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Around the country, the stay-at-home orders have curbed daily commutes and travel. The D.C. region is no exception. Metro General Manager and CEO Paul Wiedefeld joined The Politics Hour to talk about how WMATA is responding to the public health crisis.
Metro’s Response To The Coronavirus
- In response to the public health crisis and a fall in ridership, WMATA and other Washington region transit agencies have made significant reductions to their service.
- Metrorail hours have been reduced to 5 a.m. to 9 p.m., and trains are running every 15 – 20 minutes. Plus, 19 stations across the system have closed.
- Bus service is running on a Sunday schedule, ending at 11 p.m. A number of lines aren’t operating. And, buses are essentially free: Metro has asked all passengers to board through rear doors in order to keep bus drivers safe.
- Wiedefeld told the Metro board that he doesn’t anticipate shutting down the transit system entirely unless issues of employee capacity or federal or state intervention force them to.
WMATA Passes A Budget — But It Could Change
- In the middle of the pandemic, WMATA also approved it’s fiscal year 2021 budget, WAMU’s Jordan Pascale and Margaret Barthel report.
- But the budget could change dramatically as the transit system loses money due to the virus. Wiedefeld estimates that Metro is facing a $67 million deficit — the effect of lost ridership revenue and higher operating costs.
- Metro will receive a portion of the $1 billion federal aid aimed at helping transit in the D.C. region, but it’s unknown how much Metro will receive when it’s split up among regional transit agencies.
- “It doesn’t cover revenue loss. It only covers expenses,” Wiedefeld said about the federal aid on The Politics Hour.
Protecting Metro Employees During The Pandemic
- WMATA has cut back on its service to discourage non-essential trips and cut costs in response to low ridership. But it’s also taking these steps to protect its employees from the virus.
- As of Friday, April 10, WMATA is reporting 17 confirmed cases of employees who have tested positive for COVID-19. An undisclosed number of cases are under review.
- On The Politics Hour, Wiedefeld described the steps Metro takes when an employee is found to have contracted coronavirus. “We basically track where that person may have been, and then we take steps to basically either clean and/or pull people out of the situation,” said Wiedefeld. “If they have made direct contact, then we will contact those people they made direct contact with.”
- WAMU’s Margaret Barthel reported on how transportation workers in the region are faring during the pandemic.
Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks (D) talked about how her county is responding to the coronavirus pandemic.
Prince George’s County Responds To The Coronavirus
- Maryland’s first coronavirus death was a Prince George’s County man in his 60s. And, as of April 7, the county leads the state with the most confirmed cases of the virus.
- Like other areas in the Washington region, the county is taking a multifaceted approach to the public health crisis. The second-largest jurisdiction in Maryland has reduced its prison population.
- When it comes to education, Prince George’s County Public Schools has opted for hard-copy instructional packets rather than online distance learning, worried that not all students have access to laptops or the internet.
- On The Politics Hour, Alsobrooks said that the county will issue a directive next week requiring all grocery store workers to wear personal protective equipment. It will also require shoppers to wear a face covering.
- Alsobrooks has been making it a priority to communicate with constituents, as Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy writes: “I have never received so many calls on my personal phone from people who need to hear not only that help is on the way but a voice of reassurance saying, ‘You know what? We are going to make it through this together.’”
- Alsobrooks hosted a tele-town hall for Prince George’s County residents on Thursday; more than 61,000 people dialed in.
Maryland Releases Race Breakdown Of Coronavirus
- This week, Maryland reported the racial breakdown of coronavirus cases, reports WAMU’s Dominique Maria Bonessi. Of the 5,259 confirmed cases, 2,064 (or 39%) were African American. About 29% of the cases were white, and in 25% of cases, the race is unknown.
- According to U.S. Census data, Maryland’s population is 58.8% white and 30.9% black.
- In a tweet, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan said the data shows “troubling disparities and points to a persistent public health challenge that we must address.”
Prince George’s County Feels The Economic Effect Of COVID-19
- Alsobrooks proposed a $4.58 billion budget last month focusing on education, public safety and “beautification” initiatives. But that budget may change as the county braces for an estimated $60 million shortfall in revenue for this year.
- “We were so pleased that we had created over 21,000 jobs over the last five years. And we therefore led the state of Maryland in job growth,” said Alsobrooks on The Politics Hour. “From March 1 to April 4, we saw 26,287 unemployment claims, which means the five years of job growth that we created was erased in one month.”
- Last week, Alsobrooks launched a $15 million business relief fund to assist small businesses that have been economically affected by the coronavirus, WUSA9’s Jonathan Franklin reports.
- The fund is a public-private partnership: $10 million comes from the county’s Economic Development Incentive Fund, and $5 million comes from local banks and other private companies.
- Small businesses in the county can apply for loans up to $100,000 or grants up to $10,000.
Sorting political fact from fiction, and having fun while we’re at it. Join us for our weekly review of the politics, policies, and personalities of the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia.
Produced by Cydney Grannan
KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5, at American University in Washington, welcome to The Politics Hour starring Tom Sherwood. He's broadcasting from home. I'm Kojo Nnamdi also broadcasting from home. Tom Sherwood is our Resident Analyst and Contributing Writer for Washington City Paper. Tom Sherwood, welcome.
