Data Outlooks in the Age of COVID-19

May 11, 2020 - (7 min read)

Data is central to city planning and strategies, and city leaders have long worked with internal staff and expert partners to compile and analyze data for decision-making. In the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic, the process for collecting and utilizing data needs to happen in real-time, so we can take into account the spread of COVID-19 in the community. This helps city officials determine how safe it might be to reopen, monitor and identify potential resurgence during a staged opening for business, and allows them to make timely decision to return to stay-at-home to contain the wave of new surges in infections, hospital admissions and deaths. Real-time data supports decisions across multiple issues that affect city residents’ lives.

The National League of Cities has been tracking how local leaders around the country have been dealing with COVID-19. Through both the NLC and Bloomberg Philanthropies Local Policy Tracker and the recent NLC and United States Conference of Mayors survey, the importance of local leadership in times of crisis is critical. As long-term plans to COVID-19 are taking shape, it is important that rapid response measures remain flexible so that long-term solutions based on reliable data can be implemented.

Transportation: Long Term Impacts of Short Term Closures and Cuts

In the immediate throes of the COVID-19 crisis, local leaders swiftly and effectively scaled back public transportation as residents were asked or required to stay home. While public transit was reserved for those who most needed it, cities also recognized that residents needed outdoor spaces, and as a result, closed streets and expanded bike lanes. Dr. Tab Combs of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has been tracking these pedestrian-friendly policies.

These policy actions were rapid-response in nature: cities needed to stop the spread of the virus as quickly as possible and systems that draw crowds, like public transit, needed to be addressed. A month into shelter-in-place for most residents, we have more data and can start to think about the long term impacts and solutions, as well as preparing for the eventual reopening of our public spaces.

One month into the crisis, public transit ridership is down 50%-90% in cities. And while this is excellent news for flattening the curve, it also means a huge drop in revenue for systems that were not flush with cash to begin with. This data suggests that cities will need help keeping these systems afloat – they transport our essential workers and will continue to be vital as residents slowly return to work once the COVID-19 crisis is over.

Currently, cities are doing what they can to ensure safety. Phoenix, AZ is limiting bus passengers to keep social distancing possible. Atlanta, GAis using rear door boarding on buses and waiving fares, and increased sanitation is happening everywhere from subway stations to Ubers (to learn more about local policy actions related to COVID-19, see NLC’s Local Action Tracker). As systems begin to reopen, we will need new processes to examine what this will look like long term.

City Lab laid out some theories on what to expect going forward: increased sanitation procedures, using infrared thermometers to screen passengers, all passengers in face masks, and coating metal surfaces with copper (which makes the virus inactive), to name a few. These changes will require, at minimum, a redistribution of transit staff to implement new procedures and will likely result in increased costs for these already stressed systems.

Data on ridership, virus behavior, and financial impacts will be vital for these systems to determine how to proceed. While we all wait for the day when we can jump on the metro and head to our favorite restaurant, city leaders and staff continue to rely on this crucial data to keep transit running and get essential workers where they need to go.

Housing: Working Through Evictions and Homelessness

There will be a delay in knowing the number of people who may be evicted in the coming months or experience homelessness as a result of COVID-19. Many local governments are rapidly implementing policies to halt or delay evictions. In other parts of the country with declared states of emergency, courts are not taking on new eviction cases. Both NLC’s policy tracker and Evictions Lab have been collecting this data. These eviction holds, however, are only temporary. The reality is that the number of evictions that would have occurred this or next year, regardless of COVID-19, would overwhelm the system once the courts reopen.

The unemployment numbers may be a good indication for what may come, but it is only a start. A study conducted by Harvard found that after the last recession, the cost burden on tenants significantly increased. A more recent study done by Georgia State University found that evictions proceedings can be predatory against low-income individuals. As we move into a recession, renters may be in jeopardy of losing their homes.

Rental assistance is a potential long term solution to help residents remain sheltered and in place. Rental assistance allows residents to remain sheltered in place and financially stable until they can gain some form of employment when the economy reopens.

People experiencing homelessness during the time of COVID-19 are an extremely vulnerable group. Cities, towns and villages have been finding quick solutions with partners to help serve persons without homes. Cites, like New Orleans, are working with the hotels to house individuals experiencing homelessness. Through a mix of federal, state, local and philanthropic funds, a Hilton Hotel downtown will house people from 35 encampments for the next thirty days, providing them with three meals a day and laundry services. Hilton Hotels already has a system in place from Hurricane Katrina and have only needed to add COVID-19 screenings to the process. For a long term solution, local leaders should use this opportunity of housing those experiencing homelessness in hotels or shelters to provide them with the additional city and partner resources. We need to plan for when these temporary stays end so that individuals have a greater chance of getting back on their feet with a job or housing after COVID-19.

Moving Ahead

Cities need federal help, and data is a key way to determine where and how much. Our city leaders are on the front lines of the biggest public health crisis in recent history. As we navigate uncharted territory, data is a crucial tool in the local response.

  • How many residents experiencing homelessness need shelter?
  • How many buses and metro trains need to run to get doctors, nurses, and grocery store staff to work?
  • How many city workers will need to be deployed to help address the crisis now and into the future?

These questions cannot be answered without data. Now more than ever, cities need strong partners to address challenges, answer looming questions and protect the heath and safety of our residents. Some state and city leaders have been partnering with policy data experts to help determine the responses. Washington, DC, Los Angeles, CA, and Harris County, TX are leading the charge, but many other localities are sure to follow. It may be a long road to full recovery and data is vital to helping cities, towns and villages navigate our way there.

About the Authors:


 Brenna Rivett is a principal research associate at NLC’s Center for City Solutions.





Kyle Funk is the program specialist, urban innovation, at the National League of Cities.