To describe the 2020 calendar year as “unprecedented” might seem cliché at this point, but the word is truly apt, as the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted everyday lives and wrought pain and suffering for more than nine months in Mashpee and throughout the world.
When the pandemic was not the subject of the story, it instead formed the backdrop: Public meetings took place remotely, courts convened via teleconference, votes were cast by mail and masks and social distancing separated in-person contact.
While the calendar year has drawn to a close, the events of 2020 do not so neatly resolve themselves. Hindsight is indeed 2020, so here is a sampling of some of the most significant news from an unprecedented year that will continue to mold Mashpee into 2021 and beyond.
The COVID-19 Pandemic
Mashpee residents got their first taste of the coming pandemic in late January, when a Chinese exchange program at Mashpee Middle-High School was canceled due to the spread of the novel coronavirus in China.
By March, the virus had reached Massachusetts. Governor Charles D. Baker Jr. announced a state of emergency in response to the virus on March 10. The same month, a wave of closures swept through Mashpee.
Mashpee’s public schools, town hall, library and senior center, as well as the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s community and government center, all closed. On March 23, Town Manager Rodney C. Collins announced that two confirmed cases of the virus had been identified in Mashpee.
As businesses transitioned to curbside and terms such as “social distancing” became vogue, locals responded to the crisis with volunteerism. Through social media, some residents organized to help those at high risk with chores and grocery shopping while other residents sewed cloth masks for first responders and senior housing facilities. A Mashpee teacher used 3D printers to print face shields for first responders, and more than $35,000 in donations flowed into the Parish of Christ the King food pantry.
In May, as businesses sought to reopen with COVID-19 restrictions in place, badly behaving customers at the Polar Cave Ice Cream Parlour in Mashpee made national news. Disgruntled with the long wait times associated with the small business’s first attempts at curbside service, some angry customers threw expletives at the staff, prompting one teenage employee to quit.
As businesses transitioned to the new realities of the pandemic, the federal Paycheck Protection Program provided more than $18 million in loans to Mashpee businesses in an effort to stave off the economic stresses of the pandemic.
Town employees returned to town hall at the end of May after two months of working remotely. For the rest of the year, the building would remain closed to the public other than for voting.
As summer approached, more events and activities were canceled: no summer camp, no Fourth of July fireworks, no community picnic. Town elections were postponed until June 23 and Town Meeting until June 15.
When Town Meeting did take place, more than 250 masked voters filed into the high school gymnasium with some overflowing into the cafeteria. All were seated six feet apart.
A little more than a month later, in July, the Mashpee Middle-High School Class of 2020 and their family members gathered under a grand tent on the school’s stadium field for a socially distanced graduation ceremony.
As a hot summer paired with COVID-19 restrictions brought nonresidents flocking to Mashpee beaches, a wave of complaints from residents near Johns Pond prompted the Mashpee Board of Selectmen to vote unanimously on July 27 to close town beaches to nonresidents. The complaints reported large and disruptive gatherings of nonresidents at the Johns Pond beach and expressed concerns about litter, public urination, defecation and a lack of social distancing.
Soon, summer was over. Some students returned to school for in-person learning while others opted to participate remotely. For students beyond 3rd grade, a hybrid model saw two “cohorts” of students alternate between in-person and remote learning.
At first, the number of COVID-19 cases climbed slowly but steadily in Mashpee. By the Fourth of July, the town manager reported 62 confirmed cases of the virus. By Labor Day, the number of confirmed cases had reached 83.
Town Meeting met again in October and, soon after, the annual Christmas Parade was canceled.
In the final months of 2020, the number of COVID-19 cases in Mashpee began to grow more rapidly.
By the end of October, the town manager reported 108 confirmed cases of the virus. By the end of November, the number of confirmed cases grew to 165. On December 10, the town reported its first death from COVID-19 and a total of 218 cases since March.
By January 1, 2021, more than 300 cases of COVID-19 had been reported in Mashpee. Dozens spent the holiday season in isolation.
Trump Administration Threatens Tribal Lands
As the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the United States, the Trump Administration’s Department of the Interior ordered on March 27 that the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s reservation lands be disestablished.
The threat to the tribe’s sovereignty over 321 acres of reservation land in Mashpee and Taunton came a month after the First US Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston ruled against the tribe in federal litigation brought by residents of Taunton opposed to the tribe’s casino project.
The appeals court upheld a lower court’s ruling that the Obama Administration lacked authority when the Interior Department established the reservation land for the tribe in 2015 under the second definition of “Indian” in the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934.
Legal action by the tribe in a separate federal lawsuit in a Washington, DC, District Court resulted in a 45-day halt to the order to disestablish the reservation lands.
The Washington, DC, court heard arguments in the lawsuit on May 20 and returned a favorable decision for the tribe on June 5.
