6/1/2020 Agenda summary (COVID Special Edition #10)

We’re back to regular Monday night meetings after a week off due to Memorial Day. It is difficult to focus on much besides the murder of George Floyd and the deep pain that has been exposed in our country. Modern policing is a fundamentally racist institution that evolved from slave patrols. The City Council will have several opportunities to confront these issues, including through policy and during our budget discussions. We need a radical restructuring of our budget to truly prioritize the needs of the people.

City Manager’s Agenda

CMA #1: City Manager’s update on COVID-19

I have grown tired of the City Manager’s refusal to publish COVID-19 updates in writing. It is challenging to prepare thoughtful questions when we can’t review the information before the meeting, and there is no reason for it most of the time.

CMA #3: Funding for bike & pedestrian safety enforcement

This is a $6,000 grant for “initiatives that address pedestrian and bicycle issues, coupling educational projects with enforcement of laws to reduce pedestrian and bicycle injuries and crashes”. I would like to know more about which laws will see increased enforcement because even though this isn’t very much money, it is important we don’t do more harm than good.

CMA #4: Funding for reducing gang-related violence

This is $100,000 from Free Cash to be put towards a new partnership with Roca Inc, a nonprofit based in Chelsea that is committed to “disrupting the cycle of incarceration and poverty by helping young people transform their lives”. The funds will be used to hire an outreach worker dedicated to Cambridge, and other related programming as part of the Police Department’s Focused Deterrence Initiative. It is good to see this funding on the agenda. How many more young men are we going to lose before we address the problem in a transformative way?

CMA #5: Funding for COVID-19 materials & supplies

This is $677,300 to cover the projected costs of PPE and other materials that will be needed to keep city employees safe once they return to the workplace. This funding will be used to purchase things like masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, cleaning materials, and spray sanitizer. It will also go towards additional emergency communication costs.

CMA #6: Funding for the homeless shelter & local restaurant community meals program

This is $60,000 that will keep the restaurant/homeless shelter community meals program operating until the end of the year. This program contracts with local restaurants to provide meals to homeless residents through area shelters. So far, 2,750 meals have been provided across 12 different shelters in Cambridge.

CMA #7: Funding for the War Memorial emergency shelter

This is $2.175 million to fund the continued operation of the War Memorial emergency shelter. This is on top of the initial $500,000 donation from MIT & Harvard. Something doesn’t quite add up because the announcement of the original donation from the universities said that money would be put towards “construction, primarily for a new quarantine area located in the garage, as well as costs and maintenance for 3 months of operation (starting March 27, 2020), furnishing and supplies, and demolition and deep cleaning at closeout”. However, this new appropriation notes that money was used entirely for construction of the facility.

The shelter averages 60 guests per night. At a rate of $100 per person per night, it would cost just over $500,000 to house that many people in hotel rooms for three months. Even factoring in additional costs such as meals and security, it is clear that such an approach would not only have been more humane and safe, but also much more cost-effective.

CMA #8: Funding for COVID-19 testing kits

This is $150,000 from Free Cash to fund COVID-19 testing kits. 4,000 kits were purchased at $100 each, and MIT kicked in $250,000. I am proud of the extensive testing our city is doing, and I am glad to see a focus on the most vulnerable populations including residents of nursing homes, unhoused people, and communities of color. It’s still not enough, but it’s a start.

Applications & Petitions

Applications & Petitions #1: Domestic Violence Awareness Month

I’m assuming this petition is requesting banners for Domestic Violence Awareness Month, but clarity is needed.

Applications & Petitions #2: curb cut at 56 Creighton Street

I will be checking with the neighborhood association before making a decision on this curb cut, since the application does not include any feedback from them.

Resolutions

Resolution #5: Observation of Juneteenth

June 19, 1865 is regarded as the day in which slavery was finally and completely abolished in the United States. This Resolution urges all residents to reflect on the meaning of this important day.

Resolution #8: Congrats to the Class of 2020

Graduation won’t look the same this year, but the class of 2020 has persevered through this difficult time to make the best of it. Congrats to all the graduates!

Policy Orders

PO #1: Painting benches and crosswalks in recognition of Pride Month

I am a cosponsor of this order from the Mayor, which requests a refreshing of the rainbow-painted sidewalks & benches in front of city hall in recognition of Pride Month. It specifically asks for colors that represent the Trans flag, the Pride Flag, the Bi Flag, and the People of Color Pride Flag. It also asks to light up city hall in rainbows.

PO #2: Public building for cooling this summer

This order asks for the city to designate an accessible public building as a cooling center for this summer, including all necessary social distancing measures. I strongly support this order as a way to mitigate the impacts of the Urban Heat Island Effect in our city as climate change brings increasingly unbearable heat waves.

PO #3: Repealing the ban on our single use plastic ban

Governor Baker’s emergency order temporarily nullifies the city’s Bring Your Own Bag Ordinance, also known as the plastic bag ban. I am a cosponsor of this order, which calls on the Governor to remove that stipulation and allow us to continue banning single use plastic. It is clear at this point that reusable bags do not pose a real public health risk.

PO #4: North Cambridge COVID testing site

I am a cosponsor of this order from the Mayor, which calls for an additional COVID testing site in North Cambridge near the Fresh Pond Apartments. It is important to address the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color, and that begins with making testing more easily available!

PO #5: Renaming the Mass Ave & Churchill Ave bus stop

This bizarre order from Councillor Toomey asks to change the name of the bus stop outside Matignon High School from “Massachusetts Avenue at Churchill Avenue” to “Matignon High School at Churchill Avenue”. Personally, I’m more concerned with the safety of our public transit system as we reopen than I am with the names of the stops.

PO #6: Recognizing Caribbean-American Heritage Month

I submitted this Resolution, which recognizes June as Caribbean-American Heritage Month in Cambridge. We had our first ever celebration of Caribbean-American Heritage Month in Cambridge last year, and it was wonderful. Things will unfortunately look very different this year, of course, but I am hopeful that we will be able to celebrate regardless. More to come soon!

Communications & Reports from Other City Officers

COF #1: Communication from Mayor Siddiqui on updates from the School Committee

The School Committee voted unanimously to recommend the budget, but reservations clearly remain. There are lots of open questions around the Fall and many concerns from parents that online learning isn’t going so well. It will surely be a challenging year, but I don’t see how I can support this school budget as it continues to fail to address the systemic racism that pervades our school system, and the convulsive changes that our society is clearly undergoing that require a different approach to education and creating economic opportunity for those who have historically been excluded.

Update on shared streets & bike lanes

Back at the March 30 council meeting, Councillor Nolan and I introduced a pair of policy orders asking for street closures throughout the city due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Our intent was to make more space for pedestrians and cyclists to spread out, because it was very apparent even at that point that there was not enough space outside for people to safely practice social distancing. Unfortunately, the City Manager declined to move forward even after the council passed both orders and other cities around the country began moving ahead with plans of their own.

Finally, in just this last week, we have begun to see movement and progress. We have also been discussing next year’s budget, including plans for the future buildout of the bike network. This post will get you caught up on both conversations.

