‘I would encourage people to overreact’: Mayor Robert Garcia sits down for a Q&A

On Wednesday, March 18, Mayor Robert Garcia spoke to Long Beach Post Publisher David Sommers about the local impacts of the coronavirus pandemic and the city’s evolving response to the growing public health and economic crisis. His answers have been lightly edited for clarity but otherwise they appear in full.

What concerns you most right now?

There are still folks in our community and across the country who are not taking this as seriously as they should. At the federal level, we did the country a great disservice by not taking this more seriously and not using strong enough language early on to explain to the public that this is a national emergency and a health crisis.

Locally, I think that there are still many folks that don’t understand the severity of the crisis that we are in and I would encourage people to overreact right now. We need to be in a place where we are doing more than we think we need to do. That’s how we’re going to save lives.

I have been on the phone with our local health leaders and hospital leaders and what’s a concern for them, and for me, is not what’s happening today, but what’s going to happen 30 days from now. We cannot be in a position where a month from now every hospital bed is full, where every mobile hospital we’re looking at putting together are full, and then we have people falling sick or needing care and are unable to get it. People need to take that seriously. People need to understand the only way to not get to that place is serious social distancing and social isolation today.

How is the city going to look on the other side of this?

Our response is going to be in three major phases. Right now we are in the shock and awe phase, where this looks like a major natural disaster. This has hit us hard. We are still in shock. Business owners are still in shock. People are getting laid off. This is a disaster and we are responding as fast as possible to the health crisis that we are in.

The weeks ahead, we are going to be entering the truly serious phase of this, which relates to public health. There’s going to be an increase in cases locally and nationally. There will be strains on our hospital system, and the need to continue getting care to the elderly, people with disabilities and vulnerable populations will be vital. That’s a phase that’s going to take our whole city, our whole community coming together.

Then there’s a third phase of this, that’s already starting, but will be a priority once we get past the immediate health challenge—and we’re going to get past it. We’re going to take on this health crisis. It’s going to be hard, but we’re going to get past it—the third phase of all of this will be the economic recovery. That phase is going to be much longer than what we are experiencing right now. We are going to have many people out of work. Many people are going to be struggling. Homelessness, which I’ve said for several years is our single largest challenge, will become a larger challenge.

We’re going to see businesses go out of businesses, small businesses trying to get by, and we’re going to have to have a complete restructuring of what this country believes is the social safety net. We’re going to need bold, large leadership at the federal, state and local level to help people who are going to be struggling. That piece of what we have in front of us is everything that this city is going to be about, not for months, but for the next couple of years.

As long as I’m mayor, this is the defining issue that our city will have to deal with.

What’s impressed you most or been the biggest success you’ve seen through all of this?

Probably what’s impressed me most are the folks on the front line right now, providing medical care, the grocery clerks, the folks in our health department assisting folks with their questions. It’s their commitment to their profession and doing the most good. The best in people is coming out, especially from our front line workers.

I was at a grocery store yesterday visiting the staff and talking with the workers. I was there with the police chief and the fire chief, and just noticed the pride the workers are taking in what they’re doing as far as getting supplies out and supporting the food chain.

A big misconception right now is there’s going to be a food shortage. I have personally talked with food distributors, manufacturers, warehouses—all of the items that aren’t in stock right now, they’re on the way. We are getting restocked every day, and in the next few days people are going to start seeing a lot of supplies coming in.

We’re asking people, please don’t hoard supplies. There are seniors and people with disabilities who really need access to these supplies. There will be enough supplies and necessities for everybody. There is enough food for everybody. There is no stoppage in the supply chain and no food shortage.

Have you heard a story or witnessed something this week that’s stuck with you?

I’ve had some conversations with small business owners who have had to close or who have been mandated to close by the city—and their commitment to the greater good—some of them knowing they may never reopen again or that they’re going to have a hard time paying their own basic needs or rent, seeing their resolve in doing the right thing has been really motivating for me. It’s brought out the best and I’m grateful to them.

I talked to the operator of the downtown studio where I work out—I talked to her the day that we closed the gyms—and her love of the city and understanding of the issues—she’s out there right now organizing people to support the community. When I understand the impact this has on her business, seeing that kind of strength and stories like that motivate me, because people do want to help.

What’s the mood like in the city right now?

Every day this week there are fewer and fewer people working in city hall. It’s quickly getting down to a skeletal crew, which is the right thing to do but also necessary for the health and safety of everybody. The city team is strong, people are motivated. We’re not hesitating when it comes to public health. This is not a sprint, it’s a marathon and we have to prepare for months and months, and really years of work ahead when it comes to economic recovery.

How have your conversations been with community, business and education leaders? 

I’m very proud of all of our education institutions. They’ve all done the right thing, from Long Beach Unified closing down schools early on while still feeding kids across the city, to the university and city college going to online courses pretty quickly before they were mandated to do so. I’ve been talking with the leaders of all three educational institutions, including now Lou Anne Bynum at Long Beach City College, so we’re in constant communication and they’re doing the right things.

I think we have to be prepared for the likelihood that our schools and colleges and university are not going to reopen anytime soon. Even the governor mentioned that yesterday. we need to start preparing for that possibility. Low-income parents without access to childcare are at the top of our priority list.

What’s your focus today? What do you think it will be next week, next month, next year?

Everyday the seriousness of the situation changes. Quite frankly the situation is changing hour by hour. From my perspective, this is the only issue. There is no other issue. Our team at the city knows that right now we are in an emergency situation and it requires all our focus. At the end of the day it is my responsibility as the mayor of Long Beach to take care of our city, support our residents, our businesses, our students here, while also talking to the larger network of county, state, and federal partners. I’m regularly speaking with.

How are you personally?

I’m doing fine. I want people to know that their city team is waking up every morning, working every single day to ensure that this community stays safe, people stay healthy, that we will be here to support people as we head into very hard economic times. That is priority number one and all that really matters. Everything else is secondary right now. And I’m thankful for all the support.

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