Sean Penn Joins L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti to Talk COVID-19 Testing: "This Is a Very Unique Situation"

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The Oscar winner was joined by city leaders to talk and take questions on how his nonprofit CORE is helping coronavirus relief efforts: "It’s my job, with my staff, to gnaw, bite, scratch and kick to expand and force multiply as much as possible."

Crenshaw Christian Center, a Los Angeles megachurch that boasts membership of more than 28,000, takes up almost the entire block of West 79th Street between Vermont and Budlong Avenues. On weeknights, its parking lot is typically abuzz with congregants heading to Bible studies, prayer events or recovery meetings.

Thursday’s schedule was to feature a young adults fellowship function, but amid the unprecedented coronavirus pandemic that put a stop to all public and private gatherings, regularly scheduled church programming has been paused. The parking lot now hosts one of the city’s busiest COVID-19 drive-thru testing facilities (10,000 administered today) and it’s where L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti set up shop for his evening press conference at which he was joined by Sean Penn, L.A. Fire Department Chief Ralph Terrazas and Dr. Cynthia Davis, a vet of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Garcetti offered daily updates — 55 deaths, 399 newly-diagnosed positive cases across L.A. County — and welcomed remarks by both Terrazas and Davis while also giving special attention to Penn, both to express gratitude for his organization’s help in boosting the city’s COVID-19 testing capacity while also allowing him a turn in front of the microphone.

Before doing so, Garcetti said that the Crenshaw Christian site tests more individuals "than many states in America," and that across the county there are 30 sites currently administering COVID-19 tests. "The number of tests we did yesterday was a third of the entire state of California," he noted, adding that, as of today, capacity exists to do half the number of tests for the state combined. "We get the job done and we do it ahead of schedule."

His remarks come after widespread criticism of the lack of testing capacity in California and frustration voiced by public health officials about the slow process of building infrastructure and the lag time for labs to process results. Dr. Barbara Ferrer, L.A. County Department of Public Health director, said the goal by this week was to get to reach 10,000 tests per day as mass testing remains a crucial component of recovery efforts in order to identify any future surges in cases.

Penn has provided the highest-profile shot in the arm in helping the city boost its capacity by mobilizing his nonprofit CORE (Community Organized Relief) last month and offering to help. Per a report in the Los Angeles Times, Penn and his CORE partners, including chief executive Ann Lee, reached out to California Gov. Gavin Newsom to offer their relief services and he put them in touch with Mayor Garcetti.

CORE helped take over a testing facility in East L.A. before moving to other areas of the city. Tonight, Garcetti said CORE currently has 70 staffers helping run four testing sites, efforts that have relieved L.A. firefighters and paramedics from those locations, allowing them to focus on emergency response.

Penn, a longtime and dogged humanitarian, launched a disaster relief organization called J/P HRO in the wake of the Haiti’s 2010 earthquake. The nonprofit got a rebrand in January 2019 under the name CORE as its efforts expanded to focus on disaster relief in other parts of the United States and the Caribbean. That followed work done in places like Puerto Rico, North Carolina and Florida where CORE staffers aided relief and recovery following devastating hurricanes. Coronavirus relief, Garcetti noted, has allowed Penn to "do it here in your backyard, and it means the world."

"This is a very unique situation for us," Penn said in opening his remarks. "While we had some great touchstones within governance, we have never experienced such an extraordinary holistic leadership. What that means for an organization like ours, to be able to have the leadership of Mayor Garcetti and the Los Angeles Fire Department, is that with their faith and their training, we are able to mobilize very quickly. This is what I hope will be a model in terms of the governance and NGO and community foundation partnerships that can be replicated, not only in city of Los Angeles and throughout California, but ultimately throughout the country. It’s going to be part of our job to take lessons learned from the Mayor’s Office and the Los Angeles Fire Department and be able to animate that message beyond."

Penn then called out his org’s website and asked for donations. "We are humbled and grateful to be in a city and state that is on the progressive edge of dealing with this brand-new paradigm." Later, he said that CORE could help by absorbing work done at other testing sites while also moving outwards to help Gov. Newsom’s statewide efforts. He said CORE is also partnered with the Rockefeller Foundation and could expand to three out-of-state locations.

"It’s my job, with my staff, to gnaw, bite, scratch and kick to expand and force multiply as much as possible," he explained. "The hope is that with the scientific communities’ enormous investment, we will be transitioning these sites into inoculation sites and prepare for the next such event."

Garcetti also gave shout-outs to Apple for donating 160,000 face shields for use by hospital workers and those on the front lines of the crisis in health care settings; to clothing company Marine Layer for their donation of 20,000 face coverings; and to Wendy and Barry Meyer, former chairman of Warner Bros., who doubled down on a previous donation of $250,000 for a full $500,000 to the Mayor’s Fund.

Perhaps in a nod to the setting, Garcetti gave a direct shout-out to Penn, saying, "God bless you for the work that you’re doing,” before more overtly addressing the backdrop.

"Standing here before one of our great houses of worship," he said. "Many of us can take inspiration from words of scripture. As Psalms tells us, 'God restores my soul. God guides me along the right paths.' We all need those paths right now. The path that you are helping guide us through — each one of you, by making sure that you get tested, by making sure that you stay home, by generously giving to help fellow Angelenos — means that this righteous path will take us through these foggy days to a sunny day ahead in which we will be together, we will be outside, and life will return as we once knew it. Keep that faith, fellow Angelenos."