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Mayor Walsh's 2020 remarks to Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce

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Mayor's Office

Read the Mayor's remarks during the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce Virtual Government Affairs Forum held on  September 29, 2020.

Good morning to all the leaders, members, and guests of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. I’m addressing you this year under very different circumstances, so I’m here at a place that’s different than our usual venue. It’s a place that helps tell the story of our city — what we’ve been going through this year, how we’ve responded, and how we must move forward together.

This is The Guild, in Dorchester. It’s a refuge, created by Black and Brown Bostonians, where neighbors come together to heal, reclaim, and revitalize their community. When COVID hit, The Guild jumped into action. They transformed this sanctuary into a relief hub, providing food, supplies, comfort, and care to the families and seniors in their community. 

But the need was overwhelming, and their staff and volunteers were themselves at higher risk from COVID. It was the same story at so many of our nonprofits. At the same time, members of Boston’s business community were reaching out to me every day asking, what can I do to help? That’s why, in March, we created the Boston Resiliency Fund to connect these powerful forces of compassion in our city, and put them to work saving lives. 

Boston responded in a big way. We blew past our fundraising goals and, in a matter of days, we were getting food, healthcare, diapers, and formula into the homes of our residents, through trusted community providers.  

With Resiliency Fund backing, the Guild expanded its reach from a few hundred neighbors to a total of now 30,000 residents, including seniors, families in quarantine, and immigrant households, in neighborhoods across the city. One young woman discovered a passion for volunteering at the Guild and connecting with her elderly neighbors. She said, “it’s so much more than just distributing supplies; it’s uplifting our community.”

In tough times, Bostonians work together. No one should get left behind. That’s what The Guild works for here, and that’s what we worked for in every neighborhood of our city, so Boston could stay home and flatten the curve.

To date, the Resiliency Fund has raised over $33 million from 6,700 individual people, companies, and foundations. We have distributed over $26 million to 348 organizations that are feeding, clothing, and caring for the vulnerable of our city. Fifty-five percent of those organizations are led by a person of color, 58 percent are led by women, and 27 percent are immigrant-serving organizations. That’s who our city is. 

I want to thank everyone who donated to the Resiliency Fund for your generosity, and the many businesses who reached out in our time of need. And I want to thank the workers and volunteers who delivered these services to their neighbors, and continue to do so, every single day. 

We proved, in Boston, there is absolutely nothing we can’t do when we come together. 

Early on in the crisis, I made decisions — sooner than some were comfortable with — to close school buildings, cancel events, and pause construction. 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. Lives were at stake. And I knew our city could rise to the occasion. Here’s what we did. 

  • We brought in the McChrystal Group to help us reorganize the operations of city government around a daily crisis response. 
  • We created a daily text message alert system that gets critical information to nearly 100,000 residents in 11 languages. 
  • We brought COVID testing to 18 community health centers, making sure that every single resident has access to no-cost testing from trusted providers in their own neighborhood. 
  • We built Boston Hope Medical Center at the Convention Center in 5 days, providing care for 750 COVID patients and protecting our hospital capacity. 
  • We created a Health Inequities Task Force and an Immigrant Collaborative to target resources to the vulnerable communities that are hardest hit by COVID.  
  • We put together a citywide food access system that has distributed over 3.5 million free meals to families and seniors in need. 
  • We funded 1,000 childcare seats for essential workers. 
  • In addition to gearing up our first responders, we’ve sent 700,000 units of PPE to outside partners, including nursing homes, community health centers, domestic violence shelters, and homeless providers. 
  • We bought 40,000 laptops for students learning at home. 
  • We got 850 permanent rental vouchers into the hands of families with students in the Boston Public Schools who were at risk from homelessness. 
  • We doubled our shelter capacity and placed 250 formerly homeless individuals into permanent housing. 
  • And, we created a rental relief fund that’s gotten $3 million to nearly 900 households who couldn’t otherwise pay their rent. 
  • We created small business funds that have gotten $9 million to over 2,500 businesses, more than half of them owned by people of color. 
  • We’ve approved over 550 restaurants all across the city for outdoor dining in both public and private space. 
  • And, in COVID-related City contracting, 33 percent of our spending has gone to certified women and minority owned businesses. 

To get all this done, we worked more collaboratively than ever before.  Seven straight months of crisis response has made city government more integrated, more nimble, and more responsive, and we’re going to stay that way. 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.

Let me give you an update on where we stand. As of September 25, 2020, Boston had recorded 16,924 cases of COVID-19. 13,852 of those patients have made confirmed recoveries. 762 Bostonians have lost their lives, and we must never forget them. 
As of now, roughly 1800 Bostonians are being tested for COVID every day, and our current positive test rate is 2.7 percent. All but four neighborhoods are under four percent positivity; with East Boston around six percent, Dorchester around five percent, and Hyde Park and Roslindale around four percent. Black Bostonians represent 32 percent of our total cases, while making up 22 percent of our population; and Latinx Bostonians are 31 percent of our cases, compared to 20 percent of our population.