TOM SHERWOODHello, everyone.
NNAMDILater in the broadcast we'll be talking with Angela Alsobrooks. She is the Prince George's County Executive. Joining us now is Paul Wiedefeld, General Manager and Chief Executive Officer of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, WMATA. Paul Wiedefeld, thank you for joining us.
PAUL WIEDEFELDThank you, Kojo and Tom. And I hope everything is well with you.
NNAMDISo far so good. If you have questions or comments for Paul Wiedefeld, now is the time to start calling. Before we get to Metro, Tom Sherwood, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam has signed five of seven gun control bills in his administration. As we know the last session of the General Assembly passed quite a few gun control bills, a total of seven. He has signed five of them. He apparently is seeking to amend two others. Why is that particularly significant now?
SHERWOODWell, as you know, last year during the states campaigns we and everyone else covered extensively the gun control battle in Virginia after the republican legislature controlled the entire republicans, refused to take any action after the massacre in Virginia Beach. So Governor Northam has signed these, I think it's five of eight bills or seven of eight. One would expand background checks. Another would mandate the reporting of lost or stolen guns. Another would prevent children from accessing guns. And it also would reinstate the Virginia one hand gun a month policy and the red flag law, which would allow people to go into court, officials or family members to take action against someone who might be a danger to themselves or to others, huge huge development in that state of Virginia.
NNAMDIWhat he has not signed, however, is the wage increase the basic increase in the minimum wage that was raise -- or was supposed to be raised from $7.25 to $12 by 2023. And the Black Caucus of the General Assembly is not particularly happy about that. Talk about that.
SHERWOODWell, you know, the governor has until midnight Saturday night to sign any measures. There will be a veto session maybe later in the spring to summer to address this, but you're correct. Virginia is a lagging indicator in the region for the minimum wage. It has been $7.25 since 2009. The last time the federal minimum wage was raised to $7.25. As you know, the District of Colombia will go to $15 an hour on July 1. And Montgomery and Prince George's and other jurisdictions in Maryland have been raising theirs. So the Black Caucus among other groups have urged the governor to sign this minimum wage that Virginia is known for its good business needs to support its workers.
NNAMDIPaul Wiedefeld, Metro has drastically changed its service since this pandemic began. Nineteen Metro rail stations have closed throughout the region. Trains are running every 15 to 20 minutes. Fair is no longer being collected on Metro buses and many other changes. How have you seen ridership change? And would you like to see ridership get even lower?
WIEDEFELDThank you, Kojo. First and foremost, let me -- before I answer that question. I want to thank all our staff for their tremendous work they've been doing. They are our heroes I think in this region. They're the ones that are getting people to the hospitals and to the pharmacy and to the grocery stores because there is people that have no other options. So they've done a fantastic job. I particularly want to thank the union leadership across the board. They've been very helpful along the way. In terms of ridership, clearly we are taking hit on that. Our rail ridership is down roughly 95 percent, and our bus ridership is down about 75 percent. So that's, you know, a significant drop.
WIEDEFELDBut what's driving our decisions really, since day 1 -- we started on January 29 when we stepped up our pandemic task force -- it's been about the health and the welfare of our customers and our employees. And so our decision has been driven by that and not by ridership, and the impacts from that perspective serving the essential needs that need to be served. But that's what, you know, we have the motto that "Safety trumps service." And this is, again, playing out under these conditions.
NNAMDIIs there a chance that Metro could shut down completely due to this pandemic?
WIEDEFELDI hope not. I think we play a critical role in the region to move the people that need to be moved. So I'm hoping we can do that. Of course, you know, circumstances could overwhelm us. But we will deal with that as we've been dealing literally day to day if not hour to hour by minute by minute to adjust. But that is not our intention. Again, I think we play a critical role. We have been an essential part of the community during this time. And I think we need to be that continuing into the future.
SHERWOODMr. Wiedefeld, thank you very much for taking the time with us today. Some people are saying oddly enough that at a very time when people need to get around to the jobs that are open transit is much harder on them. It seems like this would be a time when we'd want more buses to minimize the crowding on buses, but that's just not physically possible to do?
WIEDEFELDIt's a combination of a few things, Tom. One is, obviously, we don't want to encourage ridership that isn't essential for one thing. The reality is we have to deal with our own issues from our own staff in terms of health and absenteeism. And they're dealing with their issues as you can imagine both from a health perspective and from a personal perspective. So it was trying to reach that balance. So what we put out there is core levels that we feel we can support that addresses the core needs we believe. If there are issues with crowding, for instance, our bus operators do have the ability to bypass a stop if the bus is too crowded. So we'll continue that. Same way with rail.
WIEDEFELDIf you've been in our system, we have lots of messaging about keeping your social distance and doing the things that we're all being asked to do now. But, again, we believe we serve as a backbone for those people that really need to get around. We've been working with the hospitals and other entities that need our service to make sure that we are trying to meet those as best we can.
SHERWOODAnd when you had a video Town Hall with the employees, people were asking, "Well, when are you going to reopen?" You emphasized that you'll reopen when it's safe.
