A task force formed by the Massachusetts Public Health Association is calling on Governor Charlie Baker to make sure that low-wage workers, minority populations, and other people disproportionately affected by the coronavirus are adequately protected before the state moves into the next phase of its economic reopening.
The Task Force on Coronavirus & Equity, which convened in March, has listed four conditions it wants met before Baker announces phase two of the restart, something he is expected to do Monday.
The task force ― supported by more than 100 community organizations, including the Black Boston COVID-19 Coalition and the Massachusetts Coalition for Health Equity ― said avoiding structural racism must be at the forefront of reopening plans.
“The root cause of what we are seeing with the disproportionate burden on people of color, particularly Black people and Latinx people in the Commonwealth, is not a problem with us — we have a problem with racism," Dr. Atiya Martin, a member of the Black Boston COVID-10 Coalition, said during a Thursday press conference. “We as people have not been deemed essential, just our work, and opening too soon is harmful."
The task force is cochaired by Sandro Galea, dean of the Boston University School of Public Health, and Cheryl Bartlett, CEO of the Greater New Bedford Community Health Center and a former commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.
Among the conditions the task force wants met before phase two goes forward is a drop in COVID-19 infection rates for minorities, including Black, Latinx, and disabled people. Overall state trends may “mask inequities among populations already experiencing disproportionate risk and marginalization,” it said.
The task force is also asking for more support for small businesses ― such as grants and loans — and enforceable protections for workers to minimize their risk of exposure to the virus.
“Thousands of workers will be heading back to their jobs,” said Al Vega, director of policy and programs at the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health. “They are not expendable commodities and must be protected from exposure to the virus, which we still have no treatment or vaccine [for].”
The group also criticized the state for lacking enough COVID-19 testing capacity to safely allow more people to return to work. Baker has said he wants the state to offer 45,000 tests per day by the end of July, but in May the average daily number was under 10,000. The task force wants to see 32,000 tests per day by June 8.
In addition, the group called on the governor to create a Recovery Advisory Board that would include representatives of essential workers, Black and Latinx communities, people with disabilities, LGBTQ+ people, and older adults. Black and Latinx activists protested outside the State House May 25, asking for a greater say in the state’s plans to restart the economy.
“We have an obligation to reopen safely in a way that does not continue the inequities,” said Carlene Pavlos, executive director of the Massachusetts Public Health Association. “Our economic health and our public health go hand in hand.”