Coronavirus Pandemic, Economic Struggles 'A Perfect Storm' In Lawrence

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A view of Lawrence on the Merrimack River. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
A view of Lawrence on the Merrimack River. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Vulnerable populations and communities have been hit harder by the pandemic.

That's true not only in terms of public health, but also the economy.

Case in point: Lawrence now has an unemployment rate above 30 percent, nearly double the unemployment rate statewide. Lawrence is more than 80 percent Latinx, has the highest poverty rate in the state and is still working its way through the aftermath of the deadly Columbia gas explosion two years ago this month.

How can Lawrence harness its strengths to respond to the current crisis?

We speak with Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera, Julia D'Orazio with the soup kitchen Bread & Roses, and Linda Rohrer, executive director of MassHire Merrimack Valley Career Center.

Interview Highlights

On Lawrence's recovery as a city:

Mayor Dan Rivera: "Well, the silver lining about having come out of the [Merrimack Valley] gas crisis to today is that there was a bit of muscle memory still on how to react to helping people and how to react to the tragedy that is COVID-19. We were able to stand up a relief effort, and really get to the bottom of how to help people every day. And so that's the silver lining."

"You know, I think we've got to focus on the important things, focus on the public health numbers, focus on testing, focus on controlling the spread and public health education for people. Because of our density, I think is a place where the virus can spread. And so that is not helpful. And I think that's a characteristic of all of us that are the top five [at risk communities], it's not something specific to our population. It's just the environment in which we live."

On Gov. Baker's launch of a COVID-19 Enforcement and Intervention team:

Rivera: "We absolutely have been partnering with the governor. If you think about the array of things that he announced [Thursday] — the enforcement, the outreach — we were really there with him already with the exception of this new effort they want to do with messaging and more of a media campaign. That is something that we're really excited about because we've get to do Spanish-language ads to get people to take the COVID-19 fight seriously."

"But we had already done $300 mask fines. The first roll out the red communities, we immediately rolled back restaurant hours to 10 p.m. We said any time somebody calls about a noise complaint, we gonna treat it as a spread event. By the way, we also procured a million dollars to do testing. So we had already been putting some of the toughest sanctions on people who are not doing what they're supposed to do. I think the new tool that we're excited about is the ability to do TV ads to get people serious about this effort."

On what the biggest changes are in Lawrence since the pandemic has begun:

Linda Rohrer: "Well, for us, before the pandemic, we would see in our office to 200 to 400 people walking through the doors daily, people coming in actually looking for help with their unemployment claims, even though we're not the unemployment office. But we did have staff from the Department of Unemployment Assistance onsite who could help with claims. People would be coming in to meet with our counselors and participate in our job search workshops or employee recruitment. And some would just walk in because they were either looking for a job or they felt they needed training. And now we're not open physically. So we've been doing everything remotely since the beginning of April. So that's really a big change in the way we interact with our customers. But, you know, we have been able to kind of ramp up and provide the services virtually — it's been a little learning curve. But we are doing the counseling, using phone, Zoom, FaceTime, WhatsApp, providing workshops online, using mostly Zoom both in English and Spanish, and continuing to do workshops to develop job search skills."

Julia D'Orazio: "Before the pandemic, we were experiencing an increase in the need as far as mostly food support, not just from the gas fires, but from the ongoing housing and opioid crisis that is happening in greater Boston and Lawrence as well. Upon the pandemic hitting in mid March — between that time and the time that we had to close — we were completely overwhelmed with an increase, especially for pantry orders during that time. So, yes, we can definitely vouch that the need was immediate and real."

On what the economic recovery of Lawrence looks like:

Rivera: "If you think about it, historically, the number of unemployment seemed like it was always that double the state average. Because we have always a steady stream of newcomers to Lawrence — we're called the Immigrant City for a reason — and so folks come through all the time. So even if we created a thousand jobs one year, there would be another thousand people come into next year who need a new job. And we'd have to start the cycle all over again. How do we get people trained? We give them jobs? And we have a pretty good ecosystem. This COVID-19 has devastated the ecosystem."

"...I think [federal aid] is going to be ultimately very necessary, but I don't think that's the cure. I think the cure is going to be focused efforts by the federal and the state governments to ensure that the economy can get back on its feet fully. They can throw money at it, and I think money will solve some problems, but the long term solution here is let's attack this virus to a point where we can get the economy back on its feet. Because there is a lot of work out there to be done. But businesses, I think, are still cautious about growing because they don't know what's going to happen next year."

This segment aired on September 3, 2020.

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