WIEDEFELDYes. Again, Tom, I think that is, you know, very consistent with our sort of management philosophy, which is it is about the safety of our employees and our customers. A lot of those decisions obviously will take from information we receive from the health community, from government officials and from other things of that sort. But at the end of the day, you know, our core responsibility is making sure that our employees are safe at all time and our customers are safe. So that will drive our decisions as much as anything.
NNAMDIHere is Steve in Rockville. Steve, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
STEVEYes, thank you very much for having Mr. Wiedefeld on. And thank you, Mr. Wiedefeld. I'm a satisfied customer. Tuesday evening of this week I had to go to the Emergency Room from Rockville to George Washington University Hospital. And then they said I could go home. And I was worried about nine p.m. ending service. So I asked staff and I left the hospital about 8:50.
STEVEI think, I got the last blue line train to Metro Center and the last train was about 9:00 -- 10:00 P.M. They had trains facing each direction with the doors open. And I got on and then made it to Wheaton. And the buses, Kojo mentioned not charging. But the buses have people get on and off in the back. And there's a blocking of the area where the driver is. So my one question is I'm glad I made those trains home that night, but when it says, "Service ends at 9:00 p.m." what does that mean, sir?
WIEDEFELDYeah, first and foremost, Steve, I'm glad that that worked out for you and hopefully your health as well. What it means is that's when we start to pull down the service. So it's basically as you can imagine, as we shut off we start to then rerun to the end of the roots and things of that sort. So it isn't exactly at every stop that it all shuts down at nine. That it will play out according to the system. But you should plan to be on your trip by nine o'clock.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Steve. You estimate, Mr. Wiedefeld that the coronavirus related budget deficit is about $67 million including $2.5 million per day in lost fare revenue. D.C. transit agencies in this area are expected to receive $1 billion in federal aid. It's unclear yet how much of that Metro will receive. But what are you looking for? What's the dollar amount that WMATA needs in federal aid to get back on track?
WIEDEFELDKojo, that's a great question. Just so people understand that is not like a block grant or a large sum of money. What that is is that's all reimbursable dollars. So what we will do is is track every expense that we can. It does not cover revenue loss. It only covers expenses. So what we're doing is accounting for all the costs that we are recurring during this period and then we will apply for those -- draw down on those federal dollars that the congressional delegation did a fantastic job for us to secure those. So there isn't a number yet that we can put out there because we don't know where this ends obviously.
WIEDEFELDYou mentioned roughly that $67 million. That's a to date number, and it actually has gone up since that time, since we gave that number out two days ago. And that's increasing roughly about $2.5 million per day. So, again, you know, where this peaks, where the slope and how deep that slope is afterwards will all play into what that number may look like. But, again, we want to thank the delegation for providing those dollars available to us. And now we will account for everything that we spend and apply for as much of those dollars as we can.
SHERWOODYou are in the midst of a major multiyear renovation rebuilding of the Metro system. With this dramatically reduced ridership on the rail is there any upside to getting some work done that you were having trouble getting done?
WIEDEFELDSure. Yes, Tom. We are looking at that. But, again, we're coming at it from the perspective of the health of the individuals that would have to do that work first. So if it's safe then we will take advantage of opportunities whether either it's slow service or whether there's things that we can pull down and get in there and do other work. But, again, it's first driven by can we keep all of our workers, all of our contractors safe before we put them out there. Ideally, it would be great if we could take advantage of some of this from that perspective. But we're not going to do it at the expense of the welfare of those employees.
SHERWOODIf I could follow that up, another upside to this is that the Metro Board itself, which has had a very difficult time in past years on some budgets seems to have come together much quicker this time around to keep you the orders -- to keep running the system in a very difficult time. What's the change now on the Metro Board in terms of guidance to running the system?
NNAMDIBefore you respond to that, Paul Wiedefeld, we've got to take a short break. But I'll keep that question in my mind and I hope you keep it in yours. If you have questions or comments for Paul Wiedefeld give us a call 800-433-8850. Send us a tweet @kojoshow, email to firstname.lastname@example.org or go to our website kojoshow.org. If you have called already, stay on the line. We will get to your calls. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with General Manager and Chief Executive Officer of WMATA, Paul Wiedefeld. Paul Wiedefeld, when we took that break Tom Sherwood had asked you a question about the Metro Board and how you've been working with them at this time.
WIEDEFELDYes. Thank you. The board actually has been fantastic. We've been briefing them since February on what we were doing. They've been very supportive of all the actions we've taken both in terms of public policy perspective and also financially. But I think what's more important with the board is what we've seen, what they just did with the budget for '21, which starts July 1 for us. As you may have seen in The Washington Post today, this February versus last February all the signs are pointing in the right direction. Our rail ridership was up almost 10 percent on weekdays, about 15 percent on weekends and even bus was coming back.
WIEDEFELDAs you know, that's been a nationwide issue. And our bus ridership was coming up. So the budget that they approved was looking to the future and still does. The fact that they approved this during, you know, the height of this almost or during the throes of this just shows that, you know, they understand the importance of the system for the future.
WIEDEFELDAnd some of the things that they put in the budget, for instance, late night service coming back, a flat $2 fare on weekends, increasing the rail service and bus service on weekends, were all signs that the system is going the right way. It's been very tough as you know. A tough four years of sort of digging out of some holes that we had to dig out of. But it's definitely moving the right direction. And the board has supported that very strong. So we appreciate them both in what they've done in the immediate timeframe that we're working under, but also that they haven't lost sight of the future and what this system means to the region.
