Philly’s coronavirus response

Meet the key officials leading Philly’s pandemic response

Who’s running the show on health, schools, operations and transit.

Philadelphia Health Commissioner Tom Farley

Philadelphia Health Commissioner Tom Farley

Emma Lee / WHYY
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Life comes at you fast. One day, you’re a second-term mayor expecting a bit of post-election relaxation. The next, you’re the leader of a city being infiltrated by a worldwide pandemic.

Those were the before times, and this is now.

With coronavirus an everyday deadly reality in Philadelphia, Mayor Jim Kenney is leading a band of officials working to mitigate the effects on the city and its residents.

Who are they, and what are they doing? Here’s a look at the key players helping Philly deal with the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak.

Health: Tom Farley

Twitter: @DrTomFarley

If fighting the pandemic is like a war, Tom Farley is Philly’s top general.

A lover of data who usually keeps a low profile, Farley has been thrust into the local spotlight by the rapidly spreading coronavirus. At the city’s virtual briefings, he reads off the daily stats, like new cases and deaths, and offers guidance on how people should behave.

Luckily, his experience suggests we’re in good hands. He’s a Tulane-educated medical expert, who worked at the CDC’s Epidemic Intelligence Service.

After that, he served as health commissioner of New York City under then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He even wrote a book about his time at the major metropolitan health agency, called “Saving Gotham” — which chronicled the health commissioner who came before him as he prohibited smoking in bars and outlawed trans fats in restaurants.

Farley made a name for himself by backing controversial ideas like those — so long as they’re supported by scientific evidence. He was an early supporter of supervised injection sites, and he stands behind Mayor Kenney as a big soda tax guy.

Nothing defines Farley more than his infatuation with numbers. As he battles the city’s opioid epidemic, he’s led the citywide charge to collect “reams of data.” Still, the guy seems to understand the nature of Philadelphians.

“I came from a world where people thought that humans acted very rationally,” Farley told Philly Weekly in 2018. “But the data does not support that.”

City operations: Brian Abernathy

Twitter: @bgabernathy

Philadelphia’s managing director is relatively new to his post. After decades working in the public sector, Brian Abernathy took over the position in January 2019, which was previously held by Michael DiBerardinis.

Under current circumstances, Abernathy is basically the point person for all questions at the intersection of coronavirus and city government. Wondering if basketball rims have been taken down at city parks? Or if trash pickup is delayed? He’s probably got an answer for you.

Before he was promoted, Abernathy was the city’s first deputy managing director — a title that sounds almost exactly the same but denotes a slightly lower position in city government. In that gig, he oversaw planning for big events like the Democratic National Convention in 2016 and the NFL Draft the following year. He’s also come to the forefront of the Philadelphia Resilience Project, which seeks to repair damage to the Kensington neighborhood caused by the addiction epidemic.

Like most city officials, Abernathy is not free from his fair share of controversy. There’s the Block Party Scandal of 2018, when Abernathy inadvertently made the process to apply to host a neighborhood gathering more difficult — and the city was pissed.

And we can’t forget that when Abernathy was appointed to his current position, activists rallied against him. Their beef: he admited to reporting undocumented immigrants to immigration officials in 2017, despite the city’s sanctuary policy.

Say this for the guy: He’s usually willing to admit his shortcomings.

“When you’re in government, you’re bound to make mistakes — because you’re human,” Abernathy told Billy Penn in 2018. “I’m optimistic that I can rebuild relationships with the advocate community, but I can’t start to do that if I don’t own up to screwing up.”

Schools: William Hite

Twitter: @SDPHite

The mass closure of schools, ordered by Pa. Gov. Wolf, opened up a huge can of worms: What will kids eat during the daytime? How will they learn? What if they don’t have internet access?

Philly School District Superintendent William Hite is in charge of handling the fallout. He’s the muscle behind the district’s solutions to these problems — including the launch of free meal sites and the distribution of 50,000 Chromebooks so children can get back to learning.

“This is new for all of us,”  Hite said at a Board of Education meeting  last month. “And there is still much work to do to finalize and implement this plan and act with urgency so students can get the technology they deserve and the learning opportunities they deserve.”

