.
In New Bedford, Massachusetts, where the William Lee docks, scalloping season begins in April. But in 2020, that aligned tragically with something else arriving on U.S. shores: a deadly pandemic.
Roughly 390 million pounds of seafood a year come through this place. A third of that is fished locally, while the rest is processed here but comes from Canadian, Scandinavian, and other international waters. After New Bedford processes and packages this mega-haul, the seafood is distributed globally via Boston and New York City. Whether you’re dining on poached halibut in Milwaukee or pan-seared scallops in Copenhagen, New Bedford almost certainly set the “market value” on the menu.
But nearby transportation hubs became the nation’s earliest viral epicenters, bottlenecking the supply chain. Heavy hits to the restaurant industry soon followed, causing auction prices for seafood to plummet even as the cost of the fishing expeditions—fuel, groceries, salaries, and tons of ice—remained high.
On top of the financial woes, the tight quarters aboard the William Lee worried owner Chad Maguire. When I visited New Bedford in October 2020, he showed me a contingency plan he and several other fishermen pulled together in the spring—in lieu of any official regulatory guidance at the time—after word spread of COVID-19 outbreaks on two other local fishing vessels. If someone on board developed symptoms, they would be banished to a cot in the forepeak, a grim, airless crawlspace at the very tip of the boat normally used for storage. The rest of the crew would immediately abort the fishing trip and bring the vessel back to shore at a shared deficit of about $15,000. (The per capita income in New Bedford is $25,829.)
The fear was that New Bedford might suffer the same superspreading events that ravaged cities linked to meat processing in the Midwest. Strikingly, that fate did not come to pass.
In the face of a pandemic, this small New England city retraced its history dealing with past outbreaks of communicable diseases, and officials and community members expediently prioritized the science around the novel coronavirus. The response wasn’t perfect, and low-wage workers on the frontlines initially bore the brunt before precautions were adopted. But in many ways, New Bedford is a rare coronavirus success story among the nation’s food processing hubs.
Acquainted with quarantine
Settled by Europeans in 1652, New Bedford first rose to prominence due to whaling—an industry that lit the world’s oil lamps and by 1857 had made it “the wealthiest city per capita in North America.” It is also the port from which Ishmael first takes sail in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Beyond whaling, its post-colonial history resembles that of many coastal cities around the world: shifts in industry, waves of immigration, periods of economic turmoil and rebuilding—and repeatedly staving off communicable diseases better than inland neighbors.
“Seaports have a fundamental built-in understanding of quarantine,” says Michael Dyer, curator of maritime history at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. “Part of being a seaport, in any part of the world, is the reality of bringing in diseases.”
As the city’s whaling industry gave way to the textile industry in the mid-1800s, more European immigrants arrived by boat, bringing with them airborne diseases such as tuberculosis, diphtheria, and smallpox. Ships arriving at port were required to quarantine just offshore in Buzzards Bay until a health officer gave the vessel and its passengers a clean bill of health.
When the 1918 flu epidemic made its way to New Bedford about 75 years later, the city proactively educated residents about hygiene and mask-wearing, and they lost 774 residents out of a total population of 119,000—a fatality rate of about 0.6 percent, compared to 2.5 percent globally. One of those deaths was a 31-year-old police officer assigned to remove victims’ bodies from their homes, and he happened to be the great-grandfather of New Bedford’s current mayor, Jon Mitchell.
Mitchell says he only saw his grandfather get emotional twice: Once as he relayed what it was like, as an American soldier, to liberate the Dachau concentration camp in southern Germany, and once when he talked about his father dying of the 1918 flu. “In my family, [the 1918 flu epidemic] was just something that was always there, and I think on some level I internalized that,” says Mitchell.
Few cases of COVID-19 had appeared in the city when Mitchell took the seemingly aggressive stance to cancel the New Bedford Half Marathon on March 10, a day before the World Health Organization characterized the virus as a pandemic. For decades, this run has served as a high-profile warmup for the Boston Marathon, and Mitchell received public blowback over the decision. By the end of March, the city still only had 44 COVID-19 cases recorded.
But this type of “overreacting” and heeding scientists early on has, so far, paid off.
On the pier
Pier 3 in New Bedford is what tourists expect of New England. An ice cream shop, a clam shack, and an upscale seafood restaurant enliven a concrete dock flanked by stately fishing vessels. After catching scallops, cod, haddock, and other seafood, then stopping to unload at one of the dozens of processing plants along the banks of the Acushnet River, the boats anchor here and at several nearby piers.
In the spring of 2020, a less classic ornament began parking on the dock every Thursday: a van for mobile COVID-19 testing.
Worried that one of the picturesque boats would spark a major outbreak, crew members, boat owners, city officials, and health-care workers coordinated a progressive plan centered on free access to preventative health care. By May 1—when most other U.S. testing protocols still required proof of high-risk travel or displayed symptoms—the city’s health department had partnered with a local health-care provider, Southcoast Health, to turn mobile units normally used as flu clinics into COVID-19 testing centers that could meet ships at the pier. The offshore wind industry footed the bill.