Shared Streets Pilot

The long-awaited Shared Streets Pilot proposal, presented to the Council at the May 28 special meeting, looks good as an initial response to the Council’s request. Starting on June 15, Garden Street, Magazine Street, and Harvard Street will close 24/7 to most vehicular traffic except for residents, deliveries, local business access, emergency vehicles, and public transit. This pilot will connect key locations across the city and provide safe recreation and non-vehicular transportation space for residents.

Map showing the upcoming street closures. The city will limit Garden Street, Magazine Street, and Harvard Street to most vehicular traffic except for residents, deliveries, local business access, emergency vehicles, and public transit.

The City Manager was clear that he will look to expand this network as quickly as possible, based on community input. I hope that the program will expand quickly to more neighborhoods including East Cambridge and Wellington-Harrington. It was also encouraging to hear that there is no explicit end date set for these changes. During the meeting, staff implied that the restrictions would remain in place at least until next winter, and possibly longer. These three streets are all part of the planned bike network, so hopefully they will never “go back” to what they were. Instead, we would ideally see a transition to the permanently protected layout, including further reductions in on-street car storage.

Memorial Drive Closure

Many of us were calling for Memorial Drive to close to vehicular traffic long before the pandemic came, since the multi-use paths along the river are treacherous despite being a major commuting route to Longwood and a center of recreation for the whole city. It is impossible to practice social distancing while using these narrow paths, and one routinely sees cyclists and pedestrians dangerously veering into the highway to try and maintain a proper distance.

A cycling family rides by a sycamore tree during the City’s pilot closure of Riverbend Park on May 24.

DCR closed parkways in Watertown and Boston back in early April, and their spokesperson told me they were all set to include Memorial Drive at that time, but that the City Manager and State Rep Decker had objected strongly. The final Sunday in April came and went without Riverbend Park (a portion of the parkway) closing for the day, as it normally does during this time of year, when we typically have nice weather. Despite the clear need for more space, the City Manager maintained his position that closing additional streets could create “flocking” or “block party” behavior, and would send mixed signals during a time when people were supposed to be at home in isolation.

Finally on May 20, the City Manager announced that as a trial, Riverbend Park would close on May 24 & 31 from 11-7 PM. The scope of this pilot fell far short of what the Council had asked for months prior: the complete closure of Memorial Drive, 24/7. It also seemed to defy the City Manager’s own logic: wouldn’t closing the parkway for just a few hours encourage the type of “flocking” event that he had been trying to avoid the whole time? Despite all this, I remained optimistic that a successful pilot could lead to the more extensive closures that are so sorely needed.

Both closures were, by all accounts, hugely successful. There were no unruly crowds and people finally had space to recreate safely. The closures were an oasis of comfort that eliminated the tense conflicts normally seen between bikes, pedestrians, and speeding cars. However, residents reported significant challenges actually getting to the park, since other streets were not closed (including the dangerous stretch of Memorial Drive leading up to the closed part). Additionally, there are significant equity concerns about the stretch that was chosen for closure. Someone coming from Central Square, for instance, would have to walk a mile just to get to the closed portion, and then the closed portion would take them away from where they came from. It seems like that is a level of commitment most folks will not be looking to make just to get some safe recreation. Additionally, the seniors and other residents who live in public housing on the corner of River Street would greatly benefit from a closure of the segment in front of their building.

The obvious solution is to close all of Memorial Drive, 24/7, or at least one lane in each direction throughout the entirety. It is my hope that after the success of the initial pilot, the City Manager will recognize that and expand the closure program as soon as possible. Watch the video below to see why it’s important to expand the scope:

Dangerous conflicts between vehicles and bikers at the entrance to Riverbend Park (at Western Ave) during the May 24 closure pilot. Video filmed by my council aide.

Budget & future buildouts

The May 26 Finance Committee hearing included a discussion of the proposed budget for the Traffic, Parking, and Transportation Department. I was concerned and frankly a little baffled by the City Manager’s response to questions from Councillor Sobrinho-Wheeler and myself about planned bike infrastructure projects and the proposed update to the Bike Safety Ordinance, which would mandate a complete buildout of the network within a certain timeframe.

City Manager DePasquale said “we may have to look at a slowdown of some of the infrastructure that we were talking about, and I know that’s going to be difficult, especially with the discussion of a bike ordinance”. He and the department head Joe Barr brought up Parking Fund revenue losses as a reason why infrastructure projects may need to be on hold. They aren’t making as much money from ticketing and meters as they were, and that deficit would only worsen if more parking spaces were removed for infrastructure, so for that reason things will slow down, they said.

That is obviously unacceptable! What good are AAA bond ratings if we are not going to use them to build critical infrastructure like protected bike lanes, which are more critical than ever? Yes, financially we are going into a difficult time, but that doesn’t mean safe streets should be first on the chopping block, and these projects aren’t even very expensive. It’s more important than ever that we move our cities away from cars and reclaim more space, yes, permanently, for safe distancing and transportation.

Watch the video below to hear from Joe Barr and the City Manager directly:

Eversource & the Fulkerson Street substation proposal, part 2

Note from Q: This is the first in a series of progress updates that my office had begun preparing before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. While these updates document progress on non-COVID issues in anticipation of getting back to work on them, my office remains extensively focused on the emergency response at this time.

After almost a year of opposition, negotiation, and suspense, we finally have some clarity on the future of the proposed Fulkerson Street substation. Part 1 (from last November) is a quick read with key background information if you need to get caught up.

In response to growing electricity demand created by all the growth in Kendall Square, Eversource proposed a massive substation on Fulkerson Street in East Cambridge. With 34 building projects already permitted or under construction in Kendall Square, and electric load already reaching 98% of capacity at peak usage times during Summer 2018, there was complete agreement that something had to be done. But powering our commercial real estate growth in Kendall Square with a substation situated in the adjacent residential neighborhood of East Cambridge, directly across from the Kennedy-Longfellow school and a playing field, is simply unacceptable, particularly as the site was originally intended to be housing.

It just so happened that Alexandria Real Estate had already submitted a zoning petition for the neighboring parcel, the former site of the Metropolitan Pipe Company at the corner of Fulkerson and Binney. Alexandria sought significant zoning relief, asking for almost twice the amount of square footage allowable under the existing zoning, exclusively for biotech & lab space. Recognizing the leverage this created, I urged my colleagues to hold off on approving Alexandria’s upzoning unless and until Eversource agreed to put the substation elsewhere.

Alexandria’s parcel (the former Metropolitan Pipe Company site) is outlined in red. The Eversource parcel is shaded in orange. Across from the Eversource parcel is a playing field and the Kennedy-Longfellow school.

The council’s willingness to hold out created an opening for the city to broker a negotiation between Eversource, Alexandria, and other developers in the Kendall Square area.

The council was finally presented with some details of a negotiated deal at a March 2, 2020 hearing. Boston Properties has agreed in principle to incorporate the substation into an already-planned development at the site of the Blue Garage (290 Binney). In exchange, they will be asking to construct an additional 800,000 square feet of commercial space at the site, through a future upzoning. The existing garage will be knocked down and moved underground. The Cambridge Redevelopment Authority (CRA) is leading the process and design of the new development at 290 Binney, which will ultimately require council approval. 

