Mar 11, 2020 - Health

Coronavirus throws cities into crisis mode

Illustration of a city in an hourglass with sand covering it.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The spread of the coronavirus has triggered emergency responses from cities of all sizes, as officials grapple with everything from how to pay sick workers and run city operations remotely to whether to cancel major events and close schools.

Why it matters: Local authorities are on the front lines of the heightened anxieties and crippling demands as COVID-19 infiltrates more communities.

  • "We are clearly at a point where our resources are being taxed at every level," Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan told Axios. "Being at the center has really put a lot of stress on us economically."

What's happening: Mayors are texting and calling each other regularly to share updates and strategies, said Bryan Barnett, mayor of Rochester Hills, Michigan, and president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. One of the hottest topics of conversation right now is communicating with the public.

  • "We are trying to thread the needle of informing but not alarming," he told Axios. "This is something that none of us have been through before."

Here are the top concerns city officials are grappling with.

Remote work: Officials are scrambling to migrate documents to the cloud, get city staff set up with laptops, and figure out how to take care of city business — fixing potholes and processing parking tickets — if workers can't come into the office.

Sick leave: Cities without sick-leave policies have to determine how and whether to pay city staff who get sick or have to self-quarantine.

  • Some are trying to figure out how to use short-term disability policies.

Schools: Closing schools can have a jarring ripple effect throughout communities, and not all are equipped to teach students outside the classroom.

  • New Rochelle, New York, schools may be closed for weeks after confirmed cases grow.
  • Virginia's Fairfax County canceled school next Monday to help prepare staff and teachers for potential future closures.

Events: Canceling festivals and events has devastating economic repercussions. Austin is trying to offset the loss of $360 million brought annually by South by Southwest, for example. Boston canceled its St. Patrick's Day parade.

  • D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said she would listen to the recommendations of the public health department when asked whether she would cancel the city's Cherry Blossom Festival.

First responders: Once emergency medical teams are exposed to sick patients, they have to self-isolate. As first responders go into quarantine for extended periods, there is a rapidly dwindling pool of workers to call on.

Small businesses: Main street and mom-and-pop businesses are hurting the most as foot traffic slows and residents stay home. Small-business decline will have a lasting impact on towns' economies and families' financial futures.

Voting precincts: Senior centers and nursing homes are pulling out of serving as precincts for primary voting, leaving cities to scramble for other locations and communicate the changes to voters on short notice.

Where it stands: The Trump administration has been primarily communicating through state governors, and cities want more direct communication even if they aren't yet dealing with major outbreaks.

  • Trying to fill that gap, Michael Bloomberg, through his foundation, yesterday announced an online local response network for mayors to swap experiences and best practices with each other and public health experts.

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