Elected officials confronting close-in needs as constituents ask for guidance, reassurance

Unprecedented times have always been the catalyst for unprecedented leadership. As they deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, people in Dorchester and the city are looking for just that, leaning on their local elected officials for guidance, connection to resources, reassurance, and advocacy.

Mayor Martin Walsh has been the most prominent and vocal public face of Boston city government during the crisis— for good reason. The mayor has provided essential information and guidance daily and — through city government's various mechanisms for getting information out to the public.

But behind the scenes, elected officials who represent Dorchester and Mattapan on the city and state level are doing their part too.

As the week drew to a close, The Reporter surveyed members of the City Council, state representatives Dan Hunt and Liz Miranda, and state Sen. Nick Collins and asked them what they have been up to and what they are looking for going forward. The report follows:

Screenshot 2020-03-21 at 10.43.22 AM_0.pngSen. Nick Collins

Senator Nick Collins said in a phone interview that “A lot of the calls I’m getting right now are coming in from health care organizations asking how they can get resources they need to combat the coronavirus.” He added: “We’re trying to address those issues and identify where we can help. We're working on legislation now that would give the Dept. of Public Health an initial $15 million.” 

Collins agreed that unemployment is an issue that many are struggling with. “A lot of people are facing unemployment – service industry workers, construction workers – and many have been laid off temporarily,” he noted. “We recently worked to get rid of the one-week waiting period associated with unemployment insurances.” 

“Small businesses are also clearly taking a dramatic hit,” Collins said. “We need to identify what fees and taxes that are usually in the way to help get them back up off the ground.

The senator said that his office is pushing communication via social media and by phone and mail. “We work to connect people with translation services, getting them appropriate phone numbers and areas to contact. It’s also important that we communicate particularly with our seniors,” he said. “They are not the same as our other populations; social distancing makes it difficult to get info to them, so we’re reaching out via phone, mail, and lit-drops.” 

Collins’ advice to the public is this “Take it serious. Especially to the young people who are not hearing this message and were rushing the bars. The only way we're going to get out of this is by bending the curve down and stopping COVID-19’s growth.” He added: “These are challenging times, but the state and city are prepared to take this on. When we come together as a city and a state, we are unbeaten.” 

Screenshot 2020-03-21 at 10.48.32 AM.pngRep. Liz Miranda

On Thursday, Rep. Liz Miranda and 26 diverse co-sponsors filed a bill that would provide “emergency access to equity and justice for all in response to COVID-10.”

“I filed this bill to ensure that our most vulnerable constituents and small business owners will not be left behind in economic recovery efforts on Beacon Hill,” she said, adding, “Our district knows something about being left behind. This legislation will protect residents in sustaining current benefits and strengthening financial security for the duration of this public health crisis. We have to help every resident of the Commonwealth now.” 

The legislation would provide support to Mass. residents, including immediate cash assistance of up to $1,500 monthly with dependent stipends of up to $750 for families. It would also establish a small business recovery grant program for immediate assistance of up to $50,000. The commonwealth’s small business loan funds program was paused on Thursday because the $10 million allocated to it had been exhausted. 

andrea campbell.jpgDistrict 4 Councillor Andrea Campbell

While juggling child care for her two children, Campbell, holding her three-month-old, took a few minutes to connect with the Reporter via phone on Friday. 

“First, there’s a lot of confusion amongst folks who want more information on COVID-19,” she said. “They want it more frequently and quickly throughout the day. People want to know what the numbers are in terms of cases – in the city and state. And people are unsure exactly what self-quarantine means and what to do if they’ve done that for 14 days.” 

Campbell said the majority of calls she’s receiving are from constituents who want to see more testing; are concerned about testing for vulnerable populations, like immigrants; are worried about senior citizens and isolation, and from local merchants.

“Some business owners are absolutely afraid that they will never be able to come back from this,” she said, adding that her office is calling seniors as often as possible and assisting with connecting them to services like grocery delivery.

She noted many concerns about unemployment, saying, “People are asking how they can file unemployment requests. We are raising those concerns with the mayor’s administration as well as the Boston delegation.” 