The new location for the substation is much more suitable, and this plan frees up the Fulkerson Street parcel for affordable housing & open space. An excessive amount of commercial space was already in the cards at 290 Binney Street, but the new proposal consolidates the housing component into a single phase, from two, thereby reducing uncertainty around its completion. 25% of the housing will be income-restricted, and the new proposal eliminates a provision that would have required 20% to be condo units. This keeps the focus on adding to our rental housing stock, which is a higher priority.

Slide from a Boston Properties presentation to the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority from April 2020. The new proposal (right) shows the proposed substation site outlined in red. Proposed housing is outlined in yellow, and commercial space is outlined in blue. The solid blue lines on the new proposal show where the additional commercial space would go.
Slide from a Boston Properties presentation to the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority from April 2020. The new proposal (right) consolidates the housing into a single phase, retains the affordability stipulations, and eliminates the 20% condo requirement.

I generally vote against entirely commercial, non-net zero upzonings like the one proposed by Alexandria for the former Met Pipe site.

The additional 800,000 square feet is a steep tradeoff. The Alexandria and Blue Garage projects combined will add more than three million square feet of commercial space, in addition to the nearly two million coming next door at the Volpe parcel.

This astronomical commercial growth exacerbates our city’s housing affordability crisis and accelerates the need for even more grid infrastructure. We got into this mess because we didn’t have a plan, yet we just keep barrelling ahead. And on top of it all, the language in the Eversource letter is very tentative. Should the deal fall through for any reason, the utility would almost certainly go back to their original plan to build on Fulkerson Street.

In order to complete the Grand Junction multi-use path all the way from Binney Street to Cambridge Street, Alexandria purchased the remaining land alongside the railroad tracks and offered it to the city. This is the primary community benefit offered in exchange for their zoning relief. It shouldn’t have taken a massive upzoning to complete this path, but I am excited about the safe connectivity that it will bring to our neighborhood and our city.

For these reasons, despite my significant reservations, this ended up being an offer the council could not refuse. In particular, I considered:

  • the extraordinary circumstances around the negotiation
  • the clear consensus within the neighborhood in support of this deal
  • Our likely inability to block Eversource from moving ahead with a substation on Fulkerson Street if they went for state approval.
View of the proposed Grand Junction Path (in green) from Cambridge Street. Alexandria will complete the path from Cambridge Street to Binney as part of their development on the former Met Pipe site.

By the time Boston Properties made their offer, we really had no other choice.

But it didn’t have to be that way: early on in the discussions, I urged the city and the utility to consider non-wires alternatives instead of building a massive substation. The Brooklyn-Queens Demand Management Project allowed New York’s ConEdison to avoid building a 1.2 billion dollar substation a few years ago through a combination of solar, batteries, and better demand management. If New York can avoid building this infrastructure, why can’t we even consider it? But Eversource was never really interested in that approach, and I never got a straight answer to my questions about alternatives.

Even if we were to build these many millions of square feet all-electric, which may yet happen given the rapid evolution in building technology & codes, it would still require additional grid electricity. Tall buildings in northern climates cannot generate enough solar energy to offset consumption without it. So, we still don’t have a plan for how to build all these buildings without adding to our climate emissions, and we seem to be unwilling to consider alternative approaches that have been demonstrably successful in cities much larger than our own. Meanwhile, Eversource continues to impose unwelcome substations on neighborhoods all over the region, including right now in East Boston.

Neighbors and cycling activists remained united throughout the process, despite much excitement over the prospect of completing the Grand Junction path between Binney and Cambridge Street.

I want to thank everyone who recognized that by standing together, we could get both the Grand Junction AND an alternative site for the substation. Councillor Carlone was instrumental in facilitating dialogue between all of these parties, especially between Alexandria and the neighbors. Former Vice Mayor Jan Devereux called the series of committee hearings that made space for this conversation to take shape. The City Manager deserves credit for hearing the Council and putting a top negotiator in charge of quickly finding a suitable parcel within the load pocket that checks Eversource’s many boxes. (Bob Reardon, the former city assessor, was brought out of retirement to get the job done!)

Despite the steep price and my lingering concerns about this deal, it is a great and rare victory for the residents of East Cambridge and Wellington-Harrington. I live in this neighborhood, and I want to thank my neighbors for their tireless and excellent advocacy. They and cycling advocates remained united in asking for more throughout the process, despite immense excitement over the prospect of completing the Grand Junction path between Binney and Cambridge Street. I don’t know that this has ever been done before in the history of modern utility construction; certainly Eversource couldn’t think of a precedent where they moved a substation in response to local opposition.

Going forward, I will insist that neighbors remain involved as this process continues to unfold, and I will do everything possible to minimize the impact of the Blue Garage development on our community. I will work with Eversource and the city on more proactive planning of our electrical needs, including the consideration of non-wires alternatives that may accommodate additional growth without creating more demand on the grid. A strict limit on demand growth would encourage the uptake of such strategies. We can’t forget about this now that the proposed substation has a new home, or else we will be right back in this difficult position in another few short years. Finally, we need to stand in solidarity with neighboring communities that are also fighting unwelcome substations, especially working-class communities like East Boston. Check out the excellent op-ed from Boston City Councilor Lydia Edwards that has more information about that situation.

5 trends & the need for more COVID data

I’ve been carefully tracking and analyzing the data put out by the City of Cambridge related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The information and graphs in this post are snapshots taken on May 22, but you can view up to date versions of all the graphs I’ve created here. As always, if you have questions or want to discuss this further, please don’t hesitate to reach out.

The quick takeaway is that we should be far more cautious about when and how we reopen than we are currently being, and more & better quality data is needed to make informed decisions about our course forward. A few things of note:

  • The city began releasing racially-stratified data and nursing home data on April 27.
  • The race/ethnicity data is incomplete: 14% of positive cases are marked as an “unknown” race/ethnicity, and 11% are marked as “other”.

Takeaway 1: Black people in Cambridge are testing positive at least 2.6x more often than white people.

And it could be even worse than that, given the incomplete dataset. This finding echoes trends from cities around the country and is unsurprising given the racial disparities that impact Black Americans across almost all public health outcomes. Figure 1 below shows the percentage of people in Cambridge within each race/ethnicity who tested positive for COVID-19. So, for example, based on the 2020 census estimates, 0.5% of the white population, and 1.4% of the black population in Cambridge thus far have tested positive for COVID-19. This is despite there being six times as many white people as there are Black people in Cambridge.

Figure 1. Comparison of COVID-19 positive tests by race/ethnicity.

Outside of nursing homes the contrast is even starker: Black people test positive 4.2x as often as white people in Cambridge, and Hispanic people nearly twice as often (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Comparison of COVID-19 positive tests by race/ethnicity, excluding test results obtained in nursing homes and long term care facilities.

The City has not released data on deaths by race & ethnicity, but it is reasonable to assume that Black people are disproportionately dying from COVID-19, as well. I asked for more testing & resources for Black and brown people in Cambridge through a policy order on May 4, an effort that was joined by Councillor Simmons’ more direct request for testing in the Port. The localized testing is now happening, but there is essentially no other effort by the City to directly counteract these disparate racial impacts.

Takeaway 2: The case fatality rate in Cambridge nursing homes is alarmingly high: 24% as of May 22.

