Mayor of city with 1st known US COVID-19 case on how she navigated crisis

Cassie Franklin is the mayor of Everett, Washington

Cassie Franklin, the 48-year-old mayor of Everett, Washington, came home from a city council meeting one day in March and looked around her neighborhood. She saw people playing in parks and continuing their lives as normal, despite the looming threat of the coronavirus.

She decided action needed to be taken. On March 22, she became the first in her state to issue a strict stay-at-home directive advising city residents and business owners to stay home, except for essential activities.

Everett made national headlines early on during the coronavirus pandemic. On Jan. 21, the Washington State Department of Health confirmed the city had the first known case of COVID-19 in the United States. Franklin said they have now seen about one thousand cases and just under 60 deaths in the city since then.

Before she was an elected leader, Franklin ran a nonprofit helping runaway and homeless young people and their families. In 2018, she became the first woman elected mayor in Everett. As the mayor of a city of 112,000 people, Franklin never imagined she would have to make the decisions she has in the past few months.

In addition to being a mayor, Franklin is a mother to an 11-year-old daughter, who has had to adjust to online schooling and staying inside. In February, before her world shifted due to the coronavirus, Franklin and her family flew to Bend, Oregon, to attend a wedding for her high school best friend. The photos she snapped at the wedding feel like the last moment of normalcy.

“We're just happy and joyful and hanging out,” she said. “It was a week later that I started to have to make these really difficult decisions about advocating to close the schools, closing the city and really just changing everything in the way we live right now here locally.”

Since then, Franklin has continued to face the challenge of mitigating the spread of the virus in her city and the devastation associated with it.

“It’s hard not to be defeated and depressed and frustrated when you’re trying to fight something that we can’t fight,” she said in early April. “We don’t have enough PPE, we don’t have enough tests, and we’re doing everything we can to contain the spread of an invisible illness that doesn’t always show symptoms.”

As the coronavirus infiltrated her community, she was faced with not only a public health crisis, but a financial crisis on top of it. She has seen layoffs across the city, affecting businesses of every size.

“We have this constant pull of small businesses and people crying out for help because the economy has already been so negatively impacted,” Franklin told ABC News.

During the COVID-19 crisis, seniors in institutional settings have been especially vulnerable as the virus has wreaked havoc on nursing homes across the country. Federal data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services show that nearly 32,000 people have died from COVID-19 in U.S. nursing homes. A state-by-state analysis conducted by ABC News in mid-May found more than 37,600 deaths attributed to the coronavirus in nursing homes and long-term care facilities from 40 states and the District of Columbia.

Everett has been no exception to this tragedy, as Franklin witnessed the virus creep into a local eldercare facility.

“It's just sad they're alone and ... they're not getting any visitors and they run out of PPE for the staff,” she said on March 27. “And the staff are working around the clock because half the staff left.”

As essential workers have continued to work throughout this pandemic, Franklin reflected on how the virus has raised questions about equity and who is most vulnerable.

“Our working class, our minimum wage team members are the ones that still have to work across our city,” she said. “They are grocery store employees and our bus drivers and they are getting sick.”

In audio diaries she recorded, Franklin leads us through her personal experience as the COVID-19 crisis unfolded in her community and as she addressed concerns to the residents. Her story can be heard in this week’s episode of the ABC News podcast “The Essentials: Inside the Curve.”

One group who has given her hope during this time is the Youth Advisory Board, a board of college and high school students focused on the representation of youth in public policy. Franklin said she is inspired by how young people are continuing to advocate for causes such as environmental justice, gun reform, and anti-racism, despite the fact that the current crisis has caused them to miss out on many experiences, especially the high school seniors.

“They have continued to lead, even though they're missing out on everything that seniors get to do,” she said.

In the wake of the death of George Floyd, a black man killed by a Minneapolis police officer, protests against police brutality and systemic racism have broken out across the country, including in Everett. Seattle, a neighboring city to Everett, has seen large-scale demonstrations.

“Our communities are rightfully outraged and grieving,” she said. “They need to be able to do this and we are still in a global pandemic, so what can we do to try to protect these individuals?”

Leaders across the country are now faced with not only the ongoing global pandemic, but protests in response to ongoing racism.

“The stress of the pandemic hasn't yet let up and then we have this added stress of the sickening atrocities and violence that we saw against African-American men and especially at the hands of those that are actually supposed to protect,” she said.

Franklin said it can sometimes feel as if these problems are too big for her to solve.

“You're just like, this is too big; I can't do this,” she said. “And then you kind of realize, like, well, none of us can. That's why we ... all work together as a ... society.”

ABC News' Melia Patria contributed to this report.