My Pandemic Story: Philly’s Managing Director on How Nothing Prepares You for a Crisis Like This One

Brian Abernathy on reacting to the coronavirus in real time.

brian abernathy

Brian Abernathy is the managing director for the city of Philadelphia.

Published as a part of the “This Is My Pandemic Story” article in the May issue of Philadelphia Magazine. Here, Brian Abernathy, managing director of the City of Philadelphia, shares his experience. 

Honestly, I don’t think we knew what was coming until we started to see what was happening in Seattle and on the West Coast. And I think Italy started to give us a flavor of it as well.

We had a pandemic plan. But just because we had a plan — it was not something we’d rehearsed in a tabletop exercise. This is so different, because normally when you have a disaster, you can pull in resources from other parts of the country, and in this case, you can’t. I don’t think there’s anything that prepares you for a crisis like this, either as a leader or a city staff. Because just as we’re trying to lead the city through it, our staff is scared for themselves and for their families.

We start off with a call at 8 a.m. and kind of walk through what’s going to happen during the day. And then at the end of the day, around five, we go through — okay, what did we actually get done, where are we, what are the sticking points we need to overcome? And then that repeats every day. Even in this weird universe we live in, there’s a rhythm to the day. The Mayor is actually on most of those calls.

So he’s very much active and involved, and frankly, he’s been very helpful. He doesn’t micro-manage. That’s not who Jim is. But he does stay informed. He gives us ideas. He asks great questions. He’s not just showing up at the press conferences.

I will be very complimentary of FEMA, specifically. They’ve been very forthright; they’ve communicated well. HHS was not prepared for this. They just weren’t prepared, and their equipment stockpiles haven’t been great. I would love to know who the hell the President listens to sometimes, because the fact that he doesn’t have the CDC front and center on this, I don’t understand. And this is the time when his defensiveness and his divisiveness are the least helpful. In order for us to get through this, we as a country are going to have to become united.

I leave home before my kids and my wife get up, but I’ve successfully been able to get home to put my kids, who are 10 and seven, to bed on most nights. I’ll do phone calls or emails or whatever after they go to sleep. The job’s always been kind of 24/7 — it’s a little bit more now.

I think seeing the Liacouras Center setup was a triggering moment, just in terms of what’s coming down the road. Certainly, when we reported the first death was absolutely a jarring impact. I think personally, watching my kids try to struggle through this and try to understand what’s happening has been a challenge, because they’re in that in-between age of knowing something’s happening but not fully understanding. My youngest is always saying, “Daddy, why do you have to keep going to work when everybody else is home?”

Published as part of the “This Is My Pandemic Story” feature in the May 2020 issue of Philadelphia magazine.