The case fatality rate is the number of people who ultimately died after testing positive, expressed as a percent of the total number of positive tests within the population. Nearly a quarter of those who tested positive in Cambridge nursing homes and long term care facilities have passed away, as of late May. For comparison, the case fatality rate for Cambridge residents outside of these facilities is 3%. Figure 3 shows deaths over time as reported by the city (we didn’t get data specific to nursing homes until April 27). It is great that we’ve done so much testing in our nursing homes, but a case fatality rate this high needs more scrutiny. We need to better understand what happened and how it could have been prevented or mitigated so that we are better prepared next time.

Figure 3. COVID-19 positive deaths over time, as reported by the City. The black line is total COVID-19 positive deaths, orange is the subset inside nursing homes, and blue is the subset in the broader community, outside nursing homes.

Takeaway 3: The number of new cases per day declined steadily in the second half of April, but there was a slight uptick in early May.

Figure 4. New cases per day, for the day the test was taken, in blue. The red line shows the 7-day average which is calculated as the average of the preceding 7 days. Test results are reported at least 5 days after taken, so recent dates may not show the correct final count yet.

The City’s testing facility in East Cambridge, which allows any Cambridge resident to get tested, did not open until May 8. The Public Health Department says the uptick is correlated with increased outreach about testing availability. Either way, more positive tests mean the virus remains out there and is still spreading within the community. The uptick could also be due in part to generally improving weather over the course of April, leading to more people leaving their homes.

Takeaway 4: The active caseload is still steadily increasing.

Active caseload is the total number of positive tests, minus recoveries and deaths. Deaths are not necessarily reported on the date they happen, but recoveries and positive tests are. So the active caseload is a reasonable approximation of how many people have yet to recover (or perish) from the virus.

This figure is, of course, correlated with demand on our healthcare system. We want to see an active caseload that is declining despite the inevitable new cases added every day, which would mean recoveries are beginning to outnumber new cases. The brief peak you see around April 19 reflects nursing home testing. The city officially shut down on March 19.

Until we see a steady decline in the active caseload, it doesn’t seem prudent to begin re-opening our economy. Unless we’re just not properly recording deaths and recoveries, an increasing caseload means we’re still seeing community spreading of the virus, and reopening the economy would only make that worse!

Also, clearly, we need to know how many people were tested on each day, not just how many tested positive. Without the total number of daily tests, we can’t determine whether the new cases are simply the result of more testing, or actually a signal that the infection rate is increasing again.

Figure 5. The active caseload in Cambridge over time.

Takeaway 5: Cambridge’s death rate is much lower than New York City’s, but San Francisco’s is much much lower than ours.

The death rate is the number of people who died from COVID, divided by the total population. It is more useful than the case fatality rate for making comparisons between cities because it is less affected by differences in how many people were tested within each city since we are comparing across the entire population, not just those who tested positive.

It still isn’t perfect, because not every cause of death is known, and the number of deaths attributed to COVID-19 is almost certainly higher than what we see in this data. But presumably, excess un-reported deaths from COVID-19 are roughly proportional to COVID-19 reported deaths in each city. NYC provides the number of reported deaths from COVID-19 that were not confirmed with a positive COVID-19 test. That number is included in this graph and contributes about 20% of the COVID-19 deaths in NYC. Similar adjustments in the other cities would not make a huge difference to this graph or the conclusions drawn from it, however.

Figure 6. The death rate (per 10,000) from COVID-19 by city, as of May 17. This is the only graph that doesn’t update every day on the website, because the data from each city has to be entered manually, and I’m only doing that on a daily basis for Cambridge.

San Francisco was the first to do shelter in place, and its public transit system is much less robust than ours is. They were also out front on critical public health policies like street closures and providing hotel rooms for unhoused people. Creating space for people to safely social distance outdoors and providing safe isolation space for those with nowhere to go has likely played a role in San Francisco’s low death rate.

California overall has a similarly low death rate, while New York and Massachusetts were hit hard. So it is possible that the pandemic was seeded more robustly on the east coast, via European travel, than it was on the west coast. If so, blame for that falls squarely on Federal authorities for not more immediately shutting down international travel upon learning of the virus.

Takeaway 6: Women represent almost 60% of cases in Cambridge.

Figure 7. Positive tests in Cambridge by gender.

There is no clear explanation for why this is, but one possible explanation is that COVID-19 has a high prevalence among the elderly, and women are slightly longer-lived than men. Therefore, women may be overrepresented slightly in positive tests for COVID-19. This trend mirrors the statewide trend as well.

5/18/2020 Agenda summary (COVID Special Edition #9)

The last tulip!

COVID-19 Special Edition #9

We are still seeing new cases of COVID-19 in our community every single day, and disproportionate impacts in black and brown communities in our city, as is the case throughout the country. Now is not the time to re-open our economy, but it looks like Governor Baker is hell bent on doing so anyway. Somerville and Boston are staying closed, and I hope our city manager will choose the same path. Don’t get me wrong, we need to start thinking and planning around re-opening for sure, but we need to do so carefully, thoughtfully, and equitably.

Wearing a face covering is now mandatory in Cambridge. Read the official policy here and make sure you mask up when you go outside for any reason.

Please consider signing our petition that calls on Harvard and MIT to do more for our community in this time of crisis. You can sign here or read my op-ed on why MIT and Harvard need to step it up.

You can still give public comment virtually at council meetings by signing up here. Once you sign up, you will receive instructions on how to enter the Zoom meeting on Monday night.

This week we will publish revamped “how to help” and “how to get help” lists, and they will be included in next week’s email blast. As always, you can contact my office directly: qzondervan@cambridgema.gov, 617-901-2006 (leave a message and Dan or I will get back to you).

City Manager’s Agenda

Note: Most of these items are bond issues to fund the Fiscal Year 2021 (FY21) capital budget. These need to be passed to a second reading on Monday so they can be approved as part of the overall budget in June, but I don’t expect we will discuss them extensively on Monday night. The full proposed budget for FY21 is available online.

CMA #1: Funding the continued operation of Food For Free

Food For Free does immensely important work to keep people in our community fed, and they are continuing that work during the COVID-19 pandemic. With record unemployment across the state, the nonprofit went from feeding 160 households every two weeks to more than 1,900 every week, according to the Executive Director. This unprecedented demand has been overwhelming for Food For Free, hence this appropriation of $150,000 to support their continued operation through June 30.

We have major food supply issues, and that’s likely to get worse. Food For Free is doing the best they can, but this can’t all fall on them, and $150K is not going to solve the problem. We need to put far more resources into addressing the food supply issue. When we are hearing reports of diabetic low-income seniors receiving boxes of high-fructose corn syrup-laced foods that don’t meet their dietary needs, it is clear that more needs to be done. But most of all, we need a plan. Thus far we haven’t had one, so I’m calling for one right now.

CMA #2: Funding for new plug-in hybrid rubbish packers

This is an appropriation of $879,000 to purchase three plug-in hybrid rubbish packers, which will replace three diesel-powered rubbish packers in the existing fleet. It is wonderful to see the city transition the municipal fleet away from diesel-powered engines, but it definitely feels weird to be spending this kind of money on new garbage trucks in the middle of a pandemic we are struggling to respond to. What’s important to recognize about this appropriation is that most of this money comes from a grant that MassDEP awarded to the city back in January, which was designated for this specific purpose. So it isn’t as if we could take the grant and spend it on something else. In the past when I have asked about transitioning the municipal fleet, the city has identified heavier-duty vehicles like garbage trucks as a particular challenge. Moving ahead with this indicates the technology has improved to a level where they are willing to give it a shot, which is encouraging. I would like to see the entire municipal fleet replaced as soon as possible!