With results available in 24 to 48 hours, Southcoast could vet crew members during the two- to three-day windows they remain on shore between fishing trips. Suddenly, these boats were not outbreaks waiting to happen but ideal places for crewmates to “bubble” in safety. Support for this community resource was swift and enthusiastic, and the scene by the testing van can get as lively as a small-town bar.
“I’ve been here like 30 times,” Russell Isabella said after a health technician shoved a swab into his nasopharynx, his boats—the Hear No Evil and the Temptress—bobbing behind him off the edge of the pier. When Isabella was done, he popped up to chat with the Southcoast staff and other fishermen and boat owners who had also stopped by for tests. To date, only four fishing vessels have dealt with positive cases; all of them were contained before creating an outbreak.
The progress does not mean that New Bedford is currently COVID-free. It’s just coming off a multi-week streak of reporting more than a hundred new cases a day. As of publishing, Bristol County, which contains New Bedford and many of the cities where its workforce lives, has a seven-day average of 58 positive cases per 100,000 residents, the highest rate in the state—higher than Middlesex, the most populous county in Massachusetts.
Most of the county’s positive cases can be traced back to hospitals, universities, prisons, and long-term care facilities—not the fishing vessels or New Bedford’s numerous onshore industrial facilities. In the earliest days, though, some of the industry’s most vital workers did fall through the cracks.
On an unseasonably warm afternoon in October, Corinn Williams walked me up and down Acushnet Avenue, the vibrant hub of immigrant communities in New Bedford since the mid-1800s. We passed a 1908 Catholic church built by French-Canadian textile workers, several Portuguese cafes, and a fried chicken restaurant she says once housed her Polish grandmother’s bridal shop.
The side streets are lined with rows of triple-deckers—a type of three-story apartment building common in New England that was first constructed in the 19th century as an economical way to house factory workers. Today, these structures are home to the mostly Central American immigrants who support the city’s commercial fishing industry. For 23 years, the neighborhood has also been home to Williams’ nonprofit organization, Community Economic Development Center (CEDC).
The center works with lower-wage community members to open bank accounts, prepare taxes, learn English, paint murals, and turn abandoned buildings into new businesses. In 2020, however, all of this work took a backburner to the most pressing needs: delivering care packages of food and medicine when a local fell ill with COVID-19, and filling the financial gap when workers exhausted their paid sick leave or never had any to begin with.
When the pandemic hit, there wasn’t a unified way for people in the seafood industry to lobby their employers for protections. In 1968, four of the seven seafood-related unions for the entire state of Massachusetts were based in New Bedford. Today, only one remains: the longshoreman’s union, which must also act on behalf of workers who load and unload cargo ships at the town’s port.
On April 13, a coalition of seafood processing workers from a group called Pescando Justicia—Fishing for Justice—sent an open letter by email to the factories and temp agencies that employ them and their peers “to raise concerns about unsafe working conditions that many are facing across this industry.” But many essential workers had already begun to fall ill.
By April 14, a 35-year-old undocumented immigrant from Guatemala was the last person to get COVID-19 at her workstation, where for the last three years she has prepared frozen fish filets in one of the largest seafood processing plants in New Bedford. The woman, who asked that her name not be used for fear of losing her job, says she “had bought a mask and would wear it all the time,” since her employer didn’t provide personal protective equipment for its workers, something the city now requires. That wasn’t enough of a barrier.
Bedridden for 15 days, it was tough to truly isolate in an apartment with one bathroom that’s shared by five family members: her husband—who works at a different seafood processing plant and also fell ill—her brother, and two children.
“All the people in my workplace got sick. All the neighbors I know [got sick],” she says. “I could hear them.”
She doesn’t know from whom or where she contracted the coronavirus because there were no state- or local-level contact tracing efforts yet. It was Williams, with her deep ties to this community, who first began turning things around. She started keeping a detailed spreadsheet tracking infections, workplaces, and living arrangements. Through this grassroots contact tracing, she found one household with seven infected people, working collectively for three different processing plants.
About three weeks after the open letter, the City of New Bedford began requiring employers to report cases and in some cases to shut down long enough to separate chains of transmission. The goal was to stop clusters of two or three positive cases from becoming the type of full-blown outbreaks now synonymous with meat-processing plants. By national standards, this all happened quickly—but Williams argues that the response wasn’t fast enough for those on the front lines.
“There was a real concerted effort from the health department to … institute measures that would help protect workers,” says Williams. “But it still happened a little later than my liking.”
What’s more, many of the protocols designed to keep the community safe from industry-associated outbreaks can put the workers in danger in other ways. A good number of the people who do the manual labor in the processing plants—essential work that props up America’s most valuable fishing port—are undocumented. If their employers shut down to curtail the spread of COVID-19, it leaves them scrambling to handle longer-term threats: deportation, lost income, few other job prospects, and lack of health insurance. “There's no safety net for these folks,” says Williams.
