Interview: Mayor Justin Wilson on Working Through COVID-19

Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson is full of praise for the city’s COVID-19 response efforts, but the hard times are just beginning, he told ALXnow in a recent interview.

“Everyone is trying to find so many different ways to give back,” Wilson said. “It’s been very gratifying and we’re gonna need it because the need is only going to be exacerbated over the next couple of weeks and months, if not longer.”

It’s one thing to lead your city through an emergency, it’s quite another when you have to do it stuck at home with your family.

ALXnow: How are you feeling? Any symptoms?

Wilson: I’m not running as much as I’d like, and I’m sleeping less than I normally do. But I hang in there. I feel fine.

ALXnow: What happens if you contract the virus and get sick? Would the vice mayor take over until you could take back the mantle?

Wilson: Yeah, if I’m unable to perform my duties the code calls for the vice mayor to take that on, either temporarily or permanently depending on what my situation is.

ALXnow: In the meantime, you have a day job as a senior director with Amtrak, and your wife and two kids are also in the house with you. Can you describe the dichotomy of balancing all of that and your city responsibilities?

Wilson: We are all on top of each other a lot right now, but we’re hanging in there. The kids have occasionally been doing school work. ACPS is doing a good job of doing some e-learning things for them. One of my kids is working really hard on her work when she’s not on online classes.

It’s been a little crowded. We’ve never spent so much time together.

ALXnow: How would you assess the educational programming that ACPS is currently providing your children?

Wilson: I think ACPS has done an extraordinary job. The teachers have done an extraordinary job of just totally reworking how they deliver education in a matter of days and hours in some cases.

They’re still working at it every day, and they’re making changes and enhancements and things like that. But it’s really kind of amazing, because they went from a traditional classroom instruction model that is found in communities all over the country to a completely different model and they did that in a couple of days. Now, they still have got work to do and there are still kids they’re probably not engaging… and I think there’s some gaps in kindergarten through second grade, but from what I have witnessed in my own household and am hearing from other parents, they’ve done a pretty darn good job.

The dedication of all these teachers is incredible. They’re sitting there trying to craft instructions from their homes and dealing with their families at the same time.

ALXnow: Meanwhile, the city council is looking at a hiring freeze, adjusting construction timelines and capital investments and other changes before it passes its budget on April 29. What are you expecting from the city manager’s office, which has asked staff to make $100 million in cuts?

Wilson: I think the first step is the manager needs to come up with a set of revenue re-estimates… Obviously the revenue re-estimates are going to be cataclysmic — completely change the entire complexity of the budget. What we’ve asked the manager to do is the provide the revenue re-estimates we would normally expect at this point, but also essentially provide a new budget to accommodate these new estimates.

That’s what he’s going to do, and council will do what we normally do in the process, although on a much more accelerated timeline where we have the opportunity to make changes to what he proposes, and we’ll do that in the April timeframe.

It’s going to be tricky. I think, in addition to revenue deterioration we’re going to have significant expenses that are part of this. And then we’re going to have to account for the changes at the state level. The state government is clearly going to have to take another look at their budget, and that’s going to potentially impact local government.

ALXnow: What are some of those new expenses?

Wilson: On the expenditure side, there are a lot of things. We are being called upon to assist in a variety of service needs that are sprouting up immediately.

We’re gonna be looking at expanded emergency rent assistance to help residents who are potentially facing the loss of their homes. We’re going to be looking at expansion on the health care side to invest with the needs of folks at this time; a variety of different things about small business assistance and how we build back our economy here in our recovery phase.

You see both sides of this — the deterioration on revenues, the consumption-based side of the budget coming in from the dining tax, sales tax, transient lodging, our hotel tax, the business professional occupancy license tax, are going to see significant deterioration.

But then on the flip side we’re also going to see much greater increases in some areas like childcare, if we have more residents requiring financial assistance… That increases all of these things. We’re going to try to step up to the plate and try to help some of our residents in places where the state government may not be.

ALXnow: Despite the hiring freeze, what about public safety necessities, like the hiring of four additional firefighters so that the fire department meets minimum staffing levels?

Wilson: We’re in a situation where it’s important to be protecting core services of the government — public safety, health and welfare, services and transportation — and we’ll be looking to protect the core human services of government in an extremely difficult time.

ALXnow: Alexandria has a low number of positive cases, and COVID-19 is decimating the local economy. What does recovery look like for a lot of these businesses?

Wilson: I think this is going to take a while to recover, particularly for our small businesses. Under the best of circumstances, they operate with extremely low margins. They’re not making tons of money and they suddenly have to close. It is unlikely they’re going to be capitalized enough to a place where they can come back and just start back up again.

You can’t just expect that they’re going to flip a switch and turn back on when this is done. Many of them will not be open. And that is actually tragedy and has a connected impact on so many different folks.

I just got the first of, unfortunately, many layoff notices from a hotel that was shutting down and laying off all 117 of their staff. There are likely hundreds of kids connected to those 117 people, and their spouses, and that has an impact all across our economy. Those are people who are now spending less. It’s dramatic and it’s not going to subside any time soon.