These and other data are the metrics we monitor every single day.  What they tell us now is that we have come a very long way since the peak of our surge in late April. But they also tell us that the virus is very much still with us. And the inequities affecting communities of color and immigrant communities continue to define the impact of this pandemic--the health impact and the economic impact as well.  Limiting the spread and preventing another surge depends on the actions we all take to avoid transmitting the virus, to work together as a city in our response, and to bring resources and support to those who are most severely impacted.  

We are still in the thick of this fight. COVID is still very much with us. Economic recovery will be a long, hard road. Racial injustice must be addressed and equity must be our shared goal. 

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. 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.

Today I’m going to talk about how we are advancing these priorities in city government and what we all must do to stay safe, recover, and rebuild our city. 

I’ll start with our City finances. Every organization has faced tough realities this year. Whether you are a local business or a large corporation, a neighborhood nonprofit or a world-famous hospital, you have had to tighten your belt and make tough decisions. City government is no exception. This year we put in place a hiring freeze on non-essential positions, and we cut $65 million from the budget for Fiscal Year 2021. 

Despite this loss in revenue, we made sure to protect our record new investments in education, in affordable housing, and in public health — because these fundamental needs are more important now than ever. 

And, we protected city workers. We have more than 18,000 City of Boston employees, and not one has missed a paycheck. They’ve been able to continue spending and supporting grocery stores, restaurants, and small businesses all across our city. 

We also maintained our capital investments, so that we can continue to strengthen our city and Boston remains a place where people want to raise their families and come to work. In the midst of a trying time, residents in every neighborhood will continue to see improvements in safety, opportunity, and quality of life in their communities. 

For example, last week we topped off Engine 42 in Roxbury, the first new firehouse in Boston in over three decades. On Saturday, we started work on our newest bus lane, the outbound route down Washington Street in Roslindale. And, next month, we will open the $17 million, 27,000 square-foot renovation of the Roxbury branch Boston Public Library in Nubian Square. It’s the largest neighborhood branch in the system and it’s the transformative library that Roxbury deserves, with public art, learning spaces, and 21st-century resources. It will host an African-American collection and a center for economic justice dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King’s legacy in our city. 

We've been laying the groundwork to withstand a crisis like this for years. Through responsible budgeting, we earned perfect AAA bond ratings for a record seven years in a row. That put us in a position to weather this storm, while continuing to support our city and invest in our neighborhoods. An analysis reported in the New York Times last month found that Boston is the city government best prepared fiscally for the current economic crisis. We will continue to make whatever adjustments to our budget are needed, because protecting the City's financial health is how we maintain a well functioning government that can be there for people in both good times and hard times. 

On so many issues, the priorities, the planning, and the investments we made before COVID, have put us in a stronger position to respond, recover, and rebuild. 

In housing, on top of 1,000 new rental vouchers for BPS families, we are creating the first city-funded voucher program in Boston’s history. And we have continued our two-year push at the State Legislature for a right to legal counsel for tenants in eviction proceedings. That’s more crucial  than ever, as the state and federal eviction moratoriums expire. 

In transportation, the plans we made to expand bus lanes and bike lanes are exactly what we needed to help front line workers get to and from their jobs safely. Now we’re making them permanent. 

On the environment, the pandemic has shown why our commitment to following science, investing in resilience, and advancing environmental justice is so important. I’ve expanded investment in parks across the city, and I’ve kept the pledge I made at the Chamber two years ago to invest 10 percent of the capital budget in waterfront parks that protect our homes and businesses. 

Because we created the nation’s first municipal office of recovery services, we have been able to be there for those who need help with addiction throughout the pandemic, as we fight in court for our long-term, regional recovery campus on Long Island. 

And in education, the three-year, $100 million investment that I announced at the beginning of this year — targeted directly at the equity and opportunity gaps that impact students with the deepest needs — is helping us support our students most in need during this pandemic.  

Last week, the Boston Public Schools opened remotely for the first time in history. To be ready, we accelerated our plan to make Boston a district that provides a computer for every single student. 

As we do this work, we’re preparing for the education model that emerges when we move past this pandemic. To close the digital divide over the long-term, we’re going to need all hands on deck. We’re going to need every level of government, along with the private sector, to step up in a big way, to find and fund solutions. 

It’s not just an achievement gap in our schools; it’s a skills gap in our future workforce. And it’s the concept of equity, clearly defined. A child without a computer or the internet at home needs a different level of engagement and investment than a child in a well-resourced home —especially when you consider how likely it is that same child also experiences systemic racism through housing insecurity, health inequity, and a host of other challenges. We have to address these issues together. 

That’s why we are committed to rebuilding an economy that works for everyone.  

We are working with leaders and experts in every industry: providing safety guidelines and protective equipment, listening to their needs and concerns, and identifying opportunities to help — especially for the hardest hit. 

