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COVID-19: LA mayor says the city is not ready for what happens next



  • In an exclusive interview, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti pushed back against optimism in the face of the COVID-19 outbreak. “Giving people false hope will crush their spirits and will kill more people,” he said.
  • The mayor told Business Insider that the worst is yet to come. “The main horrifying thing that I think is keeping every local leader awake is the projection of how many people will get this, the projection of what the mortality rate will be, and how many dead we will have.”
  • Shelter-in-place restrictions will be needed for at least two months, Garcetti said, and residents should “be prepared for longer.”
  • At least 13,000 of Los Angeles’ poorest residents continue to live on the streets, the mayor confirmed, with shelter beds limited by the need to maintain social distancing. On Skid Row, he warned, the novel coronavirus could spread like “wildfire.”
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti wants people to have hope amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and to recognize the human kindness that can arise in times of tragedy. But in an exclusive interview, he told Business Insider a “premature optimism” that isn’t grounded in data will only cost more lives.

And the data, he said, paint a grim picture — both for Los Angeles, and for the rest of the country.

Millions in the city are expected to remain in their home for the next couple months, and thousands of the poorest residents are still sleeping on the streets. Across the country, he said, a failure to engage in social distancing could cost hundreds of thousands of lives.

In a wide-ranging interview, Garcetti told Business Insider that Los Angeles does not have the medical resources needed to prepare for the coming influx of critically ill patients; that residents will soon be confronted with an unprecedented number of deaths among their friends and family; and that, while humanity is resilient, the crisis will fundamentally alter life in the city.

The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Business Insider: I was listening to your press conference last night and you said that Los Angeles is anywhere from six to 12 days from the tragedy that we’re seeing unfold in New York City. From your perspective, what should we be expecting?

Mayor Eric Garcetti: Well, numerically … I have to get the numbers correct, but the number of cases we have for a county of 10 million people versus the number of cases they have in New York City with about 8.36 million people, if you do that per capita, we’re about, depending on how you exhume the rate of increase here is, it’s anywhere from about six to 12 days.

I hope that implementation earlier of social distancing in our curve will pay some dividends, but nobody that I’ve talked to from the medical, hospital, and data communities believe that we won’t hit a point in which cases overwhelm our ability to treat them. So there’s going to be really tough days ahead in which we’re very hurriedly trying to prepare plans for extra beds.

Thankfully, the United States Naval Ship Mercy is coming in later this week. That’ll relieve 1,000 beds from our area hospitals. [We’re] trying to recall staff, medical personnel that might not be working, or even recently retired, or ready to graduate from school, and all the supplies that we need. So just from a medical perspective, I think with reasonable confidence, we think that in the next week or two we’re going to be at that point in New York City. New York City isn’t overwhelmed yet, but they will be in a matter of days. So probably for us, you’re looking at two to three weeks before we would hit our hospital capacity and need to start spilling over into whatever we can prepare for now.

LA Mayor Eric Garcetti

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti speaks to reporters in Los Angeles, California, U.S., January 25, 2017.

REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

BI: And so, if we do hit our capacities, I know that ICU beds are already at 90% capacity — what does that mean for the residents of the city? Are we going to have to open up temporary hospitals? We’re going to have to look at Staples Center being a temporary ICU facility?

EG: Well, we probably can’t use those spaces to be ICUs, but what we can do is convert beds that are not ICU beds in our hospitals to ICU spaces. And then we’ll need to move those patients to a normal hospital bed that doesn’t require ICU levels of equipment and personnel. And absolutely, I mean we’re looking at convention centers, we’re looking at sports arenas, we’re looking at tenting, we’re looking at places that are close to hospitals, too, so that folks can be monitored closely in case — they might not be even a COVID-19 case, but somebody who requires some careful monitoring and could need an ICU bed. Those are all the spaces and places that we’re helping the county and the hospital association plan for and look at it.

BI: And what do you need from the federal government right now?

EG: Everything. The aid to flow, the assistance, the package; we’re paging through it this morning, but there’s a lot of good assistance there. I’m a little disappointed, I think, in initial reading that doesn’t help our immigrant workers, which are critical here in a city like Los Angeles to our lifeblood, and need to be taken care of, as well. But we also, just at the broadest level, we were about to get 100,000 masks the other day from a company that we [have done] business with for years. And we had the contract signed, the check cut, and then they said, “Sorry, just got pulled away by FEMA.”

