Traditional trick or treating is more or less cancelled this year, but there's no shortage of ghastly things happening in our Commonwealth right now.
Two weeks ago, I wrote about how I'd been sounding the alarm on the likelihood of a second spike of COVID cases here in Massachusetts. Unfortunately, Governor Baker has continued to resist the calls of public health experts to make certain adjustments to the reopening strategy, and the situation has only been getting worse since my last update.
That said, there is some good news this week, as the legislature took action to boost unemployment insurance, and a new grant program to help struggling small businesses was also launched. So, without further ado, here's the latest news from my virtual State House office...
COVID CASES CONTINUE ALARMING UPWARD SPIKE
We've now had ten days in a row of more than 1,000 new Covid cases per day in Massachusetts. To put these numbers in perspective, there hadn't been a single day of 1,000 or more new cases in our state since May — so by all accounts, a serious spike in new cases is now underway. Meanwhile, education officials reported a 41% increase in Covid cases in Massachusetts schools this week as compared to the previous week.
On Thursday evening, I posted a side-by-side comparison of what the state's color-coded Covid risk map looked like in early August (not long after Phase III of the reopening started) and what it looks like today. The comparison was quite stark and was shared hundreds of times (you can see it here on Twitter). Yesterday, the Boston Globe produced a visualization that depicts these same alarming trends (you can see that here).
Last month, I joined with public health experts to call on Gov. Baker to refocus his administration on controlling the virus and protecting essential workers and vulnerable residents. Unfortunately, our calls went mostly unheeded. More about these efforts is available via this State House News Service report.
Now, a group of physicians is once again calling on Gov. Baker to close indoor bars, restrict indoor seating at restaurants, and roll back other reopening measures to curb the spread of the virus. These requests are similar to the demands I've been making to the Governor for months now... Meanwhile, Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo announced yesterday that she will rollback elements of that state's reopening.
Despite these mounting concerns, Gov. Baker continues to assert that schools, restaurants, and other workplaces and public settings are not the primary drivers of COVID transmission. To support this stance, the Governor has noted that about 1/3rd of new cases in the past month have been linked to "clusters" — and most clusters have been attributed to household exposure, meaning transmission likely occured between people who live together. Based on this observation, the Governor says Phase III of the reopening is still basically going okay, and he claims the issue is mostly a matter of personal responsibility.
But as I look at these facts, I remain skeptical and concerned. As the average number of daily new cases has roughly doubled over the past month, it's probably not surprising that 1/3 of new cases are linked to household transmission. After all, Covid is an airborne disease, so if one person brings it home, others in the household are apt to get it. While personal responsibility is very important, I worry the Governor's background as a privileged Republican businessman is causing him to overlook all the ways vulnerable folks are contracting this dangerous disease due to systemic forces that make it hard to avoid.
And I'm not alone in finding Gov. Baker's logic to be suspect: "What we really want to understand is how is the spread getting into the community," said Carlene Pavlos, executive director of the Massachusetts Public Health Association. "Residents living in the same household, we know they are likely to spread it to each other... Clearly, that is not what is driving this latest spike of over 1,000 new cases a day," the Public Health Association director concluded.
It was also reported this week that the state hasn't been able to trace the origin of about half of the Covid cases. This only adds to my concern that the Governor is trying too hard to place all of the blame for the recent spike on individual choices and social gatherings. For my part, I will continue to support policies that address the systemic drivers of infection that disproportionally impact our most vulnerable residents.
NEW COVID TESTING SITES: CAMBRIDGESIDE IN EAST CAMBRIDGE, PISANI CENTER IN THE PORT, AND MORE
The City of Cambridge announced yesterday that it will begin offering COVID-19 testing for residents seven days a week at expanded locations, as part of a strategic initiative to coordinate testing and COVID-19 vaccine distribution. The initiative is led by the City's newly established Cambridge Pandemic Collaborative. More information on where and when you can get a Covid test is available via this website.
GOVERNOR ALLOWS EVICTION MORATORIUM TO EXPIRE; WE WILL CONTINUE FIGHTING FOR "HOUSING FOR ALL"
On Thursday, housing justice organizers blocked the doors to Boston Municipal Court to protest the fact that Governor Baker recently allowed the nation's strongest eviction and foreclosure moratorium law to expire.
I applaud this act of civil disobedience. For my part, I shut down an informal session of the House of Representatives earlier this month to protest the legislature's inaction on the Housing Stability Act, comprehensive legislation I drafted in partnership with House Housing Chair Kevin Honan, Cambridge and Somerville Senator Pat Jehlen, and leading housing justice advocates from around the state.
You can read more about our efforts to advance the Housing Stability Act here in the Cambridge Chronicle.
Also this week, our previous warnings about Governor Baker's so-called "Eviction Diversion Initiative" became even more obvious. In allowing the eviction process to resume, the Governor highlighted a rental assistance program called RAFT. However, last week I was advised by the Department of Housing and Community Development that they are merely "hoping" to have RAFT working "by the end of November." And this week, the Boston Globe reported that RAFT has been and continues to be a broken program.
"Tenants and landlords alike ― as well as the advocates and counselors who work with them ― describe RAFT as strained to the point of bursting, with applications backed up for months, and many languishing due to documentation problems, language barriers, and miscommunication," wrote Tim Logan of the Boston Globe.
