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‘We were able to set a national tone,’ Mayor Walsh says of Boston’s response to the coronavirus

Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh spoke at the annual meeting of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau.
Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh spoke at the annual meeting of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Mayor Martin J. Walsh on Tuesday spoke about the dual challenge of grappling with the coronavirus pandemic while also working to address structural racism, saying that the recent local protests are moving Boston forward and prompting hard discussions the city needs to have.

Walsh, speaking at the annual meeting of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, called the last three weeks, during which demonstrations for racial justice unfolded nationwide, “extremely difficult”' and emotional.

“The anger we are hearing is justified," Walsh said.

His comments on Tuesday came four days after the mayor declared racism a public health crisis in Boston, a day after he submitted a revised $3.61 billion budget for the next fiscal year, and four days after he announced plans to reallocate police overtime funds amid the protests against racism.

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The new budget is slightly lower than the initial $3.65 billion plan proposed in April and would represent a 3.4 percent increase in spending over the current fiscal year.

Under the mayor’s plan, the city would reroute $12 million from the Boston Police Department’s overtime spending — about 20 percent of its overtime budget — to social services.

While many advocates have embraced the language of “defunding the police,” Walsh said Tuesday that’s not what Boston is doing.

“We’re not defunding the Police Department in Boston; what we’re doing is redirecting some of the money from overtime to programs” that will help address systemic racism and other issues.

He said there is no quick fix to systemic racism. Improving access to food and starting a small-business relief fund offered immediate solutions to pandemic problems, but racism, he said, cannot be solved by simply signing something into law.

The coronavirus emergency, he said, allowed the city to take a deeper look at what true equity means in Boston. The pandemic has hit communities of color hard, with data showing significant disparities in infection rates between the city’s Black and white residents.

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As of Tuesday, Black Boston residents made up more than 37 percent of the city’s coronavirus cases where data on race are available, while Blacks are about 25 percent of the city’s population. Conversely, white city residents make up 25 percent of the caseload where race data are available, but are about 45 percent of Boston’s population. Latinx residents make up more than a quarter of the caseload, but comprise about a fifth of the population.

The data are incomplete; race and ethnicity data exist for about 85 percent of the city’s confirmed coronavirus cases.

Walsh talked about the cancellation of the Boston Marathon and the closing of the city’s schools, saying such decisions were not easy but were correct. Construction projects in the city were paused because of COVID-19, but most are again operating at 100 percent capacity, he said.

“We were able to set a national tone, that this pandemic must be taken very seriously," Walsh said, while stressing that Boston is “not out of this.”

He also spoke about the recent multitude of demonstrations, which have occurred since George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man who was handcuffed, died on Memorial Day when a white Minneapolis police officer pinned his knee to Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes.

Rallies and protests have focused mostly on the killing of Floyd but also on the killing of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky., and racial inequality at large.

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At the Tuesday meeting, which took place virtually, Walsh’s chief financial officer, Emme Handy, said how much state aid Massachusetts will transfer to the city remains a budgetary question mark. The Walsh’s administration’s newest budget proposal reflects a state-aid reduction of about $10 million from its previous budget proposal, said Handy, who acknowledged there are unknowns about what the state will do to balance its own budget.

“There’s a great deal of uncertainty and fear that we could be looking at numbers like the Great Recession, and those are very challenging for cities and towns to absorb,” Handy said.

In response to a question, Walsh said he was not sure Boston police would ever achieve a 100 percent participation rate in the department’s body-camera program, adding that more than 1,000 officers either have cameras or are in the process of being outfitted with them. Eventually, all "outward-facing " officers would have the cameras, he said.

Yet using “body cameras is not the answer, solely, to policing,” he said. “It’s about relationships. It’s about trust. A camera doesn’t build trust.”

Some advocates have lobbied for body cameras as a way to improve police accountability and public trust.

The mayor said he had thought the city might save money because all festivals and parades were canceled this summer because of COVID-19, but dealing with the political protests has “taken away any savings."

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”Again, there’s a reason behind these marches and protests that we have to keep at the forefront of our brain," he said.

Gal Tziperman Lotan and Brittany Bowker of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Abigail Feldman contributed to this report.




Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.