In hard-hit Chelsea, COVID-19 fight a collaborative effort
City manager Tom Ambrosino takes a team approach
Fourth in a series on municipal leaders across Massachusetts and how they’re contending with the COVID-19 pandemic. Here are previous stories on Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse, Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer, and Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone.
LAST SATURDAY MORNING, the day after he and a group of Chelsea leaders and top hospital officials wrote to Gov. Charlie Baker, sounding the alarm that coronavirus was swamping the tightly-packed community of 40,000, city manager Tom Ambrosino got a phone call from Marylou Sudders, the head of Baker’s pandemic response team, and Samantha Phillips, director of the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency.
Responding to one of the priority needs outlined in the letter, the state officials offered to deploy National Guard troops to distribute food to Chelsea residents. Ambrosino balked.
The city’s population is 65 percent Latino, including a sizable number of undocumented immigrants.
But then Ambrosino did something that might seem unusual for a top executive. To check whether he made the right call, he reached out to top aides as well as members of the City Council who had a closer read of the city’s Latin American immigrant population.
That included the city public works commissioner, Fidel Maltez, a Nicaraguan immigrant, and the two city councilors with Latin American roots, Judith Garcia, whose mother is from Honduras, and Enio Lopez, native of Guatemala.
They were unanimous in urging Ambrosino to accept the National Guard help.
“We said, absolutely, let’s do this — and do it in a way to communicate to our residents that they should not be afraid,” said Garcia.
City Councilor Damali Vidot, whose family is Puerto Rican, concurred. “The need was too big for us to turn it down,” she said of the assistance. “We said we can work on the messaging to reassure residents that this is a humanitarian effort and no one is here to look at your immigration status.”
Within hours of the initial call with state leaders, Ambrosino said it was clear what he needed to do. “I texted Sudders and said I’ve changed my mind,” he said.
“There’s no playbook here,” he said of the crisis. “I’m making mistakes,” he added, a level of candor not always common among public figures.
On Thursday, after saturating social media with Spanish-language video messages from Maltez and other Latino community figures explaining that the National Guard has nothing to do with ICE or immigration enforcement, troops arrived in Chelsea and began distributing hundreds of boxes of food. On the first day, demand was so great the provisions were gone in less than an hour.
The episode is a window, say local leaders, into how Ambrosino has operated during the nearly five years he’s served as Chelsea’s chief municipal official.
“He’s not a very top-down person,” said Maltez. “He empowers all of us — his staff, the councilors.”
“He’s not a cutthroat politician type,” said Roseann Bongiovanni, executive director of GreenRoots, a local environmental justice organization. “He leads with his heart, he operates collaboratively. It’s different than politicians who always make their own decisions.”
That style has largely drawn praise in Chelsea, but it’s also generated criticism from those who think the city manager has not always acted decisively in the face of a growing crisis. Ambrosino also saw his judgment land center stage in a moment of awkward tension last week between Chelsea officials and the Baker administration.
Ambrosino and other Chelsea leaders are facing a problem of enormous — and unknown — proportions. Their city has the highest rate of coronavirus cases in the state by a wide margin.
As of Tuesday, when the state began reporting cases by municipality, Chelsea had 712 confirmed cases, a rate of 1,890 per 100,000 residents, more than 50 percent higher than second place Brockton. Most believe the infection rate is far higher, and reports of antibody testing carried out last week among a sample of residents without confirmed coronavirus strongly support that view.
The city reported 41 deaths as of Friday, nearly all at nursing homes, including the Chelsea Soldiers’ Home, one of two state-run facilities for veterans.
With many residents living in crowded apartments and working lower-wage service sector jobs in the hospitality sector, grocery stores, health care, and other settings that leave them widely exposed to the virus, all the ingredients were there for coronavirus to explode in Chelsea.
“Every indication was that the spread was going to be huge,” said Roy Avellaneda, the city council president. “It wasn’t rocket science.”
Add pollution and other environmental factors that are more prevalent in Chelsea, high rates of underlying health conditions, and uneven access to health care, and “it’s a perfect storm,” said Garcia, the City Council vice president.
“This pandemic has shined a bright light on so many inequities in American society,” said Ambrosino. “There’s incredible pain and hurt in the community and people are suffering not just healthwise but economically. These people are in desperate economic straits. Even in the best of times they barely get by.”
As with other low-income communities, many Chelsea residents have jobs that can’t be done from home. What’s more, a large chunk of the city’s immigrant population is not eligible for any help through the trillions of dollars of emergency federal aid that’s begun flowing.