SHERWOODThere are a number of federal workers in the Washington Metropolitan region. Many of whom use Metro to get to work. Their jobs have not -- they're trying to do a lot of teleworking. But a lot of them are going to work in the federal government to keep it running. What's been the effect on federal workers riding Metro? And for late night hours when July 1st comes, will you go to late night hours immediately or will that depend on how we are with the virus?
WIEDEFELDTom, on the federal workers, I think they are, you know, part of the essential workforce that we're trying to serve. I don't have specific numbers on them. But I do know that we're serving them in some of the Pentagon, for instance, and some of the other medical facilities. So we continue to work with them. We have not had any major issues from them that we've heard of. In terms of late night hours and in terms of just, you know, we have a pandemic task force and a plan that we've had in for years. And we're in what we call stage three. When stage three is literally what you're seeing today. Stage four is really the recovery portion of it.
WIEDEFELDSo we're starting to think through that, but I think it is clear -- we need to make clear for everyone that a system like this, you just don't -- the next day you just don't start back up. There's a lot of things that go into running this system from a safety perspective, from a manpower perspective, from a training perspective, all those things would have to come into play as we start to ramp up. And then obviously we'd also want to take a look at what's happening from a health perspective and what makes the most sense, and from that perspective and also how the community is reacting.
WIEDEFELDBut we feel that we will be there when the region and when the nation, obviously, starts to turn around. And then I'm hoping that we can pick up the pace very quickly. But it will take some time. So I will alert people to that right now. None of us know, obviously, the slope of that curve after we reach the peak. Does that last a month? Does that last three months? That all changes what we would do operationally, but we will address that as we know more.
NNAMDIHere is --
SHERWOODYou run a huge organization. What is it 12,000 employees or something like that? You did a video Town Hall from your home. It looked like a sun porch. But how are you doing as you try to deal both with the huge Metro family and also personally getting to and from work and taking care of your own family?
WIEDEFELDI'm like everyone else, right. We're all in the same boat from that perspective. You know, we all try to reach the balance that we can. You know, unfortunately I cannot drive a bus. I don't have that talent or training. But what I try to do is go out the different divisions and to the different yards and just encourage and thank people for what they're doing. I think that's very important. Obviously, we do a lot from, you know, like you're doing right now, like I'm doing electronically, but the real heroes here are the people that are out there driving the buses and maintaining the buses and maintaining the rail cars and then running, and then the people behind the scenes.
WIEDEFELDI mean, we had to do emergency procurements. We started, again, in early February thinking through some of the things that may come home to roost for us. So we were ordering cleaning supplies in very early February. Well, that took people well behind the scenes doing thing to make that happen. So again, I want to thank everyone that's been a part of that.
NNAMDIWAMU Reporter Jordan Pascale wants to know what happens to monthly pass holders that have money that they are not using?
WIEDEFELDWe will work with them to adjust that.
NNAMDIHere is Richard in Washington D.C. Richard, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RICHARDYes. Thank you for taking my call. It was mentioned about federal workers and the budget. And when this starts to resume, ridership, will you be asking the federal government to start to pay their fair share of the ridership? Right now as, you know, D.C., Virginia and Maryland are supporting deficits and that's good. But the federal government riders, over half of your ridership at one time are getting a free ride so to speak. Will you ask the federal government to step back in? They did at one time pay an additional fee.
WIEDEFELDThe federal government used to provide operating assistance historically to transit. The reality is we've been very fortunate in this region, because we have a special funding source for a capital program called PRIA. So we're very thankful for that. But I think the federal government and particularly FTA has been working very closely with us during these times. Jane Williams, the Acting Administrator there has been in constant contact with me and me with her. And they have set aside quite a bit of dollars for the region. And we will tap into those. Again, it's a reimbursable, which is the way it should be. And any expenses that we have we will go to the federal government and try to get reimbursed for those.
NNAMDIWe got a tweet from Gary. "Could WMATA maybe use the lull to finish the Silver Line early?"
WIEDEFELDAs you know, Kojo, we're not constructing the Silver Line. It's being done by the airport's authority. We continue to work with them on some issues there. And we're hoping that they can take advantage of it. But I think they take the same position we do that if it's unsafe for their workers they're not going to put them out there. But that is primarily contractors. And I just don't know the details of where they stand with their contractors.
SHERWOODGoing back to the bus system, which so many people use. There are elderly people and disabled people who use the bus extensively. You have a rear entry program now to let people come onto the bus from the back. And that elderly and disabled people can still enter from the front if necessary. Is that program working out?
WIEDEFELDIt is. It is, Tom. Again, yes, you're exactly right. We do have the only buses. And we actually provide support for people in wheelchairs or other mobility devices. So we do have that in place. As you know, we also have what's called Metro Access for those people that are registered to that. And these are people that may need dialysis and other severe health issues that have to be dealt with. So we continue to run that operation as well for that part of the community.
NNAMDIHere is Stephanie in Hyattsville, Maryland. Stephanie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
STEPHANIEHi. My question is as it relates to the HIPPA law and keeping those affected with COVID-19 private. I was wondering how would you notify people that have possibly been in contact with the individual without disclosing whether the results were positive or negative?
