To Contain COVID-19, Cities and Counties Need More Support

Bruce Gutnick with the EMS service of the NY Fire waits for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is distributing meals at EMS Station 4 in lower Manhattan in celebration of International Firefighters’ Day, May 4, 2020. / Anthony Behar, Sipa USA, via AP Images

Many of the challenges managing the pandemic in the U.S. are due to the loss of 50,000 local public health jobs since 2008. Federal funding for local public health through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been cut each year. The result is that “we didn’t build a health ecosystem, and we simply respond crisis by crisis,” argued Matt Chase, CEO of the National Association of Counties, during a session at the American Planning Association’s National Planning Conference @ Home. He called for providing more direct funding to thousands of county and municipal governments, our “critical first responders,” to finance the “three T’s: testing, tracing, and treatment.”

The impact of the coronoavirus across the U.S. has been swift. There are now a million cases, which have doubled in two weeks, and 61,000 people have died. “The virus is now the 7th or 8th leading cause of death — it passed suicide, kidney failure, and the flu, and will soon pass diabetes.”

In just a few weeks, some 30 million people have lost their jobs. In comparison, during the 2008 Great Recession, some 15 million became unemployed over 18 months. The unemployment rate went from 3.8 percent to probably “over 20 percent” now.

After the 2008 recession, approximately one-fourth of U.S. counties never recovered. These are the places that have record high rates of “opioid, heroine, and other substance abuse.” As a result, it’s critical that the pandemic doesn’t further reinforce the existing divide between have and have-not communities.

Chase outlined the components of aid packages that have passed on Capitol Hill. In late March, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act provided $2 trillion in support, with $150 billion in a relief fund for state and local governments. In late April, CARES Act 3.5 added supplementary funds to CARES programs and provided $25 billion for testing. CARES 3.5 was supposed to include additional funds for state and local governments but that was dropped.

The National Association of Counties estimates some $144 billion in lost revenue for counties over the next 18 months. “That’s a big number given that all county budgets together total $600 billion.” Furthermore, these estimates don’t include cuts in state aid or property tax revenue.

With all this lost local revenue, how will counties continue to provide crucial services, like answering 911 calls, keeping buses running, and delivering meals to the elderly? How will they hire the many thousands of people needed to trace exposure?

Clarence Anthony, CEO of the National League of Cities, which counts 2,000 cities of all sizes as members, said that “some 88 percent of city leaders polled expect to face revenue shortfalls.” Already, Cincinnati, Ohio has furloughed 1,700 city workers, Detroit, Michigan has cut hours for 2,000 workers, and Dayton, Ohio has cut 24 percent of its city workforce. The National League of Cities anticipates a job loss of 1 million municipal workers in the coming year.

Anthony stated that it’s important to make aid decisions based on data. African Americans are 13 percent of the U.S. population but account for 33 percent of COVID-19 cases. “We need to get money to where the impact is.” He was concerned that not all cities are “disaggregating data based on race or ethnicity.”

He added that the public overwhelming prefer information on COVID-19 from local elected officials. City, county, village, and other community government websites are the most visited destinations for up-to-date news on guidelines, testing centers, transportation routes, financial relief, and treatment options. So it’s critically important that local government are able to maintain high levels of service.

Some other key points from their talk:

Local influencers such as chambers of commerce and non-profits need to make their voices heard about the additional support cities and counties need, Chase argued. “We need an all-community approach,” particularly in the area of human services, such as domestic and substance abuse services. “Many non-profits in this arena are seeing their funding sources drying up.”

Urban planners can help by mapping federal funding sources against local needs. County and municipal governments must continue to document all their costs to get federal aid.

A major concern is that in an effort to cut costs, too many government services are becoming only available online or via apps. The issue is not everyone has a smart phone, generous data plan, or access to wi-fi or broadband. Anthony said “we need to provide free wi-fi hotspots in disadvantaged communities.” He envisioned buses loaded with wi-fi systems parked in communities that need access the most.

“People are now demanding open space. They are craving parks and recreation areas.” Anthony believes that more cities will follow the lead of Oakland, California, which plans to open 74 miles of its streets to pedestrians and bicyclists. Just a few weeks after Oakland’s move, New York City made a similar pledge to open 40 miles of streets by the end of May and 100 miles in total.

Over the long term, cities may never be the same, given density is now a disadvantage. “Rural and suburban communities will likely see an increase in interest,” Anthony said. “These communities can provide more safe space for kids.”

The pandemic will “lead to changes in how we plan and design cities. The focus will now be on safety. We used to love density. The pandemic has changed all of us.”

One thought on “To Contain COVID-19, Cities and Counties Need More Support

  1. Sophia 05/06/2020 / 10:33 am

    Oakland’s plan to open its streets is a good step. Hopefully other cities will follow this idea. People need to get outside. I wonder how involved the Sierra Club and other environmental groups will be towards this effort. It seems ripe for them – even though the streets are not parks. Street openings are new sort of a “pop-up park.” If successful, could this lead the way for more city parks??

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