By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer
With the pandemic about to enter its third year, COVID-19 is everyone’s “business.”
Motivated to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic among persons of color, Black Women Organized for Political Action (BWOPA) recently brought together African American business leaders and elected officials to discuss the plight of Black businesses during the continued pandemic. The fireside chat was held virtually in partnership with the California African American Chamber of Commerce.
Under the auspices of its “It Takes a Village” theme, the statewide organization has rolled out a Black & Vaxxed campaign to increase COVID-19 vaccinations.
VaShone Huff, co-director of Black & Vaxxed, said the campaign’s focus on ensuring business’ continued health builds on existing connections with the faith community.
“We care about any and every issue that challenges our community’s well being. COVID-19 is such an issue,” said campaign co-director and BWOPA Executive Director LaNiece Jones.
Black & Vaxxed is working in partnership with the hashtag #WEVAXX and the California Department of Health to empower the Black community to make informed decisions about vaccines.
“We know our public health is being politicized and that is not right, but we have to move beyond our fears to protect ourselves and those we love,” Jones said.
The discussion, “It Takes A Village: A Conversation on the Business and Politics of the Pandemic,” drew remarks and participation from Timothy Simon, chair of the California African American Chamber of Commerce; Dr. Renee Poole, president-elect of the Association of Black Women Physicians; Christopher Richardson Earl of the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development; Charles Chappie Jones, San Jose’s vice mayor; and state Sen. Sydney Kamlager (D-Los Angeles), vice chair of the California Legislative Black Caucus.
Sen. Kamlager said it’s difficult to imagine, two years after the pandemic’s outbreak, that we still face statewide mask mandates for public indoor venues.
“I don’t know about y’all, but I am tired,” she said. “I am tired of COVID and I am mad at COVID. I am mad at all these folks that walk around and now act like it’s not a thing because it still is.”
While Black people were dying at higher rates than other ethnicities this time last year and had the highest infection rates as of May, Sen. Kamlager said vaccination rates still can vary widely by county. The gulf between the highest rate of several she named (San Francisco, 75%) and the lowest (Alameda, 16%) highlighted her point.
“The hospitalizations and the death rates have hit African Americans the hardest,” she said.
Chronic health conditions such as high cholesterol, diabetes, autoimmune disorders, asthma and obesity all compound the danger the pandemic presents to the Black community and lead to its deadly impact.
Lawmakers of color have been doing their part, Sen. Kamlager said, promoting the importance of social distancing, personal hygiene, face coverings and vaccinations. They promoted and monitored testing, especially in Black communities, and made sure vaccinations got to those communities.
“And then pushing back on the administration to make sure that we were also supporting our small businesses and our faith-based communities during the pandemic so that our people would be alive, could be employed and could be around when we were here for the recovery,” Sen. Kamlager said.
The fight continues now, she said, with the Delta and Omicron variants driving numbers up rapidly since last Thanksgiving.
“We have a responsibility to double down and to remind folks that this is still very serious,” she continued.
Sacramento Assemblymember Kevin McCarty noted early vaccine hesitancy on the part of many in the Black community, even in the face of high communal infection and hospitalization rates. He said the causes behind such rates are no mystery.
“It’s lower-income people, people without proper access to health care,” he said. “It’s people who work in the service industry — home care, for example — where they don’t have the luxury of working from home, working through Zoom … these people have to work.”
But McCarty said unemployment and receiving proper benefits, not vaccine hesitancy, has been the “biggest issue” his constituents, many of whom are state workers, have faced over the last two years.
“Now we see it’s more party affiliation than race in this city,” he said. “We don’t necessarily have a problem with vaccination. We do have a problem with people getting sick and not having proper access to health care. That is the key issue that we’re working on.”
Reign Free, owner of Red Door Catering in Oakland, said her business lost essentially its entire clientele during shelter-in-place and had to lay off 80% of its workforce, which she called “absolutely devastating.” The entrepreneur received local and state Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) grants and another from the Oakland African American Chamber of Commerce. That allowed her to bring some of her team back to work, catch up on the rent and make some technical upgrades, but she said it’s not enough.
“That was then and that helped us keep our doors open,” Free said. “Now, we’re still in the midst of it and we still need to have support around technical support and also funding.”
Sen. Kamlager noted that 40% of Black businesses closed during the first half of the pandemic.
“We know that Black entrepreneurs have sort of blossomed because of this, but we also know that traditional Black businesses and Black employees really had it hard,” she said. “One of the things the California Legislative Black Caucus did was to hammer through to the administration, to make sure that you’re giving business loans and grants out to our communities.… We passed things like [Senate Bill] 534, which was to encourage insurance companies to procure services from minority-owned businesses; we passed legislation and provided funding for foreclosure and rent relief; and we created the California Rebuilding Fund, which had up to $75 million go to small businesses to help them through the recovery.
It is just as important to talk about Black people and money in the COVID space, she says, as it is to talk about health care access.
“We have a responsibility to monitor both of those trains simultaneously.”