Massachusetts business owners were denied access to COVID relief because of the color of their skin

August 31, 2023 | By BRITTANY HUNTER
Brian Dalton

The COVID-19 pandemic was hard for small businesses everywhere. But when Massachusetts issued orders for “non-essential” businesses to close their doors, the owners of its small businesses could at least apply for a grant to help offset their losses. Or, more accurately, some of them could apply.

Brian Dalton is a single father who has spent most of his adult life as a law enforcement officer in Massachusetts. He retired from the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department in 2013, which is when he started New England Firearms Academy. The academy provides all levels of certified firearms safety instruction to help citizens meet the government’s firearms licensing requirements, whether they’re interested in self-defense or simply enjoy shooting as a sport.

“I wanted to be all-inclusive,” Brian says of his target clientele. “I wanted to help people that generally thought they could never be exposed to the sport or have the ability to protect themselves legally.”

New England Firearms Academy also provides the income for Brian to support his three children who live at home. He enjoys the work, and he takes pride in training his clientele, not only in firearms usage but also in de-escalation and situational awareness.

“I wanted to be different than the other instructors,” Brian says about his training philosophy. “They don’t talk about de-escalation. They don’t talk about using other alternatives.”

And he was successful. For years, his business was profitable and drew a broad client base, mostly from positive word-of-mouth. Former students would recommend New England Firearms Academy to their family members, friends, and even co-workers. They came away from their training courses with not only all of the requirements for a firearms permit but also with a better understanding of how to avoid violent encounters in the first place.

Then the pandemic struck.

Brian’s business was one of many that were ordered to close their doors. While the academic work for a firearms permit could be done virtually, many of the other requirements had to be done in person and couldn’t be accomplished during the lockdown. With no money coming in, but plenty going out to cover expenses, Brian was forced to sell some of his assets and dip into savings just to keep his business afloat and provide for his children. Even after the lockdown restrictions were lifted and he was able to offer in-person training again, the new health and safety requirements were yet another costly burden.

When Brian heard the Massachusetts governor had signed a COVID-relief bill for small business owners in November of 2022, he hoped that things were finally looking up. Not much later, the details of the Inclusive Recovery Grant Program were revealed, promising up to $75,000 in small business relief.

This money would have been a huge relief to Brian. But he quickly learned that the “Inclusive” part of the program name actually meant the opposite.

In reality, the grant program favors select groups of business owners, including racial minorities, women, and LGBTQ individuals, over others. In all other regards, such as the academy’s finances, staffing, and business standing, Brian met the eligibility requirements. But his skin color and sex prevented him from even applying for the program.

As a small business owner who pays all his taxes and has always had a genuinely diverse client base and social circle, he was shocked and hurt that something so arbitrary as the color of his skin would prevent him from even applying for relief for a situation that was imposed on him. It wasn’t as though he had made an unwise investment or otherwise frittered away his money and assets. He’d had no choice, legally, about temporarily closing his academy. And the same government that had forced him to close was now preventing him from applying for the relief package his own taxes helped pay for because of characteristics he has no control over.

“I’m being ordered to shut down by the state, by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts,” Brian says. “I’m being directly ordered by the colonel of the state police to cease my activity.”

Despite doing everything he was required to do, he is being discriminated against by the state in violation of his Fourteenth Amendment rights, which protect individuals from race- and sex-based discrimination.

“Everyone does their own thing in the United States. That’s what makes it a great place to be,” Brian says. What’s happening to him reminds him of stories he heard from his Irish father’s family.

“Oh, no. It wasn’t lost on me. I was told about it. That’s why they went to the docks. All the Irish were unloading ships. My father was a longshoreman, like all the other Irish, because you couldn’t get a regular job.”

When the government benefits or burdens people based on traits they cannot control, it unjustly diminishes their individuality and institutionalizes and reinforces stereotypes, particularly negative ones. This kind of treatment also stifles opportunity. Business owners have a right to be treated as individuals, and not as part of a group to which the government arbitrarily assigns them.

There’s no denying that historically oppressed groups have suffered in America. Our government has had a lengthy record of discriminating against its citizens. But past discrimination cannot be remedied with more discrimination. As the adage goes, two wrongs do not make a right.

The best thing to genuinely heal the damage done by past discrimination is to treat people as the individuals they are, based on their own unique characteristics, qualities, abilities, and challenges, instead of simply discriminating against a different group.

“Dr. King was very clear about this when this whole movement took place,” Brian explains, “that we have to move away from this. It’s the person. It’s not the color of the skin.”

None of this is to say that the people who could apply for and receive the grant money from the state did not deserve it. Brian does not begrudge other recipients. He simply wants the state to treat all applicants based on individual need and merit, rather than on race and sex.

PLF is helping Brian fight back with a federal lawsuit. He’s challenging the state’s unlawful eligibility preferences in its Inclusive Recovery Grant Program to restore everyone’s right to equality before the law.

“That’s all I can hope for. Just level the field for everyone. Leave no one out,” Brian says of his goals for the lawsuit. “That’s all I really want. Just open the doors to everybody, not a few. That’s it, really.”