By Danny Karel
Amid a herculean civic effort to combat the novel coronavirus, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti delivered his annual State of the City address to a nearly vacant City Hall on April 19.
The mayor offered a sobering assessment of present circumstances but framed this challenging time as a unique opportunity to orient the city toward a better, more just future.
However, he was clear that the interim will be painful.
He began by referencing the 2008 recession.
“Until now, it was the biggest economic blow of our lifetime, and it hurt,” he said. “But there’s no way to sugarcoat this. This is bigger, and it will hurt more.”
Heading into the crisis, the city’s reserve funds had reached an all-time high, said the mayor, but so far the city has had to draw more than $70 million from both reserve and special funds to fight the pandemic. At the same time, tax revenues have plummeted. Hotel reservations have collapsed, and airport traffic has fallen by 95%.
In his proposed budget for the 2020 fiscal year, Garcetti explained that he had drawn a “red line” around certain essential services, namely those related to health and safety, but that cuts would be delivered almost everywhere else. This would also include a hiring freeze in city government, and the equivalent of a 10% reduction in pay for all civilian city workers, who will be asked to take 26 furlough days.
To replace lost revenue, Garcetti called on the federal government to loosen restrictions on emergency funds.
“Help bail out America’s cities,” he said. “Just as you bailed out the banks.”
To frame his recovery plans and expectations, Garcetti asked four critical questions. The first was the most pressing: How will we make it through?
He cited recently enacted emergency protections, such as eviction moratoriums and rent freezes, as well as the requirement to wear masks in public, and the ongoing collaboration between local labs and universities to develop large-scale virus testing and tracing capabilities. He also mentioned financial relief measures like the Angeleno Card initiative, which offers pre-funded debit cards to low-income residents regardless of immigration status.
However, despite these steps, society will not be able to reconvene immediately, noted the mayor.
“It may be months, my friends, before we safely gather in large groups,” he said. “It may be a year or more before a vaccine or medicine frees us from periodically returning to Safer at Home.”
Garcetti was clear that we are in the “first battle” of this fight, and without a vaccine, a second wave of COVID-19 is all but certain.
For many Angelenos, the second question was equally urgent: When can we begin to leave our homes?
Garcetti explained the five “key elements” which determine the timeline: the ability to test for the virus and immunity-determining antibodies on a wide scale; the development of real-time dynamic monitoring to determine where cases are clustered; an improved system of tracking and tracing to keep the virus from spreading; building and maintaining robust hospital capacity; and the development of COVID-19 treatments and a vaccine.
He also proposed the formation of a ”Cares Core,” a coalition of government and health agencies, backed by federal funding, which would expedite these steps and guide the city through recovery.
The third question addressed the City of Angels’ pain: When we do go back, what damage will have been done?
At the time of the address, unemployment levels had already surpassed those reached during the worst days of the Great Recession, the mayor said. At least 600 Angelenos had died as a result of COVID-19, and nearly 3,400 had been hospitalized. Garcetti acknowledged that the Safer at Home ordinance had helped “flatten this curve, but, to be clear, the numbers are still going up.”
He called the current situation a “collective trauma,” one that will leave “none of us unmarked.”
His final question looked to the future: When we do return, who do we want to be?
While the virus has radically disrupted our daily lives, Garcetti also observed how it has created unique opportunities to address other issues that plague the city, such as air pollution and homelessness. He mentioned LA’s crystal blue sky, an unexpected but welcome development of the Safer at Home order.
“We won that sky by saving each other from a disease,” he said, adding that managing to keep those skies blue through environmental initiatives would save even more lives from asthma, cancer, and “climate catastrophes.”
He also pointed to the countywide effort to house thousands of homeless Angelenos in hotel and motel rooms to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“Once those fellow Angelenos come inside, they must not return to the streets,” he said, adding later that the spirit of service, which moves much of the city today, should “move our economic recovery and our commitment to heal an unjust world” in the future.
Garcetti’s final remarks addressed the surreal nature and pain of the moment, but also recalled the resilient spirit of Los Angeles.
“Our city is under attack, our daily life is unrecognizable, we are bowed, and we are worn down; we are grieving our dead,” he said. “But we are not broken, nor will we ever be.”