Arlington County Board Chair Libby Garvey
STATE OF THE COUNTY
June 16, 2020
I want to thank the Chamber for holding this annual event, for honoring our public safety personnel, and for giving me the opportunity to address you during this very difficult time for our County and the nation.
People often ask me how I’m doing these days and in a way that indicates they really want to know. “Fine” doesn’t quite cut it. My usual response is that, “considering everything…. I’m doing well.” And if you want a short answer for what is the state of the County today…. I’ll give you the same answer. Considering everything, Arlington is doing pretty well.
Why? Several reasons I’ll discuss, but a major reason is the quality of people in our community. Both within and outside government. I am grateful every day for organizations like the Arlington Chamber – you have a fantastic leadership team and businesses have been stepping up throughout the County to help. I’m grateful for our non-profits, the thousands of residents who have stepped up as volunteers to help.
Your County Board is a strong team even though we are down one member, and we miss Erik Gutshall every day. Finally, and not least, I’ve always known we have great people working for our County government, but now I’m sure we have absolute rock stars from our Manager to our emergency team to our Police Chief and our department heads. And they have under them wonderful teams of people. We continue to be incredibly lucky in Arlington.
Where We Are
Before I get into the state of the County, today, I’d like to remember, briefly, the “before times.” How we got to where we are today since I became Chair.
Let’s all think back to just 5 months ago in January. [OK, everyone there?] I imagine many in this room were making business plans that included the expected “Amazon effect.” We were, too. As incoming Chair of the Board, I was looking forward to what I anticipated being the easiest budget I’d had in my 25 years of working through school or county budgets. We’d begun our budget work sessions. One of the issues we were about to consider was body-worn cameras for our police.
One of my biggest concerns back then was setting up and starting a series of events to celebrate Arlington’s 100th anniversary. I wanted us to reflect on where we’d been, warts and all, and to focus on where we wanted to go. In my Chair’s remarks, I set out three focus areas that I thought could help guide us through 2020: Equity, Innovation, and Resilience.
By March (remember March?), the Manager called his proposed budget “a quaint artifact of history.” Our focus had become making sure everyone in Arlington had enough to eat, that no one was evicted and put on the street, and finding ways for our economy, especially our small businesses, to survive. All the gaps in what passes for a health care system in the United States opened wide. We went from focusing on issues like creating arts districts and expanding parks to focusing on the most basic needs of food,
shelter and health.
And over the past months, we’ve all seen how our most vulnerable are the least able to quarantine, to work from home, to survive in an economy in free fall. While it was increasingly clear how much race played into this, on May 25th the issue of pandemic racism, and how toxic it is, hit us in the face, hard, with that horrifying video of George Floyd’s murder by police in Minneapolis.
What has been so clear to Black people throughout this nation’s history, became clear to the entire world. It is not a pretty picture.
So here we are. Considering everything, we’re doing pretty well.
Throughout this pandemic, the one number that we’ve been able to reliably track from the beginning is the er of hospitalizations for Covid here in Arlington. Those cases have been declining. Our hospital system capacity is holding steady. The shutdowns and closures we’ve suffered have worked, but we join everyone in mourning the loss of each one of our Arlingtonians who have died from Covid.
Now, we have just entered Phase 2 of reopening. Our metrics continue to trend in the right direction. We’ve got a good system of contact tracing set up in Arlington and we are fairly sure we’ve got a good supply of PPE.
It is, however, crucial that people continue to practice distancing and wear face coverings as much as possible as we begin to go about our public lives.
I stay in close touch with my regional counterparts. Viruses pay no attention to borders and we all know that whatever happens in the region affects all of us. One silver lining of this crisis has been increased cooperation and coordination throughout the region.
Since May 25th, like so many others, we have begun engaging with our community over our policing policies. While many of the demands we are hearing around the country are for policies we long ago adopted, we are not perfect. Our goal should always be to be a model for the nation. We are looking at what we need to do to get there, not because we have a crisis, but because we all should demand nothing less than being the best. Our police are innovative and have created approaches in the past that are now used by other forward-thinking departments. But innovation never stops. I think we may well want to try different approaches to keeping our community safe that will work better for everyone.
Racial justice, of course, is about far more than policing. In fact, I first ran for School Board in 1995 calling for equity in our school system and I worked on that during all my 15 years on the School board. We still have far to go, but we made progress. Equity requires persistence and hard, often uncomfortable work.
I was very happy to see our Manager set up an interdepartmental group in January that has been looking at racial equity issues within our County government. A few days ago, I joined with about 500 of our employees listening to the steering group discuss racial issues. I was impressed, but not surprised, at the caring, depth of thought,and emotional intelligence of the conversation.
