Berkeley City Council members contemplate pandemic’s physical, emotional labor

Photo of City Council Members
According to Berkeley City Council members, the city government has been experience a shortage of staff members amid the COVID-19 pandemic. City Council members have been engaged in various policy efforts to support members of the community, including supporting local businesses.

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Berkeley City Councilmember Susan Wengraf has not left her home in a year. Councilmember Sophie Hahn worries about her aging mother and three children. Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín wrestles with fear and uncertainty every day, personally and for the city of Berkeley.

The COVID-19 pandemic has stretched for more than a year, and it has not been easy on anyone. In addition to the personal complications of adapting to a pandemic, city council members have also had the state of the city weighing on them.

“It’s no secret that this crisis is bigger than any of us,” said Councilmember Rigel Robinson in an email. “Families and small businesses are hurting, and the city doesn’t have all the solutions. That keeps me up at night.”

The pandemic has redefined what it means to be in office, Arreguín said. The ambitious slate of policies that City Council went into 2020 with were put on hold and priorities were swapped to mitigate the public health emergency, according to Arreguín.

All of that mitigation had to occur at a distance. Several council members noted the difficulties of working remotely, far from colleagues, staff and the public. Wengraf described enormous amounts of Zoom fatigue, and Robinson expressed sadness at not being able to see or speak with constituents directly.

“The distance from the people affects how you do policymaking,” said Councilmember Kate Harrison. “You don’t have the opportunity to talk to people as much — even though we use technology effectively, it’s not the same.”

However, council members noticed that shifting meetings online boosted constituent engagement. The pandemic revealed a number of ways city business could be conducted efficiently, transparently and with more accessibility, Arreguín added.

The transition to the virtual space also means that council members are working more than ever, Wengraf noted. Several council members said they had no choice but to pause other policy priorities despite the extra hours.

“Essentially, we have reinvented the entire regulatory scheme of a city and how we deliver services at a time when our own employees are exposed to COVID, have their own families and worries, and still, greater demands are being placed on our city with revenues down,” Hahn said.

The city government has been short-staffed, but the existing staff has successfully adapted to evolving roles and increased workloads, according to the council members. Handling the pandemic while attempting to resolve previous concerns resulted in twice the workload without twice the budget, Hahn added.

COVID-19 took precedence over addressing environmental and housing initiatives, among other policies, according to several council members. But valuable lessons were learned in terms of maneuvering a disaster-stricken budget, supporting local businesses and rallying the community.

“This will not be the last emergency our community will have to deal with,” Arreguín said. “We are on an earthquake fault. We are at constant threat from wildfires. This struggle will make us more responsive to disasters in the future.”

The city has also continued creating housing by transportation corridors and improving sanitation and basic needs services for the unhoused population, according to Arreguín. City Council has also made progress on racial justice and social equity issues, including an equitable, accessible vaccine rollout and continuing to reimagine policing.

Fully addressing the repercussions of the pandemic — including breathing life back into local businesses and aiding renters racking up unpaid bills — will take hard work and some time, Arreguín and Harrison said.

“It has been demanding, but you know what? I’m in this job because I love this community and care about every person who lives here,” Hahn said. “It’s been demanding, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

Contact Katherine Shok at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @katherineshok.