Survey: U.S. mayors share their top coronavirus-related concerns

Mayors Jenny Durkan of Seattle (left), Muriel Bowser of Washington, D.C. (center) and Michael Hancock of Denver (right) have been responding swiftly to the coronavirus crisis. (AP Images)

Survey: U.S. mayors share their top coronavirus-related concerns

With Covid-19 spreading across the U.S., mayors are on the frontlines leading local response, making tough decisions, and working around the clock to support their communities. And, as Bloomberg Philanthropies prepared for Thursday’s kick-off session of the Coronavirus Local Response Initiative — we surveyed the 200-plus participating mayors to provide them a new perspective on the challenges they all share right now. Below is a snapshot of the top-mentioned issues from across the country.

Top challenges mayors are facing during the pandemic

Managing government in critical times — 63 percent

Communicating reliable information — 54 percent

Navigating rapidly evolving scientific and medical situations — 30 percent

Preventing spread through social distancing — 28 percent

Supporting vulnerable populations — 24 percent

Responding to economic considerations — 21 percent

Planning for long-term community needs — 9 percent

Note: Cities were asked to name their top two or three challenges.

Managing government in critical times

Top of mind for most mayors is the management of government in these critical times; this was raised by 63 percent of cities. Several noted that they are dealing with difficult decisions around closing city halls, limiting or shutting down city services, and making arrangements for non-essential personnel to work from home. “Most employees don’t have laptops and the ability to work from home,” one mayor wrote, adding that “our VPN network is only able to handle about 30 employees using it at the same time.” Mayors are also engaged in emergency planning, supporting first responders, and finding the funding for enhanced response efforts. Additionally, mayors and city managers are working to coordinate information and response efforts with federal, state, and county governments.

Communicating reliable information

Another challenge cited by 54 percent of mayors is communication. Particularly in the early stages of Covid-19, mayors are struggling to get reliable information to the public. “The speed of innovation and relevant news to learn from and to share has been incredibly mind numbing,” one mayor said. Misinformation, rumors of hoaxes, and a lack of clarity from federal leaders contributed to some community members not taking the risk seriously. At the same time, mayors worry about inducing more panic, especially as stories of hoarding goods and supplies escalate. Finally, many mayors have been working to engage nonprofits, community groups, and other stakeholders, to coordinate information and messaging.

Navigating rapidly evolving scientific and medical situations

Nearly a third of mayors told us that one of their top challenges have to do with either scientific or technical guidance or with medical capacity. Many raised concerns about the latest science and modeling, particularly in trying to assess the risk for their community. Some are looking for clear guidance and directives. In addition, mayors raised concerns about the availability of tests and personal protective equipment, as well as the capacity of hospitals to handle the potential influx of new patients. “If cases increase exponentially, we will have capacity issues with respirators, hospital beds, etc., as well as funding issues,” one mayor explained.

Preventing spread through social distancing

As cities nationwide grapple with the need for social distancing, nearly three in 10 say this is one of their top challenges. Several are dealing with tough choices around canceling public events, schools, bars, and restaurants. While they have faced a backlash from people over economic losses to business and individuals — particularly wage workers — mayors are taking warnings about preventative measures seriously. “We are navigating the tough space between creating more panic by closing services and canceling events and ensuring safety by discouraging large gatherings,” one mayor wrote.

Supporting vulnerable populations

Mayors are looking to protect their most-vulnerable residents, and nearly a quarter of them said this is one of their top concerns in the face of this crisis. In particular, they’re working on how to support elderly and immuno-compromised residents who need to shelter in place and finding ways to address their ongoing basic needs (e.g., groceries) and emerging-term mental health needs (e.g., feelings of loneliness). There are also concerns about the safety of people experiencing street homelessness, with some cities finding temporary shelters that align with social distancing practices and creating support funds. Finally, cities are working to mitigate risk in detention centers and jails, where concerns about spread are high.

Responding to economic challenges

As has become clear in recent days, mayors and other city leaders are concerned about the economic costs to businesses and individuals, with 21 percent mentioning it as a top concern. For businesses, closing their doors means lost revenue and potential closures. Compounding these issues are lost wages for employees who receive hourly wages and cannot telework. Indeed, a few mayors are halting evictions and considering UBI programs to shore up the safety net. “As a mayor, my challenge is how to keep my city safe and healthy without causing an economic catastrophe,” one mayor wrote.

Planning for long-term community needs

Long-term resilience is another emerging concern among mayors and city leaders, raised by 9 percent of respondents. In particular, they’re asking what happens if we need to maintain social distancing for months? How can we ensure people, who are inherently social, have the support they need to thrive? What will be the “new normal” during the pandemic and in the immediate aftermath? Mayors are confronting these challenges head-on and looking for ways to lead their communities with empathy, calm, and grace. One mayor summed up, we are called on to “fully grasp the magnitude of the situation and the best practices to keep our citizens safe without overreacting.”

Celebrating public sector progress and innovation in cities around the world. Run by @BloombergDotOrg’s Government Innovation program.

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