My Life in the Age of COVID: Attorney General Maura Healey
"We are a resilient state. We are resilient people."
As the COVID-19 pandemic upends every aspect of Boston life, we’re checking in with some local residents to learn how they’re processing our new normal. They’ll share serious thoughts on their concerns for the city—and yes, some recommendations on what to binge-watch, too. For the rest of the series, click here.
Note: This interview was conducted May 28, before the historic protests against racism and police brutality swept the nation. Healey has weighed in on the movement on many occasions since then, including a June 2 speech in which her comments included a declaration that “America is burning. But that’s how forests grow.” Our conversation has also been edited and condensed.
What is your level of concern is right now?
I think that we have to recognize that this is with us for several months and the consequences of this will be with us for longer. Every day I start a call with the governor and the hospital CEOs and [Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders] and it’s been this running tally every day of hospitalizations, ICU admits, ventilators, infection rates and deaths. It’s good to see that slow, but I remain concerned particularly as we move forward with reopening that we not put people at risk, and that hospitals are able to provide the care and accommodate all those who get sick.
So I think about the long-term impacts of making sure our businesses are safe for employees and consumers, making sure that people have childcare, so as parents go back to work that that need is met, how we guarantee that kids are going to have access to education and not be further behind as a result of all this. So I remain concerned, because the fact of the matter is until we have a vaccine, this will be with us. We all need to maintain a heightened level of concern and urgency.
Can you just walk me through your daily routine, starting when you wake up in the morning?
Wake up, coffee, then I’m oftentimes just reviewing the news, emails, texts and the like. I have a check-in call with my team regularly just about every day and then I have this standing call with the governor and the hospital CEOs and Secretary Sudders. Then my days are mostly filled with conference calls, Microsoft Teams, WebEx meetings, media interviews, which I’m doing from home. I’ve had to sort of become my own sound engineer and everything else through this. My technological skills, as poor as they were, have greatly improved. But it’s busy. I have a whole team that’s just all COVID all the time, in addition to my regular work within the office of regular meetings with the various bureaus and updates on investigations and cases.
I know how important basketball is to you. Have you found time to play?
No, I miss that. I’ve been running, I’ve been working out. I like to golf. So I hope I’ll get out soon for that. I’d love to play tennis. But I really miss basketball and I recognize that I won’t be able to play for a bit. I did shoot hoops recently by myself, not on a public court. And that was fun. It was a really soft rim, so my shots were going in, which was good. I miss playing ball. I miss my league, I miss playing with friends. It’s so hard for so many kids to be without their sports. We have high school students and college students who lost their spring seasons. Now it’s just one of the many things that have been taken away, and we’ve had to get used to new things. I mean, it’s gotten to the point where I’m seriously considering going back to the old school and buying rollerblades. I’m looking at them now. I’ll definitely need all of the pads and guards. I don’t know how that’s gonna go, but I’m pretty desperate. I’ll take tips from anyone out there. Maybe I’ll go find some Bruins players in my neighborhood in Charlestown.
Are you pleased with the phased approach that’s been outlined so far? Are you totally comfortable with it?
I think the phased plan is the right way to go on this. We have to balance public health with the need to give people the chance to really get back to work and to get the economy going again. It’s difficult mentally and emotionally for people to be so isolated for so long. So there’s a balance there. But my concern is that people will get lazy about this. The virus is as real today and will be for the coming months as it was back in March and April. So people need to be really careful and not have a false sense of security just because more things are starting to open up. We have to maintain all the good practices and the social distancing and the hygiene that we’ve worked really hard to do as a state. That’s my biggest concern. My second concern remains PPE and making sure that our hospitals, our nursing homes, our workplaces have the PPE that they need through the duration of this.
We have two rounds of voting coming up this year. How urgent is it to address that right now?
I think this is a critical issue. The coronavirus is going to be here in September and November. I think we need to act now and institute vote by mail to keep voters and poll workers safe, and not make people make a choice between protecting their health and exercising their fundamental right to vote. I have concerns about the election because we’ve seen people are afraid to go to the hospital right now for fear of the coronavirus. We know from what happened in Wisconsin with all those people lining up to vote, and then all these people got sick as a result of that. So there’s a way to do it. There’s legislation proposed and we need to get it passed now and signed. Because we also need time to plan for it, too. There’s a lot that has to happen in terms of mailing out ballots and the like. Other states have done it successfully. We should do it.
Your office has been dealing with scammers and other people taking advantage of the crisis. What are some of the some of the most egregious misdeeds that your office has seen?
We’ve seen people selling fake vaccines, fake treatments, vitamins that you can take. Literally we saw that on Facebook: “Take these vitamins and they’ll help you stay clear of coronavirus.” We’ve also seen people who are making calls sending emails pretending to be from the government and offering government assistance to small businesses or stimulus checks, but they’re scams. You know, we’ve also seen price gouging, and my office issued emergency regulations early on about that.
