Homelessness, affordable housing, crime, and controversies over a pair of statues were all hot topics in Palm Springs in 2021. Still, nothing dominated the headlines more than a familiar story from the prior year:
The ongoing battle with COVID-19, and its ripple effects on the city, is the top story of 2021, according to city leaders, residents, and media members who covered the town this past year.
“The pandemic was a once in a lifetime event (hopefully) that required a lot of thought, calm, and tough calls,” wrote Eileen Stern, a city resident for more than 20 years. “The Palm Springs City Government really did a great job trying to keep us safe so the city could thrive later. Even in a pandemic, they made the tough call to use funds and continue to finish the downtown park. That was not easy. They balanced immediate needs with future plans.”
The balancing act that played out at City Hall is not without critics. Some claim the city “botched” its response by being too indecisive or heavy-handed. Others, including some Downtown business owners, noted that requiring masks and proof of vaccination when other cities were loosening the rules did more harm than good.
However, Palm Springs emerged as one of Riverside County’s safest cities through it all. Its residents are vaccinated at rates above the county’s 61% vaccination rate. And, following a winter surge in COVID-19 cases one year ago that resulted in 45 deaths in two months, the city saw only 30 deaths in the past 10 months. This is despite an influx of visitors that far exceeded predictions as the state was entering its second lockdown.
“Cities with tourist economies went from a pandemic state to a record state almost overnight,” said City Manager Justin Clifton, who took over the role in April and was immediately thrust into helping find a balance between the safety of residents and visitors and the financial future of the city, its businesses, and hundreds of city employees.
As COVID-19 cases surged, then crested, predictions of tens of millions in lost tax revenue in Palm Springs suddenly flipped, resulting in revenue gains compared to the prior year. That was thanks to tourists flocking to the city and those electing to flee major metropolitan areas and settle here or purchase second homes.
Palm Springs became a “Zoom Town.” Many who could work from home (doing business via Zoom rather than in person) found lower home prices and a slower pace of life in the city more attractive than staying in crowded major metropolitan areas. Those choosing early retirement during the pandemic also drove a surge in housing demand, pushing the median sales price of an average-size single-family home in the city to the north of $1 million as the year ends.
The sudden and unpredictable shift, Clifton said, caught the city off guard. Layoffs of dozens of city employees, once thought crucial to survive the pandemic, were unnecessary. The city suddenly needed additional employees to handle everything from increasing development applications to more trash in Downtown bins.
“Tourist economies are progressing more rapidly out of the pandemic,” he said. “But we’re also ramping up slower. We are down 50, 60, 70 positions. The budget has been adopted to bring back people, but the impacts of this are hard to keep up with.
“It’s like we’re trying to put out the immediate fires as we build the firehouse.”
Another fire raging nearly out of control in 2021 was the issue of the city’s growing homeless population. Some experts estimate more than 500 people are currently unhoused and living on city streets. Many of them are dealing with addictions to substances that make them a danger to themselves and others.
Clifton acknowledged city leaders struggled at times to address the situation. But he has hope that recent moves will see progress in the new year.
“It’s really clear that we made very little progress on where we need to go,” he said. “But in the last six months, we’ve brought in a new service provider (Martha’s Village and Kitchen), we’ve closed Baristo Park, we’re close to being able to adopt sit/lie policies, and we have a new police chief.”
Mayor Lisa Middleton, who took over for former mayor and now Councilmember Christy Holstege on Dec. 9, also pointed to recent progress on the issue. She said she is hopeful a proposed “navigation center” in the north part of town will be a significant step forward in helping those who sometimes do not want the help.
“Getting it open within the year is going to be a challenge,” she said of the facility that would provide essential services and temporary housing. “When that opens, we are in a position to take far more assertive actions regarding people who are sleeping and lying in public places.
“All of us want to help those individuals who are struggling financially and need help to get back on their feet. For the most part, we have done pretty well to help those individuals. Dealing with people who have addiction and mental health issues, there are programs for them, and we struggle to get people to participate.”
THIS WEEK: OUR YEAR IN REVIEW SERIES
MONDAY: Our top 5 stories of 2021, according to the data
TUESDAY: Our readers weigh in on the top stories of 2021
TODAY: Palm Springs in 2021: A ‘Zoom Town’ emerges under the cloud of a pandemic
THURSDAY: Palm Springs in 2022: Time needed to build a better city comes face-to-face with reality
FRIDAY: Meet our 2021 Palm Springs Person of the Year