WIEDEFELDYes. Good question, Stephanie. Yes, under HIPPA, obviously, we cannot identify any individual. But what we do is we have literally setup a website where we know where the person worked and we can identify that. And people can tap into that website and see where people work. So what we do is we basically track where that person may have been and then we take steps to basically either clean and or pull people out of this situation. And we don't, obviously, identify the person. But we just constantly do that. And if they have made direct contact then we will contact those people they made direct contact with. Again, we're following the health and CDC rules on that as we do that.
NNAMDIWe only have about 30 seconds left. But what's happening with the Orange Line platform? Beth from Hyattsville what's to know, "with the Orange Line platform repairs that were supposed to go on all summer?"
WIEDEFELDThat's the entire platform work. Right now the plan is to continue that work. Again, within the context of making sure that we can do that in a safe perspective, but, yes, the plan right now is to continue that platform work as we envisioned earlier.
NNAMDIPaul Wiedefeld is General Manager and Chief Executive Officer of WMATA. Thank you so much for joining us.
WIEDEFELDThank you, Kojo and Tom. And be safe.
NNAMDIYou do the same. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll be talking with Angela Alsobrooks, Prince George's County Executive. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Joining us now is Prince George's County Executive, Angela Alsobrooks. Angela Alsobrooks, thank you for joining us.
ANGELA ALSOBROOKSThank you so much for having me. Good afternoon.
NNAMDIBefore we get to Prince George's County, Tom Sherwood, the D.C. Council has passed measures that are supposed to help relieve a lot of people from the economic effects of COVID-19 including businesses. But the bill also freezes rent hikes. And, however, omits undocumented immigrants.
SHERWOODYes. It's the second bill that the Council has passed. It does put a hold on rent increases and mortgage payments. Cable and phone companies can't cut you off. High school graduates this year will be waved on their requirement to have 100 hours of community service.
SHERWOODAll that said, many of the questions have been about the undocumented people living in the District of Columbia. It's been estimated, I think Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said it costs about $75 million of city funds to address the undocumented people living within the city. He says, we all are concerned about it. We all want to do it, but at this moment, we have not identified the funds to do it. So, those families that are working in the shadow of the law, maybe, who are afraid, in many cases, to go to the hospital or to call police also are now at the end of the line when it comes to getting help from our government.
NNAMDIIn Prince George's County, Angela Alsobrooks, is there anything that county government can do to assist undocumented immigrants at this time?
ALSOBROOKSOh, absolutely. So, two things. First, starting on the healthcare front, we set up screening and testing site at the FedEx Field. And that site is designed to help those who are uninsured and individuals who do not have primary care physicians. And so, for anyone, including those who are undocumented, they can simply call our health department. They'll have a tele-medicine visit there, and they will get an appointment to go over to FedEx field to receive screening and testing. And so, that's one way that we can make sure that everyone in our community, including those who are undocumented, will have access to health care.
ALSOBROOKSWe have also established an hourly wage employee relief fund. This fund allows individuals who are now unemployed, including those who are undocumented, to apply for $200 cash gift card that will be given weekly. And this card is designed to hold over most folks who are waiting for unemployment benefits.
ALSOBROOKSBut this fund is mostly funded through private donations, which means that we do not have the restrictions that the state and federal government will have that would disallow individuals who may be undocumented from applying for those gift cards. Two-hundred dollar cash gift cards weekly can also be made by application and can be used for food and other essential items.
NNAMDIYou had a tele-town hall last night. You said the surge of the coronavirus in Prince George's County is expected in the next 10 days. What is the county doing to prepare for that surge?
ALSOBROOKSSo, what we're doing, you know -- and you're right, we had that call last night. And I have to say Prince Georgians are absolutely amazing. We had 61,000 people on the call last night. And we're preparing for that surge in many way, including hospital readiness, where we are working with the four hospital systems in Prince George's County to ensure that we're expanding bed capacity, including reopening parts of Laurel Hospital, where we now have an additional 135 beds, including some ICU beds.
ALSOBROOKSWe work with the state, as well, to potentially open the sports and learning center as an alternative care site. We'll get approval hopefully for that by next week, where we can open up another 500 beds. We also have surge tents that we have established in three different locations throughout the county and the southern, middle and the northern part of the county. And this allows us also to set up tents and to have med-surge beds where we can care for individuals outside the hospital facility.
ALSOBROOKSAnd so we're doing the hospital readiness. We're also working with public safety and they're doing some really, really nimble things there including cross training. So, for example, if we find that our EMS department is becoming overwhelmed and we have individuals who are testing positive, we're preparing now for sheriff's deputies and police officers to drive those ambulances, in those instances. Also preparing to make sure we can step into a correctional facility, if necessary.
ALSOBROOKSAnd we're also preparing, in terms of supplies, one of the areas we're very concerned about would be ventilators, making sure we have enough personal protective equipment and other ware to make sure our frontline hospital workers are safe, and that we have those ventilators and other equipment to care for individuals when the surge occurs and we have more individuals who need advanced care.