Why is this happening and what can we do about it?
Well, I think anytime you see a crisis, you unfortunately see people who look to exploit it. Hurricanes, 9/11. There were even scams in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings where you’ll see fake charities set up. We’ve seen that here too when it comes to coronavirus. Unfortunately, it comes with the territory. We’ve tried to be really active about educating and warning the public about it, and we’ll continue to go after those who are out there engaging in it.
What do you think this is going to mean going forward for how the work of government is done?
I think that government has had to be incredibly nimble and leapfrog in many instances. I think you can’t and you shouldn’t go back from that. We’ve learned all about ways to work from home or work remotely. That’s really important. I know that that’s going to affect how we do things going forward. I think you’ll see questions raised about how much office space is really needed, and not having cars on the road has been terrific for the environment. It also has resulted in many ways in more productivity, because think about the time that people were having to sit on sit on the Pike or on I-93 or wait for commuter trains to get to work. So it’s going to forever change the way we do work and I think that’s a good thing.
What do you miss most about the way that it used to be?
I miss seeing people. I’m a people person and I miss being able to talk to my colleagues, see them. I miss being able to give hugs, you know? I just spent a lot of time with my nieces and nephew at a distance, and it’s just so hard to not hug them. I miss going out to dinner. I miss playing basketball. I miss going to a movie. But to be honest, like let’s face it, my heart goes out to the families who’ve lost loved ones, to the frontline, essential workers in our grocery stores or distribution centers, to those working in the hospitals. People have had to endure so much. I worry a great deal about the elderly and seniors right now. I worry about our immigrant population and vulnerable populations. My office spent a lot of time trying to address issues of disparity, food and housing insecurity, fighting off debt collection, fighting off evictions, services for domestic violence survivors.
I can tell you what I miss, but I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what people are going through: They’ve lost jobs, they’ve lost income, they’ve lost their school year, they’ve had loved ones die and not been able to hold their hand or comfort them in their final hours. This is just so extreme and incredible, what’s happened here. I’ve also spent a lot of time and focus a lot on trying to help our small businesses through a grant program that we put together, but more importantly, through our advocacy to get the Small Business Administration to change the way some of the programs have been operating. And there’s a lot more work we need to do for small businesses.
There’s been talk of closing streets for restaurants and recreation and the like. What should we do?
I think we’ve got to be flexible. The restaurant industry has been devastated, and to my mind PPP did not work for the restaurant industry. The fact of the matter is many of their employees were able to collect more on unemployment than by getting paid through their employer. The incentives were really wrong for the PPP program, because there’s no way that these restaurant owners can bring employees back. First off, they may not even have the work for them to do. But also, there was no flexibility about how you had to pay the money back by June and there’s just no way these businesses were going to be able to do that.
How are you unwinding? Have you picked up hobbies?
I’ve watched a lot more Netflix. I’m just finishing up Schitt’s Creek, and I love that. I don’t know what I’m going to do when I’m when I’m through that. I’m taking recommendations. Yes, I watched Tiger King and that was ridiculous. The Last Dance I enjoyed, even though I couldn’t play basketball, I enjoyed watching that. I’ve talked to more high school classmates, elementary school classmates, college classmates, than I would normally. Sometimes I just drive. I find, like at the end of the day, I just need to take a drive somewhere and just sit outside for a minute. I think it’s about space and just wanting to see a different environment. We’ve been cooped up in our homes and, you know, there’s something about getting out on the open road for a minute that at least brings me some joy, for whatever reason.
Any advice that you have for people?
Self-care and wellness is really important. So whatever that is for you, find time in the day to do it. In my office, we have a whole wellness program, and we have calls, wellness walks, Zoom sessions with the kids of parents who work in the office, we have a meditation session.
Also, everybody’s got a role to play. One of the things we did early on was, we set up a website for frontline workers: FrontLineMA.org. It’s basically a resource if they need free or discounted meals, a hotel, or a place to self-quarantine or stay in between shifts, information about PPE and how to access it. There’s also a button on self-care there as well. On the other side, the public can go on and find ways to donate meals or post messages or pictures on a Hero Wall.
Going forward I would encourage people to embrace empathy and find ways to help one another out. I’ve been in the food pantries, and the lines are going to be long. There are still going to be people who are really suffering economically who are going to need help, people who’ve made masks, which is such a beautiful thing. I love seeing all the homemade masks out there. And be positive and stay positive and hopeful because we are a resilient state. We are resilient people. My hope, actually, is that through this terrible, horrific crisis, this pandemic experience, that we actually build anew and that we build things in a way that we rid ourselves of some of the disparities that are currently in the system and that we build a more just and fair community and society. That’s my hope out of this. And that is what I hope will be the silver lining.