Nearly one year to the day after Queens’ first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Far Rockaway, Queens, Borough President Donovan Richards on Wednesday, March 3, delivered his first State of the Borough address virtually. He detailed his administration’s accomplishments within the first 100 days, and presented an outline for Queens’ path out of the COVID-19 pandemic offering a bold vision for a borough freed of systemic inequities.
“Our message today to all, hear it loud and hear it proud: Queens will lead the way out of this pandemic. Queens will lead efforts to address health disparities, economic disparities and racial and gender disparities,” Richards said. “We will create a more just society, a more just borough, and together we will improve the quality of life for all who call Queens home.”
Filmed at the Museum of the Moving Image (MoMI) in Astoria, the hourlong cinematic program included the Presentation of Colors by the New York Police Department Law Enforcement Explorers’ color guard, a rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” by students from Astoria’s Frank Sinatra School of the Arts High School, remarks from Deputy Borough President Rhonda Binda, and a performance by renowned Cambria Heights saxophonist Ashley Keiko, founder of music academy Keiko Studios in Queens Village.
Richards’ State of the Borough address outlined a comprehensive vision of a borough freed of the long-standing injustices in healthcare delivery, housing, transportation, environmental policy and more.
“The state of our borough is not where it ought to be, for we have been decimated by the health pandemic, the economic crisis and racial injustices,” Richards said. “We, as a borough, as a people, have an opportunity to choose how we define ourselves. As a borough, we will not stay down. Queens, we will rise.”
In the past year, the U.S. has lost over 500,000 people nationwide due to COVID-19, with about 7,500 of them from Queens, according to Richards, who noted it is the most deaths of any borough in New York City.
“Those deaths were preventable. Those deaths were systemic failures, not the science or the challenges of the crisis alone. We were not prepared,” Richards said.
As the city continued its efforts to vaccinate as many New Yorkers with the distribution of Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, while awaiting the newly approved Johnson & Johnson vaccines, Richards highlighted the lack of vaccination sites across Queens.
Predominantly immigrant neighborhoods like Richmond Hill and South Ozone Park, Richards said, have few testing sites other than the mobile units his office helped bring to the area. Also, neighborhoods in northeast Queens went for a long time without having any vaccination sites nearby.
Though he is grateful for the opening of mass vaccination centers at York College, Aqueduct Racetrack, Martin Van Buren High School and Citi Field — which he advocated for alongside his colleagues — Richards said it’s not enough.
The borough president’s office will continue to work tirelessly with the city, state and the Biden administration to immediately expand testing and vaccine networks, Richards said, in addition to hosting regional vaccination town halls to better educate families on the importance of getting vaccinated.
With nine hospital campuses in Queens, and with the closure of four hospitals in the last 12 years, Richards said the removal of more than 840 beds and thousands of medical professionals and leaving communities like Far Rockaway with even less access to healthcare is “unacceptable.”
“This means pushing for more community-based health centers, offering preventative medicine and keeping non-emergencies out of our crowded emergency rooms,” Richards said. “This means advocating for new hospital construction and increasing funding to our existing hospitals — which are already doing so much with far less than they need.”
During his time in office, Richards has offered assistance to Queens residents through a number of initiatives, and has vowed to to bring forth transformative opportunities to rebuild the borough’s economy from the ground up.
To achieve these goals, Richards has pledged to establish an Immigration Welcome Center at Queens Borough Hall; create at least 2,000 units of truly affordable housing; invest in upgrades across Queens’ New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) housing developments; overhaul the community board appointment process; establish workforce training programs and other job creating initiatives; ensure sustainability is at the heart of all new land use projects subject to his review; and more.
As highlighted in the address, these efforts will augment the numerous reforms Richards has already put into motion over his first two months in office, including the creation of the $17.5 million Queens Small Business Grant program, which targeted minority-owned businesses in communities hardest hit by COVID-19 and in low-income areas that needed help the most.
In the program’s first month, according to Richards, 126 small businesses across Queens — from Nepali restaurants in Jackson Heights to cosmetic stores in Jamaica — have already been approved for up to $20,000 in funding. Richards continues to urge small business owners who are eligible to receive the grants to contact his office, and they will receive help with the application process.
“These are the businesses that were too often left empty-handed in the mad dash for the federal Paycheck Protection Program loans last year. But these are also businesses that together employ thousands of Queens residents, with thousands of families relying on the job opportunities they create,” Richards said. “Helping just one storefront keep the lights on and the doors open is worth it.
Other reforms Richards has launched include digitizing the community board application to greatly increase interest in membership, establishing the Queens Solid Waste Advisory Board and hosting an ongoing series of virtual job recruitment fairs, a tradition that began last year under Sharon Lee. More than 1,400 connections have been made between Queens residents and employers in a wide variety of industries, according to Richards.
Additionally, the borough president’s office will continue to promote tourism to Queens, support cultural institutions, stimulate neighborhood economies and demonstrate the “resilience, vibrancy and richness of our borough,” Richards said.
“We will work diligently to secure a responsible budget that works for all Queens residents, designating funds towards healthcare, supporting career training, combating food insecurity, providing services to domestic violence survivors, aiding our veterans, protecting our youth and our borough’s most vulnerable, and so much more,” Richards said.