Transition to Equity, Innovation, Resilience
Looking ahead, my three focus areas of equity, innovation and resilience remain central. All three are connected.
If you are not familiar with the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities project, I recommend you check it out. 100 cities around the world from
Accra, Ghana to Wellington, New Zealand, looked at what was their biggest threat to survival both from a critical event and from a chronic problem. Two themes emerge from around the world: the threat of climate change and the danger of social inequity and division. Boston, for example, decided that racism was their biggest threat because their community is so divided it wouldn’t come together well in a catastrophic event like a large hurricane. A city cannot be resilient if it does not have equity.
So….What do my three focus areas and the twin pandemics of Covid and racism mean for us today?
Equity is First
As a community, we must commit to an Arlington where progress benefits everyone, not just some. The decisions we make going forward must be measured against the answers to four critical questions put forth in the Board’s Equity Resolution adopted last December:
* Who benefits?
*Who is burdened?
*Who is missing?
*How do we know?
* As we gradually reopen, we must also think about how we can be a more just and equitable community. Not just because it is the right thing to do, but because it is the economically smart thing to do.
* So, as many of you know, we recently launched a Small Business Emergency GRANT program to aid Arlington small businesses, with 50 or fewer employees. Those hit hard by the pandemic. More than 1,100 businesses applied. Sixty-three percent of those applicants identified as woman or minority-owned.
With our existing funds, we can provide grants to 152 businesses. That is only 20 percent of those eligible to receive a grant. With an additional $1.6 million, we could provide grants to a total of 400 businesses — more than 50 percent of those that were eligible. I expect the Board will be looking at how we can do that in the near future.
We, again, appreciate the Chamber’s partnership with us to get the word out. You helped with a webinar that provided an overview of how to apply to the GRANT program. There was a great turnout – several hundred participants.
* Our BizLaunch program has hosted several outreach events to celebrate and support our communities of color. We’ve also been working closely with the Federal Small Business Administration and with the Commonwealth to ensure equity in contracting with the County.
We want everyone to get through this pandemic and economic crisis so we can quickly recover. That helps make us resilient.
Innovation is the second area of focus. Innovation is a way of thinking that removes barriers to seeing solutions. Or, to quote an old proverb: “Necessity is the mother of invention.”
COVID-19 has forced us to change our approach to public health, public safety, business, education, and the way we communicate and interact with each other. All of which, I believe, have needed changing for a very long time. I truly believe this pandemic crisis gives us a great opportunity to make long-needed changes and come out of this a much stronger community: more equitable, more innovative,and more resilient.
We’ve found new ways to communicate and engage with our community – using Facebook Live for weekly Town Halls, distributing flyers in multiple languages to keep residents informed on food, housing,and health resources. When some property owners refused to let us distribute the flyers, we put out yard signs in our medians with the information in multiple languages. Our tech staff built an interactive COVID-19 online Dashboard to provide the latest updates. *
To support our restaurants, we approved an administrative process to allow temporary outdoor seating areas (TOSA’s) beyond those already permitted. And we are looking to do more.
We’ve designated curbside pickup zones for restaurants, and we were able to implement this within one business day early during the pandemic. Our Mapping Center has rolled out a mapping tool for people that shows outdoor dining locations across the County.
These are just a few of the innovations we’ve stood up quickly during this crisis. I suspect some here today are wondering why we could not have been so nimble and flexible BEFORE Covid. We can continue to use these innovations on our path to recovery and well beyond. Again, I think we will come out of this pandemic better than ever.
Resilience is our third focus area.
It’s important to remember that Arlington has a history of resilience. It was amazing how fast we grew and adapted back in the 1940s during the buildup of government and military during WWII. The early days of WWII were another dark time for our nation. More recently, we recovered from the 9/11 attack. We made it through the
BRAC process that hit Arlington harder than any other community in the country. We survived the Great Recession and sequestration. We pulled through it all. And we will pull through COVID-19 together and we will become a stronger community because of it.
* But it will not be easy. There is no part of our business community that has not been impacted by COVID.
Many of us know the impact on our restaurants: Based on meals tax collections, March restaurant activity was down more than 60% from last year. Many restaurants pivoted to take out and delivery service, but sales are still down 50% from last year. Our tourism and hospitality industry has probably felt the impact of
COVID more than any other:
* A quarter of our hotels have been offline since late March. April’s hotel occupancy and revenue were down around 90 percent compared to last year.
* The pandemic has resulted in layoffs or furloughs for many of the 27,000 hard-working people employed in Arlington’s hotels, restaurants, and businesses. d businesses . Many of them are turning to Arlington County for help with food and rent.