ALSOBROOKSSo, those are just some of the areas that we're working on. Our vulnerable populations, we're working with the governor and with the state to also get into those nursing homes. The governor has put together some strike teams. We have one of those strike teams operating right now in Prince George's County, because we have 14 nursing homes that have positive cases in them. And the governor put together a team that works with our county to go into some of our vulnerable populations at senior assisted living facilities and nursing homes to bring testing kits, and to make sure that we're expediting the results and bringing in additional care.
ALSOBROOKSSo, we are working, you know, from one end of the government to the next to make sure that we are able to care for people when the surge comes. And we don't know if it's 10 days, but we just wanted to make sure that in the most aggressive circumstance, if we find that it's here in 10 days, we're going to be ready. If it's 21 days, we'll be ready. If it's after that, we'll be ready, but we really wanted to make sure that we can respond to what we see.
NNAMDIHere's Tom Sherwood.
SHERWOODMs. Alsobrooks, thank you for joining us today. We're into the Easter weekend. Prince George's County, I've been to them, have some of the largest and some of the best churches in the region, if not the country. What is the message to the churches about social distancing? Are you getting positive responses that people will not be crowding into churches on Easter, one of the biggest Holy days in the Christian religion?
ALSOBROOKSYeah, so the faith community here has done a beautiful job of adjusting to the governor's order that prohibited even churches from having 10 or more people in the church. So, what many of our churches have done is to do the virtual services, that have really served an essential function for us. So many people now are stressed and anxious and concerned. And so those services that have gone on virtually have really served a tremendous, tremendous role now in helping families to get through this crisis.
ALSOBROOKSI watch those services on Sunday, as well, and the churches have done a beautiful job of that. They have also set up food distribution sites. I know a number of churches are giving out gift cards to individuals so that they can go get groceries. And they do so in a social distancing where you drive up and someone can hand you the card. They've served thousands of families so the faith community has been absolutely phenomenal. In Prince George's, we have over 800 churches so it's a very, very critical part of our community. It's a deeply faithful community, and we appreciate the way that they have responded to the crisis.
NNAMDIHere now is Joe in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. Joe, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOEThank you, Kojo. Thank you, Ms. Alsobrooks. I've watched your career. I'm very pleased that you're serving as the county executive. I'm listening to the national and statewide reports that the low-cost testings will be available fairly soon. And I'm thinking, as a possible way of getting ahead of this spread, if it would be possible to distribute one of the low-cost tests or a number of the low-cost tests to each individual household in Prince George's County. That way, if a member of the household is showing symptoms or is feeling symptomatic, they already have a test in hand that they can take to their health care provider. And that was my question, and I'll just take the response off the phone. Thank you.
ALSOBROOKSOkay. Thank you so much, Joe, for calling in. And we do understand the concern about the testing. We prefer to be able to do that testing at one of our sites and through the primary care physicians. And part of the reason is that we want to be able to keep track of the data regarding individuals who are testing positive or testing negative.
ALSOBROOKSAnd the other thing is that, of course, we are forwarding those test kits to our labs, and we're seeing some difficulty there. But we do feel at this point -- unless some of the other health care professionals tell me different -- I think what they prefer is that we're able to maintain and track information. It helps us to understand how the virus is moving through our community. And the best way to do that is to have those results go through our state health department, which is where all of the test results are going. And we're making sure that we're keeping track of that data.
ALSOBROOKSBut I do share your concern, and anyone who's concerned about testing can call 301-883-6627. That testing is free. It's not low-cost. It's free at 301-883-6627. Call and get screened, get an appointment and get out to FedEx field to get a free test.
NNAMDIPeople have more questions, specifically, but before we get to that, let's talk your budget. Last month you proposed a $4.58 billion budget that focuses on education, public safety and beautification initiatives for the county. The pandemic will likely have major economic effects. My implied question, of course, is tell us about what might be changed in your budget.
NNAMDIBut I want to get Tom Sherwood in here first, because you've got, Tom, the new numbers from State Comptroller Peter Franchot about what's happening throughout the state. Tom Sherwood.
SHERWOODJust within the last hour, Peter Franchot said that the state has lost $2.8 billion, just here in the last quarter of the fiscal year, and that 240,000 Marylanders have filed for unemployment claims. And he says that for the governor, him, the legislature and county executives, we will have to make very difficult decisions to protect our state short-term, and then long-term physical stability.
NNAMDITell us about those difficult decisions, please.
ALSOBROOKSYeah, and you know what, and so, Tom and Kojo, we are no different than the rest of the region. We are seeing devastation that we did not expect. You know, for example, we were so pleased that we created over 21,000 jobs over the last five years. And we therefore led the State of Maryland in job growth. But guess what? Over the last month, I'm told now, that in less than a month, from March 1st through April 4th, we saw 26,287 unemployment claims, which means that the five years of job growth that we created was erased in one month.
ALSOBROOKSWe know that pre-COVID, the county had 16,474 unemployed residents, and we are now over 43,000 county residents who are unemployed. And so the devastation is spread wide. It means that we obviously are going to have to make some adjustments in our county's budget. We are expecting somewhere in the neighborhood of at least $60 million in revenue shortfalls this year. And we believe that'll probably grow to about 120 million next year. So, we're going to make adjustments.
