Speaking to an empty auditorium at the Museum of the Moving Image, Richards remarked that “these are not normal times” and went on to recap a tumultuous year for both Queens and the world.
“We were woefully underprepared,” Richards said. “That showed in the first days and weeks of the crises, as we all scrambled for gloves, masks, and face shields.”
He gave praise to the residents of Queens, first responders and healthcare workers who “as they always do, rise to the occasion.”
This was still a somber moment, as the borough president remembered the nearly 7,500 Queens residents who died from coronavirus, naming individual friends and family members.
“Those deaths were preventable,” he said. “Those deaths were systematic failures.”
He said that the pandemic revealed how “deep inequity runs right here in the greatest city in the world,” not just in healthcare, but within the penal system, the business sector, education, government and civic institutions.
“That is why for my first 100 days, I launched an aggressive and ambitious plan to address the racial and gender gap that we see and feel in our systems and institutions,” he said.
For healthcare, many immigrant communities in Richmond Hill and South Ozone Park were left with minimal COVID-19 testing centers, while racial disparities were revealed throughout the vaccine rollout.
Richards said that only 28 percent of the Black and Latinx community, which makes up more than 50 percent of the city’s population, has received their first dose of a vaccine.
“That should offend us,” Richards said. “It offends me. It should mobilize us to break down those barriers because lives hang in the balance.”
He called out the lack of hospital beds in the borough, saying that Queens has just 1.72 beds per 1,000 people with more hospitals closing, removing 840 beds and thousands of medical professionals.
“That cannot continue,” Richards said. “To accept this as a normal would be to accept that the 2.4 million lives here in Queens are not of equal value to those elsewhere.”
He added that creating community-based health centers, improving preventative medicine, fixing cluttered emergency rooms and building new hospitals are all essential in addressing these healthcare issues.
Meanwhile, the economic effects of the pandemic have left Queens with nine straight months of double-digit unemployment, with hundreds of small businesses closing.
“Countless families are lying awake at night, not knowing if they can afford to live in the community they love, in the borough they proudly call home,” Richards said. “And make no mistake, many of these families are families of color. They are immigrant families. They might even be yours.”
He highlighted different ways to secure funding for businesses, such as securing $17.5 million for the Queens Small Businesses Grant Program.
On the subject of evictions and rent relief, Richards noted that Queens must take measures to support both landlords and renters.
“If we do not take these measures, we will not only have tenants who are compromised, but owners of two and three-family homes who will lose their property,” Richards said.
He addressed the housing crisis, detailing new plans to create affordable housing for seniors as well as improving NYCHA developments.
“If we do not take the issue of housing seriously and start addressing it with our finances and policy, we will have an unprecedented amount of people in our borough who our housing insecure,” Richards said. “We cannot let this happen.”
He also spoke about adding more safety on the streets for cyclists, going electric with buses, expanding the Jamaica bus depot and other transportation projects.
With hate crimes on the rise in the city, Richards called on the NYPD to take the issue more seriously and get to the root of the problem, such as outreach to not only bring criminals to justice, but expanding education efforts to dispel myths that perpetuate these attacks.
“These forms of hate are rooted in ignorance, and we must stamp them out,” Richards said.
A new Immigrant Welcome Center at Borough Hall will serve as a one-stop shop for immigrant communities.
“All are welcome, and we will never ask about immigration status at my office,” Richards said.
Richards also spoke about climate change, calling it a “grave threat” to not only our borough and city, but the entire planet, detailing a plan to make Queens fully renewable by 2030.
“We want to plan for a healthy clean future for our children and grandchildren,” the borough president said. “We need to envision a future without fossil fuels and non-renewable energy assets.”
Richards spoke about how the community boards of Queens need to reflect the neighborhoods they serve, with his office spearheading new plans to be rolled out in the coming weeks to address these issues.
He digitized the application process this year, resulting in a 56.5 percent increase in applications from last year.
The overall message of his speech was to look further into these issues so that everyone can recover together.
“Queens will lead the way out of this pandemic,” 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.”