CHIEF CRISIS MANAGER
Mayor Jerry Demings Balances Covid-19, Racial Protests and Real Life
Ask Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings to describe a typical day in his life since the COVID-19 pandemic reached Central Florida, and he gives you his classic laugh – a warm, deep chuckle that exudes the confidence of more than 40 years in public service.
“I’ve been a crisis manager for four decades, so when a crisis occurs, it’s showtime for me,” Demings said. “I have planned an entire career around these types of activities.”
He holds an unusual position in the state of Florida, where the leaders of most counties are elected as commissioners and chosen by their peers to serve as the chair for one or two years. Orange County voters chose Demings as mayor in 2018 after he had served as Orange County sheriff, Orlando police chief and Orange County public safety director.
Serving as mayor is a big enough job under normal circumstances — Demings is responsible for more than 8,000 employees and a $4.4 billion budget. But in an official emergency, Orange County’s mayor becomes the emergency manager for the entire county of about 1.4 million residents. That responsibility covers all municipalities, including Orlando, where Demings has been working closely with Mayor Buddy Dyer.
The circumstances have put Demings on point as the region’s main spokesman since March — a position that has intensified during a time of national racial unrest and civil protests. How he has handled the position has been a study in crisis management.
Bracing for the Worst
Like other leaders throughout Central Florida, Demings knew the region was entering into surreal territory and bracing for the worst when the area’s biggest theme park operation and the nation’s largest single-site employer closed its doors on March 15.
“When Walt Disney World made a corporate decision to close its parks for an extended period of time, that was a monumental occurrence in our community that helped us to very quickly slow the spread of the virus. That was significant,” Demings said. “There’s no doubt our community, like every other community in America, has been directly impacted as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Those impacts include economic impacts. With the closing of theme parks, with the closing of various other businesses and industries, with the loss of conventions here, we began very quickly to see multibillion-dollar impacts on our local economy.”
Of Disney’s approximately 77,000 employees in Central Florida, 43,000 were furloughed or laid off. That scenario was replayed throughout the community among organizations of all sizes and industries. Businesses shut down, people stayed home, and the virus stayed at bay.
“As our local experience with the virus became evident, we saw a very low positivity rate of new cases day over day,” Demings said. “At one point, for a sustained period of time, they were 3% or less. During that period of time, I believe they were low because of some of the early actions that were taken when the major employers here closed their doors and when we instituted ‘shelter in place’ or ‘stay at home’ orders. All of that helped us very early on breaking the backbone of the virus within our community.”
That was about to change.
Planning for Recovery
Demings knew that eventually businesses would have to reopen. On April 17, he announced the creation of the Orange County Economic Recovery Task Force. The group would focus on recommendations for how Central Florida would safely reopen in a phased approach.
The task force was co-chaired by two of the business community’s top leaders: George Aguel, president and CEO of Visit Orlando, and Tim Giuliani, president and CEO of the Orlando Economic Partnership. Its 44 members were leaders from organizations all over Central Florida, including hospitals, theme parks, hotels, restaurants, banks, large corporations, small businesses and nonprofits. The task force and its subcommittees held hundreds of meetings, working face to face via teleconference technology.
“We put in place this volunteer group of some of the brightest intellectual minds in our community who represent a broad array of industries as well as ethnic and cultural diversities,” Demings said. “The purpose of the task force was to listen to the health care providers and use their business acumen to make recommendations to me regarding our own experience with reopening. That predated the governor’s assignment of individuals to help with the state’s reopening and its recovery task force.”
It was important to Demings to get as many parts of the community represented as possible. This is one of the key aspects of leadership he advocates.
“My style is to engage the citizens in making public policy,” he said. “Whenever I make public policy, there are three questions I ask about the decisions I make or the decisions I guide in my public official capacity. Number one: How will the decisions we make benefit the citizens we serve? That’s number one because we’re public servants. The second question I always ask is: What will it cost or save based on the decisions we make? The third is: How will it impact the employees I’m responsible for? I ask those three things, and if we have the appropriate balance, then I know it’s the right thing to do for the people.”
Focusing Day to Day
While the Economic Recovery Task Force worked on its project, Demings continued to focus on the day-to-day challenges of COVID-19.
He has held a daily executive policy group conference call every day since March. Leaders in attendance include state and local health care experts, representatives from emergency response departments in each city and the county, senior county officials and department heads, the chief judge, representatives from each of the constitutional offices including tax collector and property appraiser, nonprofit and public transportation CEOS, and senior officials from Orange County Public Schools.
“This think tank of individuals helps me shape policy going forward while we’re in a state of emergency,” Demings said. “The county still is open for business and has a responsibility to provide all of those other services we would provide in a non-pandemic environment. We still have to run the jail, run water and utility, run a fire department, run our parks and recreation, run the administration of the county and make decisions through the Board of County Commissioners over public policy. We still have land use issues moving forward, we still have growth management permitting processes that have to move forward. So each day I depend on my team of senior officials to help me lead the county.”
