Commonwealth’s COVID-19 response leaves too many behind 

We can change this. Here’s how.

IT’S BEEN MORE than three weeks since Gov. Baker declared a state of emergency. Despite a number of efforts that have aimed to ensure that groups are not left behind in this rapidly evolving pandemic, we are still far from where we should be.

This is a moment of unique opportunity for state policymakers to rise to the challenge and provide leadership for the state and for the country by putting equity at the center of our response to COVID-19.

We appreciate the immense challenges facing our state policymakers. What they – and we – face is unprecedented and overwhelming. There is no playbook. Assistance and leadership from the federal government has been limited, late, and inconsistent, at best.

Even as we recognize these challenges, we are disappointed that the state’s response does not embed equity at its heart. There is, as of now, far less than we should expect in the way of clear plans, guidance, or resources that are targeted to protecting communities that already experience marginalization.

Two weeks ago, we announced urgent policy recommendations from the Emergency Task Force on Coronavirus & Equity – recommendations supported now by more than 150 Massachusetts organizations – designed to ensure communities experiencing the effects of racism, poverty, and xenophobia aren’t put at even greater risk during the outbreak. There has been some progress on these recommendations, but none have been fully implemented.

Here is where things stand with our four initial recommendations and what still needs to happen.

Enact a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures

We have called on the Legislature and Gov. Baker to enact a moratorium on all evictions and foreclosures during and in the aftermath of this crisis.

Bottom line: On Thursday, the House of Representatives passed a strong moratorium bill which would stop evictions and foreclosures during the state of emergency and for 30 days after. A weaker Senate bill began moving last week, but has not yet been voted on. Unless and until a strong bill reaches the governor’s desk and he signs it, gaping holes remain in our housing protections leaving far too many people at risk.

Some important housing protections have been put into place by the Baker administration and through the federal CARES Act – but these only apply to renters and owners who live in state- or federally-subsidized homes or who have federally-backed mortgages. The Baker administration also allocated a new $5 million to help families facing eviction, foreclosure, loss of utilities, and other housing emergencies through the RAFT program.

The state Housing Court is closed for all non-emergency cases until at least April 21 and will not be holding hearings on eviction cases. However, this does not prevent landlords from issuing eviction notices, with which many tenants will likely comply, and it also does not prevent the physical eviction of tenants whose cases were previously heard.

Ensure everyone has access to safe quarantine

We have called on Gov. Baker and the Legislature to ensure everyone has access to safe quarantine, recognizing that homeless shelters and other congregate facilities are already at capacity and will be unable to implement physical distancing recommendations or provide safe, dignified spaces for quarantine.

Bottom line: Some progress has been made, but the state response is piecemeal. We lack a comprehensive statewide response that that leaves no one behind. Action is largely being left up to individual municipalities and/or shelters, all of which are overburdened and under-resourced to respond to this crisis. This puts shelter guests and staff (as well as everyone they interact with) at unnecessary risk.

The state has offered to provide tents and supplies to shelters that want to set up more space to accommodate physical distancing or to provide space for quarantine. However, resources are not being provided in a manner based on the needs in each region and it is unclear if supplies and equipment will be available to every shelter that needs them as this crisis deepens. Further, there has not yet been any state-led effort to open up the thousands of hotel, motel, and dorm rooms for use by people currently living in shelters or on the street.

Despite the lack of statewide action, there has been important progress in local communities that should be applauded. For instance, the city of Boston and state have teamed up to reopen a shuttered facility on the Boston Medical Center campus that will provide space for care and quarantine for Boston area residents experiencing homelessness. Disappointingly, the state has not supported the opening of similar facilitates in other parts of the state. Several other municipalities, most notably, Worcester and Springfield, have stepped up to provide additional facilities for residents to access safe quarantine in gyms, college dorms, and medical tents.

On the flip side, other communities have been raising the drawbridge. The Select Board in Plymouth recently voted to oppose allowing homeless residents to be housed in a local hotel that was willing to provide accommodations. And we are hearing reports from several Gateway Cities where the mayors are actively preventing shelters from erecting tents that would provide for more social distancing or quarantine facilities for shelter residents.

Ensure immigrants have safe access to testing and treatment

We have called on Gov. Baker and Attorney General Maura Healey to aggressively communicate that all residents will have access to testing and treatment regardless of immigration status. This is essential because draconian federal immigration policies, inflamed antipathy toward immigrants, and scapegoating of Asian Americans have sown fear and mistrust in many immigrant communities.

Bottom line: Attorney General Healey has shown leadership in helping to get this message out. She has used her website and social media platforms to share accurate information about the rights of immigrants in multiple languages, and she has pledged to work with immigrant advocacy organizations to figure out the most effective ways to further distribute information to immigrant communities, media that serve immigrant communities, and service providers. On the other hand, we have not heard from Gov. Baker on this subject.

Written guidance from the Baker administration to social service providers includes helpful information to reassure immigrants of their access to testing and treatment and the fact that accessing health care services won’t be considered negatively for the new federal “public charge” rule. However, to date, the governor has not promoted this message as a matter of safety and justice for immigrant communities,  nor have we received a response to repeated requests to meet with the governor or his senior staff about this subject.

Pass emergency paid sick time

In addition to these three priorities, we have called on the Legislature to guarantee all workers at least 15 additional days of job-protected paid sick time for immediate use during the outbreak or for any future public health emergency. The federal CARES Act provides relief for some workers, but it does not support all employees who need it. Economic justice leaders are developing legislation that addresses gaps in the federal response, and it is expected to be filed in the near future.

Meet the Author

Carlene Pavlos

Executive director, Massachusetts Public Health Association
Meet the Author

Sandro Galea

Dean, Boston University School of Public Health
Meet the Author

Cheryl Bartlett

Guest Contributor, Greater New Bedford Community Health Ctr
The state has shown promise in some efforts that prioritize health equity in the COVID-19 response. But the approach thus far leaves too many people who were already struggling at even greater risk of infection and at even greater risk financially. We should not be willing to accept this; Massachusetts can do better. It is not too late for us to change course, for policy makers to meet the challenge presented by the moment, and to embed equity at the center of our response.

Carlene Pavlos is executive director of the Massachusetts Public Health Association. Sandro Galea serves as co-chair of the Emergency Task Force on Coronavirus & Equity and is dean and Robert A. Knox Professor at the Boston University School of Public Health and chair of the board of the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health. Cheryl Bartlett is co-chair of the task force as well as president and CEO of the Greater New Bedford Community Health Center.