A Month Inside the COVID-19 War Room with Mayor Eric Garcetti

Often criticized as risk averse, L.A.’s mayor might have just saved the city from the pandemic—but now he must forestall a looming financial disaster.

The mayor is crying. I can’t see the tears because I can’t see the mayor—in the coronavirus era very few people get in the room with him—but I can hear the anguish in his voice on the other end of the phone. Eric Garcetti, chief executive of a city of 4 million people, sounds like he’s dissolved into a chasm of grief.

It’s early in the morning of March 27, and all across America COVID-19-related fatalities are continuing to explode. In Los Angeles County, 253 people have been hospitalized with related illnesses and 1,216 have tested positive for the disease. Twenty-one have died.

In a couple of hours Garcetti will visit the Port of Los Angeles, where he and Governor Gavin Newsom will welcome the arrival of the USNS Mercy, a 1,000-bed hospital ship dispatched by the federal government to help stem the overload of critical cases that are threatening to overwhelm emergency rooms across the city. But at the moment, Garcetti is grimly installed in his office at City Hall, trying to wrap his mind around the viral tsunami that is headed right for his city.

This is the greatest test that he has faced in his seven years as mayor. Since March 15, Garcetti has appeared on TV and Facebook livestreams on an almost nightly basis, reporting on the efforts of his administration to combat the global pandemic. Perpetually clad in a slim suit and tie, an American flag pin on his lapel, the mayor moves between stern taskmaster and agent of reassurance. In these sessions beamed into the homes of frightened and frustrated Angelenos, he’ll express admiration and threaten punishment. He’ll share a lengthy rundown of statistics and emphasize how data and the advice of medical experts are guiding his decision-making. With a sign-language interpreter to his left, he’ll warn of the danger posed by an invisible killer and then fluidly swerve to serve as the region’s comforter in chief. He knows this is a matter of life and almost unspeakable death—a few nights earlier he warned that Los Angeles was six to 12 days behind New York in the spread of the novel coronavirus.

mayor eric garcetti
Mayor Eric Garcetti prepares for a coronavirus media briefing at City Hall. His lockdown of L.A., one of the nation’s first, is credited with helping flatten California’s infection curve. “I’m feeling really proud of Los Angeles, and at the same time I’m feeling sad for Los Angeles.” The competing emotions, he says, are “very polarizing”

Garcetti has sought to slow the infection rate through a series of executive orders that have cast a dark cloud over the city’s economy. Under Garcetti and Newsom, Los Angeles and California have been ahead of the curve in terms of trying to bend the curve, but the body count is climbing in New York, and forecasts predict that L.A. hospitals—with not nearly enough ventilators—are just weeks away from being inundated by the infected.

I ask what impact this prospect has on him, the knowledge that despite everything he is doing a wave of death and sickness is coming to his city.

“It’s almost too much to hold,” Garcetti says. He tells me about a meeting he calls into each morning. The interdenominational group was organized by the mayor’s wife, Amy Elaine Wakeland. It includes Pastor J. Edgar Boyd of First AME Church, Rabbis Sharon Brous and Steve Leder, and J. Jon Bruno, the retired Episcopal bishop from L.A. “I find myself kind of distancing in those moments where they are praying for me and where they’re praying for the city,” he says. “That’s when the relief comes and when you just kind of break down a little bit.

“I looked at numbers yesterday of projecting deaths,” he says. There’s sudden a hitch in his voice. For a few moments we sit in silence.

One second. Two. Three. 
The mayor exhales deeply. 
Four. Five. Six. Seven. 
“Sorry,” he finally says in a quivering voice. Nine. Ten.

His voice might be breaking but he’s not broken.

I ask him what death count he projects for the city. “My estimate for the city is probably between 5,000 and 20,000,” he says.

mayor eric garcetti

Shayan Asgharnia

Months into the coronavirus crisis it is clear not only how woefully unprepared the United States was for the pandemic but how badly the nation’s leadership bungled the early response. The inadequacies at the federal level are incontrovertible, and even if early projections of hundreds of thousands of U.S. deaths have since been downsized, the fallacy of comparing the virus to a bad winter flu has been challenged in morgues across the country. The near-total abdication by the White House in forming a coherent policy resulted in a scattershot state-by-state response. All across America, cities, counties, and states were enacting drastically different measures.

