The City Council Committee on Planning, Development & Transportation held a hearing via Zoom regarding planning for an equitable recovery from the impacts of COVID-19 on April 23.
The hearing was one of several conversations to come about how the City will reopen more equitably than it was before the crisis began, as COVID-19 has shined a light on many existing injustices.
“In pre-COVID times, communities of color were really struggling in Boston already,” City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo said. He and several other councilors expressed their disappointment that members of the administration who were invited to speak at the hearing did not attend.
“We need their voice,” Arroyo said.
City Councilor Michelle Wu said the administration’s response was that they were “too busy” to attend the hearing, but submitted a letter outlining the things they are working on, which Wu read into the record.
“For me, it’s personal,” said City Councilor Julia Mejia. She said she sees these injustices in her family and in her community every day. “It’s not a new conversation. COVID-19 didn’t create these inequalities; they already existed,” she said. She said that families are having trouble accessing culturally appropriate foods, and language barriers have also made it difficult for some families to get access to important information.
“We need to make sure the City of Boston’s recovery efforts are very, very intentional,” Wu said.
Jose Duarte, owner of Taranta restaurant in the North End, testified about how difficult applying for aid has been for his business.
“We went from having a restaurant that was employing 25 employees to shut down completely,” he said, which left him with many bills to still pay. He said he is having “a really hard time going through the unemployment system.”
He said he is “here to think forward,” as employees are afraid and he is worried about reopening and maintaining social distancing in an already tight restaurant space.
“The whole process of applying for the [Paycheck Protection Program] has been a disaster for me,” he said. “I can’t imagine how the other small businesses are finding this help,”
He said that there won’t be much tourism this summer with losing sporting events and the marathon a few weeks ago, so he asked the City Council what could be done to “bring that consumer confidence back to go back to a restaurant.”
Paul Wanatabe, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston, said that “in terms of health care access,” he recognized that Black and Latino communities have been disproportionately impacted, but the Asian American community has been impacted heavily as well.
“Asian-Americans represent only three percent of positive tests in the City of Boston,” he said, but 11 percent of the total deaths in Boston were Asian American people, “almost four times the percentage of positive,” he said. He said this suggests that this points to problems with access to testing in the Asian-American community and are “heading towards death more quickly.”
He also said that the Asian-American community relies heavily on small businesses, and suggested that money be earmarked or targeted for minority businesses, because if it isn’t, “they don’t get any access to it.”
Wanatabe added that many Asian-Americans across the globe and right here in Boston are the subject of Anti-Asian sentiments and violence. “We need to have ways to respond to systematic oppression, systematic injustice, and inequality,” he said.
Segun Idowu, Executive Director of the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts, said that “when we invest in Black and minority-owned businesses, the entire economy is saved. If action is not taken, we could see the deepest growth of racial inequity in our time.”
The City Councilors agreed that the pandemic has made more apparent the existing injustices in the City, and want to “double down” on building a stronger infrastructure coming out.
Heather White, CEO and founder of TrillFit studio in Mission Hill, is another small business owner facing financial challenges in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Before the pandemic, she said that her studio was “welcoming over 1200 people” each month. She has now been able to bring her fitness programs to more than 10,000 people through Zoom since the closing of her studio due to the governor’s order, but she does not charge for any of the content.
This has led to a 40 percent revenue loss, she said, but she felt the need to provide the programs for free so all “Bostonians who need access to health and wellness programming can get it,” she said. “We need Mission Hill to survive. The City needs to invest heavily in small businesses. First come first serve is not going to work for these minority-owned small businesses.”
Former Senator Dianne Wilkerson said that by holding this hearing, the City Council has demonstrated its “focus and commitment” to an equitable reopening of the City, and also suggested a dedicated fund directed at minority-owned businesses who will not get money through he state or federal processes.
The councilors again addressed their wish for the administration to be a part of the conversation, saying that they were preaching to the choir at this hearing about the importance of supporting minority owned businesses. “Their absence was felt in a real way,” Councilor Arroyo said of the administration. Councilor Mejia added, “the people who need to hear it are not here.”
“I feel like we’ve already talked enough,” said Councilor Mejia. “I’m really looking forward to the action pieces of this work.”