It’s raining on Vladimir Putin’s parade. This May 9th is V-E Day, the 75th anniversary of the Red Army’s storming of Hitler’s Berlin bunker and the end of WWII.
Putin had planned a huge celebration with a massive military review, the kind that makes Donald Trump green with envy. Putin would be basking in the reflected glory of Stalin’s victory in the “Great Patriotic War.” But with COVID-19 rearing its toxic head in Russia, Putin is being pressured, even from Russian veterans’ groups, to call off his parade.
Maybe we should call off ours. After all, West Hollywood is likely to be hit hard by COVID and its economic after shocks.
Gov. Gavin Newsom has projected that slightly over 50% of all Californians will be infected. As the virus hits older individuals disproportionately, in West Hollywood, with a population heavily weighted toward those over 60, we could see 20,000 COVID infections.
Fortunately, a large portion of those infected will be asymptomatic while many others will only experience mild symptoms. But 10 to 20% of those infected will be hit hard. With Los Angeles County having a 1.8% mortality rate, the math is not in West Hollywood’s favor.
But that is only part of the tsunami hitting West Hollywood. Hotel occupancy nationally is down 70%; but in West Hollywood, with our overabundance of hotels, our local occupancy rate could be below 20%. As West Hollywood’s municipal budget is heavily dependent upon Transient Occupancy tax, (hotel room tax), for about a fourth of our budget, City Hall will feel the pain. Parking meter income must have been down 90% in March and will be approximately the same in April. But that is only part of the story. If meter use is down, the infamous amount of revenue the city reaps from parking tickets will take a huge hit. Shops along Melrose are literally boarded up. Sales tax revenues will be dismal for months to come. Historically, city coffers have experienced a windfall of property tax increases due to home sales; home sales are now at a standstill. The only bright spot will be in recreational marijuana sales. So City Hall’s rosy economic forecast of a few weeks ago has turned out to be delusional. Yet West Hollywood will weather the storm better than most cities.
But, as Larry Block told the Los Angeles Times, the economic aspects of the COVID crisis will be an engine for gentrification, creating devastating impacts to West Hollywood’s treasured diversity. Although the City Council has prudentially placed a 60-day moratorium on residential evictions, that does not necessarily provide a safety net for the unemployed. At some future date, months of back rent will need to be paid.
This brings us to the dilemma of celebrating Pride. Last month the City Council postponed our annual Gay Pride festivities until “later in the summer.” But with what we know about COVID now, it hardly makes sense to invite a couple hundred thousand people into West Hollywood any time this year. In short, the city needs to cancel Gay Pride and Halloween and do it now.
Los Angeles may not see a peak in hospitalizations until late May or even June. Unfortunately, the media’s focus on predicting local “peaks” is misleading. Ideally social distancing will create lower peaks which are then followed by plateaus. That will prevent our health care system from being overwhelmed. But a plateau is not a decline. It simply means transmissions will no longer rise and only eventually ease. Some models have projected that it may be October before we reach a national plateau. Dr. Anthony Fauci has even expressed fear of a “second wave” ricocheting across the country this fall. So even if West Hollywood reaches a peak in infections within six weeks, it could be months before we are approaching normality.
We need to pull the plug on Pride and Halloween. First, it would be sound public health policy. Second, it actually shows leadership. Third, the city might save a couple of million dollars that could be better spent providing assistance to West Hollywood’s sick and unemployed.
There are scores of Christopher Street West volunteers who will continue putting in hours of hard work for an event that probably shouldn’t happen. It is not fair to let them foster false hopes if, in fact, holding the event is not the right thing to do. Although this is the 50th anniversary of the first Pride parade, we can’t let sentimentality interfere with common sense.
As for Halloween, if the City Council delays making a decision, city staff inevitably will have to start working on the event. That is a nice way of saying City Hall will be spending money. Given that we know that most attendees will be dressing up as rolls of toilet paper, Halloween seems pretty irrelevant in light of current events. In light of the infection rate in Louisiana, Mardi Gras looks irresponsible in retrospect. I doubt if Dr. Fauci would think that bringing hundreds of thousands of people into town for a party is good public policy even if our bars and restaurants are open by then.
While Pride and Halloween are signature events that many feel are essential to West Hollywood’s identity, at the end of the day, they are just parties. West Hollywood will survive and be no worse for wear. It was like the year we did the Resist March instead of a parade; the next year people appreciated the Pride parade even more.
But we do need to re-allocate our municipal resources. If we can save a couple of million by not holding Pride and Halloween, we can use those funds to help those most impacted by COVID 19. Given that unemployment benefits hardly cover rent and other essentials, West Hollywood should be giving out $200 or $300 gift cards from Ralphs or Target each month to anyone who is unemployed. That is a lot more effective that relying on SOVA food bank and cuts administrative costs. While we may only be able to afford to do this for three or four months, every little bit helps. Furthermore, we need to create some sort of rental assistance in the form of grants or loans to those facing eviction six months from now. Rents are so high that few people will be able to easily absorb paying two or three months of missed rent even if they only had a few months of unemployment. Without help we will see hundreds of our friends and neighbors being forced from their affordable units, accelerating West Hollywood’s march toward gentrification.
Helping our neighbors most in need won’t be cheap. But given our hefty budget and large reserves, we need to step up and do what we can. We need to re-think our budget priorities. There are probably a lot of other good ideas out there to cope with this crisis and you should share them with City Council. But we came together as a community during the AIDS pandemic; we need to do it again for COVID-19.