Mar 11, 2020

Axios Cities

By Kim Hart
Kim Hart

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Situational awareness: The World Health Organization just declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. Go deeper

Today's edition is 1,693 words, a 6-minute read.

1 big thing: Coronavirus throws cities into crisis mode

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.
2. The push for paid sick leave

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

As cases of the novel coronavirus spread, millions of workers' lack of paid sick leave is becoming a serious concern for local officials and employers — and now an increasingly urgent agenda item in Washington, too.

Driving the news: President Trump said Monday that he would pursue some form of relief for hourly workers, but left a meeting with congressional Republicans yesterday without any specific plan.

By the numbers: About 73% of all private-sector workers have paid sick leave from their employers, and about 88% of professional workers have paid sick leave, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

  • But the percentage of people with the benefit is much lower for those in sales (64%) and service jobs (58%), and those who work in construction and farming (56%).
  • Just 25% of private-sector workers have at least 10 days of paid sick days a year, even after 20 years in a job. That means even workers who can take time off may not have enough leave to weather a 14-day quarantine on top of days with symptoms, or caring for family members with them.

23 of the 40 largest U.S. cities require employers to offer at least some paid leave, according to CityHealth, an initiative of the de Beaumont Foundation and Kaiser Permanente.

  • Only five cities — Austin, Dallas, San Antonio, Los Angeles and San Diego — met the organization's "gold standard" for requiring a minimum amount of earned sick time and covering the smallest businesses under sick leave laws.
  • Seattle approved a sick leave law in 2012, and Mayor Durkan told Axios she's considering additional steps, such as pooling sick leave to offer extra days to those who need it, and she's "looking into what latitude we have for administrative leave."
  • Austin's paid sick leave law is tied up in court after being challenged by the business community. If the court strikes down the Austin law, it could jeopardize paid sick leave laws in other cities, including San Antonio and Dallas.

Yes, but: Nearly two dozen states, including Florida, Alabama, Maryland, Tennessee and New Jersey, have passed laws preventing municipalities from adopting their own paid sick leave laws, per Pew. That's a frustration for many mayors.

  • "Our cities our held responsible for more outcomes than ever before," said Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke. "If we're held responsible, at least give us the autonomy to do something about it."

Go deeper

Bonus: Data du jour
Reproduced from CivicScience; Chart: Axios Visuals

As confirmed cases of COVID-19 topped 119,000 globally and rose to 1,039 in the U.S., data shows that the public's fears are beginning to grow, too, Axios' Dion Rabouin reports.

  • 52% of respondents in a new survey from CivicScience.say they are more concerned than they were a week ago, with 21% saying they are "much more concerned."
  • "Much like any other consumer trend or behavior, a change in attitude always precedes action — in this case, concern is climbing, economic sentiment is down, and consumers are in the early days of preparing for what’s to come," CivicScience analysts said in its report.
3. Tesla weighs Nashville for new vehicle factory

Elon Musk. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

Tesla CEO Elon Musk said he's "scouting" central U.S. locations for a factory that would build the upcoming Cybertruck, as well as the Model Y crossover, for sale on the East Coast, Axios' Ben Geman and Joann Muller report.

Why it matters: The announcements via Twitter Tuesday night add some clarity about expansion plans for the Silicon Valley electric automaker, which has recently found itself on better financial ground ahead of key product launches.

What we're hearing: A source familiar with the planning says Nashville, Tennessee, is one of the locations under consideration for the new factory.

  • “Incentives play a role, but so do logistics costs, access to a large workforce with a wide range of talents, and quality of life,” Musk told the Wall Street Journal.
  • Tennessee is a hub of auto manufacturing. GM, Nissan and Volkswagen — along with many auto suppliers — already operate in the state.
  • "Should Tesla build Model Ys in the new factory, the vehicle will be manufactured in four places — China, Germany and Fremont, California, are the others," CNBC notes.
4. 📫 Watch your inbox: Census starts tomorrow

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Starting March 12, you may receive an invitation to respond online to the 2020 Census. Households in areas that are less likely to respond online will receive paper questionnaires as well. Reminders will be sent the following week.

  • Every household that hasn't responded by March 26 will receive reminder postcards.
  • Between April 20–27, final reminder postcards will be sent before census staff members follow up in person. Less than 1% of households will be counted in person, as that is typically reserved for very remote areas.

The bottom line: Yes, this is the first "online" census, but every household will have the option of responding online, by mail or by phone.

Go deeper: "Online first" census must navigate the digital divide

5. Manufacturing counties are still struggling
Adapted from Third Way; Chart: Axios Visuals

The counties in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania that flipped from blue to red in 2016 all have something in common: They're heavily reliant on manufacturing and are still struggling amid industrial decline.

The latest: Joe Biden won Michigan's Democratic primary on Tuesday, the first 2020 contest in a "Blue Wall" state.

  • The Pennsylvania and Wisconsin primaries are next month.

Flashback: In 2016, President Trump won by less than 80,000 votes in Blue Wall states Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

By the numbers: In 2000, about 25% of workers in the counties that flipped from safe Democratic zones to the GOP in 2016 worked in manufacturing, double the number in safe blue counties and the country overall, according to a new Third Way analysis.

  • From 2012 to 2016, safe blue counties managed to attract 800 manufacturing firms and create jobs. By contrast, "flip" counties lost 260 manufacturing firms and the jobs they supported.
  • Safe blue counties have five times more privately owned businesses than counties that flipped to the GOP in 2016.
6. Urban files

A closed Colosseum monument in Rome, Italy, March 10. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP via Getty Images

Seattle small businesses pinched as virus keeps workers home (AP)

Startups pitch tech hubs far from Silicon Valley (WSJ)

Vocational schools become latest front in the battle for educational equality (Boston Globe)

Silicon Valley's two-tiered system for white-collar workers is under pressure as coronavirus spreads (Washington Post)

Dressing for the surveillance age (New Yorker)

Millennials find new hope in the heartland (Heartland Forward)

7. 1 ♀ thing: Men outnumber women among mayors
Data: Axios research; Chart: Naema Ahmed/Axios

Out of the 50 largest U.S. cities, only 15 have female mayors.

  • That proportion stays the same when looking at the largest 100 cities: 70% of mayors are men.

The big picture: Women are running for office at every level of government. Although Elizabeth Warren's withdrawal effectively ended the chance of electing a woman to the presidency this year, female candidates are making headway elsewhere.

  • There are now a record number of women in Congress after the 2018 elections.
  • As of last month, 584 women were running or likely to run in House races, an increase from 437 two years ago, per the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

Yes, but: Men still far outnumber women as mayors.

  • Women I spoke with this week at the National League of Cities conference told me it's not out of lack of interest. Many women are very engaged in their communities and are passionate about making them better.
  • At the municipal level, there are plenty of ways to have an impact outside of the mayor's office. Women are represented on city councils, county commissions, school boards, and the offices of city managers and economic development.

What to watch: Female mayors, while still in the minority, are among the most recognizable names in municipal politics.

  • Seattle's Jenny Durkan, Chicago's Lori Lightfoot, Tampa's Jane Castor and Washington, D.C.'s Muriel Bowser, for example, are getting attention for tackling tough problems.

Go deeper: Mouse over this chart to see each city's mayor

Kim Hart