Cities have been leading COVID response efforts across the country, and recently they have started to grapple with the new challenge of reopening amidst an ongoing pandemic. Elected officials and city staff have tirelessly crafted plans that attempt to balance public health, economic recovery, as well as align with plans of states and neighboring jurisdictions. The NLC and Bloomberg Philanthropies Covid Local Action Tracker continues to catalog all kinds of steps cities are taking to lead their communities through COVID response. It now includes over 2000 executive orders, ordinances, public-private partnerships, and other policy actions from more than 500 cities to prevent the spread, shore up city finances, prevent evictions, provide small business relief, and much more. Recently, we added a new policy category for “Re-Opening” to specifically highlight this emerging topic. Dozens of plans have been collected, as well as adjustments that are being made to reclose in some regions. NLC’s top priority is to catalog these efforts and we hope others will continue to dive deeper into the comparative analysis, but a few findings immediately stand out.
What’s in a Phase?
With a few outliers, most reopening plans at the local level include 4 phases. The consensus seems to have emerged in both cities and states that this number is nuanced enough to make a meaningful difference in terms of the activities and businesses that are permitted, and clear enough that residents can understand and follow the rules. Fewer phases would not provide enough options, but more could leave residents more confused.
Phase 1 is the most restrictive aside from a full shelter in place emergency and restrictions are fairly consistent between different plans. Atlanta simply calls Phase 1 “Stay at Home,” and in this phase, only essential businesses can open. Restaurants are limited to carry-out only, gatherings are prohibited, and residents are strongly encouraged not to interact with anyone other than immediate members of their households, even in private.
To the extent that there is any difference between cities, it emerges between phases 2-3. Phase 2 in most cities can typically be summed up as a “Safer at Home” policy, and much of the country is at least in this phase as of mid to late June. Residents are still encouraged to only make essential trips, to wear masks, and to practice physical distancing any time they are out.
In some cases, however, businesses like gyms, restaurants, bars, salons, and retail shops may open in Phase 2 but in a limited capacity. In other cities, these non-essential activities remain closed and only businesses providing curbside pickup are allowed until the city enters Phase 3. This is particularly important for any cross-comparison because daily life under less restrictive Phase 2 rules in a city such as Nashville could include a trip to the museum, a haircut, a gym workout, and a seated meal at a restaurant. None of this would be recommended until Phase 3 in Atlanta (although Atlanta’s published plan is not legally enforceable due to state preemption).
Many cities are reopening due to outside pressure, not local health data
On May 22, Alaska was dubbed the first state to effectively reopen when it skipped from Phase 2 directly to Phase 4. Anchorage and more than 160 other Alaskan cities were forced to follow suit. Although there are restrictions for travelers entering the state, bars, gyms, restaurants, theaters, and other businesses have been allowed to open with few limitations for residents. Exactly one month later, there is a record number of active cases in the state and the guidance has not changed (as of July 6, 2020).
Although the reopening of Alaskan cities may seem rushed in hindsight and should be viewed as a cautionary tale, diagnosed cases had consistently fallen leading up to May 22, and local governments were not completely out of step with the governor. The same cannot be said in other states.
Many other local officials have been clear that they were pressed to reopen over their objections, even as cases were rising in their regions. Mayor Kate Gallego in Phoenix, AZ said “We opened too much too early and so our hospitals are really struggling.” Texas is the largest state in the contiguous U.S. with significant differences in hospital capacity and cases, but when the state authorized a sweeping move to reopen Houston, Mayor Sylvester Turner in Houston, TX said if it were up to him he “would have stayed with the course that was working well for the city of Houston and other cities in the state of Texas.”
NLC’s Brooks Rainwater has already expanded on this trend of state preemption, noting that everyone is committed to restarting the economy and help America thrive, but “state leaders should create a supportive environment that helps city leaders save lives.”
Reopening policies rely on continued and expanded caution from the public
Many of the reopening policies continue to stress caution when visiting restaurants and retailers, especially when social distancing cannot be ensured. In mid-April, before many cities moved to reopen, the CDC recommended that individuals wear face-coverings in public to slow the spread of the virus. In response, cities like Durham, NC; San Francisco, CA; Denver, CO; and Honolulu, HI have all enacted mandatory orders to better enforce mask-wearing for residents. While face-coverings may not be mandatory for all activities, such as when biking or dog-walking, they are essential as businesses begin to open their doors.
In order to balance the health and safety of city residents, city officials have tightened social distancing, sanitation, and mask-wearing requirements while allowing higher percentages of patrons in shops and eateries. In addition to these nonessential openings, cities like Chicago, IL are allowing personal care centers and gyms to reopen with strict safety measures and sanitation to limit contact and virus spread. The “cautious reopening” model that some cities are taking provides business owners and visitors greater peace of mind as reopening continues across the country.
Reopening in cities is an evolving process, and the National League of Cities is committed to tracking the process. Our “Re-Opening” category reflects the policy response from cities as we all move to figure out the delicate task of moving forward together, safely.
About the Authors
Cooper Martin is the director of sustainability at the National League of Cities.
Rachael Chambers is the Urban Innovation Fellow for the Center for City Solutions.