Dr. Barbara Ferrer, L.A. County’s director of public health, credits Garcetti and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors with recognizing the seriousness of the threat early on. In the first throes of the crisis, the mayor would call Ferrer to discuss the science behind the virus. As the pandemic spread, they talked several times a day. “The mayor is very intelligent about using information in a way that makes it possible for good decisions to get made,” she says.

It’s easy to forget now, but for much of February, Los Angeles was consumed by the death of Kobe Bryant. But the mayor had other things on his mind. As 20,000 grieving fans filled Staples Center for Bryant’s memorial service February 24, Garcetti and his team were anxiously preparing for the arrival of the plague. “We have a pandemic annex to our emergency plan in the city so we started reading that,” he says. He instructed the general managers of city departments to ready their Continuity of Operations Plan. Garcetti huddled with Aram Sahakian, who has overseen the city’s Emergency Management Department since 2016. And with that, the mayor started to display the sort of forceful leadership that he had never previously exhibited.

On March 4, after the Department of Public Health recorded seven coronavirus cases in the county, Garcetti declared a local emergency. His announcement facilitated the flow of millions in state and federal funds into city coffers, but some of his closest associates worried about the damage to L.A.’s economy.

All along, the mayor says, he was voraciously reading scientific papers and scrutinizing infection rates, and planning what the city could do. The first COVID-19 death in the county was recorded March 11. A day later Garcetti closed City Hall to the public and banned events of 50 or more people on city property. Still, no one grasped the scope of action required to combat the spread of the virus. A video on Garcetti’s social media accounts March 12 shows him in City Hall with UCLA epidemiologist Dr. Anne Rimoin. There’s about 6 millimeters of distance between them. Neither wears a mask.

After serving 12 years on the City Council, Garcetti was elected mayor in 2013. He was a perfect foil to L.A.’s previous mayor. In the eight years he ran the city, Antonio Villaraigosa’s overweening personal ambition and squandered potential put Angelenos in the market for an earnest technocrat. Garcetti, an Encino native who studied at Columbia University before becoming a Rhodes scholar, took office just as the city’s economy was hitting a postrecession bull run. His arrival coincided with the downtown development boom, a huge employment spike, and an emergent regional tech industry. After seven years as mayor, where his most significant challenges have been L.A.’s intractable housing and homelessness crises, Garcetti has been criticized as risk averse and unwilling to fight for anything unless he’s certain he can win. His critics have always questioned his toughness. But if ever a situation demanded toughness and a willingness to take risks, the coronavirus outbreak was it.

“He’s very intelligent about using information in a way that makes it possible for good decisions to get made.” —Barbara Ferrer, L.A. County Director of Public Health

The most consequential 24 hours in the city’s battle against COVID-19 began on the night of March 14, a Saturday. With his daughter, Maya, asleep in the family’s Hancock Park home, the mayor stayed up late and pored over a slim packet of research that his aides had compiled on the novel coronavirus as well as accounts of the 1918 flu pandemic and the lessons that it taught St. Louis and Philadelphia. The former went on lockdown; the latter threw a parade for World War I vets. Within days Philly hospitals were full, and thousands were dying, but the peak death rate in St. Louis would be one-eighth as high.

On Sunday, Garcetti had a call
 with the Big City Mayors and a representative from the governor’s office. Speaking a month 
later he recalled a schism, with many mayors in favor of enacting stringent social-distancing measures while those from the more conservative Central Valley urged restraint. After the call Garcetti anticipated a significant move from Newsom; Garcetti organized another call, with the mayors of the 87 other cities in Los Angeles County, and told them what to expect. When the governor hit the airwaves that afternoon, he urged bars and wineries in California to close and restaurants to reduce seating capacity. When pressed by reporters, Newsom said it was not an order but a suggestion. He said there would be voluntary compliance.

Garcetti didn’t agree. He told his aides that
 voluntary compliance was not strong enough.
How many business owners would willingly
 shut down and eviscerate their bottom line? A
few hours after Newsom’s appearance, Garcetti
 scheduled his own televised briefing and stunned Los Angeles by ordering all bars, nightclubs, gyms, movie theaters, arcades, and bowling alleys to close at midnight. And forget staggered seating; restaurant service would be restricted to takeout or delivery.