The councillor also pointed out concerns about funerals, saying, “Folks cannot go to funerals in a lot of cases, especially seniors. It’s impossible to keep to social distancing in that setting.” She also said that access to courts has been affected, and she’s keeping an eye on how the public health emergency is affecting homeless youth and adults.

The Council has been meeting via virtual platforms, but Campbell believes the city needs to halt “business as usual” in order to establish explicit mandates as to which things are shut down and which are doing business in some way and to clear up confusion. 

“We cannot continue to do business as usual as in the midst of a pandemic,” she said. “People are seeing things remain open and not understanding that first and foremost your health is what’s important. I think we in government need to put a pause on business as usual and tell folks to take this seriously to flatten the curve of the spread.” 

Campbell offered this advice to all residents: “Everyone should be taking this virus extremely seriously by socially distancing themselves and staying home as much as possible. I’m aware that this is going to cause incredible disruption, but our job, first and foremost, is to keep people safe. And then afterwards, we will roll up our sleeves and get to work addressing that disruption.” 

annissa.jpegCity Councillor Annissa Essaibi-George

At-Large Councillor Annissa Essaibi-George spoke to the Reporter over the phone on Thursday while she was on her way to a local grocery store to pick up bread, peanut butter, jelly, and water for an organization that provides food for homeless individuals. 

“We’re really seeing an impact on the volunteer base for many organizations with coronavirus,” she said, “That's what me and the kids will be doing this afternoon in a very sanitary way.”

She added: “I know that a lot of senior housing properties are looking for support to make sure residents have access to food, so I’ll also be collecting tuna and canned soup to support those efforts.”

Besides her personal efforts, Essaibi-George said she and the other councillors are in daily conference calls with Mayor Walsh. “We have that opportunity to talk to a number of city officials so that we all understand where the needs are,” she said. 

As for the so-called “lit-drops” that will take place in Dorchester and city-wide on Saturday, Essaibi-George said: “The city is working hard to make sure we are limiting the number of people in each group and promoting social distancing. They will not be having direct contact with residents, but will drop the pamphlets at every single door across the city.

“It’s a strong and tightly managed effort,” she added, “and we’ve seen a positive response; people across the city are looking for ways to participate and help out.

“I had a call this morning with the Massachusetts Nurses Association, and some of them mentioned that the term ‘social distancing’ is maybe not totally appropriate,” Essaibi-George said. “They think the term 'physically distancing’ is more accurate. I have a fear, especially for our young people. I worry that there will be serious social isolation.” 

As a former Boston Public School teacher, Essaibi-George often looks at council issues with BPS in mind. 

“For teachers, this week is still sort of a novel idea. I hear kids referring to it multiple times as vacation, when in fact it is not. This week has been a planning week for teachers who are gearing up for what could be more time learning from home,” she said, “Next week, I expect that reality is going to start setting in for a lot of kids and families. Although for those with younger kids balancing work responsibilities and child care, this week has not been a novelty week.” 

dan hunt.jpgRep. Dan Hunt

State Rep. Dan Hunt said that he and other representatives are continuing their work through conference calls with the governor's and mayor's offices. “I’m educating myself via the academic reports that have been coming out, and relaying that info to folks,” said Rep. Hunt.

“Some people still think this is not a big deal at all and others are afraid to leave their homes.” 

He added: “I’m talking to health centers and hospital officials to hear their concerns and passing those along to [Marylou Sudders] the Secretary of Health and Human Services, who’s taking the lead on those efforts.” 

Hunt said the House and Senate have worked on a piece for small business relief, and have begun working on legislation related to unemployment insurance. “We’ve eliminated the week-long wait, and tens of thousands of people have applied who were laid off in the last 7 days relative to construction or the service industry,” he said. 

Hunt added: “All of our bills demand public hearing and notice, but many bills are in their second year and have already gone through that process. So the work of the House continues. The speaker [Robert DeLeo] encourages all members to work and try to continue to move things along.” 