That helps explain why the National Guard food supply disappeared in no time on Thursday morning. It also explains why later that day the line stretched hundreds of feet up Forsyth Street at a community-based pop-up pantry operating out of Pan y Cafe, a now-shuttered coffee shop owned by Avellaneda.
Gladys Vega, the longtime director of the city’s most prominent social service organization, the Chelsea Collaborative, was standing in the cafe as she spoke by phone amidst a flurry of activity preparing boxes for distribution. “This is a zone of disaster, where there is so much need you’re overwhelmed by the requests,” said Vega.
She said residents had been lining up outside since the morning. “I told people around 1 pm that we begin [distribution] at 6, but they wouldn’t leave,” she said, in between calling out directions in Spanish to volunteers arriving with more food. Vega, who said she expected 800 people that day, called it overwhelming to “see the fear of people not having anything to eat.”
At the center of Chelsea’s effort to keep pace with the extensive need has been a conference phone call held each day at 4 pm. It began more than a month ago when staff at GreenRoots, the environmental justice nonprofit, and city officials conducted a call with about a dozen people on the line to exchange information on what was being done to address the burgeoning crisis.
On Thursday, there were 70 people on the call, ranging from city officials to nonprofit leaders. Residents can listen in as well, as Mimi Graney, coordinator of the Chelsea pandemic response team, asks a representative to report from each of 10 different working groups that have formed — including teams focused on housing and quarantine, mental health and trauma, elderly issues, and food assistance.
Following the call, Graney was busy in a nearly empty City Hall working with Lourdes Alvarez, the city manager’s executive secretary, to assemble “quarantine kits” — bags with public health instructions, a mask, and sanitizing spray — to be delivered to residents requesting them.
“Really, we’re the size of a neighborhood in Boston, so we’re able to know what the needs are, support each other, and stay grounded,” said Vidot, the city councilor.
Local leaders say the Chelsea Collaborative, a mainstay of the city for more than three decades, telegraphs in its name the ethos that animates how things get done in the tiny community of just over two square miles.
“This city is really blessed with these great community-based organizations that have exceptional leaders,” said Ambrosino. “It’s just been a great collaborative effort. The city wouldn’t be where it is without these organizations.”
Though Chelsea’s government is led by an appointed city manager rather than an elected mayor — a reform instituted in the 1990s following years of City Hall corruption scandals and financial mismanagement — Ambrosino, 58, is hardly a political novice. He served for 12 years as the elected mayor of neighboring Revere, where he grew up, before being tapped for the Chelsea job in 2015. But his soft-spoken style seems more suited to the administrative focus of his current post, which carries the powers of mayor without the requisite glad-handing, fundraising, and campaign theatrics that come with elected office.
The 4 pm citywide conference call is the one set thing on his daily schedule. He has also ended recent weeks with an email message to city employees expressing deep gratitude for their efforts amidst such trying times.
While Ambrosino gets high marks for his collaborative style, Avellaneda said he has been too slow to act on everything from social distancing orders to the need for more coronavirus testing.
“I know he’s trying his best. I just have a much more aggressive approach,” said Avellaneda.
Even local health care leaders — Chelsea has outpatient clinics affiliated with Massachusetts General Hospital and Beth Israel Lahey Health — say they should have been quicker to see what was coming.
Ambrosino’s judgment came in for high-profile questioning last week, when Baker responded to a question on Thursday about whether the state was doing enough for Chelsea by saying city leaders had turned down offers of “a number of things” from state government.
Ambrosino was befuddled by Baker’s comments when reached later Thursday afternoon.
“We haven’t turned down any assistance,” he said.
The administration later said the city turned down an offer to set up a mobile testing site. Ambrosino described the conversation he had with state officials as a “brainstorming” session in which the decision ultimately was to start by comprehensively testing all residents in two city public housing apartment buildings and a third privately-owned building rather than “just throw up a tent in the Market Basket parking lot and say, come one, come all.”
“I’m no public health expert, but I was talking to some experts who agreed maybe to start there is better,” said Ambrosino, adding that it will let the city get a firmer grasp on how prevalent the virus is within large housing complexes and take steps to mitigate its spread there.
Ambrosino, who praised the administration for all its help and had been in regular contact with Sudders and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, had a phone conversation with Baker on Friday morning, the day after the governor’s comments.Ambrosino declined to share details of the call, which he said lasted about half an hour, but said it was very positive. “It was a very good conversation,” he said. “We’re on the same page.”
“As a city, we are all aiming to meet these overwhelming needs,” he said.