Mayor Ara Najarian of Glendale

Glendale City Confronts Coronavirus

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GLENDALE — As the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic rages through the United States, the city of Glendale with its large Armenian community have geared up to take protective measures. As of April 6, Glendale had 142 known cases of infection, which is the third largest number of cases in municipalities in Los Angeles County after Los Angeles itself and Long Beach. This is roughly in line with its overall population, as it was ranked as the third largest city in the county according to the 2010 US census.

Glendale’s mayor, Ara James Najarian, pointed out that three levels of government are involved with the preparation in addition to federal guidelines. The governor provides general orders and Los Angeles County, of which Glendale is a part, gets more specific, as it has its own public health department. Finally, there is the city of Glendale.

Najarian said, “The city for the most part is adopting and ratifying the orders of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. We have a bit of leeway on how we do things and how it is enforced, but generally everyone wants to be parallel with their ordinances. They don’t want one city to be more lenient than any other. We are all trying to be at the same level.”

On March 16, Glendale proclaimed a state of emergency, which the city council on March 24 extended until the end of April.  This means that nonessential businesses have closed, while residents are only supposedly to leave their houses for essential needs. Schools, libraries, universities and churches are all physically closed down, though many are maintaining communications via the Internet. Recreational facilities and parks were shut down on March 24 after officials noticed crowds in these places. Gatherings of more than 10 people in enclosed spaces are prohibited. On April 3, the wearing of face coverings (not masks), was recommended by the City Council when people are outside for any reason.

Glendale Prepares

Najarian said that an emergency task force, consisting of the city manager, police chief, fire chief and the chief executive officers of the three hospitals in Glendale, meets daily. It has a plan. While he said he was not privy to the details, much of it involves keeping first responders healthy.

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At present, Glendale is not running out of hospital beds or ventilators, the mayor said. A good proportion of the confirmed cases are being sent to shelter at home after diagnosis if they do not need the extra medical attention provided by hospitals. Najarian said that as elsewhere, Glendale is desperately trying to “flatten the curve” by getting people to stay at home, while those infected recover.

Despite these efforts, if an overflow stage were to be reached, Najarian said discussions would have to take place with Los Angeles County concerning a unified response.

Meanwhile, Glendale’s core services, such as garbage pickup, water and electricity delivery and police and fire departments, are operating at full capacity, Najarian said, stressing, “There is no impact on those services in any way.”  Roadwork is limited to essential things like new water lines while the transit system is on a limited schedule. The Parks and Recreation Department only serves senior meals at present.

If the people providing the core services get sick, however, this would lead to what Najarian called “our doomsday scenario.” He said, “That is when things will become very difficult to maintain social order. Imagine if you have to call the police and no one shows up; if you call an ambulance and no one shows up; if your electricity goes off.”

Ardashes “Ardy” Kassakhian {photo Aram Arkun}

Newly-elected City Council member Ardashes (“Ardy”) Kassakhian, like Najarian, did not foresee a situation of riots and disorder. He said that as long as accurate information is provided to the public in a timely manner, the supply chain for resources remains unbroken and people have access to programs or services that they need to survive, there will be order. If people feel their lives are in danger and they are unable to provide for their loved ones, only then, Kassakhian said, will they not be able to make smart decisions and disorder may result.

The good thing is that at present, Najarian related, calls for services are reduced because most people are at home.

City hall itself is closed. The municipal departments that are still open keep the majority of employees working from home. Skeleton crews keep the city attorney’s office functioning for legal issues that emerge.

Kassakhian said that the council has not yet instituted any new protocols for operations, but that its members primarily work from home and use Cisco’s Webex program to allow teleconference calls. One advantage to this situation is that the conference call can be picked up through the television feed and members of the general public can call in and express their views through telephone. The first council meeting in this format was held on March 24. Only the mayor was physically present with the other council members joining from their homes.

Kassakhian commented: “This is an opportunity that has arisen through this crisis.”

In addition, people are still contacting the city as the council members work from home. The latter still are trying to provide constituent services, Kassakhian said, but it takes much longer to respond because of the skeleton crews at work.

Enforcement of Distancing and Order

Najarian said that he receives emails and calls from residents asking the city to look into certain stores that remain open, though they should not be operating, or other stores that have permission to operate but are packed full of people waiting in line. In response, the city sends out police to inform the store owners how they are violating the emergency orders. Najarian said this has been a fairly successful way of educating the business community. Ideally, he said, the city would prefer to educate them prior to doing enforcement. The final step in case of noncompliance would be to cut off the business’s utilities. The city of Los Angeles has had a dozen businesses by April 2 that had to be targeted, but in Glendale, Najarian said, education is leading to compliance.

