Officials in Chelsea are urging residents to stay at home 24/7 as the city becomes a hot spot for the coronavirus. WGBH Morning Edition host Joe Mathieu spoke with Chelsea City Councilor Judith Garcia to learn more about how the pandemic is affecting the city and its residents. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.
Councilor Judith Garcia: Unfortunately, our city is experiencing currently the worst outbreak of COVID-19 in the entire state. Our rates are actually even higher than New York City. There's clearly a lot of anxiety in our community, but also a relentless effort from our city leaders to slow down the spread of this disease. That's why our city manager is implementing this voluntary 24/7 stay at home policy. Our rate of infection here in Chelsea is at 106 per 10,000 residents — currently the highest in the state.
Joe Mathieu: That is a really important number that you mentioned. Out of 10,000 people, compared to, for instance, Hyde Park, the neighborhood in Boston, with the rate of infection of 35 out of 10,000. What is it about Chelsea? Is it the congestion in the city, the fact that we have so many two- and three-bedroom multi-family homes?
Garcia: There's a lot, Joe. There is a lot that attributes to this. We need to consider the fact that for years and decades, Chelsea has experienced environmental injustices. We have a community that is predominantly immigrant. We have a community that, at the best economic times, depends on two to three jobs. So we're a low-income community, and what you're seeing is that many of our residents have to work. They're deemed essential workers. They work at food establishments. They're engaged in high levels of public interaction. Our community relies on public transportation, where social distancing is impossible. And you mentioned density. People are living together and it's very difficult to isolate themselves under these circumstances. So it's a multiple array of factors that are setting the stage for a perfect storm.
Mathieu: The Council is asking for help with finding rooms in hotels, for instance, for people who are sick and also for frontline responders. Are you having luck there, Councilor?
Garcia: Our focus at the moment is, we're asking on different fronts for different things. We're asking for higher funding for testing facilities based on rates of infection. Governor Baker's administration is doing what they can, and at the city level we're doing what we can to be able to flatten the spread of this disease, but we need more. We need more funding. We need some state assistance in securing hotels for isolation. As I mentioned, the city leaders just approved five $500,000 on Monday to help with securing a local hotel in Revere to ensure that many of the residents who are confirmed with this COVID-19 don't have to worry about being homeless. Because what we're seeing is, a lot of folks who are positive, when they return home, they're being turned away. So we're doing what we can, but we're asking for more. We need more money for emergency food. We need more money for securing housing and [for] testing facilities.
Mathieu: And you're asking for the federal government to directly chip in on this?
Garcia: We're asking for the federal government, but mostly right now, our concerted effort is asking Governor Baker to help us more.
Mathieu: There are a lot of things that I'd like to ask you about in terms of Chelsea, but one of the things we learned just last evening from Governor Baker is that those who have been approved to receive unemployment benefits will now get $600 extra per week. That's due to a federal plan, part of the relief packages that were approved in Washington. Because of the very large immigrant community in Chelsea, are you concerned that not enough people who are out of work are getting unemployment benefits?
Garcia: Yes, that is definitely one of the biggest concerns that we have in our community. Unfortunately, a lot of the members of our community are undocumented and they've lost their jobs. And in the best economic times, many of these working families have two or three jobs just to get by and those jobs are gone. So they cannot qualify for these unemployment benefits or any other support programs. These are folks that are not going to get a bailout check from the federal government. So that is one of the biggest concerns we're seeing, a huge economic shift. So this pandemic is bringing layers and layers of hardship in our community, and it's going to take millions and millions of dollars to help Chelsea overall recuperate from these setbacks.
Mathieu: Considering this 24-hour-a-day stay at home, I realize it's voluntary, but that's going to be very difficult for some people to observe. Are you worried about people out and about over this holiday weekend?
Garcia: Well, we're worried, yes. One of the things that we're focusing on is relaying the message in multiple languages because, again, we have a community that is so diverse. Because we're lacking this state assistance and we're lacking this federal assistance and we're just relying on our local resources, we need people to take part into this and really focus on staying at home at all hours. We understand it's so difficult to not be able to be with family members during religious festivities, but unfortunately, as we've heard, we we need to make that concerted effort because we do not have the support from the federal or state government. Again, Governor Baker is doing what he can, but we need more.
Mathieu: How are you conducting business on the City Council? How are you staying in touch with the city manager? Are you on Zoom like everyone else?
Garcia: Yes, we're trying to do as many virtual meetings as we can. We're connecting via email and keeping that communication going as much as we can. But again, we've created a response team that meets every day at 4 p.m. to really focus on our efforts overall in providing emergency food and delivering cleaning supplies [and masks] to help residents and to stop the spread of the virus.
Mathieu: Of course, people are being told to wear masks when they leave home now in the city of Boston. How many are wearing them in Chelsea?
Garcia: It's very difficult to keep count on how many are wearing them. We're asking a lot of residents to wear those masks every time they go [out]. But mostly we have seen an increase on the folks who are wearing these masks.