Guest Column

Will O’Neill

Mayor’s Deep Dive

Will O Neill

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Courtesy of the City of Newport Beach

Newport Beach Mayor Will O’Neill

Eight weeks ago, our Governor and researchers feared the worst and thanks to the best efforts of communities like ours, the worst never came to pass.

You may recall when the Governor sent a letter to President Trump almost exactly eight weeks ago saying: “We project that roughly 56 percent of our population – 25.5 million people – will be infected with the virus over an eight-week period.” He requested that the USNS Mercy deploy to Los Angeles, which it did. Last week, the USNS Mercy left port after treating 77 total patients in seven weeks and California has seen slightly over 80,000 positives results.

Locally, UCI researchers told us in late March that Orange County was 20 days away from reaching Italy’s level of hospitals being overwhelmed. That prediction was shocking at the time, and shockingly wrong looking backward.

Instead, here are the actual facts as of Monday (May 18). Keep in mind that Orange County has over 3.2 million people who live here, which is larger than 22 states. Twenty-five hospitals report that they currently have 5,903 beds and 809 ventilators. In a surge capacity situation, we could expand that to 8,394 beds and 1,737 ventilators. As of Monday, 229 hospital beds are being used out of that current 5,900-bed figure. 

That means that 3.8 percent of Orange County’s hospital beds are being used to treat COVID-19 patients...3.8 percent. 

The most that the County has every filled in hospital beds has been 4.2 percent.

Case counts in Orange County have of course gone up as testing has increased. It took over a month to test 40,000 cases at the beginning. It took 17 days to test another 40,000 people. And even with pretty high standards for tests over the past couple of months (requiring symptoms initially), the positive rate on testing is around 5.4 percent (4,841 positives out of 90,130 tests as of Thursday, May 22). 

As of this column, our County has lost 88 people to this virus (the updated number, as of May 21, is 112). Like you, I view every life lost as tragic. Also like you, I want to know how we can better prevent these losses. Twenty-six percent have come from skilled nursing facilities (SNFs). SNFs also represent 17.5 percent of our positive tests in our County, which is particularly bad because the residents of those SNFs are particularly susceptible to the virus. Even our city saw a brief spike in cases due to an SNF outbreak. 

How does this compare to counties around us? San Diego County has 100k more people and has lost 211 people (2.4x OC). If OC and SD were actual states, their mortality rates would be lower than at least 45 other states. Los Angeles, on the other hand, is approximately 3x OC’s population, but has lost 1,913 people (21.7x OC). In one day – Tuesday, May 19 – L.A. lost 76 people. For further perspective, Long Beach alone (pop. 467k) has reported losing 52 people and Pasadena alone (pop. 141k) has reported losing 71 people (these two cities have their own public health agencies).

Clearly the stay-at-home order and the economic shutdown played roles that ensured that the early projections were incredibly wrong. Showing our current statistics is not meant to spike the football on how wrong those projections were because we are still in the midst of a serious virus that we need to take seriously. But we have to be constantly vigilant probing the reasons that our Governor issued the stay-at-home order statewide.

The Governor’s executive order on March 19 stated that the goals were to “preserve the public health and safety, and to ensure the healthcare delivery system is capable of serving all and prioritizing those at the highest risk and vulnerability...” We should expect that our leaders analyze and question the underlying reasons for that order. The projections underlying the order were wrong. The concerns about overwhelming our hospitals haven’t borne out. In fact, hospitals have laid off thousands of employees because their hospitals were essentially empty.

Instead, some of the worst economic projections have happened, including losing 20.5 million jobs in April that has led to the highest unemployment rate (14.7 percent) since the depression. Over 48 percent of our total adult population is jobless. While 80 percent of the currently unemployed Americans are furloughed, those temporary cuts can turn permanent quickly. 

In light of that economic reality, perhaps it’s fitting to quote a famous economist, John Maynard Keynes: “When my information changes, I change my mind. What do you do?”

• • •

Governor Newsom unveiled his budget last week that outlines how he plans to close a projected $54 Billion budget deficit.

Despite repeatedly calling California a “nation-state,” the budget relies heavily on a federal bailout. He said on CNN that the federal government has a moral obligation to bail out California because our public safety personnel would be the first ones laid off absent federal action.

This came at almost the same time that the LA Times published a story with these startling statistics: “California’s prisons have released about 3,500 inmates while the daily jail population across 58 counties is down by 20,000 from late February.”

There is an old quote that a budget is a list of priorities over time. We in Newport Beach clearly don’t share the priority of releasing criminals and cutting our public safety services first.

Instead, Newport Beach’s upcoming budget does not rely on bailouts and would cut our responders’ service to our community LAST.  

We are still rated AAA by all bond agencies. We have solid reserves. We have made decisions on our capital improvement program that will help balance our upcoming budget while not losing any significant safety programs (water/sewer/roads, etc.).

We prioritize your safety and whole community health. We will continue to do so.

• • •

I joined a father/daughter podcast this past week to discuss civic leadership during this crisis. Their description made me laugh, so I include it to entice you to listen:

Will is so much more than just the favorite mayor of HGTV’s Christina Anstead, he truly is as she described “a really great guy” who believes that being Mayor is about listening to your constituents regardless of their political affiliation. Will shares with us how being Mayor is a wonderful job he feels so lucky to have and why it is a truly bipartisan effort.

• • •

If you have been confused about what can open, how it can open, and when it can open, you’re in good company.

When the Governor announced his four phases, he subsequently broke phase 2 into multiple sub-phases.

Our City issued a statement to our local businesses. I want to pull out a couple of sections, though I recommend reading the whole thing.

First, the City of Newport Beach has not passed any resolution or ordinance that has closed any business in the City during this time. There is no process for a business to apply to the City for reopening, nor would there be any expectation that a business would make such an application.

Second, both the State and the County have enforcement capabilities and it would be prudent for businesses to seek clarification where questions arise. To the extent that questions of enforcement of other agencies’ or governments’ orders or resolutions arise, the City will resolve ambiguities in favor of our local businesses. Where there is clarity of law, the City will first conduct education and seek voluntary compliance before enforcement.

Finally – and separate from our statement from last week – we are paying close attention to whether OC can reopen into full phase 2. Our City is already working on an emergency ordinance allowing for outdoor commercial space. If I need to call another emergency meeting before our regular meeting on Tuesday, I will do so.

Will O’Neill is the Mayor of Newport Beach and is a candidate for re-election to the City Council in 2020.