In April, about 30 percent of New Bedford’s positive cases were among the Hispanic and Latino residents, who make up 20 percent of the city’s population and include many undocumented workers. Meanwhile, 36.5 percent of cases were among white people, who make up 67 percent of the city population.
“We were really troubled with the disproportionate effect the virus was having on the Hispanic population,” says Mitchell, the city mayor. “Out of all the different demographic groups, that was the one that seemed to be bearing the brunt of the virus early on. So we had to work extra hard on messaging.”
Indigenous languages have been largely left out of national messaging around pandemic safety, but the city’s earliest public health information included Maya K’che’, the indigenous language spoken by most of the Guatemalan community in New Bedford. It does not have a written form, so to get the word out, the health department phonetically spelled words using Romance characters, which K’che’ speakers are familiar with through exposure to Spanish, even if they are not fluent in Spanish. And then, by the end of April, mandates standardizing workplace safety for all businesses began rolling in.
The new order
Blue Harvest Fisheries sits half a mile north of Pier 3 on Herman Melville Boulevard. Workers enter the facility the same way Atlantic redfish do—from the dock out back—as “lumpers” haul full-bodied fish out of boats just a few yards from an outdoor hand-washing station.
The buckets of fish careen down a metal chute and slip inside to the blindingly bright and wet processing floor. In the main cutting room, everything smells of ocean brine and disinfectants, and the cacophony of moving conveyor belts slashes through chilled air. A four-year-old HVAC system turns that air over six times an hour, clearing the scene of odors and any potential airborne coronavirus. Dozens of workers stand separated by plastic polycarbonate barriers. All are wearing face masks and shields as they filet, trim, and prepare the fish for sale.
These precautions took effect after late April, when three employees tested positive for COVID-19 (two on the processing floor and one in the administrative offices). Blue Harvest self-reported them, prompting the city health department to shut down the plant for 72 hours.
The incident changed city policy. When Blue Harvest reported positive cases among its employees, it was out of an abundance of caution. There was no legal obligation to do so. Now, a mayoral order from May 5 requires businesses to self-report cases to the health department or face a $300 fine per violation per day. Businesses must also enforce social distancing, and provide handwashing facilities and free masks.
“What we went through became the template for the city's implementation for all manufacturers,” says Alex Mulholland, executive vice president of the plant’s supply chain and operations.
The 72-hour shutdown motivated Blue Harvest to take its own initiative to prevent future incidents. Mulholland called on the company’s fabrication shop across the river in Fairhaven to switch gears. Engineers normally tasked with upkeeping conveyor belts instead started building dividers made from what they had at the time: PVC pipes and non-porous shrink wrap for winterizing boats. They also built the now ubiquitous plexiglass partitions, which after months of scrubbing with disinfectants resemble frosted glass. Since then, the city has become more lenient toward outright closures if businesses self-report when the case numbers are small and containable.
City auditors look for these public health measures during regular checks at the rest of the processing plants in New Bedford. The city also began contact tracing in May, making it one of the first local governments in the Northeast to do so. (Williams, the CEDC director, stopped doing her own version in her community around that time).
“We made it clear to employers that we weren't going to shut down a business just simply because it had a single positive employee or two,” says city mayor Mitchell. “We reserve the right to, but we have only played that card sparingly.”
On top of protecting workers, proactive reporting has become a vital way to avoid closures that highly perishable seafood wouldn’t survive. Many seafood sellers have, in the last 11 months, tried to hold it together financially by switching to a direct-to-consumer business model, and seafood sales at grocery stores are at all-time historic highs. But these trends have not been enough to offset the economic impact of continued closures in the restaurant industry.
Since a peak in May, the city has been able to isolate small clusters as they appear, stymying them from brewing in seafood processing plants. By October, there was only one reported cluster at a plant. Throughout the year, none of these proactively reported clusters have spilled into the wider community. Now, as COVID-19 is surging across the country, New Bedford is in the seafood industry’s off-season, and plants are less crowded, acting as a further firewall against local flare-ups.
Rhode Island Public Radio first reported on New Bedford’s progressive handling of the pandemic in June, calling it a model for the rest of the country. It wasn’t widely heeded, as meat processing plants in places such as Greeley, Colorado, and Sioux Falls, South Dakota, became major havens for the virus.
To survive in the fishing industry, you need to be nimble and comfortable with moving goalposts: Climate change has caused vast shifts in aquatic populations, and threats such as overfishing have yielded increasingly strict regulations about what you can fish for, where, and when. Perhaps an industrial city built on riding out these literal and figurative waves was better poised than most to act quickly in unusual times.
“Obviously, we're still in the pandemic and we can’t claim victory at this point,” Mitchell says, “but we do feel like it was successful in at least sparing Greater New Bedford what so many midwestern cities had to go through.”