CMA #3: Funding for sewer separation projects

This is an appropriation of 6.5 million to fund various sewer separation projects. 6 million will go towards repairing aging pipes in areas where more significant work is not planned anytime soon, and 500K will be used to implement mitigation efforts identified through the Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment, something I pushed for as chair of the city’s Climate Protection Action Committee before I took office.

Sewer separation may not be very fun to talk about (much less live through), but it is critical in our fight against climate change. Much of Cambridge’s aging sewer infrastructure combines sewage and rainwater runoff into a single pipe, in what’s known as a combined sewer overflow system (CSO). Normally, the system works fine and everything is sent to the Deer Island wastewater treatment facility. But during heavy rainstorms or periods of snowmelt, the amount of water can overwhelm the system. When this happens, some water mixed with raw sewage is discharged into a nearby body of water, such as the Charles River or Alewife Brook. Despite all of Cambridge’s efforts to separate the two systems, more than 29 million gallons of raw sewage entered the Charles River in 2017!

This has a profoundly negative impact on a major ally in our fight against climate change: seagrass. The grass is threatened by the clouding of the water (turbidity) which blocks needed sunlight. The clouding is caused by tiny plants and animals that get fertilized by our sewage.

CMA #4: Funding for street & sidewalk reconstruction

This is $5 million for various street & sidewalk repairs. Pretty self-explanatory, but still makes you wonder why we can’t spend this money to make the city more bike and pedestrian-friendly even faster? When will we get bold about abandoning car culture and fully embracing walkability? There isn’t enough bike and pedestrian infrastructure being built fast enough. The City Manager continues to ignore the mandate from the Council to move faster on this. Here is a list of the projects slated to be worked on in FY21:

A list of street & sidewalk projects that will be undertaken in FY21.

CMA #5: Funding for improvements to municipal buildings

This is $16 million for repairs to municipal buildings. The focus is on the DPW complex on Hampshire Street and the firehouse in Central Square. “The improvements include but are not limited to accessibility, envelope – windows work, upgrades to the HVAC, plumbing-piping, electrical and lighting.”

CMA #6: Funding for improvements to firehouses

This is $9 million for improvements to the Lexington Ave and River Street firehouses. “These improvements include but are not limited to interior and building system upgrades, HVAC replacement, and envelope repair.

CMA #7: Funding for the design and construction of the Tobin Montessori and Vassal Lane Upper School

This is $237 million for the design and construction of the Tobin Montessori and Vassal Lane Upper School. Quite a bit of money! The school will be net-zero emissions ready. I hope the school will be re-named as part of our efforts to eliminate anti-black racism from our school system. Henry Vassall [sic] was a notorious slaveowner.

CMA #8: Funding for repairs to schools

This is $1.8 million for repairs to various schools. Repairs include “electrical service, roof replacement, chiller replacement, floor replacement and replacement of bi-directional amplifier and antenna in various school buildings”.

CMA #9: City Manager’s update on COVID-19

Another placeholder. Apparently we STILL cannot get any part of these updates in writing? :-/

Calendar

Charter Right #1: More information about the Police Department’s Twitter incident

Councillor Simmons exercised her charter right last week on this order from Councillor Sobrinho-Wheeler and myself, asking for more information about the recent scandal where Police Superintendent Jack Albert tweeted a political statement, vulgarly disparaging two elected officials from the Commonwealth, using the official Cambridge Police Department Twitter account.

While Superintendent Albert has apologized for “accidentally” using the official police account instead of his personal account, the sentiments he expressed in the tweet are disturbing, coming from a high-level police official. This is a clear bias incident, and the Policy Order asks for details on what disciplinary action has been taken. It also asks for a report on how protocols have been revised to avoid future issues on social media. I don’t know what the outcome of this Policy Order will be, but it seems clear to me that the City Council has a right to know this information either way.

It was disappointing to see this not get brought to a vote last week. To blatantly roadblock the simplest attempt at ensuring accountability for our police and city management, in general, is shameful.

Resolutions

Resolution #1: Memorial Day Observance

Memorial Day is next week. There will be a virtual observance, and City Staff will place flags on the graves of our fallen due to the closure of Mount Auburn Cemetery. If you need more information, reply to this email and I will get your questions answered.

Policy Orders

PO #1: Council support for providing equal stimulus checks to immigrant taxpayers

This order puts the Council on record in support of HD.5036/S.2659, a statehouse bill that would provide stimulus checks to immigrants who were excluded from the Federal stimulus. Our economic system is so unfair and so blatantly exploitative that even the scraps of federal support being provided during this pandemic are unavailable to immigrants. Immigrant workers are the backbone of our economy, often working for sub-living wages, and ineligible for social security & other benefits, as I experienced myself when my family immigrated to the U.S. The least we can do is provide financial support, and I appreciate that Councillor Toomey brought this Resolution forward.

PO #2: Creating an Arts Recovery Advisory Committee

This order asks for the creation of an Arts Recovery Advisory Committee. I support this, but how many committees will it take before we actually help the artists in our city? The Cultural District was facing the loss of anchor institutions like the Middle East and Green Street Studios before the pandemic even hit. If we’re serious about keeping the arts alive we will have to dig deep and come up with creative solutions, before it is too late.

PO #3: Council support for regulating third party delivery fees

This order puts the Council on record in support of HD.5054, a statehouse bill that would restrict third-party delivery fees. Services like Uber Eats and Grubhub aren’t giving restaurants a fair deal, and now the restaurants are relying on those services for a significant percentage of their revenue. Things are unbearable as these services act as parasites on the local restaurants and their workers as well as the underpaid delivery workers themselves. This is all brought to you by the unfair “gig economy”, in an effort to further enrich Silicon Valley capitalists at everyone else’s expense. This nonsense has got to stop, and state-level action will be required. Somerville is also considering a similar resolution this week.

PO #4: Request for update on digital equity initiatives

The City should have created a municipal broadband system years ago. Those of us who are fortunate enough to be able to work from home during the pandemic are needlessly sipping the internet through a Comcast straw. The next time your Zoom gets stuck, remember that this is with Comcast temporarily removing some of their data throttling! Can we once and for all agree to treat the internet like our roads, instead of nickel-and-diming people over it? We are approving a $5M bond to *repair* roads and sidewalks, but we won’t spend $1M to study the feasibility of a municipal broadband system? What is wrong with this picture?

This order needs to be amended to make it clear that the Council is also looking for an update on the digital equity research initiative and the Digital Equity Advisory Board. Both of these were announced in November 2018 and funded with $150,000 after I successfully lobbied the city manager, but an update has not been provided since.

PO #5: Universal vote-by-mail

This order from Councillor Nolan asks the City Manager to work with the Election Commission to determine the feasibility of vote-by-mail. I strongly support this! We need to prepare for safe elections in the fall, and it will take some time to figure out the logistics. So we need to get this done soon.

