Kissing babies, signing proclamations, maybe even tough budget adjustments — it’s all expected when a person accepts the nomination to be mayor. But first-year Mayor Benson Wong never could have anticipated a worldwide pandemic landing on the shores of Mercer Island when he accepted the appointment to the city’s top position.
“Life has definitely changed,” Mayor Wong said in a March 26 telephone interview with the Reporter.
Wong took the helm on Jan. 7, 2020, when the world was watching China deal with a deadly illness, “coronavirus” we called it. It had a feeling akin to the Ebola outbreak in Africa — scary, heartbreaking, but distant. Soon — sooner than any average American had anticipated — that distance was shortened and the virus was in our proverbial backyard.
By Feb. 29, the first coronavirus death was reported in Kirkland. And a week later, we all had learned a new name for the virus killing people worldwide — COVID-19.
“For me, the speed by which things have changed is mind boggling. It’s also incumbent upon each one of us, individually and collectively, to do what we can to slow down the spread of this virus,” Wong said. “I know that we will.”
And life did change. Before Gov. Jay Inslee announced a stay-home order for nonessential workers, People already were staying home, businesses already were following the direction of the county to have their respective employees work from home, and the governor had closed all bars and restaurants with the exception of take-out and delivery. Life had changed dramatically in a matter of weeks.
“The health crisis enlarged to become a national, and frankly a world economic crisis, that impacts all the small businesses in the country here,” Wong said.
It isn’t just small businesses and the economy feeling dramatic impacts from COVID-19. Our entire way of life now is different than it was just a mere month ago.
Not only are city buildings shut down and businesses crippled, but Wong’s personal life is changed.
“I am taking more walks. My exercise regime has changed quite a bit — I used to go to the gym, but that’s no longer open, so I’m taking walks and doing bike riding,” Wong said. “The pace of life has definitely slowed down. Downtown on the Island and what have you, it’s quite noticeable. We’re certainly, as a family, doing what we can as far as hygiene, washing hands.”
The situation landed on a first-year mayor, sure, but Wong isn’t steering the ship blind. Wong had served as a city councilmember for six years before he was appointed to the leadership role by his fellow council members. And his professional experience as an attorney, he said, is bringing its own skill set to Wong’s ability to navigate the storm that is COVID-19.
“It’s safe to say that most of us have never undergone anything like what we’re experiencing now, so to be honest, nothing in my past has directly prepared me for this crisis,” Wong said. “However, I’m an attorney — not that it matters a whole lot — but I believe that the demands of my legal profession in the past, specifically multitasking under pressure, will prove useful — at least I’m hoping it’ll prove useful — as we tackle numerous issues in our city.”
During his tenure as a councilmember, Wong has dealt with other city emergencies — in the past couple of years, snow storms and budget cuts have been problems the council has had to solve. Wong also noted a water crisis in 2014. Coincidentally, Wong was a first-year councilmember when the water crisis struck.
“Mercer Island had the E.Coli water incident, so our water supply had to be treated. Obviously it was a major inconvenience, but also a major health issue,” Wong said. “That lasted several months, where people had to boil water. That’s a possible comparison — again, it pales in comparison to what we’re going through now — but basically it did impact our city operations and changed our planning procedure.”
Wong said it’s possible the water crisis led to better preparation for the current COVID-19 pandemic.
“Whether or not that was an impetus, what has happened is the city has been doing emergency management planning for several years now,” Wong said. “In hindsight, I’m very thankful that the city staff has been doing this kind of planning.”
What’s been difficult about addressing the pandemic is uncertainties and changing information.
“The unknown and the speed at which things are changing makes things difficult in terms of developing policies,” Wong said. “All cities were trying to grapple with this — by the time you develop policies to address a particular situation, that situation changes. One day we were developing policies to operate our Mercer Island Community and Events Center and our Thrift Shop with reduced levels of service, and then shortly thereafter we had to close both of them because things had changed.”
Currently, the plan is for residents to stay home to slow the spread of the virus to ensure local hospitals are not overwhelmed during the pandemic. It’s hoped that in the not too distant future the stay-home order may be lifted, however as of March 30, there were hints from the governor’s office that the target date for lifting the stay home order could be extended. Despite the extension — and any additional extensions — experts have repeatedly stated the situation is temporary and life eventually will return to normal.
But when normal returns, the world, the U.S., the state and even Mercer Island will have lingering complications to address.
“Difficult decisions relative to the city operations lie ahead for the Mercer Island council, city manager Jessi Bon and for the public,” Wong said. “For the city council — we’re obligated under the law to pass a balanced budget. Any type of significant reduction of our revenue will likely cause or necessitate making substantial, significant and painful cuts to our operations.”
Wong said Bon is expected to report to the council on the city’s financial projection given the current pandemic.
The city has a $4 million contingency fund for emergencies. Wong said that fiscal buffer could help, but it can’t all be spent.
“It would be fiscally imprudent to draw down this contingency fund to zero. You always want to have at least enough money in the contingency fund to keep a city running for perhaps six months if the city is not receiving any revenue,” Wong said. “I’m not going to sugarcoat this — the loss of municipal revenue to us due to this virus is significant.”
Budget work will be necessary to make up for the losses, Wong said.
“Mercer Island has a biennium budget, so for 2020 there will need to be some adjustments, and toward the end of 2020 we were scheduled to begin the budget process for 2021-2022, so that’s going to be a very interesting process,” Wong said.
However, eventually — when, exactly, is a moving target — life will be back to normal. And the difference between a swift rebound or lingering hardship lies in cooperation.
“We are all worried, but if we work together and support and help each other with compassion and empathy, I believe we’re going to come out of the situation together,” Wong said. “I believe in a better place. And the key is not to let your worry paralyze you. I’m confident a vaccine will eventually be found, and until that time comes, the recommendations from our health care officials appear to be working in mitigating the adverse impact of the virus.
“To the extent that people can, enjoy the simple things in life — a walk, a take-out dinner, helping a neighbor. I think those are things that will help alleviate the anxiety that we all feel right now,” the mayor added.