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? :-/


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.


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.

5/11/2020 Agenda summary (COVID Special Edition #8)

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, and read my op-ed on why MIT and Harvard need to step it up.

We continue to be vexed by the pandemic. Some states are beginning to reopen, but many think this is a mistake. We should be very cautious in how we proceed because the damage of a major rebound in cases and another shutdown would be unbearable. We are much better off coming out of this slowly and carefully, putting in place good strategies for suppressing flare-ups of the virus, and planning for the long haul, because COVID-19 looks to be with us for years to come. The choices we make, and the way we proceed, will say a lot about what we value as a society.

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: City Manager’s update on COVID-19

This is another placeholder because the City Manager prefers to deliver his update in person on Monday night. But I would prefer to receive something in writing ahead of time.

CMA #2: FY21 Budget Appropriation Orders

Budget season is upon us, and here is a list of the FY21 Budget Appropriation Orders, broken down by city department. Customarily we don’t vote on these until after the budget hearings, so there is plenty of time to go through the budget and make sense of everything. It looks like there were no reductions in the operating budget, which is in fact slightly larger ($702.4 million) than last year’s budget ($678.4 million). The public investments portion of the capital budget ($37 million, not including bond proceeds) also seems higher than last year’s ($27 million). We will have to wait for the manager’s explanation, but presumably, these numbers are less than they would have been if COVID-19 had not hit. We may see much deeper impacts on subsequent budgets because property taxes are based on the market of 1.5 years ago.


Charter Right #1: Revisions to the mandatory mask order

The debate continues over this policy order from Councillor Nolan that proposes changes to the city’s mandatory mask order. The Governor’s order is now in effect but differs from the city in several ways, and clarification is needed. I also want to see a reduced fine, particularly on the first offense, and data on any enforcement that occurs by race, age, and gender. You can read a detailed breakdown of the differences between the city and state orders, plus my rationale for seeking these changes, in this thread. If you missed it, start with my thread from last week first to get caught up on the situation.

Tabled #4: Summer camp operations

This late addition to last week’s agenda from Councillor Simmons asks for clarity on whether summer camps and other youth programming will proceed. It also asks for contingency plans for Cambridge youth in the event programming needs to be canceled or scaled back. The order was tabled last week after it was pointed out that the language might not cover everything we want to ask about. I anticipate Councillor Simmons will bring forward amendments and we will pass this order on Monday night.


Resolution #5: Congratulating Karen Chen

I submitted this Resolution along with Councillor Sobrinho-Wheeler to congratulate Karen Chen on her recent inclusion in the Boston Magazine list of “The 100 Most Influential People in Boston Right Now”. Karen is the Executive Director of the Chinese Progressive Association (CPA) and an East Cambridge resident. Under her leadership, the CPA has become a leading voice in the struggle for tenant protections including rent control, against wage theft & other unfair labor practices, and in combating racism against all Asian Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic. I have had many opportunities to work with Karen, including last year’s successful push for better working conditions at the Happy Lamb Hot Pot in Central Square. There are many excellent choices on the Boston Magazine list, but Karen’s inclusion is a refreshing reminder of the important and underappreciated role played by women of color in the movement for greater justice in our society.

Policy Orders

PO #1: Curbside textile recycling program

This Policy Order from Councillor Toomey asks for the city to implement Simple Recycling’s curbside textile recycling program. In fact, the city’s Zero Waste Master Plan (released in October 2019) specifically mentions the Simple Recycling program as one way that the city could implement a textile recycling program and it recommends doing so in 2020 or 2021. I chaired a hearing on the city’s plan last term, and this was discussed. This is one of many environmental initiatives that I would like to see move forward this year, once we are through this period of emergency. I will ask to be added as a cosponsor to this order in acknowledgment of my previous work on the issue, and hopefully, this will move ahead as close to on schedule as possible.

PO #2: Update on the Small Business Advisory Group

This policy order from Councillor Nolan asks for an update on what recommendations are being discussed by the Small Business Advisory Group that was appointed by the City Manager. I support the calls for more information on what the group has been discussing.

