CENTRAL FALLS, R.I. — The coronavirus infection rate here in this 1.29-square-mile city of fewer than 20,000 people has skyrocketed in November to 1,058 per 100,000 people – more than double the statewide rate.
Many residents don’t have the luxury of paid sick leave or employee-subsidized health insurance, and the pandemic has taken a disproportionate toll on the city’s Latino-majority population.
While indoor dining is still allowed throughout Rhode Island, earlier this week Central Falls restaurants and bars were ordered to offer take-out and delivery early. The city’s high school and its middle school were limited to remote instruction long before Governor Gina M. Raimondo announced a new “two week pause” on Thursday.
But the residents of Central Falls have elected a new mayor— the first Latina ever to hold the office in the state and the first female mayor of Central Falls. And supporters say, despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, this is the perfect time for Maria Rivera to lead the city through crisis.
“She is the right person at the right time,” said Dr. Pablo Rodriguez, a longtime community leader who is on Rivera’s transition team.
Rodriguez, who founded the Rhode Island Latino Political Action Committee, noted Rivera took part in the Latina Leadership Institute and will be joining the ranks of elected Latino leaders such as Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea and Providence Mayor Jorge O. Elorza.
“To me, it’s like a dream come true,” Rodriguez said. “I think she will go really far.”
Rivera, 43, is a former City Council president and state Department of Human Services worker who is known for giving her cell phone to city residents in crisis. She has become a fixture in the community, rallying support when families fled a high rise fire at 3 a.m., giving out meals at a nearby Boys & Girls Club, and launching a fund drive that raised $17,000 within 30 hours to provide gift cards to undocumented families.
“She is well-known and trusted,” said Rodriguez, medical director for community affairs at Care New England and host of the “Nuestra Salud” radio talk show. “She has been known as a charitable person, helping her neighbors, ever since she got here.”
Those attributes will prove invaluable as the city grapples with the COVID-19 outbreak and, eventually, begins to distribute a vaccine, Rodriguez said. “For any chief executive dealing with a crisis like this, the most important currency is trust,” he said.
That trust was evident on Election Day, when voters in the city’s non-partisan election gave her 77 percent of the vote, topping former Central Falls Police Chief Joseph P. Moran III, who received 22.4 percent.
Rivera benefited from the endorsement of Mayor James A. Diossa, who became the city’s first Latino mayor in 2010 and is now weighing a run for lieutenant governor in 2022.
In an interview Thursday, Diossa said, “As a mayor transitioning out, you want the next mayor to do even better than you have done, and I believe she can do that.”
He described Rivera as “a natural community-oriented advocate” who, for example, goes out of her way to help mothers experiencing hard times to get things for their children.
“She is a good, good soul,” Diossa said. “She is very passionate about the well-being of others.”
The health and well-being of Central Falls residents is in a precarious state amid the recent statewide surge in COVID-19 cases. It’s a situation that Rivera acknowledged after the election.
“My work will start with prioritizing the health of our families and small businesses who have been dramatically impacted by COVID-19,” she said in a statement. “Our city is resilient and together we’ll keep our important progress going. I’m ready to get to work.”
The outbreak hit the city hard in the spring, when Central Falls recorded 170 cases the week of April 19-25. The numbers plunged during the summer, with less than five new cases recorded the week of Aug. 30-Sept. 5.
But the city has seen nearly 500 new cases over the last three weeks, with 152 cases in the last week of October, 141 cases in the first week of November, and 205 cases in the second week of November, according to the latest state Department of Health data.
That spike prompted Diossa to issue an executive order on Monday restricting restaurants and bars to take-out and delivery.
“The second wave of COVID-19 is proving to be brutal to our state – but especially harsh in our city as Central Falls residents continue to suffer a disproportionate burden of disease,” he said.
The pandemic also continues to take a disproportionate toll on Rhode Island’s Latino population. While Latinos make up 16 percent of the state, they account for 41 percent of Rhode Islanders who have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to the latest Department of Health data. Those figures exclude cases where demographic information is unknown.
Rivera told the Globe she agrees with Diossa’s decision to halt indoor dining.
“From the beginning, we have been the highest impacted city, and if we don’t take these actions now, it’s only going to get worse,” she said. “I know this is hard on our businesses. But we are doing this for the health of the residents of our community.”
Rivera said more and more people are reaching out to her, saying they have tested positive for the coronavirus. A divorced mother with two teenage children, she said those calls include other single mothers who have children in the house, a situation that makes it nearly impossible to remain isolated.
In Central Falls, a densely populated city with lots of triple-deckers, it can be tough to adhere to social distancing protocols, and she said the city needs a hotel or some other site nearby where residents could isolate if they test positive.
But even getting a test is a challenge. A single site currently serves residents of Central Falls and Pawtucket, and though a local pediatrician, Dr. Beata Nelken, also offers COVID-19 testing, another site is desperately needed as case numbers rise. “The demand is so huge right now,” she said. “It takes five days to get an appointment. Before, it was an hour.”
Meanwhile, Rivera said Central Falls has hired 22 “health ambassadors” to hand out face masks and provide information to try to halt the spread of the virus. Those ambassadors will help in ensuring that city residents receive a COVID-19 vaccine once one becomes available, she said.
Rivera acknowledged that she is becoming mayor at a time when the pandemic is taking a toll not only on public health, but also on the city’s budget and its economy.
Still, she said, “I do not feel bad. I’m absolutely saddened by what’s happening. But I’ve been working on this pandemic since it started in March.”
Rivera is well aware of the Central Falls’ old reputation, but she said the city has come a long way from the days of bankruptcy and corruption. One sign of rejuvenation: the Central Falls Landing project, in which an old mill is being transformed into a commercial center. New sports fields and plans for a new commuter rail station also point to positive change.
“If you visited the city 10 years ago, compared to today, it’s very different,” she said. “When I door-knocked in my campaign, I wanted to hear what people wanted us to work on, and the biggest complaint was speeding. People are happy.”
Rivera was born in Camden, N.J.; her parents are from Puerto Rico. Her family moved to Chicago soon afterward, and then to Central Falls in 1987. She received an associate’s degree from Community College of Rhode Island and a bachelor’s degree in public administration from Roger Williams University.
She works as a senior eligibility technician at the state Department of Human Services. She has been on the City Council since 2016 and City Council president since 2018. She has served on the board of the Learning Community charter school.
Rivera has named 14 people to her transition team headed by Ana Cristina Urena, who has a background in law, criminal justice, and operations.
The team includes former Providence City Councilman Luis Aponte, who in 2019 agreed to plead no contest to embezzling from his campaign account and resign the council seat he’d held since 1999. Rivera defended her decision to appoint him to her team.
“It’s hard to be a Puerto Rican community leader in Rhode Island and not recognize Luis Aponte’s policy impact on working families,” she said. “He is a personal friend of mine and a mentor who answers many of my challenging questions. He is very smart, and that is why I chose him to be part of the transition team.”
As part of the transition process, Rivera met with Diossa and city department heads at City Hall on Thursday. She will be sworn in as mayor on Jan. 4.
Meanwhile, she is encouraging more Central Falls residents to get involved in local government by applying for city positions, boards, and commissions. She has started accepting applications at www.mariarivera2020.com.
She hopes to inspire others to follow in her footsteps.
“It’s a great door-opener for many young girls, many women, in the state,” Rivera said. “This is only the beginning.”