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District 4 candidates appeal to voters, from a distance

COVID concerns limit in-person interactions

Avery Bleichfeld
District 4 candidates appeal to voters, from a distance
District 4 candidate Evandro Carvalho chats with a Dorchester resident. There are nine candidates vying for the seat, which includes parts of Dorchester and Mattapan. PHOTO: AVERY BLEICHFELD

As candidates for the District 4 City Council seat hit the streets to knock on doors and pass out flyers ahead of the preliminary election Sept. 14, in addition to their normal water bottles and sunscreen they now carry a few more supplies: face masks and hand sanitizer.

Troy Smith COURTESY PHOTO

As the number of COVID-19-related hospital visits and concerns about the more contagious Delta variant mount, candidates are making efforts to stay aware of public health guidance as they attempt to reach voters.

“Out of respect for all citizens with this pandemic taking place, we’re making sure that myself and my campaign team have masks,” said Troy Smith, District 4 candidate. “In some cases, some of the workers have even asked for gloves — especially when it was time to secure signatures to secure a place on the ballot. We utilized pens and wiped them down, sterilized them.”

Candidate Will Dickerson said that concerns about keeping distance have led to less personal interactions with voters.

“Due to the pandemic, there’s a lot of folks that — and rightfully so — are reluctant to answer doors, or they will communicate with you through their window,” Dickerson said. “You’re not getting that personal one-on-one interaction that other candidates may have gotten in the past while they’re campaigning.”

But others, like Evandro Carvalho, have leaned into it. While canvassing in the Meeting House Hill area of Dorchester, he had conversations with multiple residents who leaned out from windows or second-floor balconies instead of coming to the door. He said that for him, it is about figuring out how comfortable voters are with pandemic safety, whether that means discussing vaccination statuses or leaving masks on.

William Dickerson COURTESY PHOTO

“I’ll try to gauge the conversation with the person and keep at least six feet back, and if I can, I’ll remove the mask and have a conversation with them,” Carvalho said.

Smith said adapting based on the pandemic is an exercise in creativity.

“There’s a lot of difference now, with the pandemic being in place, that makes it a little challenging. But I look at it as … how creative is your thinking?” Smith said. “That’s one of the major things we’ve faced during the pandemic is how creative can we be to reach the residents and constituents of District 4. And so far, it’s worked out well for us, always observing the protocols of health and listening closely to when to go and when not to go.”

Some candidates have switched their approach to include contacting more residents on the phone, but most, including Josette Williams, said that meeting people face-to-face is an important step, at least while COVID-19 guidance allows.

“The groundwork, for me, is important, so that for folks who truly want their issues heard, I’m collecting that information from them door-to-door,” Williams said. “So, we’ll keep that up all the way until the end, unless these numbers get to the point where we feel like it’s unsafe for us, as well as for the folks we’re visiting.”

Josette Williams COURTESY PHOTO

To keep meeting with voters in person, Williams said she has made sure she and her team keep wearing masks while knocking on doors and carry supplies like hand sanitizer. If voters invite her in to talk with someone who cannot easily come to the door, she said she makes sure she wears her mask, keeps her distance and does not stay long.

Candidates also said that they have begun sharing information about COVID-19 and how to stay safe as part of their campaigning process.

Leonard Lee, who began his run for the District 4 seat after starting an initiative called Masking the Community to provide free face masks to residents, said he has been working to overcome myths about the coronavirus.

“There’s a lot of urban myths out there about COVID, about vaccination, about wearing a mask, and that’s been challenging in a number of ways, but we try to lead by example in terms of running the campaign. That’s been somewhat successful, I feel, because people have been very, very receptive in some areas,” Lee said. “And in some areas, they’ll say, ‘I’m fine, I’m fine,’ and then I’ll say something like, ‘What about your child, can I get them a mask?’ and then it’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, we’ll take some.’ So it’s really just about educating the community.”

Williams, who lives in Dorchester, said she is worried about communities in District 4 like Mattapan where vaccination rates are lagging. According to data released by the city, as of Aug. 10, Mattapan was the only neighborhood in Boston where less than half its population had received at least one dose of the vaccine. She said she has adopted an education component into her campaign as well. For instance, she hosted a conversation with Renee Boynton-Jarrett from Boston Medical Center about vaccine hesitancy.

“Given communities like mine that are pretty vulnerable already, and are already pretty much dealing with health disparities, I think it’s important for us to understand what it’s like to be on the front line, not just as a candidate, but what we’re doing to make sure folks understand where COVID sits in our scenario as a whole,” Williams said.

Joel Richards COURTESY PHOTO

Smith said when he spoke with a voter who had received one dose of the vaccine — but had no easy way to go get the second — he helped organize a ride to get the voter to the second dose and get back home.

The broader impacts of the pandemic also have not been lost on candidates, nor on the voters they are speaking with. Carvalho said many of the conversations he has had are now about the longer-reaching effects of COVID-19 on the community.

“A lot of the discussion that I’ve had with people, particularly when I canvass, it’s around the pandemic, it’s around the business loss, people can’t afford rents,” Carvalho said.

District 4 candidates said that, with factors like a diverse mayoral field, they hope that community members will show up in large numbers at the preliminary election Sept. 14 and the general election Nov. 2.

Candidate Joel Richards said he thinks the impacts from the pandemic might get more voters engaged.

“Understanding what COVID has exposed has people more interested,” Richards said. “Understanding that our schools don’t have the proper HVAC or AC and need to be ventilated correctly, understanding that the environment is very important, because we have low air quality in District 4 in this side of town. I think the pandemic has given people more awareness of how important this race actually is.”

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