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In Chelsea, original epicenter of state’s COVID outbreak, demonstrators protest federal aid distribution

Cristina Gonzalez of La Colaborativa carried a Venezuelan flag during a protest outside City Hall in Chelsea on Tuesday.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

CHELSEA — More than 100 demonstrators rallied at City Hall on Tuesday to protest the amount of federal aid earmarked for the hard-hit city of Chelsea in the $1.9 trillion federal coronavirus stimulus package.

Led by staff and volunteers of the nonprofit La Colaborativa, protesters marched from the organization’s Sixth Street food pantry, chanting in English and in Spanish their demands for more federal relief.

The American Rescue Plan, signed into law by President Biden last Thursday, includes $350 billion for state and local governments, tribes, and US territories to offset budget shortfalls resulting from the pandemic. The funding is being distributed to cities and towns based on their population size through a modified version of the federal government’s Community Development Block Grant formula. Consequently, cities with populations above 50,000 are getting substantially more money than smaller communities, like Chelsea.

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According to an analysis by the Massachusetts Municipal Association, Chelsea, with a reported population of just under 40,000, is slated to receive roughly $11.6 million in aid. By comparison, the city of Newton, with a population of about 88,000, is getting $65.2 million, more than five and a half times what Chelsea is slated to receive.

Chelsea City Manager Thomas Ambrosino called these figures “unconscionable.”

“In a bill that was supposed to help disproportionately impacted communities hit by COVID, it’s appalling that we’re getting five, six, seven times less than wealthier communities like Newton, Arlington, and Brookline,” Ambrosino said, addressing the crowd that had assembled in front of City Hall.

“We do feel there will be a fix,” he added. “We’ve been working for the last two weeks even with our federal delegation to find a way to get Chelsea more money and we will do so.”

Chelsea, the original epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in Massachusetts, is battling multiple crises, including high unemployment, widespread food insecurity, and housing instability. Chelsea advocates say the formula for allocating federal funds is unfair to cities like theirs, home to thousands of undocumented immigrants from Central America, who are likely undercounted by the US Census. The Census shows Chelsea is home to no more than 40,000 people, but local leaders suspect the population is closer to 65,000.

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“Chelsea has always been a statistic for inequality. Chelsea has never gotten their fair share,” said Richelle Cromwell, executive director of the Chelsea-based Community Action Programs Inter-City, at Tuesday’s protest. “We are on the front lines and we are fighting with one hand behind our backs because we’re not getting the support we need from the local and federal level.”

In a series of speeches, supporters recounted the city’s the ongoing struggles, exacerbated by the pandemic.

“What happened to representing everyone equally and vouching for everyone? Because by the way things are going, if my single-parent mom were to lose her job right now, who’s to say it would just be survival of the fittest,” said 15-year-old Emily Menjivar, choking back tears while reading the brief speech she had prepared. “Are the people of Chelsea the ones who who fit the ‘fittest category’ or the more white-populated cities in Massachusetts?”

In a joint Tuesday statement from Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey and US Representative Ayanna Pressley, the federal lawmakers said they “know that our small to midsize municipalities need more assistance, especially our communities of color who continue to be disproportionately impacted by this pandemic, like Chelsea and Everett.”

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”We must make our federal funding formulas more reflective of the impact felt by our most vulnerable communities, and as we look ahead to recovery, we will continue to work with state, local and federal partners [to] help our mayors and local governments mitigate the impact of this crisis on our families so that no community is left behind,” read the statement.

It continued, “That includes urging the Baker Administration to equitably distribute the Commonwealth’s 4.5 billion dollars of relief funding to municipalities that have been” disproportionately affected.

A spokesman for Governor Charlie Baker noted in a statement that the administration is not involved in devising the federal funding formula, but is working with local leaders to address Chelsea’s complex needs.

“The Baker-Polito Administration cannot speak to why Congress designed the federal relief package in this way but regardless, the Governor was proud to have worked with city officials previously to direct over $20 million to Chelsea in COVID related funds,” the statement said, “in addition to the millions in funding for housing and food insecurity needs for city residents.”


Deanna Pan can be reached at deanna.pan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @DDpan. Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.