Anaheim and Santa Ana both got millions in federal coronavirus relief money this year to help their residents.

But the two cities came up with radically different ways of crafting community spending plans. 

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This week in Anaheim, residents continued to ask questions about whether $7 million in advertising-related subsidies to promote the still-shuttered Disneyland area resort make sense when there are limited funds for other more pressing resident needs, like utility and rent relief

“We have also allocated significant funding to Visit Anaheim,” Anaheim Mayor Harry Sidhu said at Tuesday’s City Council meeting. “So that when the time is right, Visit Anaheim would be functional and ready to start marketing the destination again and drive conventions and tourism here. Unfortunately, as we all know, the time has not been right. But that time will come and Visit Anaheim will be ready.” 

Yet the time is now for stressed residents, said resident George Grachen in this week’s city council public comment email, pressing council members to reassess their priorities.

“Now that the [music convention] has been cancelled for 2021, will Visit Anaheim … be returning part of the $6.5M they were given to bring those types of conventions to our city,” wrote Grachen in remarks emailed to council members and the city for this week’s city council meeting. “That money would go a long way to help taxpayers of Anaheim during these times. Even a part of it could help a very large number of families that are food challenged.” 

Both cities offered community testing efforts, rent assistance programs, and small businesses grants. 

Santa Ana’s spending plan was crafted by various city departments, debated in open session, where adjustments were made and ultimately approved unanimously by city council members. 

Anaheim’s two spending plans were entirely crafted by the mayor’s office and approved by the City Council – as proposed – on a series of divided votes.  

The plans also included a $7 million bailout for the Disneyland resort area promotion groups, while almost all of Santa Ana’s relief money has gone to direct community services and revenue backfills.  

The two cities have been hit hardest by the virus in OC, with both accounting for half of all the virus deaths and roughly 37 percent of all virus cases. 

These are Orange County’s two largest cities — with large, working class Latino populations — that have been hit hardest by the virus, chalking up positivity rates as high as 18 percent in some neighborhoods, according to county health officials 

Orange County’s densest city, Santa Ana, is funding a host of community initiatives with its $28 million share of relief dollars; including $1 million to sanitize high risk areas, $4.8 million for a resident testing program, $2 million for utilities assistance, $3 million on rental assistance and $3 million on small business grants. 

Santa Ana is also holding $7 million of the relief funding in an effort to backfill lost revenue, although it’s unclear if the city can legally do it, pending federal legislation.

As Orange County’s largest city, Anaheim got $33 million in federal relief money. 

The mayor’s initiatives allocated $19 million on numerous community initiatives, including $1 million for resident testing, $4 million for rental assistance, $1 million on small business grants, $1 million in homeless assistance and $4 million to community nonprofits. 

But a bulk of that $19 million spending plan, $7 million, was slated to advertise the resort area and promote a local spending and hiring program at related-businesses. 

In March, Sidhu pushed a $6.5 million contract for Visit Anaheim, the advertising bureau for the Disneyland-area resort district to promote the resort and convention center while everything is shut down. 

It’s unclear when state health officials will consider reopening resort industries and convention centers. 

Sidhu also pushed a $500,000 Chamber of Commerce contract to run the shop, dine and hire local program. 

Anaheim and Santa Ana make up roughly 20 percent of OC’s roughly 3.2 million residents, but account for nearly 37 percent of all confirmed virus cases. 

Since the pandemic started in March, the virus has killed 745 people out of 41,823 confirmed cases, according to the county Health Care Agency

Anaheim has seen 175 virus deaths, while Santa Ana has seen 195. Taken together, the two cities account for half of all virus deaths in the county. 

For context, Orange County has averaged around 20,000 deaths a year since 2016, according to state health data. According to those same statistics, the flu kills about 543 people over the course of a full year. 

As of Wednesday, 440 people are hospitalized from the virus, including 141 in intensive care units. Over the past week, hospitalizations have been dipping, according to both state and county health data. 

So far, nearly 505,000 tests have been conducted throughout OC. 

Sidhu spearheaded two bailout proposals since the pandemic began in March, with the first package totaling at $15 million that originally came from an array of city reserve funds until staff backfilled the spending with the federal relief money. He also brought a $4 million relief package to the City Council Tuesday night bolstering some of the efforts. 

In March, numerous hotel representatives and business owners sent emails to the City Council urging support of Sidhu’s first bailout plan. Most of the support emails used boilerplate language. 

But scores of residents not connected to the business community or hotels were against it. 

“It is sickening that the Mayor wasted no time to pursue this type of divisive and self-serving action in a time where residents are worrying about basic survival,” wrote resident Juan Alvarez, who’s also a trustee on the Anaheim Elementary School District. “It is obvious, through this week’s recommendation by the Mayor, that our council majority only services the corporate interest in Anaheim.” 

“There is no reason to assign $6.5 million dollars to a resort that has billions! Send it to the workers that will be unable to work, those that don’t even make $15 an hour working for those billionaires,” wrote resident Lizzette Barrios-Gracian. 

Business owners also sent emails with boilerplate language to support Sidhu’s second bailout package for Tuesday’s Council meeting. In that public comment email file is an email from Chamber representative Heather Sievers urging members to support the bailout and it contains the language template used throughout scores of emails from business owners.  

“PLEASE USE THE SAMPLE LETTER, NOT THIS E-MAIL MESSAGE,” reads Siever’s email to Chamber of Commerce members and supporters.  

Shortly after the first bailout, Sidhu was prominently featured in the chamber-produced Business Advocate magazine. It also highlighted Councilman Steve Faessel, who’s up for reelection this November. 

State officials halted Disneyland’s move to reopen in June and the convention center is being used as a drive-thru virus testing site funded by the county. 

Visit Anaheim officials told the city they were able to rebook cancelled conventions and score new ones this year, but it’s unlikely any conventions will happen this year after state health officials have yet to consider allowing theme parks and convention centers to reopen. 

By comparison, Santa Ana officials said their coronavirus spending plan came from city staff across different departments, and under the direction of the council — not directly from the mayor’s office, like Anaheim’s plan. 

Santa Ana’s proposed spending plan has also drawn debate, with city council members and residents earlier this month questioning whether more money should go to residents facing financial strain as a result of the pandemic’s shutdowns.

Residents argued the city’s rental assistance fund should be getting more money, while city council members questioned why residents wouldn’t be able to use some utility payment assistance money on things like internet.

With distance learning health measures in place for schools and students in Santa Ana depending on internet access now more than ever for class, Councilman David Penaloza at a meeting earlier this month said “we gotta remember, there are thousands of kids who are now at home and … in 2020, if you don’t have internet you might as well not try to do anything.”

He said the same goes for residents who might need to make appointments or speak with their doctors online.

Addressing those concerns, council members earlier this month gave their city manager the authority to make adjustments as needed, if some programs are more popular than others.

Mayor Miguel Pulido agreed with the suggestions made by his colleagues but added the city’s first priority should be getting the virus under control or else “we’re going to be here a year from now and nobody’s going to save us.”

Here’s the latest on the virus numbers across Orange County from county data:

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC staff writer and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at or on Twitter @photherecord.

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