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From vaccines to North End restaurants, Mayor Michelle Wu creates her own equity problems

She created problems for herself, ironically, in a realm she said she champions — equity.

There’s an element of unfairness to the fee Boston Mayor Michele Wu plans to impose on North End restaurants that want to set up outdoor seating.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

You know that classic Kenny Rogers song “The Gambler,” and its time-honored advice about knowing when to hold ’em, when to fold ’em, and when to walk away?

On several key issues, Mayor Michelle Wu is getting the holding and folding backward.

In February, Wu made the mistake of folding on a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for teachers. For now, she’s holding on to a misguided plan to impose a hefty fee only on North End restaurants that want to provide outside dining.

With those decisions, a mayor who said she’s committed to equity is creating the potential for inequity. She and the Boston Teachers Union agreed on a softened version of a vaccine mandate. Yet in a court case brought by other unions, she is standing by the principle that the city has the right to impose a vaccine mandate on their members. Meanwhile, the $7,500 proposed outdoor dining fee has led North End restaurant owners to say they will sue her on the grounds that the policy is discriminatory.

Wu is a new mayor, and the first woman and person of color to be elected to the job. She’s being tested, sometimes in very unpleasant ways, from the ugly protests outside her home to the Globe’s recent report about false rumors that are circulating about her mental health. At least the protesters come in person and don’t mask their identity behind social media or other anonymous attacks.


With trouble over the fee plan brewing between the mayor and the North End restaurant owners, someone left a flyer on cars along Hanover street that relayed part of a joke that Wu told at the St. Patrick’s Day breakfast: “I’m getting used to dealing with problems that are expensive, disruptive, and white.” The punchline of Wu’s joke — “I’m talking about snowflakes . . . I mean snowstorms, snowflakes” — was not included on the flyer. Whether Wu’s joke was politically wise or even funny depends, like all humor, on personal taste. But her opponents jumped on it, and some are now using it as a way to stir racial divisions.


From getting Boston up to full economic speed after the coronavirus pandemic to a threat from the state to take over the city’s schools, Wu has a lot to handle. And, as she told the Globe’s Emma Platoff, “we’ve been handling it and then some.” As the Globe has also reported, Wu’s first 100 days in office include some notable accomplishments, from taking down the tents at Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard and relocating people who were living there to temporary housing, to expanding free-fare transit. Under Wu, Boston has a different look and feel — younger, more inclusive, and more open to change and possibility. That’s all good.

But on other fronts, she’s creating problems for herself, ironically, in a realm she said she champions — equity.

Once Wu signed onto an agreement with the BTU that allowed educators to be tested regularly for COVID instead of getting vaccinated during periods of lower virus transmission — a proposal that other unions rejected — the playing field shifted. The city lost negotiating power with unions representing police, firefighters, and other first responders. It’s hard to argue a vaccine mandate should apply to them after a different deal was struck with teachers.


There’s also an element of unfairness to the fee she plans to impose on North End restaurants that want to set up outdoor seating. In a letter to restaurant owners, she said the North End is different from other neighborhoods “because of the unique impacts of outdoor dining on the quality of residential life.” According to the mayor’s office, there are three times the number of on-street restaurant patios in the North End, more lost parking spots, and more constituent complaints about noise, congestion, and rodents. Yet it’s also true that any Boston restaurant that’s using public space for outdoor seating is taking that space away from the general public. In the interests of fairness, that cost should be assessed as well, and a fee imposed.

Yet, rather than leveling the playing field, Wu is threatening to impose a greater hardship on the North End by rescinding outdoor dining in that neighborhood if a majority of restaurant owners believe the proposed program is “unworkable.”

Yikes. What every successful gambler knows — and what every politician should know — is “that the secret to survivin’ / Is knowin’ what to throw away / And knowin’ what to keep.”

Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at joan.vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.