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Panel: Pandemic revealed underlying racial disparities

Local experts are discussing the disparities of Long Island living based on race and how COVID-19 exacerbated the situation, and answering your questions.

The COVID-19 pandemic hit Black and Hispanic communities harder than white ones and also laid bare stark racial and ethnic disparities in income, education and health that predate the global outbreak, said a group of panelists who discussed the impact of the disease Wednesday.

Erika Hill, owner of Vision Street Research, who was one of four panelists on Newsday’s nextLI online forum titled "How COVID-19 Exposed LI’s Racial Inequities," said minority communities have suffered disproportionately since coronavirus struck Long Island.

“I believe everything has been exacerbated,” Hill said during the 7:30 p.m. online event with Retha Fernandez, Suffolk County’s chief diversity and inclusion officer, Theresa Sanders, president of the Urban League of Long Island and Pamela Pratt, owner of Regal Solutions Group. “And I think it now has just further proven we as a community have to work together to help make sure that our fellow community members and our youth are being given access to the information and the tools and training that they need to be successful because COVID is not going anywhere.”

The hourlong forum was moderated by Coralie Saint-Louis, nextLI’s outreach and engagement manager, who prefaced questions for the panelists with hard data compiled by a variety of experts' sources showing racial and ethnic disparities in homeownership, education, wealth, access to credit and health.

“While the virus itself does not discriminate, the impact it had and continues to have on certain communities widely differed,” Saint-Louis said.

Several studies have shown the pandemic had a greater mortality rate in minority communities, and Saint-Louis cited a Newsday analysis showing Blacks in Nassau accounted for 19% of the COVID-19 deaths in the county despite comprising 12% of the population.

Sanders said economic disparities were “disparaging” before COVID-19 arrived, but Saint-Louis said a Nassau and Suffolk County COVID-19 Impact Report found job losses were concentrated in low-paying jobs and among workers without bachelor’s degrees and people earning less than $35,000 a year.

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Blacks and Hispanics are much more likely than their white counterparts to lack a college degree, the study said.

She also cited a 2014 study that showed the Long Island economy had lost $24 billion in that year due to racial inequalities.

“We knew that those racial disparities existed but then we get hit by COVID-19,” Sanders said. “It really took the cover off the disparities and it wasn’t polite because you had a rush of people who had to go to hospitals. … All of a sudden, it was extremely obvious that we had a lot of sick people that could not get the care they needed. … Those ZIP codes represent where the black and brown people were living.”

A study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found a 56 percent drop in Black-owned businesses in the state between February and May — a closure rate nearly three times that of white-owned businesses — during the state-imposed shutdown due to the coronavirus outbreak. Forty-three percent of Hispanic-owned firms shut down during the same period.

Entrepreneur Pamela Pratt said she had to pivot and rethink her business during the slowdown of the pandemic, which Saint-Louis said caused 50% of small businesses in Suffolk to temporarily close, to stay afloat. She said she used the down time to work on “foundational aspects” of the business.

“I had to take kind of the financial hit but at the same time work on developing plans to keep my business afloat and keep it functioning even as the pandemic continues or slows down,” she said.

Fernandez said her job is to reduce economic disparities in Suffolk but that mission can only be accomplished with cooperation from the minority communities she is trying to help.

"I see my role in the county to provide a pathway to financial security to those who have historically not had access to some of these job opportunities," she said, citing efforts such as recent a police recruitment drive coordinated with community groups that drew record numbers of Black and Hispanic applicants.

"That is true community partnership, and those numbers could not have been reached without the community partnership," Fernandez said. 

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