The city of Lawrence is experiencing higher numbers of infection compared to other Massachusetts communities, partially because many people living in the city are immigrants who work in essential businesses. It's a troubling trend that seems to be emerging in cities across the state with similar demographics, including in Brockton and Chelsea. WGBH Morning Edition host Joe Mathieu spoke with Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera about how the city is helping residents stay safe during the pandemic. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.
Joe Mathieu: I hope you're doing well and staying safe. Three weeks ago, with only five confirmed cases, you were feeling very concerned about things [and] even called for help from the National Guard. What's the state of things, Mayor?
Mayor Dan Rivera: It's funny you said three weeks ago. It feels like it's been a month just this week [with] the level of intensity going on with this virus. We're at 817 cases of people confirmed [and] we have 25 deaths. A weird thing for us, almost half of the people who are infected are less than 50 years old, but 23 out of the 25 people who passed away are above 65 years old. We're a young community so it fits around our demographics, but it just goes to show you the young folks [and] people in their 40s are the ones carrying this stuff around, so we're trying to make sure people stay home. But it makes it a little difficult because we are the workforce for the Merrimack Valley, from Lowell to Newburyport, and from Salem, New Hampshire down to Burlington. If you have a business, people from Lawrence work in it, especially since we have a huge immigrant workforce. They are working in these essential businesses where food production is involved, cleaning [and] all these other things. So our folks are out and around and they're the young population, but they're the workforce. They're becoming an issue specifically for the older population in our community, so we're trying to communicate that to them.
Mathieu: Is the message then, when it comes to social distancing, finally starting to resonate in your city?
Rivera: I think it is because, again, they have to go to work. They're working in Stop & Shop, Market Basket, the bakeries and all these places that are making stuff. We have two industrial laundries in the city. Any place that they're manufacturing food and the like, our folks are out and doing that. So the best thing we're trying to do is to make sure that they're covering their mouths and wearing protective gear. That's why enforcing stuff in the workforce is so important to me specifically because I know that these folks are going to work in places that if they don't do the distancing at the bakery, if they don't do distancing at the bodega and all these places that are left open, they're going to catch [and] they're going to spread it.
Mathieu: You have been threatening fines for businesses that do not comply with the shutdown. Has that become a factor for you, Mayor Rivera, or are businesses complying?
Rivera: We're a small force, but we're a determined force and they've been going to businesses daily. And never has the term "if you see something, say something" been used so much. Folks are calling us almost every day to tell us about locations that are not abiding by it.
Mathieu: What kinds of businesses?
Rivera: It's everything from the local shops to industrial spaces where people are working, and even construction sites. A concerned mom or concerned wife or a concerned brother calls us and says, "Hey, my brother is working at this construction site. They're not doing what they're supposed to do." We go and check it out and we make them do it. They're allowed to stay open, but they're not allowed to stay open without taking into account the distancing and the safeguards that are meant for everyone. So we will shut them down, and because of the order, they can come back [and] open as long as they meet the criteria.
Mathieu: Are you getting the help you need from the state? Did the National Guard give you what you need?
Rivera: Yes. I wanted to do that early on. I thought that when you have a national state of emergency, a federal state of emergency, a state-level state of emergency and a local state emergency, I'm not sure I've ever seen that in my lifetime. [I'm a] combat veteran and I've never really seen something of this level of seriousness. So I wanted to make sure everyone knew that that's how serious it was, and so having the National Guard on your streets walking I think sends the message that this is not a test, this is not something you can ignore. But the most important part of that is trying to communicate to people that the best action that we can take is inaction, is really hard. So you have to do these things that tell people, "Hey, if you see the National Guard on your street and they're telling you to stay home, you probably should stay home." By the way, the state's been great. They've been really supportive. Secretary Marylou Sudders has been awesome in the command center. The governor, his staff [and] the state representatives, everybody has been really attentive. So I just want to make sure I say that; they've been really great.
Mathieu: That's good to hear. And they've certainly been in front of this in terms of microphones and cameras on a daily basis, but we'd like to hear how it's going for you so far, Mayor. You're a hugger. We know you as the guy who was going out to the store, talking to people, giving out hugs and having one-on-one conversations, getting into the real thick of it with people following the Merrimack Valley gas fires and explosions. How do you run the city with these restrictions?
Rivera: It's really hard. So you've got to get as close to people as you possibly can. I've got a face for radio, so I send a tele-message every week with very detailed information. [We send an] e-mail to folks, a text message. We do that every week with as much information as we can get to people. A lot of phone calls [and] reaching out to elderly folks in that community, make sure they're safe. But it's hard because it's a different type of setting. Having department head meetings by Zoom is not as full contact management that I like, but we're getting through it. But I think that it's been hard to lead in this situation because you're trying to tell people, "Hey, be careful of the things you can't see, but it's there. And the thing to do is to do nothing." And so it's been really hard. But I look forward to the day, even with masks, to give some some hugs out there because people — from the police and fire [departments], and the nurses and doctors — have been really killing it to keep us safe. And I think some hugs will be appropriate.
Mathieu: That's good to hear. I know a lot of people who live in Lawrence actually have your personal cell phone number. Has the phone been ringing?
Rivera: It has been ringing. Folks who are elderly looking for some food [and] people concerned about their job. I think that the state's in a good situation. I heard about the Ways and Means folks talking about what the future might hold. I think the rainy day fund will hold us well if it is raining, but the response to workers and to people has been pretty good. It's no surprise that this has shown the ... the cracks in our our social fabric. The most needy are the ones that are in most need, and it shouldn't shock anybody in some of the places like Lawrence and Brockton, like you were saying, [and] Holyoke and Chelsea. There are things we can do to make those places safer, and part of it is making sure that the hospitals that support them are well-funded and things like that. But I think in the end, we're going to have to address these things long term.
Mathieu: Well, we're glad you could join us this morning, Mr. Mayor. From one guy with a face for radio to another, maybe I'll meet you next time on Facebook Live. Try to take care of yourself and thanks for keeping our community together.
Rivera: Can I just give a real quick plug? New Balance is making face masks for people, and 99 Degrees Custom is making emergency room gowns. So we're in this fight on all levels.