Once a week, he gets on a regional conference call with the top leader from each of the surrounding counties of Osceola, Lake and Seminole to discuss common concerns, including Central Florida’s workforce. Add in daily videoconference calls with the county administrator, the county attorney, department heads and others, and Demings is usually in at least six or seven meetings a day.
His weeks include numerous media interviews and a press conference every other day where Orange County and City of Orlando leaders announce the latest plans of action.
“My days start early and finish late,” Demings said, laughing. “Not a lot of time for recreation — but a lot of intellectual meetings and conversations.”
Making Time for Life
Demings somehow finds time to be husband, father, grandfather and son — not necessarily in that order. There’s not a lot of time for himself or for physical exercise.
“I’m a visionary. I’m planning for the future and planning for a strong economic recovery,” he said. “Then, I’ll be honest with you, I look forward to sometimes riding my motorcycle just to clear the cobwebs. My wife and I ride our motorcycles when she’s in town occasionally. We steal away a few moments to ride.”
The mayor is married to U.S. Representative Val Demings, who splits her time between Orlando and Washington, D.C. During a 27-year career with the Orlando police force, where she met her husband, she served as chief from 2007 to 2011. Her name is on the list of possible running mates for former Vice President Joe Biden on the Democratic ballot in November’s presidential election.
“We’re each other’s biggest confidantes,” he said. “When she’s not in town, we have conversations a couple times during the day. Sometimes that’s late at night, after 11 p.m., when she’s back in her condo in Washington. We kind of recap the day’s events and plan for the next day.
“When she’s in town, typically we have a conversation before I leave in the morning and then we have a conversation when I get home,” he said. The two often order carry-out for dinner and then sit down to eat together. “We’re a political family, and she likes to talk politics. I really don’t — when I get home, I don’t want to talk politics. But because she likes to talk politics, when I get home we talk about the politics of the day’s events,” he said, chuckling.
“We enjoy our family, too,” he said. “It’s a matter of making certain we maintain just being average people. We’ve learned to laugh a lot.”
Demings pops in to visit his father, who’s 97 and still lives in the house where the mayor was raised in west Orlando. “Some days I spend time with him. I go by and check on him and make sure he has meals.
“Then I have grandchildren, and sometimes I get to spend time with them and just live,” he said, laughing. “It’s a normal life, but on steroids.”
Serving as Orange County’s mayor during a pandemic became even more challenging after May 25, when George Floyd was killed in police custody in Minneapolis. The death involving Floyd, who was black, and the officer who knelt on his neck for eight minutes, who was white, touched off protests that spread from Minnesota across the country and then throughout the world. Protesters of all ages, races and backgrounds flooded streets demanding justice for what they called a long history of police brutality against black citizens.
When protests emerged in Orlando, all eyes were on Demings. As Orange County’s mayor, he urged demonstrators to remember the circumstances of the pandemic, wear masks and practice self-distancing measures. As a career law enforcement officer, he knew the police and sheriff’s offices needed to handle the situation with care. As a black man, he understood the emotions the protesters were feeling and their need to be heard.
Demings has blazed trails as the first African American person to be elected Orange County mayor, the first to be appointed police chief in Orlando in 1998 and the first to be elected Orange County sheriff in 2008. His wife became the first female police chief of Orlando in 2007.
“The culture of our local governments and police agencies has long been one of inclusion and one that is of service to our community,” he said. “While our law enforcement agencies are not perfect, they do strive for perfection. Like any organizations, our law enforcement agencies have bad apples in them. But the overwhelming majority of men and women who serve are good people trying to do good. They are of service.”
When it comes to the delicate balance of race relations, Demings again goes back to his management style of making sure the decision-making process includes the people who will be affected: “With our agencies, it has to be about 1) recognizing the problem and 2) involving the citizens in helping to shape the solutions.”
Continuing to Lead
No one can predict when the COVID-19 pandemic will end. Demings reconvened the Economic Recovery Task Force in late June as cases throughout Florida surged and the infection rate in Orange County rose to 9.2%. He has slowed down phase three of the reopening plan.
“I’m an optimist, and we will get back to normal, pre-COVID,” Demings said. “It will look a little different. Much like after 9/11, when air travel and seaport security changed forever. Post-pandemic, we will see a whole host of sanitary measures permanently being instituted that will outlive all of us. That is probably something that will be a positive result.”
Many businesses have been struggling through the challenges of the pandemic. Some have pivoted, some have folded, and others have started to sprout because of new opportunities created by the circumstances.
Demings has led the county and local partners in rolling out a new campaign to help get the region through this time of uncertainty with the slogan “Safer Stronger Together” and the hashtag #DoYourPart.
For now, he will continue to find joy in his role as best he can. “It’s a privilege to serve in my community,” Demings said. “The rent we all pay for living on planet Earth is service to other people. If I didn’t have bills, I would do this for free.”