Senator Collins: To prevent a tax on the poor, masks must be free

Last week Governor Charlie Baker set an order in place that would make face coverings or masks mandatory in public. This follows a series of recommendations from public health officials and experts, including Dorchester’s Bill Walczak, about the impact their use would have on flattening the curve. The logic behind this policy is sound. Its social and economic ramifications, however, are not so simple.

Reports of corner stores across Boston selling masks for $5 each reveal the other side of this mandate: without offering free masks to all residents, a policy of mandating masks does not affect everyone equally, and results in a de facto tax on the poor. For those with access and resources to personal protective equipment, this policy won’t mean much of a change. But for low income residents and communities of color, it feels like more of the same. Not everyone can stitch or sew. Being punished or shamed for not having access to hard-to-get masks is unkind and unreasonable.

Thanks to many businesses, who without hesitation emptied their stocks of gloves and masks, I and some of my colleagues have been able to distribute critical PPE to our health centers and hospitals. Donations have enabled me and my staff to deliver over 30,000 masks to low income and public residents across some of the hardest hit communities including Dorchester, Roxbury, Mattapan and Hyde Park. I am proud of those efforts, but it is not a substitute for an equitable program to ensure access for all over the long-term.

Funding from the state DPH to the Boston Public Health Commissioner must be used to procure free masks for the public. The Mayor’s Boston Resiliency Fund has provided PPE and resources for community health centers, hospitals, and nonprofits working with vulnerable communities, but they can’t do it alone.

Currently, the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) is in charge of PPE procurement for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. MEMA’s FY2020 Budget line item and operations are being financed through emergency state and federal funds. MEMA will also be submitting for federal reimbursement through FEMA and the Cares Act. FEMA’s Major Disaster Declaration covers 75% of eligible expenses. MEMA is working on a waiver of the state and local match. If approved, 100% of eligible expenses would be covered.

MEMA funding should therefore enable the Massachusetts National Guard and local health boards such as the Boston Public Health Commission to distribute free masks to all residents across the Commonwealth who need them.

We cannot allow this pandemic to exacerbate the economic divide any further. Mandating use of PPE, without providing equal access to it, would create a new disparity. This de facto tax on the poor, would force people already on the margins to spend money at a premium on masks that would otherwise be used for food, medicine and other essentials. Let's lead with compassion, empathy, and understanding, and make sure that everyone in our communities, especially those most vulnerable, have all the basic resources they need.

Senator Nick Collins
1st Suffolk District

Senator Collins represents the communities of South Boston, Dorchester, Mattapan and Hyde Park and serves as the Vice Chair of the Joint Committee on Public Health in the Massachusetts Legislature