Why Arlington is Resilient
The picture right now is dark for many, and uncertainty lies ahead for all.
* Yet, the resiliency I have seen in our community over the last three months makes me confident that we will recover from this crisis. Throughout human history, cities have suffered with pandemics. Cities as have always come back. Some things about the human species are not going to change. Humans are social and they are curious. They are not going to isolate or stop traveling forever.
And, perhaps most importantly, we in Arlington are far better positioned than most to get through this pandemic.
Our Diverse Economy helps
While Arlington’s corporate community is certainly feeling the impact of COVID-19, we are fortunate to have a diverse economy. The federal, professional services,and technology sectors are faring better than some others. We’ve been focusing lately on tech companies and cybersecurity, which are some of the most able to work remotely and have the most demand for their services.
* Indeed, we are hearing from many of our office tenants that they have been able to maintain operations successfully in a virtual format. I think many people are discovering the very real benefits of not commuting every day. We are finding some of our own County offices are now more efficient than they were before. And our employees more satisfied with the way they can adjust their work schedule to their family demands. Let’s face it, 9-5 is VERY 20th-century concept and hasn’t fit well into our 21st century
lives for a long time.
* While we are seeing a slowdown in corporate moves, interest in Arlington as a business location continues. Our fundamentals of talent, location,and transportation are solid and will withstand this pandemic. We have a well- educated and well-connected workforce. This continues to be a great place to live, work,and play. And, even with the pandemic, people continue to need to live, work and play. * Development continues. We have more than two million square feet of office space under construction, eclipsing the 1.4 million square foot mark set in 2012. Amazon broke ground on the first phase of HQ2. We continue to have site plans and permits come to the Planning Commission and the Board.
And we keep our eye on what is happening around the world. In January, our emergency team saw what was happening in China and began adding to our emergency supplies of protective gear. In March we began to hunt, literally world-wide, for testing capability. That has been long and frustrating effort, but we have stood up two testing sites and are hopeful to have reliable and easily accessible testing for everyone in Arlington who wants or needs a test soon.
Another strength we have is our long-standing safety net. When we needed to feed many more residents, organizations like AFAC and Meals on Wheels were already there. We didn’t have to invent them, we just needed to grow them. Volunteer Arlington was already there as a clearinghouse for volunteers and they grew. Our DHS and the non-profit Thrive have always helped people with rent assistance. We increased their resources. As we try to set up testing and care for our most vulnerable, The Arlington Free Clinic is already there to support us. Arlington Public Schools have always provided food to needy students when schools are closed. Where APS has fallen short, the PTA’s have partnered across the County, stepped up and provided 100’s of bags of groceries every week to their families. And around the County individuals have set up new groups to help.
One of the true silver linings for me has been seeing the incredible generosity and community spirit from those in this room and across our community.
* So in closing, I need to point out that this pandemic is not a critical event. It is a chronic condition that we will be dealing with for some time. Crises tend to bring out both the best and worst in people. I often remind myself that a crisis….is also an opportunity. In Arlington, I’ve been seeing a lot of the best coming out,and that allows us to seize a very real opportunity here.
We have an incredible opportunity to come through this crisis a much more equitable and resilient community than before.
But we’ve got to innovate to get through the barriers to our thinking that have prevented us from having a way to get good health services to everyone. If we don’t, the virus will come roaring back.
It turns out our most vulnerable workers are also essential. They are the ones we depend on for food, health and child care, personal grooming and more. If they get sick, we get sick.
We also need to remove the barriers in our thinking that have prevented us from making sure everyone has enough food to eat and can afford to live here. If we don’t, we could have, literally, thousands out on the street because they have no home and they are looking for food for themselves and their children.
Whether or not you think the solution is government’s role to play or the economy’s to work out…I think we can all agree that lots of hungry, sick people on the street…will make us all sick and be very bad for our economy. It’s a lesson I hope our entire nation will even figure out. It’s staring us all in the face.
But, for the moment, we are doing pretty darn well here in Arlington at getting through this pandemic.
As we begin to get through the critical phase of Covid-19 and get into the chronic phase and as we get into the issues of inequity that have been a plague forever, I look forward to working with everyone to figure out the innovations we need to make sure Arlington becomes even more resilient and ready to move forward into our next 100 years. I cannot think of a better community to be with right now, than Arlington.
I appreciate all the support from the people in this virtual meeting and the tremendous communications efforts the Chamber has been making. I look forward to your questions and to recognizing our public safety personnel who are on the front lines for us every day. Thank you.