Newsom has earned near-unanimous credit for his response to the crisis. While some of the mayor’s aides might have cause to be skeptical of the governor, Garcetti himself isn’t throwing shade—“Gavin’s been stupendous throughout,” he says—but recognized that anything short of a strict mandate could have perilous consequences. The tactic was not without risk—operating counter to the governor can have political ramifications: Newsom controls the purse strings to billions of dollars that L.A. and other cities need.

governor gavin newsom mayor eric garcetti
Governor Gavin Newsom and Mayor Eric Garcetti have occasionally split over COVID-19 policy.

Courtesy the Mayor's Office

Sam Liccardo, mayor of San Jose, California’s third-largest city, acknowledged the courage Garcetti displayed. “It’s easy as a public official when a hard decision needs to be made to hide behind the greater state or federal authority and say they made me do it,” Liccardo says. “It’s a much different act of leadership to say we’re going to take a step further because history won’t forgive us for the act of delay.”

Liccardo also credits Garcetti for strongly advocating for a statewide stay-at-home order. The two were among a group seeking to persuade Newsom to go that route—“I’m fairly convinced Eric was probably more persuasive than I was,” Liccardo says—and on March 19 Newsom and Garcetti both issued stay-at-home orders for all but essential businesses, making California the first state in the nation to do so.

More restrictions followed. On March 22, Garcetti shuttered the city’s sports and recreation centers and the parking lots on Venice Beach. Three days later he closed Runyon and Bronson canyons to hikers. All outdoor sports at city facilities were prohibited the next day. On March 30 the farmers’ markets shut down until operators could implement social distancing. On April 1, Garcetti ordered Angelenos to wear masks or face coverings when entering stores or public facilities (the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made the same recommendation two days later). All of these steps were taken after consultation with experts. Ferrer commends Garcetti for putting science first. “The mayor has never said, ‘That’s not going to be popular or that doesn’t make sense for my political aspirations,’” she says. “That’s refreshing.”

In the span of less than three weeks, Los Angeles was transformed into a dystopian version of itself, where traffic flowed because few motorists were driving, Hollywood and downtown became virtual ghost towns, and people out for a stroll—their faces often hidden by masks—crossed the street to avoid contact with others. Garcetti tells me that throughout the crisis he’s been watching Westworld. “It’s about the only thing I’ve been able to watch during this,” he says. “It’s funny to see that it’s a different dystopia, but there’s not traffic there, either.”

Newsom has commanded the spotlight in California during the crisis, but Garcetti has his daily briefings, usually from City Hall. The phalanx of TV cameras of a couple of months ago have given way to a single stationary pool camera. The mayor stands at a lectern with a Safer at Home sign affixed to the front. Like an old sitcom, sometimes there’s a special guest in the room (at another microphone), such as City Attorney Mike Feuer, USC President Carol Folt, or Police Chief Michael Moore.

eric garcetti sean penn
The mayor at a coronavirus testing site in South L.A. with actor-activist Sean Penn, whose nonprofit organization is working with the city

Courtesy the Mayor's Office

I’m at a rare offsite briefing on a warm evening in April. At 5:09 p.m., a black SUV rolls up and Garcetti steps from the vehicle wearing jeans, brown boots, and a zippered black jacket bearing
the city seal. A black mask covers his mouth, nose, and cheeks.
The location is the Crenshaw Christian Center, a South L.A. landmark that is now one of 30-plus regional drive-thru coronavirus testing sites. Garcetti sees the actor and activist Sean Penn, who is here to announce that his nonprofit Community Organized Relief Effort (CORE) will run four locations, allowing the Los Angeles
Fire Department, which staffs the sites with its medical professionals, to redeploy personnel to the field. Garcetti and Penn momentarily breach the six-foot personal barrier to bump elbows.

“It’s nice to get some fresh air,” Garcetti says as he peels off the mask; he’s about to place it on the lectern when an aide recommends he put it in his pocket instead. The mayor usually starts these briefings with an expression of faith in the citizenry, then shares the most recent tally of area cases and deaths—updates on testing, and the number of hospital beds and ventilators. He also thanks businesses, foundations, and individuals who have made donations: Eli Broad, Steve Ballmer, Snapchat’s Evan Spiegel, basketball star Russell Westbrook, musician Pink, and DJ Mustard. He closes his comments with the refrain “Stay healthy. Stay safe. Stay home. Strength and love Los Angeles.” He then patiently fields reporters’ questions.
 In these appearances Garcetti reminds viewers of his gravitas and empathy—that each death is not a number but a neighbor, not a statistic but a story—but also projects nerdy normalcy. He seems to be the only man in Los Angeles who is still shaving every day. He attempts levity, pointing out that the distance between people should be the length of LeBron James or, for Clipper fans, Kawhi Leonard. But he doesn’t pander. I never thought I would hear a mayor accuse his constituents of committing involuntary manslaughter, but Garcetti goes there frequently, and it always hits with the force of a rocket launcher. “Your decision to not physically distance yourself may kill someone,” Garcetti stated at his March 22 briefing. “This isn’t just about you. It’s about everyone.”

