A Fifth Generation San Franciscan’s Journey in Public Service During COVID-19

“Normal is not how I would describe these times,” said John Scarpulla.

During “normal” times, Scarpulla serves as the SFPUC’s Manager of Local and Regional Policy and Government Affairs, where he is the main liaison between the agency, Board of Supervisors, and the Mayor’s Office. On March 5, Scarpulla was activated as a disaster service worker to serve in San Francisco’s emergency operations center (EOC). What he originally thought would be a temporary assignment for a few weeks as the City’s EOC Elected Liaison Officer had become a longer-term assigned through July.

John Scarpulla has been serving in San Francisco’s emergency operations center since March 2020.

“There are several SFPUC colleagues, such as Michael Perlstein, from External Affairs, and Christina Andersson, from Business Services, who also took on long assignments at the EOC – I’m proud to have worked alongside them,” Scarpulla noted.

Born in the Haight Ashbury and raised in the Jordan Park neighborhood, Scarpulla is a fifth generation San Franciscan. His family still mostly resides in San Francisco, with several family members living abroad in Italy and France. Growing up in the City, Scarpulla was always drawn to public service and has seen his hometown transform over the years.

“I love San Francisco. It’s home to me. I always wanted to serve the City and my fellow residents, neighbors, community,” he shared. “Even though the City has changed a lot and experienced some pretty big challenges, I’m always happy to help tackle these problems and be a part of the solution.”

Scarpulla said that when he was called to serve in the EOC, it was a no-brainer. It was important to raise his hand as a disaster service worker because he knew the pandemic was one of the biggest challenges San Francisco would face in his generation. “I want to serve my home town that I love. Why would I not serve the City during its biggest challenge and struggle? It wasn’t even a question,” he said. “If there was a fire, I could choose to either run towards it or run away. During this crisis, I didn’t even think twice. I ran toward the fire because I knew my skillset would serve the City and my community during a time of need.”

Born in the Haight Ashbury and raised in the Jordan Park neighborhood, John Scarpulla is a fifth generation San Franciscan.

When asked what were some defining moments during his service in the EOC, Scarpulla paused. He recalled the first two confirmed cases of COVID-19 and the Grand Princess cruise ship looking to dock either in San Francisco or Oakland were key moments for many who served early on in the EOC.

Scarpulla is thankful that his family has been safe and healthy during this pandemic. His sister’s family resides in Milan and shared their experience about how Italy responded to COVID-19. “Luckily, my sister’s family was fine, but others she knew were impacted pretty severely. Italy was dealing with the pandemic much earlier than San Francisco, so she was talking to me about how scary the disease was in February. A month later, I’m assigned to the EOC and we’re learning about the first death here in the City. It really hit home. That was a turning point for me.”

Scarpulla shared one proud moment was liaising between the EOC and the SFPUC to provide clean drinking water in the Tenderloin. “When all the stores and service centers were closed, many neighbors and unsheltered individuals just needed clean drinking water. That’s what the SFPUC does – provide high-quality drinking water. What made me proud was how quickly the SFPUC coordinated and set up the drinking water manifolds to serve folks needing drinking water.”

With the number of positive cases and hospitalizations on the rise, he stressed how the pandemic has disproportionately impacted communities of color, which has unfortunately increased anti-Asian racism and xenophobia. Scarpulla shared that his family and friends that are people of color have unfortunately encountered some terrible situations.

John Scarpulla (right) with his wife.

“We’ve heard about some horrible experiences that the Asian community has gone through. There is absolutely no room for that here in America. It’s outrageous and unacceptable,” he said. “While COVID-19 does not discriminate, it does disproportionately impact communities of color. What I’ve seen is that this pandemic is shining a bright light on that the inequities that have been present in America for generations. Asian Pacific Islander, Latinx, and Black communities have disproportionately higher rates of death and positive cases. Then to layer ignorance and racism on top, it’s just not right. We need to recognize that inequities exist in America and we need to be deliberate in doing something about it. It will take all of us to step up and be a part of the solution, starting with listening to, learning from, and providing culturally competent support and resources to our Black, Latinx, and API Communities.” Scarpulla shared how the EOC has been taking an equitable approach to its response, something that he was very proud to support. Tracy Zhu in SFPUC’s External Affairs division was one of many equity officers at the EOC, serving under Chief Equity Officer Shakirah Simley.

As he transitions back to his normal responsibilities at the SFPUC, he knows the work is not over. The pandemic comes in waves and surges. “As I step back into my role at the SFPUC, it is important for me to help my successor at the EOC to have a seamless transition into their liaison role. Their success is the City’s success,” Scarpulla said. “We need to continue flattening the curve and do our part to slow the spread of COVID-19. It’s up to all of us to stay home, wear masks, stay six feet apart, and keep our vulnerable safe. It’s on all of us to return to ‘normal,’ whatever that looks like in the future.”