As nationwide protests against racial injustice simmered for a second week, ominous surges in COVID-19 cases in Arizona, Texas, and at least 18 other states reminded city leaders of the dual challenges they now face. Mayors across the country increasingly speak of “two pandemics,” one caused by a coronavirus, the other caused by centuries of racism, and both of them especially deadly for people of color.
Four of those mayors — Ras Baraka of Newark, N.J.; Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta; Kate Gallego of Phoenix, and Michael Tubbs of Stockton, Calif. — got together yesterday for an online discussion on national unrest during the COVID-19 pandemic, which was sponsored by the Center for American Progress. Here are 7 takeaways from their conversation:
1. We’re living in a historic moment. The whirlwind events of the past few weeks and months represent a collision of historic challenges and opportunities. That’s not lost on mayors. “This is like nothing I’ve ever experienced in my lifetime — only what I’ve seen in history books,” Mayor Bottoms said. Mayor Baraka added: “Somebody is trying to get our attention. First of all, the inequity was unearthed because of COVID, and then bam, George Floyd is murdered, almost on national TV, similar to what happened to Emmett Till.”
2. COVID-19’s racial disparities and structural inequality are two sides of the same coin. “When I look at our numbers in Georgia with COVID-19,” Bottoms said, “the reality is that 80 percent of our hospitalizations are black and brown people.” Tubbs noted the demographic dimensions of his city’s tensions with the surrounding county, which received $133 million in federal CARES Act funding and shared none of it with cities. “Stockton is the most diverse city in this country, and surrounded by towns that are a little more homogenous, and don’t have a lot of people who are most likely to die from COVID-19 or essential workers,” he said. “We are 40 percent of the county—and represent 46 percent of the COVID cases—and received zero dollars from the county to address the crisis.”
3. COVID-19 is still very much here, despite summer weather. Mayor Gallego spoke soon after her state, seeing a rapid rise in coronavirus infections, activated its hospital emergency plans. “We are hitting many of the records you don’t want to be hitting for COVID-19,” she said. “We in Phoenix are in a weird way proud of our heat, and feel that nothing can withstand it. And I think there were many people in this community who thought, because flu tends to decline dramatically during our summer, that we didn’t have to worry. But if you look at our hospitalization numbers and critical life-saving equipment that is at capacity right now, summer was not a cure-all. We are unfortunately looking like we’re in an exponential growth phase right now.”
4. Reopening is a mixed bag so far. Gallego attributed Arizona’s spike in cases to the state’s push to open “too much too early,” adding that when Governor Doug Ducey lifted the stay-at-home order, he preempted cities from opening at their own pace. “You will see raging nightclub parties in Arizona, and that is not what the CDC recommends,” Gallego said. Atlanta was in a similar situation politically, with Bottoms vocally opposing her governor’s reopening plans. Cases there haven’t surged as much as she feared, which Bottoms attributes to many of the city’s large employers continuing to keep their campuses closed.
5. The protests’ impact on COVID cases remains unclear. “We’ll see what happens on the other side of the mass gatherings,” Bottoms said. “We’re encouraging people to get tested. I got tested after I participated in one of the demonstrations. Thankfully, my test came back negative, but I think we’ve got to continue to encourage people to do that.” Gallego said the origins of Arizona’s spike in cases predates the protests of the past couple of weeks. “Researchers at Arizona State University have been looking at the trends and they do not believe it is a result of the protests,” she said. “If you look at where COVID is increasing in our community, it really correlates with lifting of the stay-at-home order and some challenges we are having with our long-term care facilities and anywhere people are living closely together.”
6. Wearing masks is a politically volatile topic. In Stockton, where cases are going up rapidly, Mayor Tubbs this week floated a proposal to make mask wearing in public mandatory. The council shot it down by a 6-to-1 vote, with only Tubbs voting in favor. Councilmembers “were citing evidence that doesn’t exist,” Tubbs said. “It starts at the top with just the amount of misinformation from the presidency, which gives people cover to do things that are reckless and not in the best interest of public health.” Gallego said masks became a volatile topic in Phoenix, too, after the city required people to wear them at its airport. “We had state legislators saying that this was tyranny,” she said.
7. Addressing equity requires intentionality. Baraka said proactive communication is key to addressing COVID-19’s disproportionate impact in minority communities. “You have to go into areas where folks are not going to come out and get tested, and convince them,” he said. “They’re not watching CNN. They’re not watching Dr. Fauci, they don’t even know who he is. They’re not watching my reports that I do daily; they’re not watching any of it. So they have very little information. And so we have to take the information to them.” Gallego said the same intentionality is needed to address the pandemic’s economic fallout. For example, Phoenix is targeting its business-aid program to low-income areas. “We know that communities of color have been hit harder by this, and that they have not had the access to traditional banking institutions that would have helped them get federal aid,” she said. “We’re really trying to be intentional in the city of Phoenix about addressing equity concerns.”