Prioritize Equity in COVID-19 Response

March 19, 2020 - (6 min read)

These are unprecedented times. However, it is important to speak up and ensure that equity is not being overlooked as leaders and community advocates respond to COVID-19 and the circumstances our neighbors confront in the coming days and months. The National League of Cities REAL Council wants to highlight examples of local action leaders can take to ensure that equity is at the center of how municipalities respond to this pandemic.

REAL Council Values Statement

The members of the Race, Equity And Leadership (REAL) Council of the National League of Cities are calling on city leaders across the country to issue a statement or formal resolution affirming their commitment to values of equity, fairness, and justice in responding to COVID-19. The REAL Council developed sample language that city leaders can use in these statements:

  • “Our city is committed to centering racial equity in our community’s responses to the COVID-19 global pandemic.
  • Our city will pay special attention to protecting our most vulnerable residents.
  • Our city will dedicate our resources, platforms, political will and authority to identifying and addressing the ways that this infection may exacerbate existing inequities in our communities.
  • Historically, fear has been used to drive us apart and scapegoat communities perceived to be “other.” Our city is committed to setting a tone in our communities that will reject these tendencies.
  • As local leaders, our city will work to ensure that this crisis does not exacerbate existing inequities. This includes recognizing that risks and burdens are often borne disproportionately by communities of color and low-income people.
  • This moment is an opportunity for our city to better understand how we are all affected when some of us lack the protections of a safety net.
  • Our city commits to lifting up the medical and social needs of the most marginalized members of our communities, sharing examples of how centering their needs can ensure that we are all safe and healthy.”

Stating your community’s shared values is only the start in responding to COVID-19. These values must be reflected across the city’s institutions and require a commitment to local action.

Examples of Local Action:

NLC is developing online emergency resources for local leaders grappling with COVID-19 that includes a focus on equity.

These are some essential measures to both center equity in a city’s COVID-19 response and control the spread of infection:

  • Create conditions through policy or informal incentives for private employers to provide 14 days of paid sick leave to all employees. Since some businesses will not provide it, consider creating emergency wage assistance for residents who will lose income as a result of coronavirus.
  • Since there are serious impacts on employers and employees, create a loan fund for impacted small businesses and extending unemployment insurance for those who can’t work due to COVID-19.
  • Ensure proper guidance for vulnerable populations living in places such as nursing homes and homeless shelters, and sending teams to ensure proper measures are taken. Here are examples of guidanceinfection control basics and a checklist for homeless shelters from LA County Health Department
  • Divert workers from other non-essential services to Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities and public housing to check on quarantined elderly. This can be done by phone/remote to minimize unnecessary contact.
  • Ensure that information about COVID-19 precautions, orders and instructions are provided in multiple languages.

Some cities have begun introducing measures to protect vulnerable residents from further harm:

  • Consider suspending evictions and all shutoffs for public utilities like water, heat, electricity, phone, and internet and urge private utilities to do the same where possible, along with deferring or waiving late fees and interest for those unable to pay on time.
  • Work with the local police department, fire department, EMS personnel, district attorneys and public defenders to minimize exposure amongst first responders and in city jails, pre-trial holding facilities and misdemeanor courts by reducing the population. This can be done through emergency reforms to bail, avoiding or deferring making low-level arrests for violations and misdemeanors, ordering municipal and county courts to release incarcerated people arrested for non-violent crimes, anyone in pretrial detention facing misdemeanor charges or drug-related felony charges, and rescheduling court proceedings so people aren’t required to be in close quarters in court.
  • Ensure that your state nutrition and social services agencies are making plans with your school district(s) to submit waivers to the federal government to ensure low-income families relying on school lunch and school breakfast will continue to have access to school meals through potential new federal adjustments to these programs. These measures include waiving eligibility requirements for summer nutrition programs, allowing multiple meals and meal supplements to be offered at a time, flexibility of meal items and procurement.  Identify non-school locations and transportation where possible and non-essential staff who can be deployed to coordinate sites where students can pick up meals. For schools that are or will be closed, consider opening them as childcare for those essential workers who will need childcare, in small groups of under 10 children.

Census 2020: Finally, with the decennial census beginning this week, efforts must be made to maintain fidelity in census outreach and enumeration despite the challenges presented by COVID 19, and the associated need for social distancing. Between March 12th and 20th, homes will receive census materials and residents can begin responding online. Encourage your residents to respond on the internet or by phone or mail, to minimize the need for non-response follow up later in the spring, which will require more face to face contact. You can alter your census outreach, especially to historically undercounted populations, by increasing your budget for print media or social media and hire additional staff or find volunteers to do phone banking or text reminders to reduce door to door contact.

The REAL Council will continue to share more information as it becomes available.

Stay vigilant in your commitment to equity.



Mayor Lovely Warren, City of Rochester, NY, REAL Council Co-Chair
Mayor Kate Stewart, City of Takoma Park, MD, REAL Council Co-Chair
Mayor Jake Spano, City of St. Louis Park, MN, REAL Council Vice Chair
Mayor Victoria Woodards, City of Tacoma, WA, Vice Chair
Mayor Andy Ryder, City of Lacy, WA, NLC Board Liaison

Members of the REAL Council