For most public officials, battling the coronavirus and keeping their constituents safe is an incredible professional challenge.
For Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia, it's also personal: His mother died of COVID-19 complications last month at age 61.
His mother, Gaby O'Donnell, was a medical assistant for more than 25 years in Southern California. She immigrated from her native Peru with 5-year-old Garcia and other family members in 1982.
"My mom was not just an amazing woman, but she was my best friend and lived such a great and joyous life," Garcia tells NPR's Noel King. "And to lose her is very difficult. But I also know that her work as a health care worker was so important to her, especially in this moment. So we'll do everything we can to honor her and to continue to keep people safe."
My mom spent over 25 years taking care of patients as a medical assistant in the same clinic. She helped thousands of patients, nurses & doctors. She was a healthcare hero. Our healthcare workers need your support to fight COVID-19. Stay safe and protect our families. pic.twitter.com/Bqva9fFcQ3— Robert Garcia (@RobertGarciaLB) July 30, 2020
The number of coronavirus cases in Long Beach is slightly lower per capita than in Los Angeles County as a whole. The latest data show more than 8,300 total cases in Long Beach; 178 people have died as of Monday. Long Beach is a city of about 460,000.
Discussions with his mother about her experience in health care influenced Garcia's approach to mitigating the coronavirus in Long Beach, he says.
"She understood, early on, that this was a very serious virus and she would talk about that to me," Garcia says. "And that also informed our policy. ... In Long Beach, we had the slowest reopening plan of any city in Southern California. We were a week or two behind everyone else. And we were very cautious. And I think a lot of that was because the seriousness of how my mom took it."
Garcia's stepfather also has COVID-19 and remains on a ventilator, he says. Garcia doesn't know how they contracted the virus, but he says his mother was very cautious: full protective gear at work, always wore a mask, rarely left the house outside of work.
"She understood the dangers of COVID-19," he says. "And if someone like my mom can get it, anyone can."
While his mother was in a hospital on a ventilator, Garcia spent time talking with doctors and nurses. It underscored the gravity of the situation. "They need our help," he says. "They need to keep hospital beds empty."
Hospitalizations in Los Angeles County were down by about 12% over the weekend from the weekend before.
Still, Garcia says he's been "incredibly frustrated" that a significant number of people seem to not take the threat of coronavirus seriously.
It's "completely irresponsible and quite frankly, shows no compassion or kindness to helping the people that are the most vulnerable."
But Garcia notes that his mother came to the U.S. in pursuit of the American dream — and "found it." She had a "lot of hope and appreciation for the country."
As the U.S. confronts both a pandemic and a reckoning over racial injustice, Garcia says that optimism from his mother remains.
"I think that we're in a moment that we're learning that a lot of our institutions or values are not as strong as we thought they were or imagined them to be," he says. But "I am still optimistic and very proud of our country. I think that we are going to look at this moment and learn and get better."
NPR's Taylor Haney and Simone Popperl produced and edited the audio version of this story.
NOEL KING, HOST:
The mayor of Long Beach, Calif., is a man named Robert Garcia. Mayor Garcia is experiencing the pandemic professionally and personally. About 180 people in Long Beach have died of COVID-19. His stepfather has been on a ventilator for weeks. And last week, his mom, Gaby O'Donnell, died of the virus at the age of 61. She brought him to the U.S. from Peru when he was 5 years old to escape violence and economic hardship.
ROBERT GARCIA: She started off like most immigrants, you know? We didn't have a lot of money or many resources. But she, you know, cleaned houses, worked odd-in jobs, worked in thrift shops and then, pretty soon, landed a job, actually, in a clinic here in the LA area. Then, for the next 30 years, she spent her life working as a nurse's assistant, medical assistant, as a nurse's secretary and help nurses and doctors and thousands and thousands of patients. And she would always say that we'll never be able to give back to this country what this country has given to us. She became a citizen. And that was one of the best things she would always say that happened to her.
KING: Did your mom talk openly about the American dream, as we often refer to it?
GARCIA: She would talk about it all the time. We always saw, obviously, the flaws in the system and that our country needed a lot of work and didn't always treat everyone the same. But she had a lot of hope and appreciation for the country. And she was always reminding us to give back. And once we all - I mean, I was 21 when I became a U.S. citizen. I don't think I've ever missed an election. And I think it's because she always instilled in us that that vote mattered and that this country accepted us.
KING: You're an elected official. Your mom was what we would call an essential or front-line worker. When the two of you early on were having conversations about the way that COVID was affecting your community there, what did you talk about?
GARCIA: You know, we always understood that we had a job to do and that we were trying to take care of people and keep people safe. So we talked a lot about that, actually. She understood early on that this was a very serious virus. And that also informed our policy. In our city, in Long Beach, we had the slowest reopening plan of any city in southern California. We were a week or two behind everyone else. And we were very cautious. And I think a lot of that was because the seriousness of how my mom took it.
KING: No kidding. So you would hear from her. And that would inform your plans on reopening or not reopening?
GARCIA: Yeah. It wasn't just hearing. It was the experience of growing up - I mean, when your mom works in a clinic for 30 years, you understand that these nurses and doctors, they know what's going on. And what informed me even more so is the last, you know, three weeks when she was in the hospital, I was talking to the nurses daily. I just really reevaluated what we were doing and that we needed to do more. And the thing nurses and doctors will tell you very clearly right now is that they need our help. And they need to keep hospitals empty. This is not a hoax. This is not some made up sham. It's very hard to deal with COVID. And our nurses need our support.
KING: You're alluding, though, to something that is very important, which is there are parts of the country where people do think COVID is not that serious. As an elected official, you must be so frustrated in some ways.
GARCIA: I'm incredibly frustrated. If I was, you know, frustrated before, it's only more so - dramatically more so - now. The science is very clear. It just takes a few conversations with doctors and nurses to understand how serious this is. You know, in Long Beach, we have lost about 180 individuals to COVID-19. It's the leading cause of death in our city. This can be repeated over and over in cities and states across our country. The fact that people continue to not take it seriously is completely irresponsible and, quite frankly, shows no compassion or kindness to helping the people that are the most vulnerable. And so we, I think, as a country have to look in the mirror and ask ourselves, what kind of country are we when we don't value supporting people that need our help the most and that are in the most vulnerable medical positions?
KING: You know, there's a conversation we're having in this country, a fight a lot of us are having in this country, over whether or not America is the country we were raised to believe it was. Do you have the same faith in this country that you did before this pandemic?
GARCIA: I think I've been very disappointed by, you know, even neighbors or folks here that I see having a disregard for human life. I think that we're in a moment where we're learning that a lot of our institutions, our values, are not as strong as we imagined them to be. But I will say that I am still optimistic. I think that we still are that beacon of hope across the world, especially for so many of the poor and folks that are trying to escape their country for a better life or looking for a better life. But I think we learned a lot - and, I think, not just on the issues around COVID, but around racial equity - that we have a long way to go. If we thought we were doing enough before, we have to do much more to address racial inequality, to address income inequality and prepare ourselves for the future of additional pandemics and other types of challenges in our country.
KING: Mayor Robert Garcia of Long Beach, Calif. Thank you so much for your time. We really appreciate it.
GARCIA: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.