PO #3: Recycling Accessibility

This Policy Order from Councillor Toomey aims to improve accessibility to recycling for residents by reopening the Recycling Center for a limited time and strategically placing recycling bins across the city for residents who are unable to reach the Recycling Center. The order fixates on plastic bags, which many retailers have begun using again during the COVID-19 pandemic. Neither of these ideas strike me as terribly practical solutions to the supposed problem, but I will ask DPW to get some clarification on that.

PO #4: More information about the Police Department Twitter incident

I signed onto this Policy Order from Councillor Sobrinho-Wheeler, which asks for more information about a very unfortunate incident that took place on Twitter last week, where Police Superintendent Jack Albert tweeted a political statement vulgarly disparaging two elected officials from the Commonwealth while logged into the official Cambridge Police Department Twitter account. While he has apologized for “accidentally” using the official police account, the sentiments he expressed are disturbing nonetheless, coming from a high-level police official.

The issue of police bias continues to remain a problem and is reflected in this incident: by expressing vulgar distaste for “liberal” politicians, who tend to advocate for the poor, and routinely receive a majority of the black vote, this tweet can easily be interpreted as bias against poor people and black people in our city.

This Policy Order asks for details on what disciplinary action has been taken, and for a report on how protocols have been revised to avoid future issues on social media. The Council may have to go into executive session to hear about the disciplinary action.

PO #5: Solidarity with the workers of Lesley University

I submitted this Resolution, which puts the Council on record in support of better conditions for contracted workers at Lesley. The petition from students and faculty calls for continuity of wages and benefits for all food service, custodial, and public safety workers on campus, among other things. Local 26 was able to secure benefits for the dining hall workers, but not wages, and the union doesn’t represent other workers on campus.

Communications & Reports from Other City Officers

COF #1: Update from the May 5 School Committee meeting

This is an update from Mayor Siddiqui on the recent School Committee meeting about the upcoming budget. Once again, I appreciate the swift and informative writeup from Mayor Siddiqui and her staff. It is clear she understands how important this conversation is to many of us on the council, and I’ve kept a close eye on things as they’ve unfolded, in the hopes that the next budget will actually take significant steps towards addressing racial inequity in our schools. Hopefully, the Committee’s decision to table a final vote on their budget means that things will improve before the budget comes to the Council for final approval.

COF #2: Update on food insecurity work & resources

This is a helpful update on the work Vice Mayor Mallon and Food For Free have been doing around food insecurity. COVID-19 has certainly presented us with significant additional food insecurity challenges and I’m actively working with the Vice Mayor on policy design to get ahead of this challenge as much as possible. I appreciate her leadership on this issue as always, and the important work that Food For Free and other community partners are doing to help combat hunger during this terrible pandemic. Hopefully we can learn from this to combat hunger more effectively after the pandemic is over.

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.

5/4/2020 Agenda summary (COVID Special Edition #7)

Wearing a face covering is now mandatory in Cambridge. Read the official policy here or jump to Policy Order #10 to review some reasonable changes that I support to reduce the potential for disproportionate impact as we implement this policy.

The good news is that our suppression efforts are working, and we seem to be peaking in terms of the active caseload in Cambridge. The not-so-good news is that we’re still seeing new cases, and the terrible news is that we’re still losing neighbors and loved ones to this horrible disease and the disruption it has caused. This week we’ve started receiving some data about the race/ethnicity of people testing positive, and even though the data is very incomplete, we are already seeing disparate impacts on black and brown communities in Cambridge that mirror national trends. That’s why I’ve put in an order for Monday asking for more data, and for more resources to be directed towards these vulnerable communities. Our nursing homes and long term care facilities are also being severely impacted, and the vast majority of deaths in Cambridge from COVID-19 are in these facilities.

Memorial Drive and all city streets remain open to vehicular traffic despite two separate orders passed by the council asking the Manager to close some streets and Memorial Drive to traffic to allow more space for social distancing. As the weather warms and the virus wanes, we don’t need more policing, we need more space.

Last but not least, Harvard made use of the pandemic to cover its confession to accepting $9 million from Jeffrey Epstein and giving him undue influence and inappropriate access to their campus. Like MIT, Harvard grossly mishandled this situation, and needs to atone for their transgression.