Hite has been at his current post since 2012. He’s also worked in school leadership in Maryland, Georgia and Virginia.

Lately, people haven’t been… thrilled… with his performance. Parents have called for Hite to resign over his handling of the district-wide asbestos crisis. The superintendent also came under fire for spending more than $600,000 to renovate his own office, at the helm of an often under-resourced district.

Families: Cynthia Figueroa

In tandem with Hite, Cynthia Figueroa has taken on the challenge of protecting Philly’s kids during the pandemic. She heads up the Office of Children and Families, a recent addition to city government.

Figueroa’s key responsibility, so far, has been coordinating the distribution of free food boxes for Philadelphia families. 

“You don’t need to bring an I.D. or proof of income,” Figueroa said. “Just show up and we will provide a five-day supply of food that you can take home to make meals for your family.”

What feels like ages ago, in the before time, Figueroa served for nine years as the president and CEO of Congreso de Latinos Unidos, and six years as executive director of Women Against Abuse.

Transit: Scott Sauer 

Scott Sauer works as the assistant general manager of system safety at SEPTA, which has been decimated by the pandemic. Ridership is way down — city transit is down 78% and Regional Rail has seen a staggering 97% drop. Sauer helps the transit authority make plans to move forward, like changing service schedules and instituting rear-door boarding.

The St. Joe’s alum has long been interested in enhancing safety procedures. He’s a member of Operation Lifesaver, Inc., a group that works to prevent transit fatalities with public education.

Before he got into the executive leadership game in 2015, Sauer worked on SEPTA’s front lines as a trolley, bus and MFL operator.

Bonus fact: Sauer is a second-gen SEPTA employee. His dad was a trolley operator and MFL cashier from the ’60s until the ’90s. (Can I get an aw?)

Business: Sylvie Gallier-Howard

Twitter: @sylvie_renee

As leader of Philly’s Department of Commerce, Sylvie Gallier-Howard is in a particular crunch. With almost all businesses shut down for the foreseeable future, businesses are seeing virtually zero revenue — and she’s in charge of mitigating the consequences.

So far, that’s included the establishment of Philadelphia’s $9 million COVID-19 Small Business Relief Fund, which is currently reviewing applications for grants and loans.

Pre-pandemic, Gallier-Howard helped launch Kiva City Philadelphia, a zero-interest micro-business loan program. She also helped lead Philly’s pitch to Amazon during the search for HQ2. Under Mayor Michael Nutter, she worked as a deputy chief of staff in economic development.

Reaching Spanish speakers: Joanna Otero-Cruz and Armando Ezquerra Hasbun

All the hard work from the above key players would be missed by 11% of the city’s population if not for the local officials who translate all the info from English to Spanish.

More than 1 in 10 Philadelphians speak Spanish as their first language. At the city’s daily briefing, and behind the scenes, Philly’s translators make sure coronavirus-related information is accessible to them.

Joanna Otero-Cruz (Twitter: @JOC5593) has worked for four years as a deputy managing director on Mayor Kenney’s community services cabinet. When she’s not translating, she oversees departments like 311, the Office of Immigrant Affairs and the Community Life Improvement Program (aka CLIP).

The six years prior, Otero-Cruz was at the helm of local Latinx org Concilio, managing their foster care services and youth development programming. She also helped organize big events like the Hispanic Fiesta and the Puerto Rican Week Festival.

Armando Ezquerra Hasbun is a professor of interpretation and translation at La Salle. He’s been working in the translation game since 1999 — he’s even federally certified to translate court proceedings.

Originally, Hasbun hails from a small village in the Andes mountains. For more info, check out this enlightening Q&A with the lifelong translator.

Another essential player is Irene Contreras Reyes, who works as deputy communications director for the Mayor’s Office. She hails from Venezuela originally, where she worked as a journalist. During the coronavirus pandemic, she’s been essential to keeping Spanish-speaking Philadelphians informed — single-handedly translating all the city’s talking points, including prepping Spanish messages for the COVIDPHL text system.

Want some more? Explore other Philly’s coronavirus response stories.

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