So we need the federal government to get more, we need it to get out of the way, some of the time, and not pull everything to a central location only to redistribute it when we’re in those negotiations directly because we’ve had to. And I think as much help and guidance. Certainly, the Army Corps of Engineers would be great to help us get these spaces and places ready and going, as they’re looking to do in New York. And I understand why New York should be the priority right now, but hopefully in the coming week or two, if one place is up, they can travel and help us do the same thing, or stand up units that are here.

And I think we also need consistent messaging from the federal government. Real guidance from doctors and data scientists that are telling not just us but regions, and all of America, to take this seriously.

I’ve been on the phone with lots of my peer mayors urging them to [put shelter restrictions in place]. Michelle de la Isla, the mayor of Topeka, Kansas, they don’t have a confirmed case yet, but I told her, “I guarantee you you have cases. The sooner you do it, you may be the most successful, and nobody’s going to be upset with you for having protected them and saved lives, and maybe even kept your hospital capacity going.”

Mayors of Denver, Atlanta, we’re all in communication with each other regularly and sharing these best practices. And I told over 200 mayors on the phone last week, “Do it, do it now. It doesn’t matter where you are in the curve, do it right away.” And I think people are recognizing that you can do a good job where you are, but if the neighboring county doesn’t, you could be just as afflicted as you would have been with nothing.

Coronavirus california los angeles lockdown

A woman sits at Corona Heights Park, on the third day of California Governor Gavin Newsom’s implemented statewide “stay at home order” directing the state’s 40 million residents to stay in their homes in the face of the fast-spreading coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in San Francisco, California, U.S. March 22, 2020.

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

BI: What in particular has Los Angeles done that you think mayors in other cities can learn from? And also, I guess the second part of that is what, with the benefit of hindsight, would you have done differently?

EG: Well, I would have had a national stockpile, and I would’ve had ventilators, masks, kept domestic manufacturing alive. It’s really critical that people look at these as national security issues and public health issues, not just as an economy that’s moved towards just-in-time logistics. It works well for company profits; it doesn’t work well when it comes to disasters like this.

Second, I think Los Angeles was the first big city in America to go towards almost full closure and the biggest city to go to full closure of all nonessential businesses. And all cities should do that, across America, big and small. Also, I think, one of the lessons I’ve learned is that cities can really be helpful to counties. Counties oftentimes aren’t set up to be executive branch leaders or a mayor in a given area is the lead spokesperson for the metro area. You might be the mayor of Atlanta, which is a smaller city and a large metro area, but you are the face of Atlanta and you have the relationships of Atlanta.

Same thing here, same thing in Seattle, same thing in any kind of media market and any regional economy. You can be that person pulling together the hospitals, pulling together the business and manufacturing community, pulling together the logistics, warehousing, and food provision communities. All of those things really are squarely, I think, on the shoulders of cities, and a place where we can lead while we try to listen to doctors and get them what they need so that they can provide care.

BI: I think one of the unique challenges that Los Angeles faces, and I know you’re aware of this, is the fact that we have so many of our residents living on the streets still. Even though there’s a shelter-in-place order, there are still encampments all around my neighborhood, all around everyone’s neighborhood in Los Angeles. So I would like to hear what else the city is doing to address that public health crisis, and do you think we can maintain a sense of urgency even after this is over?

EG: Well, I certainly hope so because I’ve had this sense of urgency before. Over a year ago, I said we needed a FEMA-like response to homelessness, and it was the only way we’d ever scale up the resources to truly end homelessness, not just hope to reduce it by a small percentage. I was very pleased to see federal resources start to flow into this. I’ve been in regular communication with [Secretary of Housing and Urban Development] Ben Carson and there is, I forget the number … for housing and homelessness in the federal package. And I was really pleased to see that happen.

Here in Los Angeles, we’ve doubled the number of people in just three years that we are taking off the streets every day — about 133 a day. But about 150 are becoming homeless before this crisis started today. So it didn’t require much more to get to the tipping point.

But if we really want to accelerate that, we’re certainly stepping up, now that we do have literally a FEMA-based response because we can, for public health, move people into safe spaces, like shelters and motel rooms. FEMA will reimburse that, hopefully, most of it.

And that is absolutely critical to us when this is long over, making sure that they aren’t just there for a few weeks, but that we can make exits into housing for the folks that are there, as well. So that, to me, this is a real opportunity. I say never let a crisis like this go to waste, but that’s going to be absolutely critical for us to be able to make sure this isn’t just getting people off the streets for a minute.