We’ve pushed hard to try to keep some of the businesses afloat. They’re reworking their businesses to do carryout and delivery, even alcohol carryout to keep those businesses moving. But there is a point where that won’t last very long, and a lot of our residents are starting to see salary cuts and furloughs themselves. They can have all of the best intentions in the world about supporting local business, but when they aren’t getting paid… we’re very concerned about the impact of that and how it filters down throughout the economy. I’m glad that Congress passed legislation that’s going to provide some cash back in the economy and help some of these businesses remain afloat.

ALXnow: What’s it like dealing with the uncertainty that COVID-19 places on the city?

Wilson: I think that is a big part of the problem. With 9/11, it happened, we went through recovery and recovery made sense, you knew what you needed to do and understood the types of things that needed to happen. We are not in that position right now.

ALXnow: In a recent meeting, the council seemed very concerned about the lack of health care options for those who are uninsured. What can the city do to support these uninsured people?

Wilson: A couple different ways. If they’re not on Medicaid and receiving some managed service plan that’s funded by government — which many of our low-income people qualify for — then they’re either receiving it through a provider like Neighborhood Health. If they’re not already a customer, they’re not going to be able to just show up. Then they can go to the emergency room. The [Inova Alexandria] hospital, they provide charity care as part of their obligation to their nonprofit status. They will do that and they provide care for residents in that situation.

ALXnow: What advice do you have for residents feeling symptomatic? 

Wilson: This is a question I get 10 times a day. We continue to advise residents that if they are feeling ill to make an appointment with their physician. If you believe it’s an emergency situation and you’re unable to contact a physician, then go to an urgent care center or the emergency room.

Inova Alexandria Hospital has testing available for COVID-19. If you are suffering symptoms, and you are unable to get into your physician to evaluate you and determine whether you should be tested for COVID-19, you go to Inova Alexandria Hospital. They will evaluate you and determine whether you should get tested for COVID-19.

ALXnow: Inova Alexandria Hospital is a nonprofit, and is exempt from paying property taxes, which equated to about $2.3 million last year. Now the hospital system, which has millions in cash reserves, is increasing its COVID-19 capabilities in neighboring jurisdictions. Why isn’t Inova doing more for Alexandria?

Wilson: We’re working with Inova to expand their testing capacity in the city. We believe they can do more in the city and I’m in constant communication with Inova to make sure that they do that.

ALXnow: Virginia Hospital Center is partnering closely with Arlington County to set up testing sites. Should Alexandria be trying to court other hospitals and free clinics like VHS?

Wilson: Everyone is basically doing the exact same thing. Even the Arlington drive-thru center is basically the same capacity, same criteria as we have at Inova Alexandria Hospital. The issue overall nationally is that we do not have the availability of tests or personal protective equipment for physicians and nurses who are administering the tests. Until you address those two critical shortages, you can not expand testing capacity.

Right now everyone’s applying the CDC criteria, which is saying that you’re only testing people who are symptomatic. We do not have a situation right now where they’re testing anybody who wants a test.

ALXnow: Then what does the future look like as far as what Inova and the city are trying to get done regarding testing? How soon are we talking about something happening? Is it just a lofty goal, or something that is based in reality and do we have a timeline?

Wilson: I think everybody is in the middle of dealing with this crisis, for sure. Inova added the three respiratory centers to support everyone in the region, not just the folks in Arlington, Chantilly and Vienna. Those are for the entire region. Those are for all of us. If you believe that you have a respiratory illness that could be COVID-19, go there and be evaluated.

Obviously we want to get to a place where everyone who needs to get tested for COVID-19 can get tested. We’re not there yet. It’s a national problem and one that we’re all working to resolve.

ALXnow: How would you rate the performance of city staff through all of this?

Wilson: First of all, everyone becomes a first responder in this situation. A lot of our staff are being called upon to help in areas that are far outside of what they would normally be handling. And they’re doing so at great risk to themselves at a time when they’re still worried about their families back home.

They’re out serving the residents of our city and it’s incredible. They’re working seven days a week, 24 hours a day in many cases, and they’re just working their tails off for the residents of the city right now. We have staff delivering Meals on Wheels, because our friends at Senior Services have struggled with volunteers. We have our public safety folks who are, in every call, not knowing whether they’re exposing themselves, what situation they’re coming into. It’s an amazing amount of dedication on the part of our employees.

ALXnow: From a residential point of view, how is the city faring?

Wilson: People are stepping up all over the place. I am inundated every day of the week with inspiring stories, of people reaching out and offering their help to volunteer and wanting in some way to give back. I can’t tell you the number of hotels that offered to house staff because they were completely empty. Inova put out a call for blood donations, and those slots are filling up.

Everyone is trying to find so many different ways to give back. It’s been very gratifying and we’re gonna need it because the need is only going to be exacerbated over the next couple of weeks and months, if not longer.

ALXnow: What is the best way that someone in Alexandria can help?

Wilson: Anybody who wants to contribute financially, we are telling them to contribute to the ACT Now COVID-19 Response Fund, which is the best way to give back right now. They’ve already started to give out money from that fund.