CENTRAL FALLS, R.I. — Fire swept through the triple-decker on Washington Street, driving four families into the street.
Mayor Maria Rivera had just stopped home to take a nap after spending the morning at a COVID-19 clinic when she heard the news.
In this 1.29-square-mile city, the blaze wasn’t far from her home. So Rivera walked to the scene to speak to the city’s new fire chief, whom she’d sworn in a day earlier, and to the four families, who were now without a home.
“I thought it was important for me to be there – to speak to the residents and understand how we can help them,” she said. “They lost everything.”
Rivera made sure the city’s Office of Constituent Services and Health – which she launched after taking office in January – was there to gather information from the families and bring them back to City Hall to stay warm and to meet with the American Red Cross. There, Rivera overhead one of the boys ask his mother about his pet parakeets.
Speaking in Spanish, she asked the boy: Where are the birds? He said: At the house. She asked: Are they OK? He shrugged.
Rivera spoke to a police officer, and soon a metal cage containing three colorful parakeets was in the City Council chambers.
“We had to save the birdies,” she said.
On April 14, Rivera’s staff slipped into her office in City Hall to decorate it with balloons and streamers to mark her 100th day in office. She wasn’t there when they came in, and that wasn’t unusual.
Rivera has taken a hands-on approach to the job, riding with the city’s snowplow trucks or dashing to get supplies for a COVID-19 vaccine clinic.
“I had really bad anxiety about sitting behind this desk all day,” Rivera said, sitting at her desk for an interview. “This is not how my community met me. This is not who they know I am. I am out in the community. That’s the type of work that I like to do.”
Rivera – a 44-year-old former City Council president and state Department of Human Services eligibility technician who is known for giving her cellphone number to city residents in crisis – said she realizes that there’s work that must be done behind the desk.
“But this is also why I have department heads, right?” she said. “I sneak out of here. My chief of staff is texting me all the time – ‘Where are you?’ (On April 14) I had half an hour, and I was like I need to get out of here to visit businesses to see how it’s going, if there’s anything we can help them with.”
Rivera took office amid a pandemic that has taken its steepest toll on Central Falls, a working-class, Latino-majority city of some 19,500 people.
Cumulatively, Central Falls has had Rhode Island’s highest rate of COVID-19 cases, at 21,902 per 100,000 – far higher than the next highest rate of 16,869 in the capital city of Providence, according to the latest state Department of Health data.
But Rhode Island made Central Falls a priority for its COVID-19 vaccine program, and now more than half of city’s residents have received a vaccine shot. According to the most recent Department of Health data, 52 percent of the Central Falls population is partially vaccinated, while 38.4 percent is fully vaccinated.
“The biggest challenge has been coming into office in the middle of a pandemic – trying to figure out how I can get my community back to being healthy,” Rivera said.
While the city has come a long way over the past year, she said she’d prefer to have 100 percent of the population vaccinated. The hurdle now is hesitancy. For example, two young women recently told her they feared the vaccine contained the coronavirus, she said.
“We live in a community where there are a lot of questions, a lot of doubts,” Rivera said. “We live in a community of color, an immigrant community where there’s always lots of questions of trust.”
So the mayor is personally trying to help dispel those vaccine myths. She joined Dr. Michael Fine, the city’s chief health strategist and a former state Department of Health director, and other members of a team that went door-to-door at local businesses to answer questions about the vaccine.
“We have to take it upon ourselves to build that trust with the community,” Rivera said.
At one point during that clinic, Rivera noticed that staff members were scrambling and no one was getting their shots. Dr. Eugenio Fernandez Jr., the Asthenis pharmacy founder who was running the vaccine clinic, told her the staff had run out of syringes and were waiting for more to arrive from Providence.
Rivera, who also serves as public safety director, hopped in her Ford Explorer and zipped down Broad Street to a CVS pharmacy. With emergency lights flashing, she returned minutes later with 100 syringes.
“It was important,” she said. “The last thing I need is for the media to say that we ran out of syringes. We have a line of people waiting.”
While dealing with the pandemic, Central Falls is also facing a growing housing crisis, Rivera said. These days, it can be next to impossible to find an affordable apartment, and that’s a big problem in a city with a home ownership rate of just 19 percent, she said.
Rivera said she knows of about 100 people who have a federal Section 8 housing voucher but cannot find an apartment in the city. The Central Falls Housing Authority provides incentives for landlords to convert apartments to Section 8 housing, she said, “but the problem is there are no apartments.”
On March 22, Rivera hosted a three-day housing summit, aimed at identifying the city’s housing needs, finding funding options, and developing a housing action plan. She said the summit delved into the need to provide housing for victims of domestic violence and for some 70 high-school age children facing homelessness in the city.
The summit also identified about 25 properties and vacant lots that might be converted or developed into affordable housing, Rivera said. She noted that in March voters approved borrowing $65 million for affordable housing statewide, and she hopes Central Falls can secure some of that funding.
Marcela Betancur, executive director of the Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University, said the institute co-hosted the summit and will prepare a report with recommendations.
Betancur, who grew up in Central Falls and whose parents still live there, said Rivera “has been doing an excellent job at continuing the momentum that she carried as City Council president. Her hands-on engagement through the vaccination efforts has been exemplary.”
Rivera also wins praise from her new fire chief, Scott G. Mello, who worked for 32 years in Providence before joining the Central Falls department. He said the city has had six fires during his first six weeks on the job, and Rivera has been at the four most significant blazes.
“I have never seen a mayor so engaged in the community in my life,” Mello said. “She shows up.”