And you’re right, a lot of people don’t have a place to go. So there’s also been conflicting guidance. Initially, we moved to put everybody into recreation centers. Those are at capacity. We opened up the first eight. We’ve got 13 more on our way to 42 of those that we thought would house 6,000 people. But the spacing requirements were changed, so that now is going to be about 2,000 folks. We have 600 hotel rooms with the county.

And people have to understand this is a shared responsibility. No city government can house the homeless on their own and cannot care for them in a health crisis. It really requires counties stepping up, state and federal money, as well. And the good news is, Gov. [Gavin] Newsom, we got a $19 million check two days ago for homeless policy and crisis response. Like I said, there’s money … in the [federal ] package here for housing and homelessness. Seven billion, excuse me, not 30. So it’s $7 billion. But that, for us, if we did that proportionate on the homeless population, LA County should get about $700 million of that, which would be pretty helpful. And then of course, the county has to help us on the healthcare side, because cities don’t do that. But right now we need people who can monitor, care for, and help cure anybody who is an un-housed Angeleno before this spreads on the street.

los angeles california homeless coronavirus

A man sleeps on bench near a bus stop in Los Angeles, California on March 17, 2020.

FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images

BI: And do you have a current estimate of how many people are still un-housed in Los Angeles?

EG: Yeah, in the City of Los Angeles, we estimate it’s about … roughly 31,000 homeless in the City of Los Angeles. If you take sheltered out of that, you’ve got 23-24,000 in a given year. We estimate probably 15,000 on the streets and we’re going to be taking about 2,000 of them off.

BI: So 15,000 on the streets. And after the response to COVID-19, there’s still about 13,000.

EG: Well, today. This is incredibly dynamic every single day. The more money we get, the more money we can do. The more leases that the county has with hotels and motels, the farther we can push that number down. So we don’t have a set number. We’re trying to do as much as possible.

And … the other conflicting advice is CDC has also said that encampments should not be cleared. Now, the way I read that is they’re saying, if there’s no place for people to go, don’t move encampments, that can actually move the virus. But that said, it’s not clear whether they’re saying, yeah, shelters with proper spacing is good, or everybody needs to have a room that’s isolated. And to do that with 15,000 people will be impossible.

BI: And have we seen the spread of the virus among this population?

EG: Thankfully, not yet. I’m sure it’s there because it’s in every population. We haven’t seen a disproportionate share yet, but it is a place where it can spend most quickly, like wildfire in a place like Skid Row. So we’ve prepared and are preparing for that. We’re doing a lot of screening on the streets. We have LAPD, city employees, and others who are screening before anybody goes into shelters, and within shelters we’re protecting shelter workers and using our limited tests to make sure that LAHSA [Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority] and shelter workers who exhibit any symptoms are immediately tested for COVID-19.

BI: One of the measures that the city council was supposed to take up before it suspended itself earlier this week was a measure that would address, I think, one of the leading causes of homelessness in our city, which is the cost of housing. There was a proposal to freeze rent in LA during this crisis, and I’m just curious if you are considering executive action on that.

EG: That can be interpreted in two ways, so we’re still trying to determine whether that meant people don’t have to pay rent at all or there’s no increases. Is it a rent increase freeze or is it a nobody has to pay the rent? If it’s nobody has to pay the rent, that’s not a power that we have, nor would we have the power to do that for rent-increase freeze for anything that’s not rent-stabilized. And the majority of our apartments are rent-stabilized, so we are looking at that, whether or not we can mandate no rent increases right now. And I’ve brought this up with the governor’s office, and my office, and some other mayors, about whether there could be state action to ensure that.

Without concomitant measures to help landlords not default on their mortgages and for banks not to run out of money, we need — you know, this is a series of dominoes. To tell people that nobody has to pay rent, and then to tell landlords, “Don’t worry, you don’t have to pay your mortgage,” and then to tell banks, “Don’t worry, you’re going to be supported,” that’s a pretty big undertaking. And I don’t see that in the $2 trillion [federal] package that was just put forward.

So just being realistic, but we’ve said nobody will be evicted. They’ll have six months to pay their rent to help space this out. We can do some more work there. And I banned some other evictions, for instance conversions to condos, two days ago, are now banned. That was a legal way to get rid of your tenants in the past, as well as us looking at what we could do with all the apartments that sit under our rent stabilization ordinance. But Costa-Hawkins, the state [rent control] law, prohibits us from doing that in market-rate apartments, even with emergency powers.