The ruling found that the Trump Administration’s Interior Department acted “contrary to law” when the department found in a 2018 that the tribe could not be considered “under federal jurisdiction in 1934” for the purposes of the first definition of “Indian” in the Indian Reorganization Act.
The judge ordered that the tribe’s reservation lands remain intact until the Interior Department reviews thousands of pages of evidence submitted by the tribe “in concert” and issues a new decision on whether the tribe qualifies for the land under the Indian Reorganization Act.
The Trump Administration appealed the district court ruling on July 31.
With the victory of President-Elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. in the November election, new avenues appear to have opened for the preservation of the tribe’s reservation land.
President-Elect Biden made explicit mention of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe in plans for Indian Country laid out before the election. In December, the president-elect tapped Representative Debra A. Haaland (D-New Mexico) to serve as US Secretary of the Interior.
Rep. Haaland, who has a history of advocating for the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe in Congress, would be the first Native American to serve as interior secretary if confirmed by the Senate.
Action On Nutrient Pollution
Mashpee selectmen began 2020 with a unanimous vote on January 27 to include a Town Meeting article on the spring warrant requesting a $2.4 million debt exclusion for the design of a wastewater treatment plant and sewer system for the Popponesset Bay watershed.
Wastewater treatment plants and sewer systems are envisioned to one day replace the town’s reliance on septic systems that discharge nutrient-rich effluent that pollutes the town’s waterways.
The COVID-19 pandemic delayed Town Meeting from May to June, but on June 15 the treatment plant article narrowly received the required two-thirds majority in a 175-75 vote.
The passage of the design article began the long-delayed process of implementing the first phase of the sewer portion of the town’s Comprehensive Watershed Nitrogen Management Plan to remediate nitrogen pollution in the town’s embayments.
Nonetheless, the effects of nutrient pollution remained visible in 2020. Santuit Pond, Ashumet Pond and Wakeby Pond in Mashpee all saw public health advisories due to unsafe levels of potentially toxic cyanobacteria blooms that have been linked to nutrient pollution, and Popponesset Bay remained the most nitrogen polluted bay in southeastern Massachusetts.
In September, the Conservation Law Foundation announced plans to sue Mashpee over nitrogen pollution caused by septic systems. The proposed lawsuit would seek to halt septic inspections and installations in town with potential ramifications for the real estate market.
Reckoning With Racism
As protests swept the country after the death of George Floyd, a Black man, while being arrested by Minneapolis police, about 500 protesters rallied peacefully at the Mashpee Rotary on June 3.
For three hours, protesters cheered as car horns blared and chants of “no justice, no peace,” resounded through the five-way intersection.
The protest joined hundreds of demonstrations held nationwide, some of which grew violent.
The national conversation on policing and race prompted the chairman of the Mashpee selectmen, John J. Cotton, on August 10 to recommend that the selectmen issue a proclamation of support for the Mashpee Police Department.
“In these incredibly unique and challenging times, I believe that they would appreciate knowing that we appreciate them and that we salute their efforts and respect the fact that they put themselves in harm’s way every day,” Mr. Cotton said at the time. “This proclamation would include the continued support in respecting the civil rights of all citizens.”
The proposal was not accepted unanimously among the board members, and Selectman David W. Weeden stated his disapproval.
“I think the police force does a good job at keeping the community safe to protect and serve,” said Mr. Weeden, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe. “To do [a proclamation] now kind of seems like it flies in the face of the Black Lives Matter movement and all that that encompasses with the racial tensions and, like you said, appreciating everyone’s civil rights.”
Two weeks later, the town manager told selectmen that Mashpee Police Chief Scott W. Carline indicated that a proclamation “is not necessary, it’s not appropriate.”
Even after protestors vociferously condemned racism, incidents of hate appeared in Mashpee.
In early August, stickers bearing the name and mantras of the white supremacist group Patriot Front were found on signs and light posts in the Mashpee Commons. In October, the Lowell Holly Reservation, a conservation area in Mashpee and Sandwich, was graffitied with racist, pro-Trump messages such as “Trump 2020—Bring back slavery!”
Tribal Chairman Indicted
Amid a tumultuous year for the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, the now-former chairman of the tribal council, Cedric Cromwell, was indicted on bribery and extortion charges.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested Mr. Cromwell on November 13 for his alleged role in a bribery scheme involving plans to build a resort and casino in Taunton.
The indictment alleges that Mr. Cromwell conspired with David DeQuattro, a Rhode Island resident who owned an architecture firm that the tribe’s gaming authority had contracted with for the casino project.
Both Mr. Cromwell and Mr. DeQuattro pleaded not guilty.
Prosecutors allege that Mr. Cromwell received payments and in-kind benefits from Mr. DeQuattro valued at more than $57,000.
Hours after his arrest, a unanimous vote by the tribal council removed Mr. Cromwell from his post as chairman.