These days, Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui is spending all of her time either at home or at City Hall, which is closed to the public but open to a very small circle of officials. While she’s been able to take care of her necessary duties online, being in her office helps her focus.
The mostly empty building is also where she marked her 100th day in office on April 15—36 days after Gov. Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency in Massachusetts.
And it seems that, for better or for worse, her tenure will be defined by her handling of the virus. For over a month, Siddiqui says her entire agenda has revolved around responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s been a month. For me, it feels like it’s been years,” she says. “It’s challenging being the mayor. I feel so responsible for what’s happening even though it’s not my fault.”
The majority of the plans that she came into office with have needed to be adjusted, postponed, or canceled entirely—especially those that require gathering. Others that have been executed have been easily lost in the panic of the virus.
Since she was inaugurated in January, Siddiqui has set her sights on preserving the 504 affordable housing units at Fresh Pond Apartments where she grew up. In an op-ed published in the Cambridge Chronicle on March 5, she wrote that the City Council vote to appropriate more funds to preserve the apartments “was the most important vote I’ve taken.”
With a total of $40 million ultimately being committed to ensuring the units stay affordable, the 504 households will be able to remain in their apartments and pay the same rate. An in-person building meeting was supposed to follow the vote, but was postponed indefinitely due to safety concerns. Instead, Fresh Pond residents received a letter explaining the good news on March 19.
In the past few months, Siddiqui has also worked on a number of human service initiatives like expanding early childhood educational resources and planning programming around Mental Health Awareness Month (which will now likely be shifted to a virtual platform.)
More recently, she and Cambridge City Manager Louis A. DePasquale rolled out emergency response programs like the Mayor’s Disaster Relief Fund to bring aid to vulnerable and low-income residents.
“There really isn’t a how-to guide on how to lead during this,” she says. “But I think there’s key things to keep in mind. For me, it’s been making sure we’re communicating our decisions, we’re relying on our experts, and we’re keeping the most vulnerable in mind.”
Collaboration with other Cambridge officials like DePasquale, as well as with local government in nearby cities like Somerville has been another constant.
“The Mayor of Somerville [Joe Curtatone] has really taken the lead on making sure we’re all working together through the [Metropolitan] Mayor’s Coalition,” Siddiqui says. “Since the beginning, there’s been multiple calls and meetings around every issue, and we’ve all kind of moved in step together as much as possible.”
At times, the cities have even had to react before the state. Cambridge Public Schools Superintendent Kenneth N. Salim announced the closure of all schools following dismissal on March 13, but Gov. Baker did not announce the decision to close all schools statewide until the evening of March 15.
Schools across the state are now ordered to remain closed through May 4, but Siddiqui anticipates that this will be extended. While she is unsure what May or June will look like, she says that officials must be ready for either a continuation of the same restrictions or a reopening of the city.
“We have teams already thinking, ‘What could opening up the city again look like?’ We have to start thinking ahead a little bit. But at the same time, the situation has evolved so much already and I’m worried about the resurgent cases,” she says. “My focus, rightly so, is only on COVID right now and I think it will be up until […] right before the summer session.”
Right now, she is preparing for the worst. She, like everyone else, is also looking to positive moments within the past month—like a friend in China who sent thousands of masks to Siddiqui’s office—to get through the crisis.
“I think this is a challenging time,” she says. “I wish it wasn’t happening. I think we all wish that. It’s also one of those things where I’m very lucky that I’m okay—that I am not one of the people who is being affected, who has been laid off, who has been sick. So, I also feel privileged.”
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