The representative also offered words of advice to his constituents: “People should treat this as a very serious situation and realize that the efforts we make now to stop the spread of the virus – possible shelter at home, social distancing and personal hygiene – will help on the back end so that we can recover as quickly as possible.” 

arroyo.jpgCity Councillor Ricardo Arroyo

District 5 Councillor Ricardo Arroyo on Thursday connected with the Reporter via email, he wrote: "Residents are looking for answers and support. COVID-19 has changed what our day-to-day looks like and the news is evolving by the hour.” 

In terms of constituent calls that he’s received, Arroyo said that he’s been asked a lot of questions regarding parking tickets, trash pickup, and inspections. He added: “I’ve had many residents unfortunately express how they are unable to pay their rent and mortgages.” 

On Thursday, Arroyo announced on social media that he’s offering a resolution requesting a moratorium on rent and foreclosures in the city to provide housing security in light of the COVID-19 outbreak. 

“My team and I have been working around the clock to provide folks with the best answers we can in this moment and connect them to resources provided by the city and the community,” Arroyo wrote. “Also, our team is beginning to do outreach over the phone to our 65+ residents in District 5 to make sure they feel secure during this time of social isolation." 

frank baker.jpgCouncillor Frank Baker

District 3 Councillor Frank Baker told the Reporter on Thursday that he’s concerned the economic results will be as bad, if not worse than the COVID-19 pandemic itself. That said, he continues to urge people to take the public health emergency seriously and stay home. 

“I’m really concerned for local business people,” he said. “We will get through this, but hopefully there will be something there from the state and federal level to relieve small businesses,” said Baker. 

“I think as public officials, it’s incumbent on us to try and spread messages and information,” he added, “We need to make sure people have multiple points of contact and tell them to take this seriously – to make sure they are resting, keeping things clean, and keeping family close.” 

Baker said that the council’s daily calls with Mayor Walsh are fostering connectivity, and helping to ensure that efforts are not duplicated.  “We’re doing the best we can right now as far as trying to stay coordinated. We’re talking and sharing ideas,” he said. “Just the fact that the mayor has allowed us to be part of this process so that we know what decisions are being made, and allowing us to weigh in is good for the council and the mayor.” 

Baker also said he has seen a “really good outpouring” of people looking for ways they can help. “It shows the best and the worst when we go into crisis mode. But for the most part, I’m seeing people step up. This is just the beginning of what I feel is going to be a long haul. We have to try to keep our head, stay as calm as possible, and fill in the places where we can be helpful.” 

julia mejia.jpgCouncillor Julia Mejia

At-Large Councillor Julia Mejia said she’s very interested in how the situation is continuously evolving. “Those are the things people are worried about, that the nature of this is uncertain,” Mejia told the Reporter. 

“From what I understand, there’s no plan, no guide for the things that most people are worried about,” she said. “For the city, we are figuring out things as we go. What we have been hearing in our office from residents is that there’s a high population of low-income folks and service workers expressing anxiety around how they will survive this.”
 
She continued: “Unemployment doesn’t cover the rent, so for people figuring out finances, not knowing the length of time is hard. You can’t plan for uncertainty and there’s anxiety around basic survival.” 

Struggles to provide childcare are also a concern that Mejia said she’s been hearing from constituents. “I know from my own experience as a working mom that this been a stretch for me and so that is a sentiment that a lot of parents are sharing. Juggling all of the work, and the mental health of our families; it’s anxiety. I’ve noticed that there’s been an uptick of fear around school closures with people realizing how serious this is.” 

As to the “lit-drops,” Mejia said, “We know a lot of people aren’t on Twitter and Facebook. A lot of the info out there is not making it to them, and it’s not available in multi-languages.” She noted that access to critical information for immigrants is an issue: “We’re pushing for more videos in different languages, and the lit has visuals so that people can understand. It’s not the case for all immigrants, but many of them have had interrupted educations and literacy is an issue.” 

She said that her office is working on creative ways to secure funding for folks who are undocumented, and also working in partnership with small local business, who, Mejia said, are “feeling the crunch.”  

Throughout all of the craziness, Mejia said, she keeps looking for a silver lining. “I’m thinking about how this could be a blessing in disguise; maybe everything we're going through is for a reason. Out of this, we can build new ways to redesign the system. I feel like this will magnify the issues of our most vulnerable and uncover that in a bigger way. We have so many opportunities to be creative.” 

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