There’s a lot of fear these days as the novel coronavirus continues to spread across the globe. And that means Alsobrooks is spending a lot of time trying to allay fears.
“I have never received so many calls on my personal phone from people who need to hear not only that help is on the way but a voice of reassurance saying, ‘You know what? We are going to make it through this together,’ ” Alsobrooks said. “The government is working around the clock to deliver services and supplies. But many people are anxious and frightened, and we also have to tend to them, one person at a time, as we see them.”
As of Tuesday evening, the tally of known coronavirus cases in the District, Maryland and Virginia was 781. Prince George’s, the second-largest jurisdiction in the area with nearly 1 million residents, had 63 reported cases and two deaths.
The debilitating virus hit just as the county was on the verge of recovery from the devastating 2008 housing market collapse. Property values were rising. Violent crime was decreasing. The job market was expanding.
With the onset of the pandemic, however, the global economy has been shaken to the core. The U.S. stock market has taken a nosedive. And no one can predict what the future holds.
“We are facing a completely changed economic forecast than we were three weeks ago,” Alsobrooks said. “I had been celebrating the fact that we didn’t have a snowstorm this winter, saying we could shift that money into summer-jobs programs. Then we get this storm of gargantuan proportions that I couldn’t anticipate.”
For now, she’s trying to stay ahead of the fast-moving virus.
Last week, she posted a letter on the county’s website:
“We are heartbroken to share with you that one of our own Prince Georgians has lost his life to the coronavirus, COVID-19,” Alsobrooks wrote. “I ask that you join me in keeping his loved ones in our constant prayers. This pandemic represents an unprecedented crisis for Prince George’s County. We are confronting this pandemic head on and working around the clock to protect the well-being of our residents.”
But there were other deaths, not related to the coronavirus, that she did not mention but were also heartbreaking to her.
“Just in the last week my chief of staff’s father passed away in the middle of the night, very sudden,” she told me. “The next morning, we woke up to learn that her assistant’s husband had been killed by a drunk driver. Then last night I learned that the mother of the chairman of the council had died and that he had rushed to New York to be at her bedside as she was dying.”
Another point made: The county government was being run by people who also have loved ones whom they are trying to care for even as they care for hundreds of thousands of others.
“We can’t let people down,” she said. “We are rising to the occasion despite our own personal tragedies. No one really sees that the people who are helping them get enough food are people who may also be worrying if they will have enough food.”
The county had partnered with Capital Area Food Bank volunteers to help serve more than 600 meals on March 17 — in less than 45 minutes, she said. The demand was so high that Alsobrooks is preparing to hold more “pop-up food pantries” throughout the county.
Meanwhile, the Maryland National Guard continues setting up a virus testing center at FedEx Field in Landover. No date has been set for testing to begin, and once it does, residents will need to be preregistered by their health-care providers.
Alsobrooks said she continues working closely with Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) to seek financial relief for business owners and others whose livelihoods have been disrupted by the virus. Deliveries of food and medical supplies to the neediest of the county’s 160,000 elderly residents also continue.
At a recent “Tele-Town Hall,” which she hosted and broadcast on the county’s website, Alsobrooks spoke about hygiene safety. Of all the recommendations that she gave to the estimated 35,000 viewers, the one about maintaining six feet of “social distance” has been most challenging for her.
At 49, Alsobrooks is no shrinking violet. She is an assertive handshaker, backslapper, high-fiver and hugger, which she used to great effect in winning two terms as the county’s top prosecutor and later to become the first black woman to be elected county executive.
“After we learned how the virus was being spread. I spent the first two weeks training myself not to hug people,” she said. “The thing we need most right now is reassurance and a hug, and we can’t do it.”
A scene she described from her neighborhood in Upper Marlboro suggested there were exceptions to the rule.
“I was walking outside with my daughter one evening — you know, it’s hard on teenagers — and, oh my God, there were children in driveways with sidewalk chalk, people in lawn chairs, people walking,” she said. “I had never seen this many people sitting outside before. Just people drawn closer as families.”
That night, she got a hug. From her daughter.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.