As state and city shutdowns continue with no immediate end in sight, Boston City Council members heard Thursday from small business owners, especially business owners of color, struggling to stay afloat – many who said they have seen little aid from either federal or city government.
The hearing, chaired by City Councilor Michelle Wu, was aimed at addressing what Wu and other Council members are calling an “equitable recovery” from the pandemic for disadvantaged Boston communities and businesses.
“The same communities, the same families who were already burdened with systemic inequity are now bearing the burden of COVID in so many ways,” Wu said in opening remarks.
“In the first steps of stimulus and relief, we see the folks most in need of that support least able to access it. We need to make sure that the City of Boston’s recovery efforts are very intentional,” Wu said.
Councilor Julia Mejia, a co-sponsor of the hearing, said the issues were personal to her.
“It’s something that I see every day in my family and my community,” Mejia said. “We were already seeing so many inequalities before this hit … COVID-19 didn’t create inequities, they already existed.”
Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, also Latino, echoed those remarks, noting studies that have shown drastic disparities in wealth between white and non-white communities in Boston.
“What happens now when businesses close?” Arroyo asked.
Among those to testify was Jose Duarte, chef and owner of the restaurant Taranta, in Boston’s North End, which serves a blend of Southern Italian and Peruvian cuisines.
Duarte said the federal Payroll Protection Program, or “PPP,” does not help him or other restauranteurs.
“I got approved, but I’m not open,” Duarte said. “I have to spend the money in eight weeks.”
A state relief program ran out of money immediately, he said: “When I printed the application, it was done.”
And a small business relief fund run by the City of Boston was confusing and largely unresponsive.
“Once they announced it, there was no indication on whether you apply online, personally, on a form,” Duarte said.
When the application did appear online, he said, it was missing required forms.
Former Massachusetts State Senator Dianne Wilkerson, who has advocated for more inclusion of minority businesses in city and other public contracts, also testified.
“We already know that small businesses, in particular businesses of color, have not fared well” in federal and state relief processes, Wilkerson said.
Wilkerson and Segun Idowu, executive director of the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts, suggested funds will fail to reach businesses owned by minorities or other disadvantaged communities unless they are specifically earmarked for those kinds of businesses.
Council members Wu, Mejia, Arroyo and Council President Kim Janey all expressed more than mild “disappointment” that the Walsh administration had declined to send any administration members to attend the hearing and to answer questions – including how those city small business relief funds have been allocated.
The mayor did send a letter, stating administration members were “unable to testify before the committee due to the severity and quickly-changing nature of the public health crisis that is before us.”
The letter said the Walsh administration is developing plans for economic and other recovery efforts and that the administration “expects to be able to share high-level plans in the future.”