One Year Later: How COVID Closures Challenged the City

City officials and those who lead city institutions faced challenges they could never have imagined at the start of 2020.
It is now March 2021, and questions still linger about how to cope with the cascading side effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, including fallout from racial inequities regarding the virus and also how to reconcile social and racial injustice in the wake of last summer’s demonstrations protesting police violence against people of color.
Meanwhile, schools still have to be reopened; the police force is reeling from a year unlike most veterans have ever seen; and local institutions, like the public library, have made innovations but wait to see how past use, recent innovations and future needs will blend once it physically opens to foot traffic.
“I think we were all challenged as we anticipated that the stay-at-home order would be relatively short-lived, only to find that here we are, one year later, hoping to be able to resume a pre-pandemic existence later this year,” said Mayor Diana Mahmud.

“There is no question that the effects of the pandemic are far-reaching and lasting,” added South Pasadena Unified School District Superintendent Geoff Yantz. “I’m saddened by the extreme loss many people have experienced and continue to live with today. I am cautiously optimistic that some of the changes we have made to our lives are for the better. The challenge is to continue to build upon the positive while returning to some of the normal practices that we all miss so much.”
Mahmud said she hopes that one lesson learned will be from the attention drawn last summer to the importance of racial and social justice.
“I remember the smell of acrid smoke in South Pasadena when L.A. was burning as the result of the civil uprising following the Rodney King verdict,” she said. “L.A. established a commission to change the conditions that gave rise to that uprising, but I doubt many would agree that much has changed. Hopefully things will be different this time.
“In terms of what we have learned,” she added, “I believe we have been stressed in ways we could not have previously imagined, and that we have proven far more resilient than we anticipated.”
The South Pasadena Police Department directly confronted the twin questions of how to deal with the coronavirus and social justice. Some of the answers are still being sought by the force and city residents who depend on the force.
Bayron Salguero had just finished training and was starting his job as a solo dispatcher when he died in January of complications related to COVID-19. He was just 30.
“It was an emotional time for all of us,” said Deputy Police Chief Brian Solinsky, who is serving as the acting chief. “Bayron made a lasting impression on all that met him. He was a consummate professional who had a bright future.”
While reflecting on the death within its ranks, police were questioned by some for their response to the protests which came this past summer after the death of George Floyd.
“I can’t recall a time in my 28 years of policing when law enforcement was so challenged — by COVID and also by social justice,” Solinsky said.
There was a perception in parts of the community that there was unfair treatment by the police, particularly when others acted aggressively to local protesters and also when a large rally massed in town in support of then-President Donald Trump.
“There is an outside investigation and we welcome it,” he said. “We are trying to have better communication and training. We’re looking at this from a holistic perspective.”
Communication with various segments of the community has to be improved, and the pandemic did not help the situation, he added.
“Groups weren’t talking — including the police,” Solinsky said. “If we had gotten feedback, we might have done better.”
“When should we start sending the children back to school?” was a question repeatedly asked by parents and school officials.
It was a difficult conversation, school leaders said, and required a lot of planning both on local, county and state levels.
However, it appears that day has finally arrived for elementary school students, and planning is now underway for getting middle and high school students back into the classroom.
“While some students initially thrived during distance learning, over time we saw that for many, remote learning is not the best long-term strategy,” Yantz said. “SPUSD staff and teachers have worked extraordinarily hard to offer a learning environment that is intellectually stimulating.
“Now,” he added, “it’s time for us to layer back the in-person experiences that are so critical to educating the whole child.”
The in-person facility of the South Pasadena Public Library may be closed, but the spirit continues in many new forms. There’s online story time, more use of audio and online materials, and books reserved and checked out at the front door.
“I think the pandemic introduced new users to our online resources and that they will continue to use them post-pandemic, now that they have come to know and appreciate them,” said librarian Cathy Billings. “Digital books continue to grow in popularity so we will continue to grow our … collection of e-books and audio books.”
But how will the library be used once people return in person?
“Well, that is the million dollar question, isn’t it?” Billings said. “As with so many aspects of the pandemic, no one knows for sure what to expect, but I have heard from other libraries around the state where in-person services are being offered that the customers are cautious and still very glad to have ‘curbside’ or takeout service options.”
The mayor, meanwhile, said that it is too early to predict what the future holds for the economic growth of South Pasadena.
“It will be interesting to see the extent to which our residents continue to work at least part-time at home,” Mahmud said. “I remember one economic development consultant saying that we needed more people in town during the day to improve the financial opportunities for our businesses. Now with the planned construction of almost 200 units, plus people working from home, maybe we’ll have that.”