To help the tourism sector rebuild, we have launched a plan for a marketing campaign to invite and welcome regional visitors to our city in a safe and healthy way. 

We are making sure Boston is open for business and investment is coming to our city. In the last two months, we have approved 776,000 square feet of development and 421 housing units, 30 percent of which are income restricted, affordable homes. That’s not counting Suffolk Downs, the largest private investment in affordable housing and resilient infrastructure in Boston’s history. 

At the same time we welcome these major investments, we are in the trenches helping our small businesses. They are the backbone of our neighborhood economies and local communities and they have taken a huge hit due to COVID. So while we’ve taken the steps necessary to protect our residents, we’ve also worked harder than ever before to understand and respond to the needs of small businesses. For restaurants like El Barrio Cafe in Dorchester, these measures have been life-savers. Owner Joandry Vasquez said he could not have reopened without grant funding and outdoor dining support from the City.  

That’s also why I’m here at The Guild today. This is a place where Black and Brown Bostonians come together to share ideas and grow new businesses. At a time when we’re planning our economic recovery, we must continue to foster creativity, encourage innovation, and remove barriers for communities of color to build wealth.

Racial equity is not a new conversation. In 2016, I devoted my Chamber address to calling on our city to dismantle and end systemic racism.  Here’s what I said: “racial inequities are evident in health, education, and almost every aspect of community and individual wellbeing. These disparities are not only rooted in history, they continue presenting barriers to opportunity today. That means it’s not enough to have color-blind policies, and it’s not enough to have good intentions. Personal virtue doesn’t add up to systemic change.” 

It was the first time in Boston’s history that a mayor put ending systemic racism at the top of our city’s agenda. And we have advanced this priority in every aspect of city policy: in our school investments, in our housing policies, in our neighborhood investments, and in transportation access. It’s our economic vision and it’s our public health mission.  

The COVID crisis is a good example. It’s a lesson in systemic inequity and it’s taken intentional work, every day, to address it. That’s also a lesson in how we are leading in Boston: by tackling inequities head-on and unlocking the immense talent in the Black community and communities of color to build, create, and succeed.  

But when George Floyd was murdered in late May of this year, it was clear: we are nowhere near ending systemic racism and achieving justice in our country.  The conversations in the 70s, 80s, or 90s didn’t get us there. The conversations after Ferguson didn’t get us there. The conversation we had with the Chamber in 2016 didn’t get us there. 

This time must be different.  

In the coming days I will receive the final recommendations of our Police Reform Task Force. We will break new ground in accountability, diversity, and transparency. 

But ending systemic racism goes so much further than police policies. As I said in 2016, it affects every aspect of our society and every kind of opportunity. That’s what systemic means. 

And that’s why we reorganized city government, putting a Chief of Equity in my cabinet to drive this work forward and make sure everything we do is laser focused on ending systemic racism and achieving racial equity in our city.  

I don’t want to be back with the Chamber, three years from now, having the same conversation again. We must do more, all of us: The City of Boston; the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and all of our 351 cities and towns; and every leader in the private sector.  

We also need leadership at the head of the federal government. Boston, and every city and state, needs a steady partner in Washington and a White House committed to the health and wellbeing of all Americans. Unfortunately, we don't have that, and our country has paid a price. 

But in the meantime, Boston will lead: on COVID; on economic recovery; on racial justice; and on climate action.

These are tough fights, and we face a long road ahead. We need to keep making health and safety our priority every day. We need to work together to rebuild our economy so it works for everyone. And we need to guarantee justice for everyone who calls our city and country home.

At this moment of uncertainty, we must continue to move Boston forward. As Mayor, I’m focused on our safety, our recovery, and our path ahead.  And while our city battles a pandemic, I’ve drawn strength from the resilience and the selflessness I’ve seen and felt all across our city.  

So if you are on this call, or you are watching this speech, I want to thank you.  

I want to thank the business and nonprofit leaders who reached out to help us. 

I want to thank the nurses, doctors, and medical staff who worked around the clock to save lives. 

I want to thank the police, fire, and EMS first responders who never stopped being there for us, no matter the risk.  

I want to thank the grocery store workers, restaurant workers, and delivery drivers who kept us fed.

I want to thank all our public employees who have kept our city government going without missing a beat. 

I want to thank everyone who worked from home and continues to work from home.  

I want to thank the parents and guardians who are helping children learn at home while trying to do their own jobs and manage their finances. 

I want to thank the small business owners who have worked so hard.

And I want to thank every single person who puts on a mask when they leave the house. 

Boston has been knocked down before, and we’ve always gotten back up. And when we rise up, we reach back to lift all those who have been held down in the past. This year, and these challenges, are no different. We are determined to keep the people of our city safe, and we are determined to come out of this crisis a more resilient and more equitable city than we entered it.

We are Boston, and there is nothing we can’t do when we work together. 

Thank you. God bless you. God bless the City of Boston.