PO #6: Proposed amendment to the mandatory mask order

This order from Councillor Nolan makes a further amendment to the mandatory mask order.

PO #7: Request for a comprehensive, equitable plan for reopening the city

I submitted this order, which asks for a comprehensive plan for how we are going to come out of the current situation. This will take months, if not years. We know that black people and poor people are being disproportionately impacted, and that needs to be addressed in our plan. Governor Baker’s advisory panel does not include any frontline workers or labor leaders, and I am concerned he will move too quickly, which would be catastrophic. I’d like to see some movement from the City Manager on planning for this instead of just waiting for Governor Baker to tell us what to do.

PO #8: Request for DPW to begin distributing Gator Bags

I submitted this order which asks for DPW to install gator bags on trees that need them, or offer them by request, so residents can help water trees. Next time you go for a walk, take a look at some of the younger trees in your neighborhood. Are they leafing out? If only some or none of the branches have leaves, the tree isn’t doing well. There are many reasons why a new tree might not make it, but under-watering is common even when we aren’t in a pandemic. New trees cost more than $1000 each to plant, and our city’s canopy has declined by nearly 20% in 10 years. Plus, we need them to protect us against future disasters that climate change will bring. So it makes sense to get these bags out so residents can lend a hand in keeping the trees alive.

PO #9: Proposed amendments to Chapter 2.108, which governs emergency preparedness

I submitted this order, which proposes amendments to the city’s Ordinance that governs emergency preparedness. The language I want to add concerns shelter, testing, and data reporting during a pandemic. Here is my proposed language:

My proposed amendments to the city’s Ordinance that governs emergency preparedness.

Communications & Reports from Other City Officers

COF #1: Report from Mayor Siddiqui on the May 7 meeting of the School Committee

Another helpful report from Mayor Siddiqui and her staff on the School Committee budget proceedings, this time recapping the May 7, 2020 meeting. The final vote will be on Tuesday, May 19, and I will be watching very closely.

5/6 Post-meeting update

After Monday night’s meeting, here’s the latest on the effort to get better conditions for Cambridge’s unhoused community, the mandatory mask order, and some thoughts on the need for more accountable policymaking.

Last Friday, there was a second phone call between members of the unhoused community, city management, MAAP leadership, Councillor McGovern, Councillor Sobrinho-Wheeler, and myself. We again heard directly from some of our most vulnerable community members about how their basic needs are not being met. I want to be clear that some immediate concerns raised by unhoused people on the two calls have begun to be addressed: more meals & electrical outlets, temporary toilets & handwashing stations, and the ability to access their mail, thanks to a partnership with the Central Square BID.

This is welcome, but not nearly enough. The city continues to insist that the emergency shelter is adequate and that things are operating smoothly within. This is despite hearing clearly from unhoused people that the facility isn’t meeting their needs and they don’t feel safe. We also heard from unhoused people that unpleasant interactions with the police have led to distrust within the community, comments that are especially concerning in light of the city’s new mandatory mask policy, which carries a $300 fine on the first offense.

Unhoused people don’t have the luxury of going home to take off their masks. And a cloth barrier is only useful for so long before it needs cleaning. Where are they supposed to wash their coverings, or are we planning to provide enough masks for them to be treated as single-use? Point is, even the mere possibility of a $300 fine is oppressive to poor and unhoused people who are already struggling so much. As a city, we claim to care about our vulnerable residents, but this policy is tone-deaf.

Worse, the policy was rolled out by the City Manager mere minutes before a council meeting on the matter was about to begin, sidelining the council, and an important discussion around how to mitigate the potential the order has for disproportionate impact and enforcement bias. For this reason, I cosponsored an order on last Monday night’s agenda which proposes amendments to strengthen the order and improve accountability. My priorities are a more compassionate fine schedule and weekly reports on any enforcement, broken down by race, age, and gender.

As it stands, the City’s order is awfully weak on protecting essential workers (Figure A). It reads: “employees shall wear a mask…except where a distance of six feet can be maintained at all times”. Councillor Nolan sought to fix this in the Policy Order that is before us.

Figure A: The City’s order is awfully weak on protecting essential workers. Councillor Nolan sought to fix this in the Policy Order that is before us.

The Governor says in his order that anyone ages 2+ must cover up outside whenever unable to maintain a distance of 6 ft from “every other person” (Figure B). But the City says ages 5+ must wear a covering at all times when outside, period (Figure C). The applicability difference here seems substantial, but the city hasn’t explicitly clarified.

Figure B: The Governor’s order says that anyone ages 2+ must cover up outside whenever unable to maintain a distance of 6 ft from “every other person”.
Figure C: The City’s order says that anyone ages 5+ must wear a face covering at all times when outside, period.

My take: aside from the age discrepancy, these wordings are equivalent in their applicability to Cambridge because city streets are unpredictable, and it’s impossible to guarantee that you will maintain a 6 ft distance from “every other person” as the Governor’s order decries. The State allows cities to levy a fine of “up to $300”, which implies that a lesser or no fine would be permissible. Cambridge’s fine is $300, but given the potential for disproportionate impact, I would like to see that reduced or eliminated entirely, especially for a first offense.

Reasonable minds can disagree, but it was disappointing to see the way one of my colleagues portrayed things in an email to constituents (Figure D). The email seems to be designed to rile people up without presenting an accurate summary of the order, or even a link to the full language. When I pointed this out, my colleague called our effort disingenuous. I have great respect for my colleague, and he has every right to disagree, but the deception in the email was unhelpful at a time when so many are feeling the stress and sadness of this pandemic.

Figure D: Councillor McGovern’s email blast about our Policy Order.

We need to make sure all perspectives are at the table, especially our most vulnerable residents. Figure E is a response I received to my weekly agenda summary (I clarified that the “up to” language is not currently applicable in Cambridge).

Figure E: A response to my weekly update, from a constituent. I clarified that the “up to” language is not currently applicable in Cambridge.

The potential for bias is real: on Sunday a CPD Superintendent mistakenly tweeted a statement from the official Cambridge Police Department Twitter account that can easily be interpreted as bias against the poor, reflected in vulgar distaste for politicians who aim to represent them (Figure F). This very unfortunate incident highlights the pernicious presence of bias in our society. Leaving the fine at $300 unnecessarily creates an opportunity for abuse of power and as a policymaker, it is my job to protect our vulnerable residents against that.

Figure F: On Sunday, a CPD Superintendent mistakenly tweeted a statement from the official Cambridge Police Department Twitter account that can easily be interpreted as bias against the poor, reflected in vulgar distaste for politicians who aim to represent them.

Mandatory mask policy: initial thoughts

Wearing a mask is now mandatory anytime you go outside. My thoughts on this policy (also available as a Twitter thread):

One of the most discussed agenda items leading up to Monday night’s City Council meeting was the proposal to make wearing a mask in public mandatory, but the City Manager preemptively announced such an order before the Council even had a chance to discuss it. The intent of this policy is right and I support it as one way to help prevent the spread of the virus during the peak we are currently experiencing. It is also important to recognize that this policy is largely in alignment with Somerville’s policy.