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 just-released 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. 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 domestic violence prevention initiatives

 This appropriation of $20,000 will support additional services related to domestic violence prevention during the COVID-19 pandemic, in partnership with Transition House. This is a hugely important part of our response to help protect those experiencing increased trauma as a result of being stuck at home with their abuser during the pandemic.

CMA #2: Reappointment of Larry Ward as an Election Commissioner

The Election Commission runs our elections every year, and they are critical to the functioning of our democracy. The Commission consists of two Democrats and two Republicans, each appointed to staggered four-year terms by the City Manager. The City Manager chooses appointments from a list of candidates submitted by the City Committees of each party. Larry Ward, who was first appointed in 2012, has been re-appointed to one of the Democratic seats. You can read his responses to the Cambridge Democrats questionnaire, here.

From the official website“The Board’s responsibilities include certifying nomination papers & petitions, registering voters, administering election recounts and preserving the integrity of the database for the street and voting lists by personally verifying the existence or nonexistence of questionable addresses within the City. In addition, prior to each election, approximately 260 additional election personnel are recruited, trained and supervised by the Board to staff each of the polling locations within the City. They work with the office staff to ensure that elections are managed in accordance with local, state and federal laws”.

CMA #3: City Manager update on COVID-19

This is yet another placeholder, and we will undoubtedly receive an actual update in person on Monday night. Why are we not receiving these updates in writing?


Resolution #2: Supporting asks from MIT graduate students

 MIT has not treated anybody right during this pandemic, including their own students. As a former MIT graduate student myself, I stand in solidarity with their very reasonable requests. I will ask to be added as a cosponsor on the floor, to give this resolution even more weight. Note: this item was placed incorrectly on the agenda in the Resolutions list. It should be on the Policy Order list, and will be taken up during the Policy Order part of the meeting.

Policy Orders

PO #1: Guidelines for re-opening construction

 This Policy Order was introduced last week as a very late addition to the agenda. I thought it would be best to exercise my charter right and give the council an additional week to consider it, given its immense detail.

It is, of course, important to carefully consider when and how construction projects will open back up. The safety of the workers and their families is of utmost concern. Special protocols will be needed to ensure workplace safety until the pandemic is over, especially at large worksites. But this Policy Order makes only passing reference to worker safety, and focuses instead on bureaucratic details aimed at restarting construction as quickly as possible. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure these adjustments are well intended. But is it really appropriate for the City Council to decide right now that, and I quote, “The City should allow all paused projects to submit their covid-19 safety plans to the City now for review, to decrease the anticipated backlog; a lack of formal response from the City within 3 days should be considered an approval from the City“?

Much of this order is far too prescriptive. Demanding a five day response time from CDD for certain types of construction approval is an inappropriate level of specificity. No doubt the Community Development Department has many important priorities during this emergency. Where does one even come up with a figure like that?

I could continue but you really have to read this order for yourself to understand why it is so objectionable. So while I support having this conversation, I can’t support it as written. I will submit amendments that refocus this policy on workplace safety and public health.

#2: Small business recovery plan

This policy order asks for a plan to help small, local businesses recover from the economic impact of the pandemic. This is another important conversation we need to have about the coming “new normal”. 

#3: Making library materials available

This asks the City Manager to look into ways to provide library materials to students and others. This is a good idea, and I support the order. Our libraries are an important resource for students and the community, and we need to start thinking about how to make those resources available again while protecting everyone’s health and safety by maintaining social distancing. 

#4: COVID-19 public memorial

This asks the City Manager to work with the Cambridge Arts Council and others to create a public memorial for those who have been lost to COVID-19. We have lost many community members, and this is an important part of our response. We need a way to safely mourn their passing and celebrate their lives.

#5: 50th anniversary of Kent State and Jackson State shootings

I submitted this resolution to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the shootings at Kent State (on Monday) and Jackson (10 days later) State universities. At Kent State in Ohio, four unarmed students were killed and nine unarmed students were wounded by members of the Ohio National Guard while engaged in a largely peaceful protest of the continuing war in Vietnam, the invasion of Cambodia, and the presence of the National Guard on their campus. Ten days later, two African American young men were killed and twelve people were wounded by Mississippi State Police in protests at Jackson State in Mississippi, in a similarly inexcusable armed assault on unarmed students and bystanders.

