Chelsea, Mass., is considered the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the greater Boston area, with higher rates of infection and fewer resources than other local communities. WGBH Morning Edition host Joe Mathieu spoke with Chelsea City Manager Tom Ambrosino about how the city is trying to slow the spread of the virus among its residents. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.
Joe Mathieu: The National Guard has been deployed to your city to help with testing to provide free meals and temporary housing. Is this what you need, or is Chelsea still in need of more?
Tom Ambrosino: So we asked the administration to provide us with additional resources, including help with food and food distribution, help with additional hotel rooms for people who are COVID-19 positive and unable to isolate at home, and for additional testing. The administration has come through and is in the process of working with us to meet those needs. So far, I would say I'm satisfied with the response by the Baker administration. They have been very, very responsive to us over the course of this crisis.
Mathieu: I'm certainly glad to hear it. I know that there's a lot of work to be done there. What are your greatest challenges immediately?
Ambrosino: So right now, it's sort of controlling this rate of contagion that, as you mentioned, is the highest per capita in the state. That's certainly a need [and] we're hoping through the enhanced testing we can get a better handle on that. Then there's the economic needs of the residents. [A lot] of our residents are out of work, have no income coming in and therefore are desperately in need of just basic food and supplies. So beefing up our ability to get those supplies and distribute them to households, particularly households where we're asking people to isolate and quarantine because they are sick, is really the greatest need right now.
Mathieu: Can you explain beyond the fact that Chelsea is deeply congested [and] that there are density issues, why is it that Chelsea is feeling the weight of this virus more than other areas?
Ambrosino: I think it really is the housing density. We have lots of housing units where many people are cramped into small apartments. It's based on the income demographics of the city. We have many residents who work low-wage jobs and are still out there in essential businesses like food production and grocery store clerks, and they're not going there in their private vehicles. They're still riding public transportation, which still can be crowded at times. So for those reasons, Chelsea and most other low-income, minority majority communities are at the top of the list when it comes to contagion rates for ... those two basic reason: crowded housing, and people who are working in low-wage jobs and taking public transportation. And I think it's sort of obvious that in those crowded circumstances, the virus spreads.
Mathieu: It's a tough fix, as I'm sure you can discuss with us here. You've got 80 percent of Chelsea residents working so-called essential jobs; they have to go in. And for many of them, they have to have a paycheck. It's not an option to take a couple of weeks off and self isolate. But of course, you're trying to keep the local economy not only running, but also keep people safe. Do you think that more tight restrictions would be in order to keep people home?
Ambrosino: So at this point we're tipping the scales towards safety as opposed to trying to keep the economy humming, recognizing that by doing that it means more and more people will be in need. But I think at this point, we're focusing on safety and our message to our residents has been stay at home all day, every day, at least for the next few weeks as the peak occurs, and only go out if you have to for essential travel, essential food, [and] essential medicine. And if you can't go out, the city will do its best to deliver those resources to you. Obviously, we have people who must work in essential businesses, and ... that does create a challenge.
Mathieu: You did issue a 24-hour-a-day stay at home advisory, I guess we could call it. Are you enforcing that? How are people reacting to it?
Ambrosino: We're expecting voluntary compliance. We can't really enforce — no city can — a real curfew. That would require military police on the street and none of us are going there. We're depending upon voluntary compliance, but I will tell you the compliance has been extremely good. The problem is if 95 percent of our residents comply in a 40,000 population, that still leaves 2,000 people not complying and that's a lot of people. So it's a challenge, but we're really pushing the message that to keep themselves safe, to keep their loved ones safe and to keep this community safe, people really do have to stay at home as much as possible. And that's the message we're putting out.
Mathieu: MEMA is setting up an isolation hotel in your city for infected patients, in some cases, those who are dealing with homelessness, but also people who can't stay home with family members and get other people sick. Is that what's needed now?
Ambrosino: Yes, so in cities like Chelsea and Revere ... that are sharing this hotel resource, the problem is less what most people would identify as "true" homelessness — people who [are] constantly out in the elements — in our cases, it's people [who] cannot return to crowded apartment units and properly isolate. So they become temporarily homeless in that circumstance and we need places to isolate them, hence the reason for the hotel. Sending them back to a crowded unit and expecting them to isolate is impractical, and it's just going to lead to more spread of the virus.