The Clovis Roundup’s Publisher Donna Melchor recently sat down with Clovis Mayor Drew Bessinger for a Q&A session on May 21, 2020. The interview was on the topic of COVID-19 and its effect it had on the Clovis community.
Donna: How were things looking for the city before COVID-19?
Bessinger: Prior to March, we were pretty optimistic that things were going to continue economically. We were on the cusp of Big Hat Days and rodeo, which is a big month for the city of Clovis. Our general fund was looking like we could hire nine additional police officers, three firefighters and a handful of other employees. We were looking fairly optimistically at how things were going to be. I mean, there are always storm clouds, but we weren’t expecting the tsunami that came.
D: Was there any indication that this was going to hit, or was the city blindsided by COVID just as everyone else was?
B: I think if you were looking at the world events that were occurring, especially in Italy, how Italy and Spain were hit very hard, we were hoping that the federal shutdown of immigration from affected areas would help us, but unfortunately it didn’t. I’m the chief of police at the airport, and as soon as the Wuhan virus became an issue, I went out and made sure that I got some additional protective equipment for my personnel because most of us are only one stop away from a Chinese airport or any Asian airport that was going to be a problem. You go from almost anywhere on that part of the continent to San Francisco or Los Angeles and then you have a flight here to Fresno. You’re two stops away, so I wanted to make sure my people had some additional protection and N95 masks and things like that. It was kind of unprecedented how fast it spread and I don’t know that anybody could have foreseen that it was going to affect us economically and what a health crisis that it was.
D: How do you feel about the reaction of the community to the crisis?
B: When the stay-at-home orders were issued by the state and we had to close businesses that were quote unquote non-essential, the business owners, while I am sure they were concerned about their economic bottom line, they stepped in line because they saw it was an issue and it was bigger than them. I am very pleased that the citizens of Clovis and the businesses here were able to see the higher purpose. There came a tipping point three weeks in, I think, and I am hopeful that we’re on our way back.
D: I’m a small business owner and I knew that this was going to be a big deal for other small business owners.
B: Some of our businesses have been able to adapt. My friends at Snowflake Designs, Rick and Ladonna Snow, went from making gymnastic leotards to making COVID masks. They were kind of able to save their business, but as this has gone on further, many of the gymnastics places that they sell to may not make it out of this. They may have saved themselves short-term, but long term it’s a big question mark. My son is an ABC licensee in town. He was getting ready to open up a restaurant bar in downtown Clovis with the expectation that he was going to be open for Big Hat Days. He put a lot of money and a lot of effort into it. They have just been able to keep their head above water by selling meals out the door and things like that. It has crippled some people and we have had business owners say they may not make it back. It’s kind of heartbreaking because some of these businesses have been in business for 25 years and they didn’t operate with the intention of having to close for two months. There are federal programs that they can get money from, but a lot of these people – especially cosmetologists and hairdressers, barbers – they are independent contractors. They aren’t eligible for these give-outs that have happened. They have been forced to make a decision that either they are going to violate the law and go back into business or they are going to risk insolvency. It’s not a good thing for the government to put them in that position where they have to make that choice.
D: Have you seen an increase in crimes being committed or any backlash from having some inmates being released from prison?
B: The unfortunate part is that we have people who get arrested for serious crimes – we had an incident that happened at Dick’s Sporting Goods where these three individuals went in and apparently they have done this before, and basically loot and walk out the front door. We detained them. They got booked to county jail and were released and then mocked us on Facebook. The brazenness of that, and frankly the arrogance, is something that if we’re not able to get ahold of, we’re going to have a level of lawlessness which we’re going to have to deal with. We got a good taste of zero-bail. That was supposed to be on the ballot in November. I hope that Californians are smart enough to read the entire ballot measure – and this goes for all of the other ballot measures that have come out – Prop 47 was the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act and had nothing to do with safe neighborhoods and schools. People didn’t read it and what happened was it released criminals from jails. There have been other propositions that have occurred since then, state laws that have reduced felonies to misdemeanors. Possession of methamphetamine is now a ticket. There comes a point where good citizens are stuck in their homes because they are afraid to go outside and that is not how we’re going to do things in Clovis. There was a proposal to the governor about two months ago by an assemblyman in Los Angeles that as part of the emergency order would prohibit firearm sales and ammunition sales. I felt compelled to send the governor as an individual elected official saying that was a mistake to take people’s rights and at the same time you’re sending people out of jails and prisons who are going to victimize people. I am very happy that the governor didn’t do that. I think that would have been risky and foolish. We have to be vigilant because I think that unfortunately there are people who have a utopian view of society, which is not realistic. We need to make sure that we protect our citizens from people who are going to harm them.
D: What is the reopening of Clovis going to look like?
B: It’s going to take kind of stutter steps. I had a conversation with a local restaurant pizzeria owner and we talked about what it’s going to look like for him. He is going to have to reduce his occupancy inside, but he has areas outside that he can utilize. I had a conversation with one of our economic people about what’s our plan to help these businesses expand outside and be able to use green spaces, maybe parking spaces, things like that. So in the long term, is it viable? Probably not. They’re probably going to reduce their occupancy 50 percent, but if we can add another 20 percent outside, it helps their profit margin and helps them get on the way back from being successful. Hopefully in another couple of months this will all be moot. I think reasonably, looking at the history of pandemics like this, there is always a bump coming out. I think we can expect that, but in Fresno County there is less than a one percent chance of dying from COVID, but there is a 100 percent chance that you’re going to go bankrupt if you can’t get back to work. We need to make sure that we are watchful for the health element, but we’re doing everything we can to help people get back economically.
D: What has the city learned from this experience and what can we do in the future if something like this comes up again?
B: The problem is the unknowns that we are looking at. I was on the police department in 2006, 2007 and we had to gut the budget. Fortunately we saw it coming and were able to make difficult cuts and when the recession started to ease up, Clovis was the first city in the Valley to start on its way back. The lessons that we learned are that you have to make hard choices sometimes and it’s better to make those early than later. We also put money away for a rainy day and our reserve funds will help us next fiscal year. Obviously we can’t use them all because you have to have a savings account, but we’ll be able to ease the blow when some funds that we have put aside. Being fiscally conservative and putting stuff to the side and making the difficult decisions more quickly has really kind of helped us. We’re hoping that the economy bounces back quickly so that we can maybe in the middle of next fiscal year be able to start doing the hiring we wanted to do because the economy has recovered. In life, you hope for the best and prepare for the worst and you’re probably going to be in a much better position all around.
D: Do you have a positive message for the community in closing?
B: We’re entering Spring and Summer. It’s going to get warmer. People are going to be able to go outside and go to our restaurants, see our neighbors. We’ll be able to celebrate our children’s graduation from school, high school or college. I think that if we use reasonable precautions as we come out of this – I hate the term ‘new normal’- there are probably things that we are going to think about like shaking hands and hugging. I think that in three years we will look back at this, there’ll be some lessons learned and I think we will be stronger because of it. These are lessons we didn’t want to learn, but I think they will help us be stronger and smarter in the future.