With that said, the City Manager’s preemption sidelined the voice of the Council and our democratic process, which would only have improved the policy. There wasn’t enough discussion of the immense potential for bias in enforcement, especially given the announced $300 fine. Context is important: the pandemic is having a disproportionate impact on Black Americans including here in Cambridge, there is record unemployment, and we are struggling to even provide enough masks for the clients of the War Memorial emergency shelter.

So while there is a need for stronger messaging, I am worried about our most vulnerable residents being issued fines that they cannot afford. I expect to not hear any horror stories stemming from this policy, and ideally, there will be no enforcement at all. My suggestion is to have the police actually hand out compliant masks, something present in the Somerville order but not in Cambridge’s. This is a more proactive approach that recognizes that not everybody has ready access to a face covering that is both clean and compliant.

While this would certainly not eliminate the potential for bias, it seems like it would lead to more positive, productive outcomes in these interactions. What we really need is more space, not more policing. I hope the City Manager will listen to the will of the Council and support the closure of some streets, including Memorial Drive, to car traffic. New York City just announced it will close up to 100 miles of streets to pedestrians.

While Plan E Government may have thwarted substantial discussion of this topic on Monday, I plan to continue asking questions both behind the scenes and at future meetings of the City Council in an effort to continue improving on the policy decisions being made.

4/27/2020 Agenda summary (COVID Special Edition #6)

A picture of the cafeteria at the city’s War Memorial emergency shelter, posted with permission from someone living at the shelter. You can see that food has been left out and the chairs definitely aren’t six feet apart. Folks staying inside the shelter have reported to my office that they are completely uncomfortable with these arrangements. You can read a more detailed update on this situation, or scroll down to Charter Right #1 to learn more about the upcoming vote to improve conditions. Please consider taking a moment to email the council about this in solidarity with the unhoused community.

Based on the daily case count, it does appear that Cambridge has entered the peak, the period during which we expect to see the most simultaneous active cases of COVID-19. Following this, we will hopefully see a mostly declining caseload. Based on the current data, Cambridge may have hit peak caseload, or is about to, but that is all subject to change because much of the data is still incomplete and gets filled in over time. So we won’t know for sure until after the peak has happened.

Unfortunately, that also means we will see an increase in fatalities, which lag behind total cases for obvious reasons. Last weekend’s Boston Globe obituary section ran 15 pages long, and soon most of us will know someone who died of COVID-19. It is going to be a very difficult next few weeks, and what lies beyond is anyone’s guess at this point.

You can still give public comment virtually at council meetings by signing up here. Once you sign up, you will receive instructions on how to enter the Zoom meeting on Monday night. For assistance with this, please contact my office directly: qzondervan@cambridgema.gov, 617-901-2006 (leave a message and Dan or I will get back to you).

City Manager’s Agenda

CMA #1: Funding for family support and parent education programs

 Families are going to need support now more than ever. It is good to see this grant funding, and I wonder if we can do even more.

CMA #2: Funding for Low Income Heating Assistance Program (LIHEAP)

This is $309,676 in funding for LIHEAP, which helps low-income families in Cambridge and Somerville pay their heating bills during the winter.

CMA #3: Funding for Y2Y Youth Shelter

This appropriation of $114,359 will allow the Y2Y Youth Shelter in Harvard Square to continue running through May 31. I am glad to see this funding because there is significant concern around the potential placement of these youth clients at the War Memorial emergency shelter. 

CMA #4CMA #5CMA #6: Funding for snowstorm-related expenses

These appropriations will fund snowstorm-related expenses incurred this past winter including snow removal contracts, new equipment, and related street repairs. There obviously wasn’t much snow this winter, a mere 22 inches over 11 events. Given this, I don’t really understand why we are being asked to spend 1.1 million over what was budgeted. Do we budget for winters with absolutely zero snow? Why are we comfortable using Free Cash as a slush fund for snow removal, but not for housing the homeless during an emergency?

CMA #7: University funding for the War Memorial emergency shelter

Harvard and MIT each donated $250,000 to fund the construction and operation of the War Memorial emergency shelter, and this item makes it official. Frankly, given how large the endowments of these two universities are, I find these donations insulting. Harvard and MIT refused to shelter people on their campuses and only made this contribution when criticism began to build. Neighboring institutions are doing more for their communities with fewer resources. I created a petition calling on Harvard and MIT to step it up: you can sign here if you haven’t already. Over three hundred people have signed, including many Harvard and MIT alums, students and faculty! The War Memorial emergency shelter is fundamentally unsafe, and you can read more about my thoughts on that below, in Calendar #1.

CMA #8: City Manager update on COVID-19

This is yet another placeholder, and we will undoubtedly receive an actual update in person on Monday night. But I don’t understand why we cannot get written updates on the agenda ahead of time? I realize this is a rapidly changing situation, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have written reports on Thursday that are elaborated on in person on Monday.

Calendar

Charter Right #1: Repurposing the War Memorial emergency shelter

I exercised my charter right on this policy order at last week’s meeting for the purpose of giving us more time to truly hear from the unhoused community about their needs. Over the last two weeks, my office has been in direct dialogue with several unhoused individuals, many of whom are living at the War Memorial emergency shelter and are reporting unsafe conditions. The council also received a citizen’s petition from the unhoused community, with over 100 signatures, asking for safer arrangements. This week I met (via telephone conference) with members of the community, the City Manager, and Councillor McGovern, to have a more formal discussion about how we can improve safety and comfort for the unhoused. The unhoused people on the call asked repeatedly to be housed in hotels or dormitories to safely practice social distancing, and this ask was strongly supported by their advocates in MAAP.

I will propose amendments to the policy order that bring it up to date, and hopefully, my colleagues will be more supportive of moving in this direction after hearing from the unhoused community directly about their needs. If Cambridge wants to be known as the best when it comes to human services, we need to do everything possible to protect our most vulnerable. So far we have not done that yet, great intentions notwithstanding.

Communications

Communication #5: Green Cambridge comments on proposed Alewife upzoning

This is an important letter from Green Cambridge about the environmental concerns raised by a proposed development from Cabot, Cabot, & Forbes. Separately, it is unclear how the new economic conditions will impact this and other proposed developments in the city. Chances are that as the recession deepens, projects will be delayed or even canceled. It’s a whole new world and we’re going to have to get creative about making sure we meet our affordable housing goals even as the recession eats into our revenues and private sector contributions. For the record, I have never taken campaign contributions from any real estate developer, including executives at Cabot, Cabot, & Forbes.

Communication #6: Petition from the unhoused community

This agenda item is actually a petition from the unhoused community in Cambridge, with over 100 individually signed letters (presumably collected that way to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission). The petition calls for safer accommodations from the city, specifically mentioning hotels and dorms. Here is an example:

Resolutions

Resolution #8: on the death of Donald Reed Herring, brother of Senator Warren

 Condolences to our Senator, who lost her brother this week, as well as to everyone who is experiencing loss in this difficult time.

Policy Orders

PO #1: Food delivery app service fees

 This policy order asks the City Manager to look at restricting service fees charged by food delivery apps like Uber Eats and Grubhub. Right now the fee structure is outrageous and it is really hindering the ability of our small businesses to stay above water during this crisis. It strikes me as fundamentally unfair that delivery services charge based on a portion of the meal cost, cutting directly into the restaurant’s profits. Why not charge a reasonable delivery fee instead? This is yet another unfortunate example of how the gig economy infected and weakened our economy, long before the appearance of COVID-19.