Half a century later, not enough has changed. The United States has been at war overseas practically the entire time, and unarmed black men are still being shot in the streets by the police here at home in an endless war against our own people. It’s important to commemorate this moment in history as a reminder of how far we still have to go. I encourage you to read the full resolution, as well as this article in the New Yorker, to learn more about the incidents and their significant cultural impact.

#6: Request for more COVID-19 data

I submitted this order, which asks for additional enhancements to the city’s COVID-19 data center. We know that black and brown people in Cambridge are facing a disproportionate impact from COVID-19, but we need more information in order to respond. Specifically, we need information on deaths by age, race, and ethnicity, the total number of tests performed in facilities and in the community, and any other available data that can be safely reported. All the data should be downloadable so that anyone can easily access it and do their own analysis. The order also asks for the City Manager to immediately direct additional resources to mitigate the racial disparities already apparent in the data, because people’s lives are on the line.

#7: Restart Planning Board meetings

I submitted this order, which calls for the Planning Board to begin meeting again (virtually). In particular, I would like to see special permit applications from Economic Empowerment (EE) applicants move ahead. The lawsuit brought by Revolutionary Clinics against the City’s two-year exclusivity period for EE applicants has been struck down, in an important victory for racial justice. Since the exclusivity period expires in September 2021, it is important that these applicants are able to move ahead as quickly as possible, and right now the main obstacle is the Planning Board not conducting meetings.

#8: Universal COVID-19 testing

This order asks for free testing for all residents, like Somerville is already doing. It is critical to provide widespread testing in order to get this virus under control. All the countries and localities that have successfully reversed the course of this pandemic have done so with the help of widespread testing to identify the virus and quarantine the carriers to limit the spread of the virus. 

#9: Protections from Zoom-bombing

I submitted this order after our unfortunate encounter with the phenomenon known as “zoom bombing” during the public comment portion of last week’s meeting. During public comment, some people chose to make racist comments and display pornographic images. What’s frustrating about this incident is that it was largely preventable, and as an IT professional, I had been asking about these security concerns for several weeks now, and offered my assistance, to no avail. This order contains common-sense advice to allow us to run city council meetings via Zoom.

#10: Revisions to the mandatory mask order

I co-sponsored this order by Councillor Nolan based on what happened last week. The City Manager implemented a mandatory mask policy just hours before the City Council meeting last Monday, which had the matter on the agenda. This preemption sidelined the voice of the Council and our democratic process, which would only have improved the policy. As a result, there hasn’t been a discussion of the immense potential for disproportionate impact and bias in enforcement, especially given the announced $300 fine. You can read my summary of what happened at last week’s meeting here.

Requiring everyone to wear a mask makes perfect sense, but threatening poor and unhoused people with a $300 fine does not. I joined a recent (virtual) meeting between members of the unhoused community and the City Manager, in which one young man stated plainly that there is not a lot of trust between the unhoused and the police right now, and that some people are being treated very roughly by some of the officers. The city claims the fine will only be a last resort, but if you’re not planning to fine people $300, then why attach a $300 fine at all?

As someone at the meeting carefully explained, those who do not have shelter don’t have a “home” to go to and take off their mask! So while some wealthy privileged people may not be deterred by anything less than $300, even the mere possibility of a $300 fine is oppressive to poor and unhoused people who are having an even harder time than usual meeting their most basic needs of food, shelter, and personal hygiene. It is tone-deaf to insist that we can’t have a mandate for wearing a mask without a $300 fine. It’s shocking that the city insists on that posture despite hearing clearly from the unhoused community that it is disrespectful and threatening to them.

A few days after last week’s meeting, the City amended the order and announced an effort to hand out compliant masks to anyone who needs them, something I had been calling for since before the policy was announced. Meanwhile, the Governor issued an emergency order that supersedes the city’s and allows for a fine of “up to $300”, but does not require it. We could levy a lower fine, or even no fine at all, based on the language of the order and guidance from our Attorney General.

