Five Big Questions on City Leaders’ Minds as Their Economies Reopen

As city officials weigh the risks and rewards of reopening their local economies, they face a series of intertwined economic, public health, and public relations dilemmas. How can they maximally reduce the risk of infection in places of business? How do they know if the risk of infection in given sector or region of their city becomes too high for it to remain open? And how do they raise consumer confidence so businesses deemed safe are patronized?

Since the clamor to reopen cities’ economies began a few weeks ago, a consensus seems to be emerging on the patchwork of safety protocols businesses will need to implement for them to serve their customers. There is the guidance provided by the CDC for businesses and workplaces, the National Restaurant Association’s guidelines for its industry members, the social/physical distancing protocols social distancing protocols developed for businesses by cities and county health departments, plus manymany others.

While these decisions are rightly informed by scientific, medical, and public health opinion, there are a litany of other decisions cities will be forced to make regarding their local economies that are just as complex – and potentially more fraughtAt this point in time, our conversations with city economic staff are resulting in more questions than in practical solutions that can be shared nationally. For those in City Hall who feel they are operating at the frontier of their knowledge and ability; take solace, you are not alone. 

Fortunately, there is growing clarity on what the right questions are, that city departments should be asking in preparation to reopen. Below are five trends we’re seeing at the National League of Cities: 

How do we decide if we should reopen – or re-close – businesses?

The best analogies of the “new normal” usually make some comparison to a dimmer switch – the idea that when businesses reopen, they will neither be fully open nor fully closed but will oscillate in the stringency of their social/physical distancing policies based on local infection and hospitalization rates. To make effective decisions, cities need this information in real time.  This poses a challenge because many patients are asymptomatic or take weeks to express symptoms. This speaks to the need for widespread testing to be able to identify new cases quickly and prevent community spread. 

While virtually all recommendations for reopening include some combination of wide-scale testing and aggressive contact tracing, it’s unclear how and whether cities will create a threshold infection rate that would trigger the reopening or closing of certain types of businesses in their communities. The Administration has released plans for when states should consider reducing their flattening the curve measures. Local governments can look to  this guidance, as well as to their local health official to help determine where their region falls in terms of new cases and potential reduction in movement restrictions. 

What regulatory, procedural, and programmatic changes should we consider in the wake of COVID-19?

Recent history suggests that there may be a window of time after disasters, as there was after 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, in which policymakers and their constituents are unusually receptive to outside the box thinking.

If the pandemic does create additional deal space for city leaders, it could result in long-needed upgrades to policies and systems including transportation, social services, and financing mechanisms. Repurposing public rights of way – unthinkable for many US cities in normal times – may be politically viable as restaurants seek additional outdoor seating space to ensure proper distancing. This is one small example of how the emergency measures taken during the pandemic may prove to be viable permanent solutions to long-standing problems. As state and federal relief efforts fail to provide businesses the working capital they require, cities might consider setting up cooperative financing mechanisms or revolving loan funds. If vacant storefronts become a common occurrence on city streets, as many reports suggest they will, cities could consider how to efficiently redeploy this space to provide affordable housing or make strategic investments in education and human capital. Of course, many of these investments would require federal assistance to help cities cope with the economic downturn caused by the pandemic. The National League of Cities is leading a campaign to ensure this assistance reaches local leaders on the ground.  

What will the enforcement of public health protocols look like?

Social/physical distancing and containment policies designed by the public health community will fall on departments of public safety to enforce. The tension between the use of local government’s police powers and residents’ civil rights is playing out in places like Sydney and London, where some criticize the police for going too far and others for not going far enough. Cities will need to provide local law enforcement with information, resources, and guidance on how to enforce these policies. Promising practices from cities across the country show that prioritizing education overcriminalization and financial penalties have a greater impact on slowing the spread of COVID-19. Local leaders should use an equity perspective to determine to clarify which violations call for police involvement at a time when in-person involvement of the police puts the health of community members and officers at risk. Given that, there will likely be instances where residents are not adhering to physical distancing policies.

How can we increase consumer confidence? 

Just because shops and restaurants are open doesn’t mean that city residents will patronize them. As of late April, US consumer confidence is at an all-time low, and surveys suggest many residents are unlikely to eat out any time soon for fear of becoming illFor businesses that are legitimately clean and safe for customers to shop in or eat at, cities might consider how they can boost consumer confidence. Some are considering compliance programs whereby businesses can implement stringent measures – plexiglass barriers, mandatory employee face mask policies, readily available hand sanitizer – and receive special certification by the city. These measures, in addition to visible adherence to social/physical distancing policies by fellow residents, may improve the likelihood that businesses get some much-needed foot traffic.   

Who gets to decide?

There appears to be a general consensus that gathering local and regional leaders to articulate a cohesive strategy is a necessary first step for reopening. In recent weeks, cities from Fresno to D.C. have convened advisory committees of city councilors, economic development staff, permitting and licensing departments, business leaders, equity/inclusion officers, school officials, and directors of public health to coordinate their strategies.  

With the knowledge that COVID-19 doesn’t respect city boundaries, it’s also crucial that cities work alongside regional stakeholders in their reopening plans. Now more than ever, the post-COVID destinies of cities and their neighbors will be inextricably linked, as lax restrictions in one will undoubtedly affect the other.  

Learn More

In the coming weeks, NLC plans to release additional tools and resources you can use as you reopen your city hall, public spaces, and begin to consider lifting restrictions on businesses. Additional resources are also available at: 


Berkaw-HeadShot (1)About the Author: Phil Berkaw is a program manager on NLC’s Innovation Ecosystems team.