Walsh: Crisis made Boston more responsive

For all the devastation it has wrought — thousands of deaths, mass layoffs, financial hardship, setbacks in education and more — the coronavirus pandemic has had at least one positive impact: it has changed the way Boston city government functions for the better, the mayor said Tuesday.

Boston Mayor Martin Walsh told business leaders Tuesday morning that his administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic that’s upended most aspects of normal life in Boston has also forced changes in the way city government functions, making it “more integrated, more nimble, and more responsive” to the needs of Bostonians.

Having reorganized government functions “around a daily crisis response,” standing up COVID-19 testing sites based on hotspots, piecing together a food access network, fast-tracking outdoor dining approvals, and coordinating a wholesale change in the way kids are educated, city government functions better than before the pandemic, Walsh said.

“We’re going to stay that way,” Walsh said in his annual address to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. “We have broken down silos and we are working with anyone who can help our city move forward, from health centers and nonprofits, to businesses and community groups, to colleges and universities. We’re going to keep working together, every single day, to get our city through this pandemic and meet all the challenges that lie ahead.”

The mayor’s remarks came in a roughly 20-minute video shot Saturday at The Guild, a community organization in Dorchester. The multi-camera, produced video included B-roll of various COVID-19-related activities around the city but notably did not include any overt mention of the 2021 mayoral election in Boston.

Walsh has not said whether he plans to seek a third term in City Hall, and city councilors Michelle Wu and Andrea Campbell have both already launched their own mayoral bids. If Walsh does run for a third term — he said Tuesday he is more focused now on the city’s recovery and electing Joe Biden president in November — residents might hear echoes of Tuesday’s speech to the chamber on the campaign trail.

After detailing the steps his administration has taken in the last seven months to deal with COVID-19, Walsh’s speech turned to the future and what the city must do to sustain an economic recovery, address the inequities the pandemic shined a light on, and get back on a path of growth.

“These are no small tasks. But based on our response so far, we have proven we can do hard things. And my priorities remain clear. I am dedicated to keeping the residents of our city safe throughout this pandemic; supporting them through whatever hardships they face; addressing the inequities that hold us back; and rebuilding our economy in a way that works for everyone,” he says in his remarks.

“And I am committed to pushing forward a plan for the future, because just as we are meeting the needs of this pandemic, we must adapt to meet the economic, social, and global challenges of tomorrow.”

Walsh also looked back to the early days of the pandemic and said that he “made decisions -- sooner than some were comfortable with -- to close school buildings, cancel events, and pause construction.”

Walsh canceled the St. Patrick’s Day parade in South Boston and then ordered bars in the neighborhood closed early when revelers crowded outside of establishments all the same. He was also part of the decision to postpone (and later cancel) the Boston Marathon and Walsh’s administration was one that resisted Baker’s push to restart construction work in the spring.

But Walsh was not among the first to close schools.

As of the afternoon of March 13, Arlington, Bedford, Belmont, Burlington, Everett, Lexington, and Winchester had already ordered their schools closed for at least two weeks. At least 19 other states had closed schools statewide.

After saying that afternoon that Boston Public Schools would still welcome students Monday through Friday the following week, Walsh’s office announced a citywide school closure at 7:40 p.m. Two days later, on Sunday, March 15, Gov. Charlie Baker ordered all Massachusetts public schools closed for at least three weeks.

“I know why there was hesitancy. What the scientists were telling us was frightening. But we had to listen to that science, and we had to take action,” Walsh said in his speech Tuesday. “Lives were at stake and I knew our city would rise to the occasion.”