The order on Monday’s agenda is not an attempt to “weaken” the mandatory mask order, as some of my colleagues have suggested, but rather a necessary attempt to improve it. Given the immense potential for disproportionate impact and enforcement bias, it is critical that the council has an opportunity to discuss and express its opinion on this matter.

Bonus: Spring has sprung and the garden is planted! Vegetables planted: eggplant, tomatoes, beets, spinach, lettuce, kale, corn, beans, and zucchini (hopefully).

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.


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.


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:


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.

Eversource & the Fulkerson Street Substation Proposal, part 1

In response to Kendall Square’s recent explosive commercial building growth and without accounting for future demand projections, Eversource has proposed a massive 150-180 Megawatt power substation on Fulkerson Street in East Cambridge, right across from the Kennedy-Longfellow School and Ahern Field. I vehemently oppose this substation, as well as the proposed substation expansions on Putnam Ave and in Alewife. Over the last six months, I’ve made it clear to Eversource, large property owners, and the City that they need to find a more suitable location in Kendall Square, and that they need to find a more sustainable and thoughtful way to meet our energy needs going forward. East Cambridge should not get stuck with dangerous and disruptive infrastructure that would power Kendall Square, but simply finding a different site is not good enough. Electric utility expansion is counterproductive to our climate goals, and Eversource should not be building any more of this infrastructure, period.

With 34 building projects permitted or under construction in Kendall Square and electric load already reaching 98% of capacity at peak usage times during Summer 2018, something clearly needs to be done. However, the Eversource proposal is a band-aid solution that perpetuates the lack of planning that got us into this mess in the first place! The demand projections presented by the utility don’t even factor in the millions of square feet of growth anticipated at the Volpe site in the coming years.

The demand projections presented by the utility don’t even factor in the millions of square feet of growth anticipated at the Volpe site in the coming years.

There has been a frustrating and unacceptable lack of coordination between the City and the utility, and the City seems perfectly comfortable to continue growing without serious infrastructure planning. If we continue along this path of mindless commercial growth, we will be back at the table in a few years having another conversation about the need for a new substation. Not on my watch! I will not vote for any more upzonings that add to our grid electricity consumption. Enough of us have taken such a position with respect to the Fulkerson Street proposal that the big developers in Kendall Square have come to the table to discuss alternative sites for this substation. I have also filed a zoning petition along with Councillor Carlone that would amend the special permit criteria to require that the Planning Board consider a project’s impact on our public utilities, including the electrical grid and its capacity.

86% of the electricity on the grid in Massachusetts does not come from 100% renewable sources, so any additional grid electricity consumption adds to our fossil fuel emissions, which need to be decreasing, not increasing! Though it may seem counterintuitive, we don’t need to increase our grid infrastructure in order to meet our electrical demands. Con Edison’s Brooklyn Queens Demand Management (BQDM) program is an excellent illustration: instead of spending a billion dollars on traditional solutions including a new substation (as proposed), the utility invested $200 million into demand management strategies and efficiency upgrades. This option worked better than anyone expected and addressed the electrical needs of the growing neighborhoods without the need for a new substation. 

If these alternative approaches can be effective in New York City, we should be able to explore them in Cambridge, but Eversource has refused to do so every time I bring it up during committee hearings. It is no surprise that the utility would be perfectly comfortable with endless additional grid infrastructure as most of their profits come from the distribution of electricity (as opposed to the generation) and they turn quite the profit despite being a “public” utility! Ultimately we need to move away from the for-profit utility model altogether. That is why I support Rep. Connolly’s bill, H.3893, “An Act Facilitating Public Ownership of Public Utilities”. I will continue to push for more aggressive investments in energy use reductions and for increasing local renewable energy deployments in existing buildings, and for net-zero ready and net-zero standards for new construction. We have built several net-zero ready municipal buildings at this point, and it is past time to do the same in private development through energy efficiency and local renewable energy sources like solar, geothermal, and air-source heating/cooling. Through all these strategies, we can reduce our building emissions, which account for 80% of Cambridge’s total emissions, and minimize the need for new grid infrastructure. Finally, I will continue to advocate at the state level to increase the renewable portfolio standard (RPS) up from the current 14%, and for other ways to accelerate the timeline to a 100% renewable electricity grid statewide.