It's important to note that even if a tenant is perfectly qualified for RAFT, a landlord may decide to not cooperate or participate in the program and just move forward with an eviction anyways. That's why, at the very least, we need to pass legislation to create a "Right To Cure" that protects vulnerable tenants from eviction whenever they are qualified for rental assistance, especially during this ongoing public health emergency. I remain committed to pushing for this and for our broader Housing Stability Act and other pieces of housing legislation when formal legislative sessions resume after Election Day next week.
NEW UNEMPLOYMENT LEGISLATION IS ENACTED AND SIGNED INTO LAW
While the legislature still hasn't met in formal session since the end of July (something I have been outspokenly about), we did manage to pass an important bill in "informal session" this week that will make an estimated 17,000 workers eligible for up to $1,800 in enhanced federal unemployment benefits.
By increasing the minimum weekly benefit to $100 for the week ending July 31 through the week ending Sept. 5, the legislation we enacted (H.5066) will allow workers who were unemployed during that period to access a total of $31 million in federal support. Previously, these 17,000 workers did not qualify for enhanced benefits because their standard benefit was too little. For my part, I was proud to join in an effort with colleagues to advocate to House Leadership for passage of this bill.
My office remains committed to supporting all of our constituents who are trying to qualify for unemployment assistance, rental assistance, and other vital programs. Please do not hesitate to reach out to us if you need assistance or support.
$50.8 MILLION SMALL BUSINESS GRANT PROGRAM NOW OPEN
The Commonwealth has made $50.8 million in new grants available to support small businesses, microenterprises, and their employees, families and communities. These funds were appropriated by the state legislature via a supplemental budget and the federal CARES Act. Massachusetts Growth Capital Corporation (MGCC) will be administering these funds to businesses experiencing economic hardship and a loss of income due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Preference will be given to small businesses whose owners are women, minorities, veterans, members of other underrepresented groups, who are focused on serving the Gateway Cities of Massachusetts, and those most negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Preference will also be given to applicants that have not been able to receive aid from other federal programs related to COVID-19.
To learn more about the application process, which is now open, please visit this page.
CALLING FOR THE "AT GRADE" RE-DESIGN OF THE I-90 INTERCHANGE
The Department of Transportation recently accepted comments on the designs for the Allston I-90 Intermodal Interchange Project. Given the proximity of the I-90 Interchange to our district — and the important connection between this program, a future West Station, and the Grand Junction rail-with-trail corridor, I joined with Cambridgeport Rep. Jay Livingstone to submit additional testimony in support of the "modified all at grade" option.
The At-Grade proposal is the right choice for walkers, park users, neighbors, and commuters. The other alternative would be to rebuild the existing Highway Viaduct, which we strongly oppose. The at grade option will ensure a more healthful use of Magazine Beach Park and a quieter Cambridge in addition to the restoration of a natural Charles River shoreline, a longstanding priority. Additionally the at-grade proposal preserves the opportunity for a direct connection to the Grand Junction corridor.
You can read our letter to MassDOT via this link and find out what the City of Cambridge has to say about the project via this page. These plans will be of real consequence for our future quality of life, and the final outcome will say a lot about our state's commitment to progressive transit, environmental, and climate policies as a whole.
STANDING UP TO WAGE THEFT IN SOMERVILLE
On Thursday afternoon, I joined with Senator Ed Markey, Congresswoman Ayanna Presley, AFL-CIO leader Steve Tolman, Somerville City Council President Matt McLaughlin, Greater Boston Labor Council Executive Secretary-Treasurer Darlene Lombos, Somerville Workers Center organizer Francisca Sepúlveda, and other colleagues in state and local government to stand in solidarity with union members who are protesting the rampant wage theft and tax fraud that is taking place on construction sites at Assembly Row.
Wage theft covers a variety of infractions that occur when workers do not receive their legally or contractually promised wages. Common forms of wage theft are non-payment of overtime, not giving workers their last paycheck after a worker leaves a job, or not paying for all the hours worked.
In addition to highlighting the problem of wage theft, the demonstration called attention to Somerville's new Wage Theft Ordinance and the new Somerville Workers Center that will be assisting workers who are victims of wage theft. For my part, I am also co-sponsoring legislation on Beacon Hill that would crack down on wage theft across the Commonwealth. I am very hopeful this legislation will pass soon, as it has the total support of organized labor.
TUESDAY IS ELECTION DAY!
This week, I voted by mail and submitted my ballot at the dropbox in front of the Cambridge Election Commission office, and I encourage everyone to who can do so to exercise their right to vote before polls close at 8 pm on Tuesday.
Early voting concluded yesterday, but there is still time to Vote By Mail or vote in person on Tuesday. If you choose to Vote By Mail, your ballot must be postmarked by Tuesday. For the surest results, you should do what I did and bring your Vote By Mail ballot to one of several local drop boxes.
To check the status of your Vote By Mail ballot, please visit this page, which will also let you know if your returned Vote By Mail ballot has been accepted. For information on how to participate in this year's election in Cambridge and Somerville, please see this page on my State House blog. And for even more information, please see the latest updates from the Secretary of the Commonwealth.
Thank you, once again, for being and informed and engaged constituent of the 26th Middlesex District.
Yours in service,
Rep. Mike Connolly