BOSTON (SHNS) – Take a moment to take stock of some of the issues the COVID-19 pandemic created: an economic crisis, the difficulties of working from home, and the scramble to respond to a severely infectious virus.
One more thing to add to the list of problems in 2020: a rise in rodent activity across residential areas in Boston that is prompting city officials to look for ways to address health and cleanliness issues.
While neighborhoods like Allston have long dealt with rat infestations, the closure of restaurants due to COVID-19 shifted the location of trash from commercial districts to residential areas — and with that, city officials said Tuesday, the rats have migrated.
Out of concern for public health and sanitation, Boston City Councilors Ed Flynn and Liz Breadon held a virtual hearing Tuesday to address illegal dumping and the increase in rodent activity during the pandemic.
“During the COVID crisis, we have heard increased reports of the problems related to rat infestations and rodents in our neighborhoods,” Breadon said. “However, out here in Allston-Brighton, long before the pandemic, we had a problem with, a perennial issue with rodents to the extent that our neighborhood is colloquially called Rat City.”
Inspectional Services Assistant Commissioner Leo Boucher said New York City, Chicago, New Orleans, and the United Kingdom are some areas that are seeing an uptick in rodent populations and sightings. In Boston, he said, a “perfect storm” led to increased reports and an uptick in the population: COVID-19 changing peoples’ eating habits, several mild winters, and a decline in commercial trash as businesses shut down.
“All those changes in practices resulted in the trash being moved from the commercial areas into more heavily residential areas. So once again, as folks said, the rats were starting to migrate towards where their food source was,” he said. “And in addition to that, as we can all attest to, we’ve had some incredibly mild winters. So the kill-off that we normally get during the seasonal times was reduced. And as a result, we did get an increased population.”
Flynn said he received reports of rodent infestation in recent months from neighbors who saw an uptick in pest activities. Like Boucher, Flynn attributed the jump in sightings to the loss of typical food sources.
Inspectional Services Commissioner Dion Irish said the pandemic created a challenging time for the department with a rise in demand for their services. Rodent issues are not new to the city, he said, and the department has professionals on staff who work several shifts throughout the day to address rodent problems.
“This is not a glamorous issue,” Irish said during the hearing. “But as you all mentioned before, it’s a very important issue, it is one of many important issues that we have to deal with as a city, it’s quality of life, it’s public health. We take it seriously.”
A part of limiting upticks in rodent activity comes down to controlling food sources as rats can sometimes live a mere 150 feet away from where they eat, Boucher said. To curb rodent activity, the Centers for Disease Control recommends sealing access into homes and businesses, removing debris and heavy vegetation, storing garbage in tightly covered bins, and removing pet food from yards.
And while the CDC warned environmental health and rodent control programs of a potential increase in service requests and reports of unusual or aggressive pest behavior, Boucher said one of the biggest misconceptions is rats acting more aggressive towards humans.
“It’s very, very, very critical that we understand they’re more aggressive towards each other, not more aggressive towards humans, that’s a very important fact to get out there,” he said. “They’re becoming aggressive towards each other because they’re fighting for that same piece of food.”
City officials also encouraged residents to use Boston’s 311 line to report rodent sightings. Boucher said the service is a “great tracking mechanism” as complaints are automatically sent to the Inspectional Services Department and listed in a queue for officials to deal with.
Calls to the service are on the rise, Boucher said, and part of the reason can be attributed to the fact that the pandemic forced people to spend more time at home.
“People are home now, you see a lot more when you’re home. I mean, I’m home today working, because I’ve got all my resources here and all I hear is construction trucks driving by and I hear dogs barking. I see things during the day that I don’t normally see,” he said. “That’s characteristic across the city, people working from home, you’re more likely to know what’s going on in your neighborhood.”