His relentless messaging on social distancing appears to have worked. By late April the curve had been bent. Deaths still mounted and cases increased, but not at a pace that would obliterate the region’s health care system—there are open hospital beds and about 1,000 available ventilators. The city is healthy enough that the USNS Mercy has had few patients, and a field hospital in the Los Angeles Convention Center has not been pressed into service.

“Your decision to not physically distance yourself may kill someone. This isn’t just about you. It’s about everyone.” —Mayor Eric Garcetti

When I mention to Garcetti that his early projection of a minimum of 5,000 dead doesn’t look remotely possible, he answers not with a statistic but with a story. “Two things: One, I have to contain the sorrow of the moment that’s starting to hit, and it stops you in your tracks. I had to talk to a police officer who lost his wife.” The couple had two children, he adds, “and he can’t be with them because he’s quarantined. They lost their mother, and he lost his wife. It’s even worse than I thought when you go to each case. On the other side I am so grateful for the people of Los Angeles for going with me on early actions and enacting them because we don’t have to multiply that 10,000 times. I’m feeling really proud of Los Angeles, and at the same time I’m feeling sad for Los Angeles. It’s very polarizing.”

Garcetti’s handling of the crisis is not uniformly praised. There’s grumbling that the mayor has operated independently of the City Council—in five weeks of briefings no council member has appeared with him. His high-profile goal, announced March 18, to move 6,000 homeless people to cots in city recreation centers collapsed almost immediately.

The homelessness situation has been Garcetti’s albatross. During his briefings he promotes various efforts to help the estimated 36,000 unhoused Angelenos, everything from shelter to virus testing, but the tents stubbornly pock the cityscape. Los Angeles enacted a moratorium on evictions and has prohibited many rent hikes, but housing advocates are demanding months-long rent suspensions. Activists have held noisy car protests outside the mayor’s home.

Garcetti hasn’t had a day off since the crisis began. Sleep is elusive; he says the 10-minute power naps he used to grab are gone. Exercise often means resurrecting routines from his Navy Reserve training. Each night at 8 p.m., when Angelenos open their windows or come out of their homes to make noise for those on the front lines, he and Maya ring a cowbell. His day is a delirium of Zoom meetings, phone calls, and strategy sessions. He speaks with elected California officials such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Kamala Harris as well as Trump administration brass, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Defense Secretary Mark Esper. He lobbies hard.

The mayor gets plaudits for reaching across the aisle to form a consensus with stoic Republican backbenchers in the state Senate and Assembly. “Eric is savvy in the best sense of the term,” Liccardo says. “He has the distinction of being the smartest in the room but doesn’t want to tell other people that he is. That’s a particularly effective strategy for encouraging collaborative action in a divided electorate like ours.”

Leading Los Angeles through the pandemic has driven Garcetti to take extraordinary steps. He recruited the Fire Department to conduct coronavirus testing, a strategy that, if not handled adroitly, had the potential to roil the department higher-ups and the powerful firefighters’ union. But LAFD Chief Ralph Terrazas applauded the decision.

“I thought it was a good call,” Terrazas tells me, speaking through a blue face mask on the parking lot at the Crenshaw Christian Center. Garcetti, he says, has generally been very forward thinking. “He’s been supersupportive of public safety, and our job is to keep up with him,” Terrazas adds. “And I like the pace.”

mayor eric garcetti

Shayan Asgharnia

During the crisis Garcetti’s office has often felt less like a traditional government bureaucracy and more like a Silicon Valley start-up, trading the standard dot-every-i approach for a move-quickly-and-break-stuff ethos. That is manifested in a bevy of novel projects: Garcetti enacted L.A. Protects, which aims to boost the making of masks and personal protective equipment; he set up a web portal to help those who lost jobs find employment; he drafted business ambassadors to visit nonessential businesses that remain open to encourage them to shut down (the next visit comes from the LAPD); he put Gene Seroka, his Port of L.A. chief, in charge of procuring medical equipment and working with hospitals and health care providers.