ALSOBROOKSWe're already making some very, very heartbreaking adjustments in our county. You all know how much I love the summer jobs program, and that was one of the first things. My budget director called and said, we know you love the summer jobs program. You know, it probably won't be feasible, anyway, but we're just making some really difficult decisions.
ALSOBROOKSBut right now -- and we're going to make those decisions. Right now, we're in a posture to save lives, and we're really focused there. We're going to do everything we can also to help bring back those jobs and to help businesses stand up again. You know, we're really lucky that a lot of our larger projects are continuing, the economic development projects that we were excited about in Largo and in other places in the county, and New Carrollton.
ALSOBROOKSMany of those larger projects are still on track, and we're hoping that we'll be able to restore the job losses that we've seen. But it really -- the pain is going to be deep and wide, and we know that it will. And we're going to have to make some really, really tough choices. But we will make them together as a region.
ALSOBROOKSYou all probably heard that there were some agreements that were made even between Prince George's, for example, Ann Arundel County and those signed on Montgomery County and others to go after economic development together when this is done. This is the first time we had that kind of collaborative agreement. So, it is going to -- when COVID leaves, and we know it will, we're going to have to work together as a region to attract those jobs and opportunities. And we're going to have to really use a regional approach to make sure that we're able to bring up everybody at the same time, the District of Columbia. All of us will have to work together.
NNAMDIWell, we have two callers who would like to ask about grocery stores. And I know that's been a lot in the news lately, so I'm going to take both calls. First from Moez, and then from Bob, and then ask you to respond, Angela Alsobrooks. First, here's Moez. Moez, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MOEZThank you, Kojo, for taking my call. So, my question is about, we work in the grocery store, and, I work at Costco, and we have some members come without protection, like now especially masks becoming essential in stopping the spread of this virus. So, how -- if we can enforce this. So, like, if you're going to go shop, you need to wear protection.
MOEZSo, we, as employees there, we can be protected, too, and we can do our job. Because we are worried, like, we're going to lose some people. And if we get the case of one, we may close the whole store. So, that's the first question. And can those employees can be part of the hazard pay, too, if we're going to consider how to pay for...
NNAMDIWell, first, Moez wants everybody who goes grocery shopping to wear face masks in order to help protect grocery workers. And the second question you had, Moez, I think is the same one that Bob in District Heights, Maryland may have. Bob, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BOBCan you hear me? Okay. I just wanted to ask the same thing about what Moez was talking about. Yesterday, in a national interview, Mayor Bowser was asked about the same question that grocery workers were complaining vehemently that they were not getting the proper PPE. So, since we have had one member of our grocery team pass because of the virus, I wanted to know what exactly can you do -- if anything, you can do to get the grocery stores to provide the PPE to the workers.
ALSOBROOKSYeah, I want to thank both Moez and Bob, first of all, for...
NNAMDI(overlapping) Not to mention Bob's dog, yes. (laugh)
ALSOBROOKSYes, thank everybody in the family for the sacrifices...
NNAMDIBob's dog is complaining, yes.
ALSOBROOKS...that are being made in our grocery stores. We have found these grocery store employees are just heroic. And we lost Leilani Jordan, by the way, the person you mentioned in Largo, who was working at a grocery store. So, we're going to do a couple of things. One is that I sent a letter today to all of our essential businesses asking them to make sure that they are abiding by certain regulations.
ALSOBROOKSExpect to see -- at the beginning of next week, also -- us sending out a directive requiring all of our grocery store workers to wear the personal protective equipment, and also requiring the people who shop in those grocery stores will also be required to wear protective coverings over their faces. Some of them may not have a mask, but we're asking all shoppers to cover their faces with a scarf or something else to protect others against spreading COVID.
ALSOBROOKSSo, we are going to do that, and you should expect to see that directive coming out for next week, so that we make all of our grocery store workers safer, as well as the individuals who are working in those -- I want to thank all of our grocery store workers. It is phenomenal the work they're doing to keep us going during this crisis, at their own great risk. So, we do appreciate it.
SHERWOODYes. The Mayor of Washington, Mayor Bowser has directed that anyone going to a grocery store must wear some kind of face protection, although she did not order it for the workers themselves. She said that most of the grocers, that she understood, were doing that for their employees.
SHERWOODBut I would like to ask a larger question. In a recent column by Courtland Milloy of the Washington Post, you talked about how your personal cell phone has been ringing off the hook more than ever, that you can remember, because of the great fear. Apart from everything you're doing as the government, how are you dealing with the people who call you who simply are afraid?
ALSOBROOKSYeah, I'm talking to them. You know, I am. Again, I'll mention a neighbor who called, who, thank God, I have to tell you, called me back a week later and said his test was actually negative. So, people are fearful, but people are making it through this. You know, we are hearing stories of people who are recovering.
ALSOBROOKSI heard yesterday, and I was so grateful, that one of my Cabinet members who has been really ill and on a ventilator, I heard, thank God, she's been removed from the ventilator, and she is recovering. But we're all in this together. I answer my phone. I have not changed my number.
ALSOBROOKSYou know, my team said after I was elected, oh, you should change your cell phone number. And I said, absolutely not. If people could reach me when I needed them, I want them to reach me when they need me. And so people are still calling me on my cell phone. I answer as often as I can. Sometimes I miss people, but I try to answer, because we need each other. I understand their fear. You know, I have parents who are aging, and I'm concerned for their health. I know what it feels like. So, I'm answering as best I can, and, you know, we're going to just -- we're going to make it together, make it through this together.
