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A mayor and a mom on shaky ground

Salt Lake City’s Erin Mendenhall confronts a pandemic and an earthquake 72 days into her mayoral tenure.

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Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall works at her makeshift standing desk in her basement, while her 4-year-old daughter Mila sits underneath.

Courtesy of Erin Mendenhall

SALT LAKE CITY — She hears it first. The rattle of earrings and necklaces hanging on her jewelry tree. The creaking and croaking bones of her 111-year-old house near 9th and 9th. “Are you kidding me?” Erin Mendenhall shouts toward her jiggling second-floor roof. As if a deadly pandemic weren’t enough to deal with. “You’ve got to be kidding me!” 

The mayor of Salt Lake City secures her 4-year-old daughter and dresses for work, “like when you’re going to have to shovel,” rather than her usual pantsuit. She looks younger than 39, with shoulder-length brown hair framing her cream-colored spectacles and the caring smile of a kindergarten teacher.

It’s been 72 days since she was sworn in, and she’s exhausted. Today she was supposed to sleep in for once, starting her day at 8:30 instead of 8. She was supposed to be working from home, like most of the city. Instead, Erin is scrambling by 7:15.

She packs up her phone, laptop, chargers and a toothbrush, shuts off the water main and speeds off. Her husband drives empty streets to the muscular confines of the city’s Public Safety Building. The sky is gray on a nippy 40-degree morning. She hustles up three floors of stairs and swipes her keycard. She’s the first person in the third floor lobby — a loveseat, a welcome desk and a single shining light — but her keycard won’t let her out.

This was the procedure they told her. This building would be safe. From here, she could coordinate the city’s response to the 5.7-magnitude earthquake, with resources already stretched thin by COVID-19. But the tremor, Utah’s largest since 1992, triggered a lockdown. So now she’s just trapped in a lobby, with nothing to do but wait.

It’s like that movie, where the characters are digging at night and it’s cold and miserable and somebody says, “at least it’s not raining.” Then thunder cracks, lightning flashes, and a downpour drenches them. She can’t help but laugh.

Resigned, she finds herself confronting the emotions rippling across her city. Is the world ending? A “forced centering,” she calls it. Everything seems so bad right now.

Maybe it’s a blessing she can’t see what else is coming. For weeks, she’ll struggle to finish a load of laundry between impersonal Zoom meetings in her basement-turned-office, at a “standing desk” made of two cardboard boxes stacked on a regular desk. She’ll become the target of protesters, including a man who called on demonstrators to bring their guns to start a civil war if she refuses to reopen the city. Tending to her daughter’s stomach bug will feel like “loveliness,” just because it allows her to “be totally momming” for a while. In the end, she will begin to reopen some of the city, reluctantly, though she still doesn’t think it’s safe, because everyone around her is doing it, leaving her little choice.

One problem at a time. She tries to focus on what is, on staying consistent. She worries, like any leader should, she says, about making the best decisions for her people, about letting them down with an untimely mistake when mistakes can be fatal. She doesn’t want to let herself become another government official who walls herself in during a time of crisis. So once security gets her out of the lobby, she shoots a live video on Instagram. 

An aftershock shakes the earth as she talks. “Can you believe this is happening?” she begins. Pausing, breathing, she looks away as if to say she can’t believe it either.

Without makeup, with her hair pulled back, standing outside the familiar tower of her office, she speaks gently but firmly. Yes, there’s a pandemic. Yes, the ground is shaking. Yes, this is all unusual and unnatural and unpredictable. But at least it isn’t raining. “We love you. We’re doing everything we can to keep this city safe,” she concludes. “Be calm. Talk to you soon.”