There have been cases of young people congregating. In such cases, again a police unit is sent to inform them to disperse. The current restrictions are particularly hard on students who were planning to celebrate their graduations from high school or college, Najarian said.

On April 6, Najarian declared that he was still not happy with social distancing compliance in Glendale. While there are some families taking the situation very seriously, he still saw others coming together. Friends saw the situation as an opportunity to have a beer in their garage or to sneak away with a special someone, without masks.

Consequently, Najarian said it would be necessary to warn people that the city will deploy policy more actively to enforce these rules of social distancing. He concluded, “I would not give us a good grade. I would give us a C- in taking active steps to do this.”

Meanwhile, in general crime has greatly decreased, according to the mayor, though domestic violence cases are the exception. They are on an upswing among all ethnicities. As people are cooped up under pressure financially and facing health concerns, tensions increase.

The two gun stores in Glendale have been extremely busy recently, Najarian reported. These stores are listed as essential businesses according to federal government recommendations, perhaps due to the constitutional issues with the Second Amendment. The problem with this at present is that there cannot be too many people congregating. To counter this, the stores now are serving customers only by appointment.

It should be noted that the City of Los Angeles has taken a different approach. It shut down gun stores and on April 6, a California federal judge refused to block this action.

Kassakhian observed that there initially were shortages of supplies in the markets, like anywhere else in the US. Armenians may have been involved in this, as they have experience in other countries in the Middle East or Soviet Armenia of such crisis circumstances, but since then people seem to have calmed down.

Aside from Easter and religious holidays, which have now been largely transferred to the virtual realm, another major public occasion in April is the traditional Armenian Genocide commemorative events. Najarian reported that the City Council decided on April 1 to cancel its April 24 live event and work on a virtual commemoration, using a compilation of the best of prior events over the past 16 years or so in video form to be aired on local television and cable channels.

Measures to Help Those in Difficulty

Najarian noted several measures to help those who are financial in difficult straits. The City Council passed a freeze on rent increases. Secondly, there is an anti-eviction ordinance which says that anyone impacted by the virus, whether losing a job, having increased childcare costs or facing great medical expenses, will be given a rent forbearance until the state of emergency is lifted. Afterwards, Najarian said, they will have between 6 and 12 months to pay back that rent.

Najarian says this balances the interests of landlords, many of whom have their own mortgages to pay, and tenants. He notes that many of the landlords as well as the tenants are Armenians.

If the crisis is turned around by April 30, the city will keep the 6-month period for repayment, but the longer the emergency period lasts, and the larger the amount of unpaid rent accrues, Najarian said the longer that the city will have to give people to pay the rent back.

There is a freeze on shutoffs. Utility bill late fees are being waived so that if people cannot pay, their electricity or water will not be cut off. The city has loosened parking restrictions.

Kassakhian noted that he called early on for a moratorium on parking citations since the city asked people to shelter at home, especially for the days when there would be street sweeping.

There are also certain new or expanded services being provided. Those who cannot leave their homes for various reasons can call the Glendale Fire Department (see https://www.cnn.com/videos/us/2020/03/25/glendale-fire-dept-delivery-essential-items-elam-btc-pkg-vpx.cnn). Off-duty firemen will shop and then deliver the food to homes, where the people pay for the items. This service also covers medications from pharmacies.

If one cannot afford meals, the city has a meal delivery program. The meals are prepared and brought to the resident’s door. It is primarily targeted at senior citizens. Najarian said that while it is too early to say how many are taking advantage of the abovementioned two programs, but it is safe to say that it is in the thousands.

To facilitate more assistance from private citizens, Kassakhian proposes formalizing collection procedures, by having drop-off centers for supplies to share with health care professionals or neighbors, or even picking up such items in front of homes.

Kassakhian said that he also has tried to reach out to all Armenian organizations to get them to coordinate and find ways to help businesses applying for federal funding. Small mom-and-pop stores or businesses may have difficulties in understanding the language of the necessary but at times complicated forms and filling them out.

Specific Risk Factors

Najarian pointed out some potential risk factors for the local Armenian community. If we look at pre-existing health conditions, many Armenians are smokers, or practice vaping, and that may have compromised their lungs and put them at risk for severe symptoms. Furthermore, many have heart conditions, perhaps due to diet, sedentary lifestyle, or advanced age, which put them further at risk.

