Garcetti Keeps his Balance on a Tight Rope

Bill Boyarsky
Columnist for LA Observed and former reporter, editor and columnist for the Los Angeles Times

Faced with the challenge of the coronavirus pandemic, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has risen to the occasion.  He’s taken charge, just as local and state chief executives have done around the country, filling the vacuum left by President Donald Trump.

You can check this out yourself.  He’s live on local television and on line at 5:15 p.m. weekdays where he reports in detail on the city’s fight against the disease and then answers questions from reporters. His demeanor is serious but not grim.  Sometimes, he’ll pause to pay tribute to first-line rescue workers.

 The mayor always returns to the numbers.

As the month of May began, the figures became more grim.  Los Angeles County, the state’s biggest and hardest hit by the disease, reported more than 25,000 cases.  That amounted to more than 254 cases for every 100,000 residents. The death toll was as frightening, more than 1,300 deaths, meaning more than 12 deaths per 100,000 residents.

Los Angeles County’s numbers are lower than New York City’s more than 316,415 cases and over 24,000 total deaths.  Still, Los Angeles County is far above the rest of the state, and the fight against the disease is complicated by the many problems of an urban area, including homelessness.

Homelessness  and the coronavirus were the subjects of a question asked by  David Zahnhiser of the Los Angeles Times last Friday.  “Hi, Dave,” said Garcetti, who greets the reporters as they ask their questions remotely, by their first names. Zahnhiser asked about a homeless man who came into the upscale Ritz Carleton a few days before and demanded that Garcetti open the hotels to homeless people including many exposed to coronavirus.  

Zanhiser went on to say, “Up to now the city and the county have opted to negotiate with hotel owners,” the reporter said. “Are you disappointed by the slow progress being made?…Do you think it’s time to commandeer hotels to force them to rent their rooms to homeless people and if not, why not.?”

Garcetti disagreed with Zahnhiser’s use of the phrase “slow progress.”  He said 78 percent of the rooms under contract to local government are occupied, “so there is plenty of capacity…We want to make sure anyone who is in danger of contracting covid-19 knows there is a place to put their heads tonight.”

“I would agree with you, Dave. We can’t have too many hotel rooms.  I will use whatever emergency powers that are necessary” to obtain them, if necessary but “You just can’t commandeer and not pay” the owners.

Garcetti thus walked a fine line between homeless advocates and business leaders, long-time foes.  He is the most visible public official in Los Angeles County, and the one with the most power.  But he shares influence with the five powerful Los Angeles County supervisors and the governments of all the smaller cities in the county. Feuding with them would accomplish nothing.  And he must face intense reporters working on one of the biggest stories of their careers.

For him, taking charge of a city as big as L.A. usually means walking a tight rope.  It takes a lot of guts to put that act on display on television and online every day.

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