COVID Restrictions Continue, Politics as Usual, and Help for Heating

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New Year! New You! New Art Opportunities!

This week’s news includes: New year – same Corona-related restrictions, food insecurity in a food desert, and Baltimore manages to remain charming during the year of COVID, and more reporting from The AFRO, Baltimore Fishbowl, The Real News Network, and others.



City Health Commissioner Letitia Dzirasa and Mayor Brandon Scott give a COVID-19 update on Tuesday CREDIT SCREENSHOT VIA MAYOR BRANDON M. SCOTT FB PAGE

Baltimore COVID-19 Spread Slows, But Scott Asks Residents To Stay Vigilant
by Sarah Y. Kim
Published December 29 in WYPR

Excerpt: Positive COVID-19 cases in Baltimore City are 23% lower than they were four weeks ago, according to the city’s COVID-19 dashboard.

Meanwhile, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott urged city residents to stay safe by wearing masks, socially distancing and limiting indoor gatherings to people in the same household.

“We’ve done everything differently in 2020,” Scott said at a COVID-19 update Tuesday afternoon. “New Year’s Eve should not be any different.”

He also says the city will not relax restrictions on activities like indoor dining until health experts say it’s safe. The restrictions went into effect Dec. 11.

See also:

Maryland’s average positive test rate continues to grow
by Marcus Dieterle
Published December 30 in Baltimore Fishbowl



Marlon Amprey

Another vacant seat – this time Nick Mosby’s – is filled by party insiders
by Fern Shen
Published December 30 in Baltimore Brew

Excerpt: Criticized for cronyism and corruption, leaders of Maryland’s dominant political party have been pressed for years to change the rules that allow vacant legislative seats to be filled with Democratic Party loyalists and powerbrokers.

The calls were especially loud earlier this year when Chanel Branch, daughter of House Majority Whip Talmadge Branch, was installed in the 45th District seat of disgraced former delegate Cheryl Glenn at a meeting from which reporters were at first barred.

Branch herself broke the 3-3 tie that put her over the top.

Critics have called for state political parties to bar elected officials from serving on these powerful bodies that create new lawmakers with the snap of their fingers. Legislation has sought to mandate special elections for open seats.

Last night, though, it was clear that little had changed, judging by the vote breakdown as a Democratic committee selected attorney Marlon Amprey to fill the 40th District seat opened up after Nick Mosby was elected City Council President.

See also:

Attorney Marlon Amprey Nominated for District 40 House Seat in Baltimore
by Elizabeth Shwe
Published December 30 in Maryland Matters



Photo by callison-burch, via Flickr

Hogan announces $154M in assistance with energy and utility bills
by Marcus Dieterle
Published December 30 in Baltimore Fishbowl

Excerpt: Marylanders can apply to receive assistance with their heating, electric and gas utility bills with more than $154 million from the state of Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan announced Wednesday.

Maryland has made available about 40% more energy assistance funds from the approximately $110 million that was distributed in Fiscal Year 2020.

“Too many Marylanders have faced undue financial hardships during this unprecedented crisis, including the inability to pay their utility bills,” Hogan said in a statement. “We will continue to maximize our resources to help as many Marylanders as possible.”

Low-income households can get help with keeping their energy costs affordable and avoid losing their home energy service with programs allocated through the Maryland Department of Human Services’ Office of Home Energy Programs.



Shelley Halstead, Founder of Black Women Build (Photo Credit/ Black Women Build website)

Baltimore organization boosts homeownership among Black women
by Nadine Matthews
Published December 29 in The AFRO

Excerpt: Shelley Halstead told the AFRO some sobering statistics. “Black women have the least amount of wealth of anyone, zero to $100, which is pretty abysmal. If Black women have children, it’s even less. It’s negative.” It’s a reality that pushed the Iowa (yes, Iowa) born and raised, self-described carpenter, to found the non-profit Black Women Build-Baltimore.

According to their website, Black Women Build-Baltimore aims to, “bring home ownership to Black women in Baltimore, train women in trades-related skills through home renovation, and create wealth and build community by the barriers that work against our ability to thrive.”

Women who want a chance to own one of the homes can fill out an application. If chosen, they’re expected to assist in the rehab of the house, which they will move into once the work is done.

In addition to homeownership, the organization provides education in finance and nutrition. Halstead said that the focus should be on what it takes for a Black woman to thrive. “It’s about stopping that cycle where no one in your family was able to get a mortgage or have enough money, or whatever the reasons are, for not owning a home. We want to stop that cycle. I want to help Black women build not only houses but wealth.”



Lawmakers Eye ‘Housing Justice Package’ for 2021 Session
by Bennett Leckrone
Published December 28 in Maryland Matters

Excerpt: A group of Maryland lawmakers hope to overhaul the state’s eviction process and provide relief to tenants and homeowners during the 2021 legislative session, including guaranteeing renters the right to counsel during eviction cases.

In a virtual press conference on Monday, the housing rights coalition Renters United Maryland and several state lawmakers announced a Housing Justice Package for the 2021 legislative session. The package of bills includes an overhaul of the state’s eviction process and new emergency restrictions on landlords.

Zafar Shah, an attorney with the Public Justice Center, said Maryland is facing an “unfolding housing crisis” and that, without relief and reform, tenants and homeowners alike could lose their homes.

Recent estimates from the Chicago-based consulting firm Stout show that up to 204,000 Maryland households could currently be at risk for eviction.



Photography by Justin Tsucalas

50 Reasons to Love Baltimore Right Now
Edited by Max Weiss
Published December 21 in Baltimore Magazine

Excerpt: 1.WE KEEP IT REAL

Maybe it’s our working-class roots, our pink flamingo-ed lawns, or our eccentric hometown heroes (John Waters, anyone?) that give us a strong sense of identity that makes us quirky to the core. But that’s really what separates us from other towns of similar size. Unlike some surrounding hoity-toity cities, in Baltimore we have no airs and pass no judgment. From topping our soft pretzels with blue crab to throwing toilet bowl races, we’re seriously strange. But a winking neon Natty Boh sign that keeps a watchful eye over Charm City shows just how much we’re in on the joke.



Holding humanity hostage: Dangerous prospects for Biden’s nuclear weapons policy
by Andrew Corkery
Published December 22 in The Real News

Excerpt: As the United States accelerates toward Inauguration Day, and as President-elect Biden announces more of his cabinet appointments, we are getting a clearer picture of how the incoming Biden administration plans to manage the “scorched earth foreign policy” he will be inheriting from Donald Trump. This is a foreign policy designed to create “as many fires as possible,” even when it comes to managing humanity’s most dangerous asset: nuclear weapons.

Trump has always maintained a somewhat strange and concerning fixation with the use of nuclear weapons. That fixation goes all the way back to the 1980s and 1990s, when Trump was best known as a New York City-based real estate developer who, before the dawn of Twitter, would speak his mind to eagerly scribbling tabloid reporters.

From the 2016 campaign trail to now, Trump’s more recent, albeit scattered (and, at times, seemingly contradictory), comments about “nuclear” have been difficult to parse. What has been evident, however, is that, as a U.S. President navigating the geopolitical terrain, Trump’s nuclear sensibilities have combined a Hollywood-style apocalypticism with his patented reality-show, tough-talking approach to any and all conflicts. Recall Trump’s casual hinting (via tweet) of the potential nuclear annihilation of both North Korea and Iran. Trump has even gone so far as to ask, more generally, “‘Why can’t we use our nuclear weapons?’”



The City of Baltimore is launching an updated open data portal on December 31
by Donte Kirby
Published December 29 in Baltimore

Excerpt: On December 31, 2020, the City of Baltimore is launching an updated open data portal. With the new version, the central point to access city government datasets will have an emphasis on story maps and dashboards that contextualize data for citizens, city officials said.

When the update launches, the URL will remain the same, but the backend and APIs will be different. That means sites and organizations that pull data from the city’s open data site will need to reestablish those links come the end of 2020.

It’s the result of work this year on the portal and datasets, which started with the 2011 launch of the initiative to make more data from city government agencies publicly available, called Open Baltimore.

“In a nutshell, what we’ve been doing in the last year is streamlining problems. We had a lot of data. We had like let’s say like one hundred fifty or sixty data sets,” said Baltimore City Chief Data Officer Michael Wisniewski. “But there were things out there that were old, like one-time datasets put out there. And what we’ve done is either automate the feeds or we’ve gotten rid of or mothballed some stuff.”



The Rev. Derrick DeWitt surveys the cartons of food stacked in the hall of First Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Sandtown, West Baltimore (Photo by Sandy Banisky/Capital News Service)

Volunteers are working harder as COVID heightens the need for food
by Maria Trovato and Kamisha Walker
Published December 16 in Capital News Service

Excerpt: Outside Henderson-Hopkins School in East Baltimore every Friday, cars line up for blocks and people pushing carts walk up to get fresh food — more than 10,000 pounds of food every week, all gone in a few hours.

In West Baltimore, First Mount Calvary Baptist Church’s fellowship hall has been transformed into a food pantry, crammed with boxes of fruit, vegetables and fresh bread. By the church’s count, it fed more than 18,000 people between May and October.

Volunteers at Govans Presbyterian Church in North Baltimore spend several days a week at Soul Kitchen, preparing 50 to 100 hot meals to distribute outdoors on Sundays.

Food insecurity is far from a new issue in Baltimore, but the spread of COVID-19 — with schools shut and jobs lost — has intensified the problem. The Maryland Food Bank, a non-profit hunger-relief organization, saw its distribution rate increase by 96% over last year’s rate between March and October. It spent $17.5 million dollars on food in that timeframe — a 371% increase compared to last year.

The number of Baltimoreans receiving aid through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program rose 22% between the start of the pandemic in March and August, city officials said.



Image by Elvert Barnes licensed under Creative Commons.

MTA’s transit governance isn’t working for Baltimore, a new report says
by Alex Holt
Published December 30 in Greater Greater Washington

Excerpt: Baltimoreans have long known the way their city’s transit is run is unusual. But it wasn’t until a new report from a Washington, DC-based transportation think tank was released last month that it became clear just how unique Baltimore’s lack of control over its transit system truly is.

According to the Eno Center for Transportation, out of the 50 largest transit agencies in the United States, only Baltimore’s transit is both governed and operated by a state agency without a board of directors — in this case, the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA). Other cities with state-run transit agencies, like New York and Boston, have appointed boards with at least some power to make recommendations and sometimes even veto key decisions, and also do not rely entirely on their state governments for any non-federal funding.

The result, the Eno Center concludes after comparing Baltimore’s transit system to those of three similarly sized peer cities, is that Charm City is uniquely vulnerable to the whims of each passing Maryland governor. Small wonder the city has not seen any new rail added in 23 years. The Eno Center’s report recommends three possible solutions; no matter how, the report’s authors make it clear, in no uncertain terms, that reform is sorely needed.



Header image: A sign in the First Mount Calvary Baptist Church hall (Photo by Sandy Banisky/Capital News Service)

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