“Leadership, I’m discovering at this moment, can be found everywhere,” said California Gov. Gavin Newsom, leader of 40 million Californians and the world’s fifth-largest economy, during his March 30 news conference regarding the 25,000 health care professionals and students volunteering to fight the COVID-19 crisis. “I’ve never been more damn inspired in my life.”
After President Trump downplayed the coronavirus outbreak as a “hoax,” many frightened people turned to the nation’s governors and local leaders for calm, accurate, straightforward information, including Newsom and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.
By March 4 when Newsom declared a state of emergency to prepare for the broader spread of COVID-19, approximately 215 coronavirus cases had been diagnosed in 16 states. The federal government finally declared a National State of Emergency on March 13.
While perhaps not as nationally visible, Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia has been front and center since Feb. 28 to report to his 470,000 constituents through regular newsletters and media briefings on Facebook, Twitter and local cable channels Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 3 p.m. The city also has a coronavirus webpage with resources, as well as Alert Long Beach enabling those who sign up to receive emergency notifications to their mobile phone and/or email address.
No doubt these initiatives are the result of Garcia’s bachelor’s degree in Communication from Cal State Long Beach, Masters in Communication from USC, plus a doctorate in education from Cal State.
Garcia joined Newsom on March 4 in declaring a state of emergency, an important move since Long Beach has its own public health department, which now coordinates with LA County and the federal Centers for Disease Control on tracking and combatting the outbreak.
“We are over about 115-120 positive cases and that number will go up today when we get the numbers,” Garcia tells the Los Angeles Blade during a March 31 phone interview.
“We’ve had one death so far. We expect our numbers increasing by 50% every few days. We think we’re at where most of the state is — which is hopefully, we’ll hit that peak in a couple weeks and we’ll hopefully start to see this thing decrease. We’re still going to have to be vigilant to make sure that this doesn’t come back in the fall.”
Two hours later, Garcia announced the city now had 123 positive test results, with that one fatality on March 23.
“In a city that covers 53 square miles and is home to nearly half a million people, we need people to self-regulate, because the police and our health inspectors simply can’t be everywhere at once,” to enforce the Safer at Home ordinance, he says. “What’s crucial right now is that we continue staying at home, avoid contact with people outside our households and practice physical distancing and proper hygiene.”
Garcia adds, “Keeping the virus from spreading literally saves lives…We are going to get through this together.”
How different the world was just two months earlier as Garcia took former Vice President Joe Biden on a Jan. 9 tour of the $1.5 billion Gerald Desmond Bridge Replacement Project to connect the economically critical Long Beach port with the Port of Los Angeles and the Vincent Thomas Bridge.
“Here’s the deal: this is the future,” Biden said on the tour, just hours after Garcia, formerly a major Kamala Harris backer, endorsed him for president. “The future of the country is overseas trade.”
The project has been a major focus for the 43-year-old gay Latino from Peru, who was first elected to the city council in April 2009 to much fanfare as the council’s youngest, first Latino male, and first gay person of color. He became Long Beach’s first gay mayor in 2014 with 52.1% of the vote.
In addition to tourism, Garcia wanted to increase the city’s economic and technological profile. But then came Trump and now the coronavirus, impacting the second largest container port in America. According to the LA Times, Long Beach and the LA ports serve more than 200,000 businesses shipping some $500 billion in cargo a year.
“The overall impact is not only on the regional economy, it is on the national economy,” Mario Cordero, executive director of the Port of Long Beach, told The Times for a March 7 story. “We are ground zero for Asian imports. We were already down because of the trade war. With the coronavirus, we’ve gone from uncertainty to potential chaos.”
According to The Times, “1 in 9 Southern California jobs are tied to the ports.” Garcia is trying to mitigate that through a “Work Long Beach” initiative announced on March 31 that matches people who are unemployed or underemployed with potential employers. (Visit pacific-gateway.org/longbeachworks.)
Under the Safer at Home order, all large-scale events — including the highly popular Long Beach Pride —have been cancelled. Last year, the Human Rights Campaign ranked Long Beach as one of 88 cities with a 100% rating on their Municipal Equality Index. “Long Beach is, and will always be, a place where everyone, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, can live, work, and love,” Garcia told the Long Beach Post last November.
“I’m feeling the serious public health crisis,” says Garcia when asked how he’s holding up. “Everyone’s working really hard to get this thing under control and make sure that people are following the local jurisdiction and the state’s orders.”
Are any measures being taken to address the vulnerable and sizable LGBTQ population in Long Beach?
“I had some communication with our center as well as some LGBTQ leaders in the community about this,” Garcia says. “I think everyone is working together, making sure that people have the resources they need. I also talked to the leaders of our hospitals. They’re aware that Long Beach has a higher HIV-positive rate than other parts of the state, in large part because of our LGBTQ population and that’s similar in other places in the state that have larger populations. That’s something that we take very seriously.
“We’re trying to get folks resources and my advice to someone who is LGBTQ is the same as it would be to anyone — which is: if you can please stay home and if you need help call a doctor, call your doctor, get ahold of our health department and we’ll try to help,” Garcia says.
Garcia notes that information about the coronavirus is still being developed.
“I think from the research I have done, I understand that generally anyone who has challenges with their immune system — there’s opportunity for a higher infection rate,” Garcia says. “However, it’s important that the science and data on COVID-19 is barely just started and we don’t have a lot of data yet. We will a year from now, but we don’t know how COVID-19 mutates. We don’t know how it’s going to interact with certain types of medications.”
Everyone should behave “with the mentality that they are as susceptible of getting COVID-19 as anyone else. It is not a senior only issue. Anyone can get COVID-19. I think that it’s important that we take care of ourselves and that we stay at home if possible,” Garcia says.
“I think that we ought to be very clear that nobody should be interacting with anyone else outside of their family unit or anyone that they are already living with. Period. End of story. That’s it,” Garcia says firmly, when asked about people still hooking up on Grindr. “Nobody should be interacting with anyone else, whether that is to hang out on a Friday night, whether that is in a way that’s romantic or sexual or any other way.”
The educator emerges. The LGBTQ community, perhaps more than others, “understands the tragic loss of human life that our communities experience, because of AIDS and HIV,” says Garcia. “We have an opportunity to be an example to the rest of the country and the world about taking something seriously, pushing progressive policies to expand healthcare access and then also understand that we shouldn’t be stigmatizing folks that get COVID-19. I think that’s something that we have tried to do in our community as it relates to people that are HIV positive. I think there’s lessons to be learned there. I think that there are folks getting COVID-19 and they shouldn’t be stigmatized, but we need to be responsible and not spread the virus.”
Garcia says he and his spouse Matt Mendez “are both being very careful about interacting with anyone outside of our unit. I’m practicing physical distancing with anyone outside of Matthew and so everyone on my team at the city is doing that. Most folks are working from home. We are all trying to limit where we go and who we interact with and if I have to be in a location that’s outside city hall in my office or at home that’s done where it’s very safe. We also know that anyone can get COVID-19 because it lives on surfaces of some occasions. We just have to all be very careful and watch out for each other.”
Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia’s words of comfort: “Everyone’s going through this. We’re all going through this together. No one is alone. We all have to get through this. For as bad as we may feel and hard … and the anxiety we feel, the pressure we might feel, just know that there are nurses and doctors and health personnel that are feeling much worse and are in a much more dangerous situation than we are in. We should try to do what we can to get through this and make it safer for all of them.”
Long Beach suffered another death. Here’s the information Garcia posted on his Facebook page in advance of his 3:00p briefing: