COVID-19 RESPONSE: City Council Chair Luis Viera

Chairman Luis Viera talks about his background and COVID-19 efforts

Kate Bernstein, Staffer

Representing District 7, the New and North Tampa area, Councilman and attorney Luis Viera’s role includes sharing information with and being an advocate for his constituents in a range of areas, from budget to land use issues. As chairman, Viera also leads and runs the meetings for the Tampa City Council. Regarding the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, Viera believes that everyone has a role in subduing the spread of the virus, and that now is the time to support the community through both continued work efforts and charity.  

 

Q: What do you enjoy most about your role and what are some of the biggest challenges that come with it? 

A: Without a doubt, what I enjoy most is to engage the public and to really be an advocate for the issues that I care a lot about. You know, number one, engaging the public. People really appreciate it whenever you take time out to speak with them as an elected official because unfortunately, people are conditioned to think the worst about politicians and elected officials. They think that we’re all career politicians who are just looking for the next position, regardless of how we feel about it, et cetera, and that we kind of twist with the wind, and so I appreciate and I’ve always enjoyed engaging the public and my constituents, because they, generally speaking, really appreciate that.  

 I also appreciate really banging the drum for issues that I care about that maybe wouldn’t have as much of an emphasis if I wasn’t an elected official, issues like disabilities. I have an oldest brother who’s intellectually disabled, so I work a lot with the disability community, whether it’s autism, mental disabilities, cerebral palsy, down syndrome, issues like that are very important to me, making sure we’re an advocate for veterans, even though that’s not necessarily a city issue, we can certainly, you know, try to shine a light on the valor of our veterans and what they mean to us, particularly here in Hillsborough county. We have almost 100,000 veterans, not including their families, who live here in the county. So, I think that engaging, being able to shine a light on issues that I care about, and then just making a difference in people’s lives, and frankly, doing the right thing.  

 Then a lot of times as an elected official you have to take a vote where you’re going to anger people and you’re gonna make some people happy, that you’ve got to be used to, as an elected official, taking the heat. In terms of the hardest part of being an elected official, it’s the time. Tampa city council is officially a part-time role and I’m an attorney, so I’m of-counsel at a firm, but a lot of times those two worlds collide and it’s not the easiest thing to do. So, I think that the time constraints are certainly the hardest I think to deal with.  

 

Q: Turning your attention to the COVID-19 crisis, which segments of our community would you say have struggled the most in dealing with the current challenges? 

A: That’s a good question. You know, I always say that people your age or my age, in that 50 and below range, we’re certainly like everybody at risk. There are people who have died from this. But this is really our country coming together, understood properly, to protect the vulnerable, and that includes our senior citizens, those are our parents, our grandparents, people who we know who are seniors, that includes those with disabilities. You know, right now my oldest brother Juan who is, again, developmentally disabled, he lives in a group home and he is quarantined in there. He can’t leave, he’s not allowed to see anybody else who doesn’t live there or doesn’t work there. And then people with immunodeficiencies, people who are cancer survivors, people who may have HIV/AIDS, et cetera. Those are the people that are really susceptible to this virus, so, to answer your question, that’s it and that’s really why we’re doing it, is to protect the vulnerable.  

 

Q: What are you and your colleagues at city council doing to help our community face these challenges? 

A: That’s a good question. You know, right now it’s every man and woman for themselves—so I guess it’s every man for themselves because we’re all men on city council as it turns out—in the sense that we meet over the phone. Like, I just got out of a two-and-a-half-hour meeting, it really ran over, for city council So, we’re engaging with the administration and everybody’s doing their thing.  

You talk to my friend Councilman Orlando Gudes, who represents the East Tampa area, parts of West Tampa. Councilman Gudes is working a lot with that community. You talk to my friend Councilman Bill Carlson, he’s doing a lot of different things in South Tampa, et cetera. So, people are doing different things. I can tell you what I’ve done which is, you know, when this thing first started, I was just picking up the phone and calling up constituents. I got a phone list from my campaign and I was calling people up. 

I’ve done town halls. I did a town hall for small businesses because our small businesses are right now getting hit with a category 5 hurricane, and some of them won’t survive and that’s tragic because those businesses are built out of people’s trades. So, I did one with Carole Post, who’s the head of economic development for the City of Tampa and with Eileen Rodriguez with the Small Business Administration. I did a town call as well with disability advocates for families raising kids with disabilities and I also am doing one in two weeks for students at USF with the administration at USF to talk about the different things that we can do to help USF students. 

 

Q: Can you explain how the town hall meetings go? 

A: Sure, and, they’re very different because it’s kind of like this, which is, they’re over the phone, so it’s not normal, but what I do is I get subject matter experts, um, people with a relevant subject matter knowledge on there. Like for example, Carol Post is the head of economic development for the city. Eileen works with Small Business Administration, so she knew about the loans. Right now, there’s two known loans; the small business administration loan and then the one year 0% interest for 50,000 dollars for businesses to take advantage of that Governor De Santis announced and has been promoting recently. So, they were subject matter experts on that issue and on different things that the City of Tampa can do to help businesses.  

When it came to disability, again, I got subject matter experts. I got people from the Centers for Autism-Related Disabilities, from the City of Tampa Disability Services, from the Florida Autism Center, and then from the school board to talk about exceptional student services. I did it with Steve Cona, who’s a friend of mine, who works as a school board member. So the way we did it is we got the questions before, people sent us questions, and then we had the questions asked during, and if people had other questions they could go to a webinar and ask them, but the public unfortunately can’t talk during it because, you know, given the fact that it’s on the phone, all it takes is one bad apple and the whole thing’s ruined. 

  

Q: What is something we can all do to support your efforts and help our community during this time? 

A: That’s a good question. You know, certainly number one is to stay indoors as much as you can, which is kind of weird but it’s the truth. You know, we all have a role to play, all of us do. You know, another part of it is to continue to keep the economic engine of our city, of our county, of our state, and of our country moving forward, so people should continue to work to the extent that they can and continue to keep that economic engine going because when this is done we’re going to have a country and we’re going to have a city and a community that has taken a tremendous financial hit. There are parts of our economy that can come right back together and then there’s some may not be able to. So that’s very important.  

 But most importantly is to give to charity. If you’re a member of a church or a synagogue, a mosque, whatever it may be, remember their mission, because right now it’s Passover for example, it’ll be Easter on Sunday, and Good Friday on Friday. If you’re a member of a church or a religious body, make sure to help them because these are institutions that are doing more with less because they don’t get the support financially right now. And if you’re not a person of faith, to support different organizations. There’s the Red Cross—for blood, there’s a tremendous need right now for people who are able to give blood. That’s something that’s very, very important. Metropolitan Ministries, the catholic charities, Jewish social services, et cetera et cetera, and to give food if you can.  

 And, you know what, I mean it, to send emails to our first responders, and do whatever you can because these are men and women who are away from their families in tough times. You know, many of them are quarantined right now because they’ve been in such tremendous contact with this condition. So, there’s a lot of things that people can do  

 

 Q: Do you mind sharing a story or two about some unsung heroes in our community who are doing their part to help us get through this crisis?  

 A: That’s a great question, and there’s many of them I can think of. I mean, I know of a firefighter, I can’t say his name, who is a good friend of mine, who has a young son who’s eight or nine years old, and he hasn’t seen his kid for three weeks. And, you know, he’s a single dad, he’s divorced, and he hasn’t seen his son for three weeks because he has come into contact with somebody who potentially has this condition. That’s a real, real sacrifice. I think is a really, really big deal.  

I’d also talk about our city staff. I look at our City of Tampa attorneys for example. These are people who have been working around the clock, really, really hard with complex legal issues, dealing with stayathome orders, dealing with public hearings and due process and they have been working, like, heavy time. So, I would say for this, unsung heroes that people don’t think about are City of Tampa attorneys, I think they’re doing a great job.  

And just all of the staff at the City of Tampa. They’re really, really making hard decisions right now that carry tremendous political weight. I mean, imagine, as a mayor, fighting for a stay-athome order. There’s a lot of political fallout to that. So, people are making tough decisions, and those are certainly some of our unsung heroes.