Why the city of Chelsea has been so hard hit by coronavirus

The city's size, location, and workforce created a perfect storm.

People wait to enter a Market Basket in Chelsea. Michael Dwyer / AP

The city of Chelsea has roughly 40,000 residents. But on a per-person basis, it has a rate of COVID-19 infections on par with New York City and multitudes higher than neighboring Boston.

Officials announced Friday that the Massachusetts city had 427 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 11 deaths due to the disease — and urged residents to stay at home at all all times unless they have an essential reason to go out.

“Chelsea is suffering in this pandemic,” City Manager Tom Ambrosino told WBZ News. “We have, as far as I can determine, the highest infection rate in the Commonwealth.”

How did it happen?


The first big issue is that most Chelsea residents do, by the state’s definition, have an essential reason for which they need to leave their home: work.

According to an analysis of 2018 data by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, just shy of 80 percent of Chelsea’s employed population work in occupations deemed essential under Gov. Charlie Baker’s order forcing nonessential businesses to close their workplaces. According to the ACLU, the statewide percentage of essential workers is 61 percent, and in Boston it was 57 percent.

In other words, Chelsea residents are less likely to have the luxury of being able to work from home.

“Many of our residents are at risk due to their work,” officials wrote in a post on the city’s website Thursday night. “They are working in essential sectors (food establishments) and engaged with high levels of public interaction (healthcare, personal services).”

The fact that many have to regularly leave the house is compounded by the fact that the 1.8-square-mile city is one of the densest communities in the state, along with Somerville and Cambridge. For comparison, Chelsea’s population density of more than 22,000 people-per-square-mile is roughly three times higher than the rate in Boston.

Transportation also plays several factors.


City officials say Chelsea is highly reliant on public transportation, where it is “impossible” to maintain physical distance from other people.

Additionally, the city’s location — split by the high-traffic Tobin Bridge and adjacent to Logan Airport — has exposed its largely working class, Latino population to alarmingly high amounts of air pollution for decades, which makes them more vulnerable to COVID-19. A national study released last week by researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that long-term exposure to air pollution “leads to a large increase in COVID-19 death rate.”

“Our health was already affected by this physical environment, and made worse by the virus,” officials wrote Thursday.

Leaders have also had to respond to the ways the pandemic has exacerbated existing socioeconomic struggles in Chelsea, as The Boston Globe recently reported.

The city is working to deliver food and protective supplies to families in isolation, forestall evictions, and set up housing for those who become homeless. Language barriers in the mostly immigrant community, where many do not have legal status, have created an information gap, according to WBUR. The Baker administration subsequently announced Friday that the state would make COVID-19 text alerts available in Spanish.


But according to Ambrosino, the most immediate need is financial; the Chelsea city manager told the Globe on Thursday that they were seeking direct aid from the federal government and requesting the state to commandeer hotel rooms in the city to provide COVID-19 patients an isolated space to recover.

“I understand the desire to be equitable,” Ambrosino said. “But the epicenter of the crisis right now is Chelsea, Massachusetts, and I think we have to start deploying resources to where the contagion is the greatest.”


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