Each year, mayors across the country prepare to give a very meaningful speech: The State of the City. This is a time for local leaders to communicate about the health, stability and future of their communities. This year, however, mayors are making dramatic changes due to the impact of COVID-19, including postponing or altogether canceling their speeches like the mayors of Redlands, California and Bayonne, New Jersey were forced to do. This is a growing trend among many cities – at least 50 so far – given the ongoing threat of the pandemic. The state of the city address is an opportunity for mayors to reflect on past accomplishments and highlight future goals, but with the rapid spread of COVID-19, cities are now forced to pivot.
Some local communities are embracing technology to ensure they share their roadmap for the future with their residents, no matter the obstacle. For example, Mayor Emily Larson of Duluth, Minnesota announced she plans to deliver her speech electronically. And one of the few mayors to not postpone his speech, Mayor Miro Weinberger of Burlington, Vermont elected to deliver his April 6th state of the cities speech via Zoom, in which he discussed the difficulty of maintaining social distancing among homeless shelters. Although the mayor launched a low-barrier shelter just six years ago, there isn’t enough room at that facility to avoid close contact. In partnership with community organizations, he secured individual campers for people in his community experiencing homelessness. The mayor also discussed that once stay-at-home orders are lifted, nursing homes and other vulnerable facilities will still need to remain restricted, meaning the entire community cannot rebound at the same time. “Vulnerable facilities, like nursing homes, will need to remain restricted and highly vigilant during this period. With each new sector of society that re-opens, we will need to watch carefully for new infections and work very hard to contain them when they do occur,” said Mayor Weinberger.
Even prior to the beginning of March, several mayors who gave their state of the city address mentioned the virus, highlighting the many ways their communities have been affected. In Early February, Mayor Justin Elicker of New Haven, Connecticut emphasized the importance of city employees in gathering non-profit and regional partners to aid in the response to COVID-19. More recently, Mayor Elicker declared a State of Emergency for New Haven, requested that non-essential workers remain at home and halted all non-essential government operations, as highlighted in NLC’s local action tracker in partnership with Bloomberg Philanthropies.
Mayor Jean Stothert of Omaha, Nebraska expressed gratitude for the medical professionals working at the Nebraska Medical Center who are “responding to the nation’s call for help with the Coronavirus outbreak.” Since the delivery of her speech, the mayor declared a State of Emergency, limiting all public gatherings, childcares, and businesses, and closed public libraries and community centers.
Mayor Luke Brunin of Hartford, Connecticut noted the importance of testing. “We have not yet had confirmed cases in Harford, but that will change, probably soon. And the fact that we have not identified a case here may simply be that, across the United States, there has been far too little testing done,” said the mayor. He also discussed the ways in which the coronavirus would impact daily life in the city, including interruptions to businesses and schools. The mayor explained steps being taken by the city to educate citizens, namely a tele-townhall with medical experts, which will allow citizens the opportunity to hear accurate information and ask questions about the city’s response to the virus.
Mayor Robert M. Dyer of Virginia Beach, Virginia emphasized the strength of the city and its ability to manage and survive challenges like COVID-19. “There is no question we are up for any challenges that come our way, whether it is a public health emergency like the growing coronavirus outbreak, or threats from rising seas,” said the mayor. Mayor Joyce Craig of Manchester, New Hampshire highlighted the importance of the city’s Health Director and her team in planning the city’s response to COVID-19, and in helping first responders with something called “compassion fatigue”, a condition characterized by emotional and physical exhaustion.
While many cities have postponed their state of the city address, the work has not stopped. Mayors continue to take actions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and limit the damage to their communities. Baltimore, Maryland issued a temporary halt on all evictions; closed restaurants, bars, movie theaters, and gyms; and developed an Emergency Response Plan for homeless individuals. San Antonio, Texas prohibited gatherings of more than 50 people, temporarily halted evictions and issued a stay-at-home order. In addition, the local animal shelter is offering incentives for fostering or adopting animals in need during this difficult time. Atlanta, Georgia implemented a hazard pay policy for city employees; eliminated bus fares; temporarily halted evictions; issued a stay-at-home order; and generated a $7 million fund to assist those impacted by the virus.
Despite these challenging times, mayors and city leaders are finding ways to share critical information with their communities and implementing policies that will not only help curb the spread of COVID-19 but also continue to address vulnerable populations. While many mayors have had to forego their normal, large in-person speeches, they remain at the front lines of combating the negative impacts of COVID-19.
About the Authors
Anita Yadavalli is the Program Director of City Fiscal Policy at NLC. Anita leads NLC’s Public Sector Retirement initiative, with a focus on research and education for city leaders on retiree healthcare benefits, as well as research and programming on other city fiscal policy issues.
Abigail Overturf is the research intern for NLC’s Center for City Solutions. She supports the center’s research projects, with a focus on the annual State of the Cities report. Abigail is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science at Nebraska Wesleyan University.
Stacy Richardson is the Program Director for Urban Innovation at the National League of Cities.