In the best outcomes, the slash-and-burn approach reduces bureaucracy. Penn tells me that when he reached out to Garcetti’s office about having CORE, best known for its relief efforts in Haiti, join in the pandemic response, the partnership was instantaneous.

“Typically there’s a lot of politics involved,” Penn says. “In this case it’s a seamless, immediate responsiveness.”

It’s pointless to declare that any city or state has been “better” than another at navigating the coronavirus. Needing fewer body bags is a hollow victory. Still the orders that Garcetti issued in March appear to have been palliative. On April 30 the county had registered 1,111 COVID-19-related deaths; the same day New York state reached 17,809. Los Angeles had ten deaths per 100,000 residents, compared with 211 per 100,000 residents in New York and 111 in Orleans Parish, Louisiana.

On April 29, Garcetti announced free coronavirus testing for all L.A. residents, regardless of symptoms, hours after an alarming spike in confirmed cases in the county, which accounts for almost half of California’s cases. Still, Ferrer says, “the evidence is pretty clear. I do think getting ahead of the outbreak really helped us.”

But while the anxiety caused by the pandemic is palpable, the economic fallout of this disaster promises to be even more painful. In his State of the City address in April, Garcetti warned that city services in the upcoming year would be sharply curtailed, and thousands of city employees would be furloughed. He said the economic damage will be deeper than the damage suffered during the Great Recession.

The mayor’s Safer at Home order was scheduled to expire May 15; it’s since been extended and nobody knows what will happen after that. Garcetti speaks frequently of the businesses and employees that have suffered as a result of his actions. As dozens of states across the nation move toward reopening, he is speaking to officials across California about what it will take to open the economy without thwarting the progress that has been achieved. On April 14, Newsom joined the governors of Oregon and Washington to unveil criteria that must be met before they reopen their economies. The following day Garcetti outlined five “pillars” of L.A.’s strategy. It’s a heavy if inexact list, including the need for extensive testing; real-time surveillance to react to outbreaks; the ability to isolate positive cases and quarantine those individuals’ close contacts; having sufficient hospital capacity to withstand the next surge; and ensuring there is ongoing scientific research.

Garcetti says he frequently thinks about the multitudes of Angelenos who have lost their jobs during this crisis. He’s eager to get them back to work. But he is quick to state the dangers of relaxing social distancing too soon.

He refers to a study that found that if L.A. had opened up in mid-April, 95 percent of

its residents would contract the coronavirus by August 1. Ironically L.A.’s success at limiting the spread might slow the reopening. An initial serology test, conducted by USC and the county health department, says that 4.1 percent of those tested had developed antibodies to the virus, much higher than initial estimates. Most of them never exhibited any symptoms. Meanwhile 19 out of 20 people in the county don’t have any immunity to the virus and remain vulnerable.

Garcetti knows that despite his best efforts, the city might be forced to endure a second wave of illness and death, as happened when San Francisco reopened during the 1918 pandemic. Despite pressure from the president and raucous protests from residents, he is determined to proceed cautiously.

Garcetti will institute gradual changes. He won’t flip a switch and turn on all the lights at once. A more apt metaphor, he says, is a circuit board, with a methodical rollout driven by need and safety concerns.

“If we can’t safely open something, we won’t do it,” he said in his April 22 briefing. Part of the challenge in responding to a novel virus is that projections of deaths and infections swing wildly. Newsom made waves in March when he cited projections that 56 percent of Californians, about 25.5 million people, could be infected over an eight-week period. Six weeks later the state had only 43,464 confirmed positive cases.

“What is this city going to look like after this is over?” I ask Garcetti in mid-April.

“I think we’re going to feel the familiar flavors of L.A.,” he answers, “but in bits and pieces. I think we’re going to go from extreme action to days where sometimes we’ll step for- ward cautiously. We might be back walking on a trail or the beach, and a month or two later we might be back at home and a month or two after that we might be back outside.

“I think more of us will be working. I think our economy will be fragile. I think our spatial movement will be fragile. But it will be forward motion in balance. There may be a full snap back once or twice, but I think people will understand it. And as frustrating as it will be, it will be more familiar.

“I think there will be less fear, and I hope that there will still be a sense of the common purpose. We will need to get through much more complicated issues of how we rebuild an economy and what sort of a city we’ll want to see.

“But I think ‘fragile’ is the word that comes to mind.”

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