PO #2: Mandatory face masks

This policy order asks the City Manager to make wearing a mask in public mandatory. I support this, but we need to be careful to avoid unintended consequences by acknowledging the potential for racial bias in enforcement. We also need to recognize that not everybody has the resources to create a cloth mask, so we need to make sure there is a proactive effort to supply people with masks, rather than just slapping them with a fine that they may not be able to afford. If we can’t provide everyone who doesn’t have one with an appropriate mask, it wouldn’t be right to require everyone to wear one.

With that said, making this mandatory clearly communicates to people what is expected of them in order to protect the vulnerable. Many people are dying from this disease; the least we can do is prevent spreading it by staying home and wearing a mask when we have to go out.

PO #3: City workforce safety

This policy order asks the City Manager to establish specific steps to ensure the safety of the workforce upon the reopening of City offices and to provide special guidance for those employees who may be especially susceptible to COVID-19. It is important to protect our staff as they begin to return to physical offices over the next few months. Hopefully, this will lead to the city allowing a more flexible work schedule so that more people can work from home, de-densifying the offices, and making it easier to practice social distancing for those who come in that day. Even once we open back up, special considerations will need to be given for those who are particularly vulnerable. 

PO #4: Mental Health Awareness Month

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a challenging time for everybody, but especially for those who struggle with their mental health. Some have found solace in connecting with friends and family over the internet, but that has only made things more difficult for others. We need to find better ways to support each other and protect our mental health. This policy order, which recognizes May 2020 as “Mental Health Awareness Month” in Cambridge, is a good initial step in that direction.

PO #5: Videoconferencing technology for Council meetings

I totally agree with this order from Councillor Sobrinho-Wheeler which asks the City Manager to look into a way of doing committee hearings over Zoom that would comply with the open meeting law. Monday night may actually be the first council meeting with a majority of councillors on Zoom- I’ve been using it for a few weeks but it hasn’t been fully integrated into the city’s A/V broadcasting system until now. We did a test run on Friday and it seemed to work ok, so hopefully, Monday night will be a successful first Zoom-based Cambridge city council meeting. With those kinks worked out, we should be able to start having committee meetings again via Zoom, of course initially dealing with COVID-19 related matters only, but eventually getting back to at least some of the other business that still awaits.

Communications & Reports from Other City Officers

COF #1: School Committee budget update

First, I really appreciate Mayor Siddiqui’s communications keeping us abreast of the school committee discussions around the budget. These regular updates have been quite useful and are an important part of open and transparent communication between the City Council and School Committee around our collaboration on the school budget, which ultimately requires approval from both bodies.

Second, I’m heartened by the depth and breadth of discussion taking place on the School Committee around racial equity and closing the achievement gap. It seems to me that this is the most airtime this topic has received in decades. Talking about it does not equate with solving the problem, but we certainly cannot address the problem without talking about it. I look forward to an ongoing robust discussion and ultimately to a budget that begins to make real, meaningful change in the direction of equity. And if it doesn’t, I will once again not vote for it.

4/21 Post-meeting thoughts

Here are my thoughts after last night’s special City Council meeting on COVID-19. Photos published with the permission of someone living at the city’s War Memorial emergency shelter.

Photo of the sleeping area at the War Memorial emergency shelter. Photo posted with permission of someone living at the shelter.

We all appreciated the City Manager’s update, but too little time was left for questions from the council. The presentation took so long that we barely even got through a first pass of the council before time expired. My notes are full of constituent questions that went unanswered. Far too much time was spent prematurely thanking & congratulating each other instead of answering questions. I understand the need to keep morale up, but it was excessive. This is an emergency, not an awards ceremony, and we are still at the very beginning of our response!

People are dying, & the most vulnerable are counting on us to think critically and sharp. But we are given very little info, and questioning anything is met with dirty looks. I get that people don’t like criticism, but saving lives is more important than sparing feelings. At last night’s meeting, the City Manager said that clients made a “smooth and uneventful transition” to the War Memorial emergency shelter, and the Police Chief called the opening “seamless”. But I am hearing a different story from folks actually living through it…

Does this look safe to you?

Photo of the dining space at the War Memorial emergency shelter. Food has been left out, and the chairs definitely are not 6 feet apart. I have heard from clients who are uncomfortable with this arrangement. Photo posted with permission of someone living at the shelter.

Here are just some of the things I’ve heard from folks staying at the War Memorial shelter:

  • No privacy
  • Seated uncomfortably close together during meals
  • Sharing cigarettes
  • Not enough PPE
  • COVID-positive individuals have entered the facility

Folks staying in the new shelter recognize that the conditions are unsafe. The problem is more than the space between chairs or a lack of partitions. We were told last night that there are temperature checks daily, but I spoke to someone inside the shelter who said that is not the case.

Photo of a lounge area at the War Memorial emergency shelter. Photo posted with permission of someone living at the shelter.

We fought tooth & nail to have everyone tested before entering the new shelter, and 30 people were pre-tested at the Warming Center last Thursday. But since the WC closed at 5 AM the following day, people who had just been tested had no safe place to go and were left exposed.

It wasn’t until Saturday that the Warming Center was kept open and people were asked to stay put until the results came in, so those who tested neg could be transferred to the Field House. Fortunately, only 3 people ended up testing +, and they were sent to shelter in hotels.

We obviously can’t force people to stay inside the shelter, but we also can’t test people every 5 minutes. Because of this, it is impossible to pull off a congregate shelter approach safely. & don’t the unhoused deserve dignity too? There aren’t even partitions between cots.

Photo of the outdoor space at the War Memorial emergency shelter. Photo posted with permission of someone living at the shelter.

We are ignoring lessons learned from other cities, and the City Manager insists on celebrating a shelter that is inherently unsafe. Will it take a massive outbreak within the facility to get us to provide everyone with the isolated space they deserve?

The obvious solution: put those who need shelter into space where they can safely isolate, like a hotel or a dorm. If those who test positive for COVID-19 can be safely isolated in hotel rooms, why not those who tested negative? Wouldn’t that be the safest and most humane thing to do?

Compare all this to what we were told during last night’s meeting when I questioned the shelter:

  • Everything is fine
  • No problems here
  • Quit criticizing from the sidelines

We need to get this right, and I will keep advocating for the safety & dignity of the vulnerable!

Planning for our infrastructure needs

At a November 26 hearing of the Ordinance Committee, We discussed a zoning petition introduced by Councillor Carlone and I that would ensure the impacts of large new projects on electricity and natural gas infrastructure are properly considered as part of the permitting process.

There was broad agreement that it would be helpful to require developers to provide the Planning Board with information about the expected utility demands of their proposed projects, but the committee was not ready to require the Planning Board to base their decision directly on this information. I will return to this topic in the next term to find appropriate ways to ensure we are never again presented with a surprise on the scale of the proposed Eversource transfer station on Fulkerson Street. It’s critical that we plan carefully for the future while conserving energy and reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, and that will require a more stringent approach than the “build first and ask for more electricity later” approach that we’ve been following so far.