Eric Garcetti

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

BI: While acknowledging the limits of your power, as you know, if there is an eviction moratorium, a lot of people are losing their jobs right now. And so, while they might be able to stay in their homes for the next three months, they might not be able to pay the three months’ worth of rent. So what do you need to help Angelenos in that situation?

EG: Well, a number of things. Cash assistance, of course. One of the nice things, and the best thing, is that if we get a federal aid package, it allows people to continue to get paid or get the cash assistance that allows them to make the basic payments for food and for their rent, for their utilities. We’re telling people, “You’re still responsible for these things,” but of course these can be pushed out, and hopefully we can work payment plans out. Certainly we can with Department of Water and Power, which we control.

There’s tens of thousands of private landlords, so that’s difficult to mandate any one way of doing that. But that’s why we said six months, which we think will give people breathing room. And if history is a guide, the recovery from pandemics is actually economically sometimes faster than, for instance, the stock market anticipates or that others predict. So that is very fluid; we’ll have to look at that. But now that there’s cash on the way and people have the peace of mind of not knowing they have evictions, we just have to get through this first couple of weeks before we can answer the month-long questions.

BI: Moving on to how long you expect our current measures, like shelter in place, to last. I know the LA Unified School District has said that schools are going to be closed until at least May 1st. Can the rest of us expect to be staying in our homes until at least then?

EG: Absolutely. I think this is at least two months, and be prepared for longer.

BI: And what’s keeping you up at night right now?

EG: I could keep you on for about an hour, but I’ll try to edit it down. I’m actually trying to make sure I get my sleep, because I need to have that to lead. But I think the main horrifying thing that I think is keeping every local leader awake is the projection of how many people will get this, the projection of what the mortality rate will be, and how many dead we will have. I deeply appreciate and am working extremely hard on everything else, from the economic suffering to the provision for our first responders, to getting our homeless off the streets and into safe places.

At the end of the day, the social distancing measures and how effective they will be is the most important thing that any local leader can focus on. And when you push the numbers out, will we have hundreds and thousands of deaths or will we have tens or hundreds of thousands of deaths? That’s what keeps me up. These are people who all know, who each one of us will know. It’ll be our friends, it’ll be our family, it’ll be people whom we love dearly. And everything I do is through that lens. Everything else can be rebuilt, everything else can be replaced, but a life can never be replaced.


AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

BI: Is there any reason for optimism at this time then, or is that just going to get more people hurt? Because we’re seeing it from the national level, optimism that we’ll get back to business in just a matter of weeks. Do platitudes like that help or is that just naive?

EG: We have to keep hope, but our hope has to be grounded in data. We can’t have premature optimism that puts people’s lives at risk. I can’t say that strongly enough. Giving people false hope will crush their spirits and will kill more people. It will crush their spirits, will change their actions … Sorry. Will crush their spirits, will revert their actions, and will kill more people.

But of course we have to have hope. Of course there are beautiful rays of sunshine, of people’s generosity and stepping up to help one another, the time that we’re spending with one another. This will not kill most of us. It will kill a lot more people than we’re used to dying around us. And that’s a tough space to hold. Not knowing who that will be, not knowing exactly when it will be, but knowing that it will be. But absolutely there are tremendous rays of sunshine that are streaming through these dark clouds. And while we know the clouds aren’t disappearing anytime soon, rabbi told me this morning, my rabbi, we did a little prayer circle, and he said, “The shadow of the valley of death, the shadows can only exist as evidence that there is light.” So when we walk through that valley, we know that there is light and it will be there at the end.

BI: I just want to close with one last question, which is: When people talk about returning to normalcy, will there be a return to a normal life in Los Angeles as we knew it before, or is this going to fundamentally alter Los Angeles, and the country?

EG: I think this will be a defining moment of our lives and we will be changed, for sure. Some of the ways we probably conduct business and our relations will change, but I do think that we will fundamentally get back to a prosperous and a strong city in which we cannot only come out of our homes, but we can embrace each other again, and do big and bold things.

I do fully expect, and this isn’t as grounded in some Pollyannaish wishes, I have been doing a lot of reading in these last few weeks and looking at 1918, and the places hardest hit by epidemics in other parts of the world, and more recent memory. People do come back. Human beings have a tenacity, not only a will to survive, which we are demonstrating, but a will to thrive. And I do see those days ahead for Los Angeles, 100%.

Have a news tip? Email reporter Charles Davis at [email protected].

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