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Pummeled by COVID-19, some Massachusetts communities eye reopening with a mix of hope and trepidation

Chelsea resident Eddie Vivar worried his city would be forgotten as the state moved on from the COVID-19 pandemic.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

For six long months last year, Eddie Vivar had no income. The pandemic forced the Cambridge restaurant where he worked to close, and Vivar, who lives in Chelsea, struggled to make ends meet.

“It was scary” not knowing when, as a restaurant and hospitality worker, he would get back his livelihood, he said. Local nonprofits and charities, like the Heart to Cart program that distributes supermarket gift cards to help families put food on the table, became a lifeline for him and many Chelsea residents.

“If it wasn’t for these organizations, we would not be able to be the same or even to make it,” said Vivar, who was eventually rehired six months later.


When Governor Charlie Baker announced last week that he would drop all remaining COVID-19 restrictions on Memorial Day weekend, two months ahead of schedule, many in Massachusetts let out a collective sigh of relief. But some, like Vivar, held their breath.

In working-class communities across the state that were battered by the pandemic, some residents are wary of returning to normal life too quickly. With cases remaining stubbornly high and the pace of vaccinations lagging, some worry that setting caution aside will allow the virus to rebound. And while people are eager to embrace their pre-pandemic lives, some fear a return to normal will mean their communities lose crucial funding from the state and federal governments.

“A lot of times they just forget about us,” Vivar said. “We were hit hard. This community is struggling, and we need the funds, we need the help … It’s going to take a little longer for the community to go back to that sense of normalcy.”

Under the new state guidelines, vaccinated people will be allowed to forgo their masks in most indoor settings, while those who are not vaccinated are still advised to use face coverings and socially distance. Masks will still be required on public and private transit and in health care facilities.


The state accelerated its reopening as vaccination rates continue their steady climb; 62 percent of residents have received at least one dose, while the state’s average daily rate of infection per 100,000 has fallen to 8.7.

But in Lawrence, one of two Massachusetts cities still considered high-risk for COVID-19, along with New Bedford, just 42 percent are vaccinated and the average daily case rate per 100,000 is nearly 22.

Since the pandemic began, at least 239 residents have died from COVID-19.

“They were my constituents. I knew a lot of them,” said City Councilor Pavel Payano. “Whereas there’s a lot of folks [in Massachusetts] that maybe weren’t touched by COVID, in Lawrence, all of us were touched. If you didn’t lose a family member, you knew of someone that was close to you that passed away.”

Payano called for vaccine clinics to hold weekend or evening hours for workers, as well as targeted campaigns in Spanish to distribute vaccine information to the city’s 80 percent Latino or Hispanic population.

“We still haven’t vaccinated a majority of our residents, so it does not make sense to me for us to be reopening at this level,” Payano said.

The state has been instrumental in Lawrence’s vaccine rollout, he said, and has paid for workers to go door-to-door urging people to get shots. That support needs to be ramped up, he said.


“We’re not a Boston, we’re not a Cambridge, we don’t have those funds. So to me, it’s not what can the city do, it’s what can the state do, because the city needs further support,” Payano said.

Lawrence received $58 million through the American Rescue Plan, the federal government’s massive coronavirus relief package, according to estimates from the Massachusetts Municipal Association. But how much each community received was based largely on population, with those over 50,000 receiving most of the aid.

Chelsea, with just under 40,000 people, was initially granted only $11 million even though it has experienced the state’s highest rate of confirmed COVID cases during the pandemic, followed by Lawrence, Everett, Revere, and Lynn. Vaccination rates in those communities are only starting to catch up to the state average. By contrast, far more affluent Newton received $65.3 million.

After a protest in Chelsea, Baker pledged an extra $100 million to be distributed among Chelsea, Everett, Methuen, and Randolph.

These communities should be supported even after the state reopens fully, said State Representative Tami L. Gouveia, who is sponsoring a bill on rapid testing to keep the virus in check.

“I don’t think that our hardest hit communities have been prepared enough and supported enough by the state through this pandemic,” Gouveia said. “I think we really ought to be pumping the brakes on what does it mean to reopen, and putting more effort into making sure [these communities] have the tools they need.”


A number of factors make certain communities more vulnerable to the coronavirus, such as a high concentration of front-line workers and crowded living conditions.

“We live in a city that’s 7 square miles,” said Steven Gil, a registered nurse who serves on Lawrence’s board of public health. “We have three generations in one apartment.”

Dimas Villanueva, a 20-year-old Bunker Hill Community College student who lives in Chelsea, said many residents, including Central American immigrants, live in small apartments shared with multiple people because of rising housing prices.

“Those people are outside during a pandemic working, and then they come back to their home, where there’s a bunch of people, there’s no social distancing, and unfortunately the virus just spreads,” he said.

An ACLU analysis found that 80 percent of workers in Chelsea were in occupations considered essential.

But the tide may be turning in Chelsea. The latest numbers showed its vaccination rate was finally catching up to the state average, at 61 percent.

It’s a number Gladys Vega has been working hard to bring up as president of La Colaborativa, a nonprofit that has been running door-to-door campaigns to educate Spanish-speaking people about vaccines.

But as the pandemic recedes, many people fear the government will soon forget that Chelsea, once the epicenter of the crisis in Massachusetts, continues to struggle.

“We won’t have all the resources that we’ve been getting when we have not been working, and how are we going to manage to do it?” Vega asked. Chelsea, a sanctuary city, also has many undocumented immigrants who are not able to receive stimulus checks or unemployment assistance, making the situation tougher, she said.


Villanueva, the student at Bunker Hill, said his social life suffered greatly during the lockdown, costing him a relationship when he couldn’t meet in person. But reopening, too, comes at a cost.

“We have to try to move forward,” Villanueva said. “I’m optimistic but at the same time, there are several factors that show that it might be too soon for a town like Chelsea.”

Sahar Fatima can be reached at sahar.fatima@globe.com Follow her @sahar_fatima.