NNAMDIThis week Maryland started releasing the racial breakdown of coronavirus cases. The data that has been reached so far shows that African Americans are being disproportionately affected by the virus. And that's the same in Prince Georg's County. You have said before -- and a lot of people have known -- that health disparities in this nation have been going on for a long time, and that people of color and poor people do not get the same kind of health care that people who are better off do. But Debbie, on the Eastern Shore in Maryland, had a specific question about that. Debbie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DEBBIEYes, hello. Thank you for taking my call. I would like to know the experience of health care workers and nurses and doctors and support people working around this virus. Are you seeing more African American death in those groups than in the general population of people coming in?
DEBBIEAnd also, I just want to note that -- I know they haven't done limited research on leukemia -- that they thought it was socioeconomic conditions. They tend to pass the African-American mortality rate off to that, and I'm sure that's true, to a large degree. But they also found in dealing with this leukemia that black people and some Latin and Asian people didn't respond to the treatments, as well as Caucasians and maybe other groups. And I want to know if maybe -- and I know they don't have a vaccine or a magic pill for this virus, but the way they're being handled in the hospital, perhaps there's more to it than just being an African-American obese with diabetes.
ALSOBROOKSOkay. Debbie, thank you so much for calling in. And what I should tell you is that the coronavirus is indiscriminate. It does not know race. What it knows, instead, is chronic medical conditions. And those chronic medical conditions -- including diabetes and high blood pressure and lung disease and heart disease -- are more prominent in poor people, black and brown people, who have generally had disproportionate shares of it because of the health care systems in this country, because of disparities and the access to health care, disparities and access to healthy foods.
ALSOBROOKSWe see this, even in Prince George's County, which is the wealthiest, predominantly African-American County in the country. Yet even here, we have struggled with our health care system. We've struggled with access to health care. We've struggled also just to get restaurants to come here, to bring healthy foods, to bring the vegetables that we need. We've even struggled to attract the kind of grocers that we needed.
ALSOBROOKSSo, COVID, corona, it does not know a race, but what it knows is people who have these underlying chronic medical conditions. In this country, the people who suffer from those conditions are poor people, black and brown people, disadvantaged and impoverished people. And we have a good share of them, and some of them are in health care.
ALSOBROOKSWe know that the surgeon general of the United States of America got on television and said he suffers from these chronic medical conditions, that he, too, is a person who's been diagnosed with high blood pressure. And it is not because he's irresponsible or because of anything else. It's because he grew up poor and did not have access to the health care that he needed. And he's the surgeon general of the United States.
ALSOBROOKSSo, this is something that once we finish taking a good look at it, I sure hope we do something about it. That we change the disparities in this country with respect to health care access and food access, and that we do a much better job of helping poor people, disadvantaged, black and brown people to get the health care that they need.
SHERWOODOn this subject, Maryland's population of African-Americans is about 30 percent, but the most recent numbers about the virus say 50 percent of those infected are African-American, and 53 percent of those who have died have been African-Americans. So, the concept of food deserts and lack of medical care is not new to any person who has any idea or is part of the African-American community in the country, let alone the state of Maryland.
NNAMDIThat's absolutely correct. Angela Alsobrooks, this week Prince George's County Public Schools has been allowing students to pick up a week's worth of grab-and-go meals, two meals on Monday and three on Wednesday. What should people know about this change, and do parents need their children to be present to pick up the meals?
ALSOBROOKSSo, what we know is that we changed the meal schedule to accommodate spring break. And that rather than the two meals that we provide, they're providing one now. And it does require...
NNAMDIAllow me to interrupt, we only have about a minute left.
ALSOBROOKSOkay. Yeah, so report cards, you need student ID to pick up those meals. But we will be distributing one, instead of two. And if I can just ask people to please social distance, in the one minute that we have. Tom was asking me about churches.
ALSOBROOKSPlease, everybody, don't get together for the large dinners this weekend. If you can, do virtual celebrations. People, social distance. Stay at home when you can, and just go out for essential needs, please, until we can get through this crisis. We're going to get through it, but we have to adhere to what the health care professionals are saying to us in order to make it safely to the other side. Thank you so much, Tom, and thank you so much, Kojo.
NNAMDIAngela Alsobrooks, thank you so much for joining us. Tom Sherwood, in the minute we have left, Faith, a legend, musician and Broadway legend who made multiple runs for mayor here in the District of Columbia, passed away on Tuesday at the age of 96. We're going to miss Faith, and we're going to miss her bugle. Or was that a trumpet, Tom?
NNAMDII think it was a bugle, but you can Google Faith, and you'll see the horse and the bugle. It's a remarkable political person in this city's history.
NNAMDIToday's show was produced by Cydney Grannan. Coming up Monday, who are the essential workers, and are they still able to do their jobs safely? Plus every kid is a natural scientist. That's what D.C.'s teacher of the year Justin Lopez-Cardoze says. He joins us for our second Kojo for Kids segment. That all starts Monday, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening. Stay safe and have a wonderful weekend. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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