New York.- By Vicki James Yiannias
“The COVID-19 pandemic has uprooted our daily lives,”Aravella Simotas, New York State Assembly member representing District 36, said in an interview with the GN this week. She and her staff are still there for her constituents however, working remotelyvia phone or email, and offering complete COVID-19 information and resources on her website. “We’re all in this together.” The first Greek American woman elected to office in New Yorkand the first woman elected to office in District 36,Simotas, whose current term ends on December 31, 2020 is running for re-election.
GN: Please share your thoughts on the COVID-19 crisis. Are there any positives amidst the disaster in your district?
AS: The unprecedented COVID-19 crisis has brought to surface a lot of issues that pre-existed in our state. It has highlighted the vast inequalities in our society that have long plagued low-income communities in surrounding neighborhoods. But it has also brought us all closer. In these trying times, I am moved by the resiliency shown by my neighbors. Queens residents are banding together to ensure our frontline heroes are supported, families do not go without meals and our small businesses do not go out of business.
GN: How can those suffering financially from the pandemic be helped? How are you and your office helping your constituents?
AS: The COVID-19pandemic has had a significant impact on our economy. Those suffering financially have a few options available to them. If you have been financially impacted, you can contact your bill providers and ask to defer your payments to alleviate the financial burden placed upon families as a result of the virus.
The city is also providing relief to support small businesses. I am advocating for the state to require insurers to cover all COVID-19 related losses so that our small businesses can survive this crisis. I am also pushing to secure hazard pay for our frontline workers who go to work each day and risk their own safety so that the rest of us can safely stay home and social distance. My office has also been assisting hundreds of constituents with their unemployment benefits claims. I am also partnering with local non-profits, private companies and community groups to provide meal vouchers and PPE to Queens residents.
GN: What are some of the things you have accomplished for Greek Americansduring your tenure in the State Assembly?
AS: I am a proud Greek American and am so honored to represent my community in the State Assembly. Since I was first elected to office, I have introduced resolutions recognizing the importance of Greek Independence Day and honoring Hellenism. Every year, I organize a celebration in honor of our great history and speak to my colleagues in government and to New Yorkers across the State about the issues that affect our community. I am particularly proud to have led the charge to have the legislature recognize the significance of the Ecumenical Patriarch and need for greater religious tolerance.
During my tenure I also focused on passing legislation that is particularly important to the Greek and Cypriot American communities. I have focused on supporting small businesses, protecting workers, expanding healthcare, ensuring seniors and our neighbors can stay in their homes, and many other issues that are particularly important to immigrant communities. During this COVID-19 crisis, I am also very mindful that some of our neighbors have language barrier issues, and only speak Greek. I have made a great effort to call them and lend a helping hand if they needed one.
GN: You have been a lifelong resident of Astoria. How would you summarize all your efforts toward education and health in Astoria?
AS: I love Astoria.It is the community that raised me and in which I am raising my own daughter. It is beautiful, diverse and engaging, which is the reason why so many want to make Astoria their home. I have always felt a very warm sense of community and have been inspired by my neighbors who always want to help their fellow neighbors.
I hope that I have made Astoria proud by being a leading supporter of women and children, seniors and immigrants in the State Assembly. I am proud that this past year alone, I secured over 5 million dollars in state capital funds for our public schools to support projects ranging from dance programs to new media rooms and auditorium renovations. I have also written landmark legislation to expand health coverage, workers’ rights, and protections for survivors of sexual traumas.
GN:Your Rape-is-Rape bill is among your bills aimed at strengthening protections against sexual harassment that have been passed. How would you summarize your large body of work for women during your tenure?
AS: When I first started in the Assembly, there was a very limited number of women elected to office. I joined coalitions like the Women’s Issues Task Force to advocate for issues that affected women and children respectively. I now lead the Task Force and have championed bills that have propelled women forward in their fight for equal pay, reproductive health issues and more. I took my fight to the next level and passed sweeping reforms to New York’s Human Rights Law to ensure women are not subjected to sexual harassment or discrimination in the workplace.