There are further factors at play. Najarian said that many of the health care workers, including doctors, nurses and administrators, in local hospitals are Armenians, which is one source of greater than usual potential exposure to the virus. Second, a large number of residents do not speak English and may not get the message as often and forcefully as English speakers do through the media, despite the good efforts of the Armenian-language media and the multilingual broadcasts and warnings of the city of Glendale itself.

Third, he said that a lot of the local markets were Armenian-run and the mom-and-pop outlets may not enforce social distancing rules as strictly as some of the larger commercial outlets.

Finally, Armenians are a family-oriented community, which, Najarian explained, implies extended families and closer interactions. Under the current circumstances, Najarian said, “it is paradoxical that coming together makes the risk greater than staying apart.”

However, Najarian also speculated that “maybe it is just human nature to come together, not just for Armenians, that is proving difficult.” He said that Glendale was not that far above the curve of the average or per capita infection rate and that a part of the problem is that we don’t know the demographics of the people infected. They could be 90 percent Latin Americans or Armenian Americans, but due to privacy rules this information is not released.

Indeed, others argue that it is unclear whether the Armenian community is more susceptible than others. Kassakhian declared, “I don’t think there is anything unique about Armenians that makes them more susceptible. If there is anything we have learned from this pandemic, it is that the spread of this virus does not heed ethnicity.”

In particular, Kassakhian criticized the following statement reported by Glendale News-Press writer Lila Seidman on March 31: “Najarian said the local rise could be tied in part to its large population of Armenian Americans and Iranian Americans, who are used to greeting each other with hugs and kisses.”

Kassakhian said the statement in the Glendale News-Press is tantamount to calling the coronavirus illness the Chinese flu or telling black people to stay at home because they are more social and therefore susceptible to the virus. Such statements potentially put the Armenian community in jeopardy of adverse reactions from others, Kassakhian said.

The issue of reporting of ethnic and racial figures of coronavirus victims has been of broader concern in the United States. In certain cities and areas, disparities have been reported. Consequently, Los Angeles County’s Public Health Department, fearing that black and Native American patients in the county faced higher rates of infection and death than others, is now trying to assemble this information for all death records, according to an April 6 Los Angeles Times article. It is unclear whether this would also include Armenians as a category.

Testing in general for COVID-19 is expanding and being made free for all Los Angeles County residents.

The Road to Recovery

Najarian declared on April 2 that “I am hoping that we can ride this out, that our social distancing will at least slow down the new cases.” If a vaccine is at least 8-9 months away, he hoped, he said, that perhaps there are other types of treatments that in the meanwhile can get people through it.

Najarian continued: “I am hoping that by Memorial Day we will be back on our feet again. I am hoping that the restrictions on businesses are lifted and they can open, and our lives return to a more normal level.” He said that it would not be back to a totally normal level at first and that expert medical advice would be necessary to know when the city could start easing up on restrictions gradually.

Kassakhian too emphasized that life needs to return to normal at a measured pace. He said, “We need to figure out ways to bring back the economy in phases and steps whereby we can control the rate of infection and exposure to the virus. We are going to change a lot of our physical practices.”

He said that government will have a responsibility to intervene and restart the economy, in part through various types of loans to businesses and people. He said, “I can’t imagine the recession is going to be that deep. A part of what is so affected is the service sectors of the economy. Once we are through this virus, it is hard to imagine that Disneyland, for example, is not going to operate again. The problem right now is that we are at a place where the economy and industry are pretty much frozen.”

Furthermore, he said that the situation for people living paycheck to paycheck has become serious as they potentially are missing two months of pay, if not more. This could lead to long-lasting implications.

Kassakhian noted that the city has reserves built up by taxpayer funds from its businesses and residents, and said, “It is the right thing to do to use those funds to help the community. If bridges and roads had collapsed previously, right now people’s lives have collapsed. We are going to have our budget study session soon and have a better idea, but Glendale has roughly a 30 percent budget reserve at present.”

On another positive note, he said that one of Glendale’s unique features is that it was a relatively small community where everyone knows one another. People were already trying to help out. One example was the local free libraries which have been converted to food pantries where people can donate or pick up nourishment.

As far as the Armenians of Glendale were concerned, Najarian declared: “We are a strong people. We have been through worse than this in our history. We will be here next month and next year, and I think in the context of what we have gone through, this does not rank in the top ten of threats to our community.”

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