Quick action from local and state bodies coupled with federal support will help reinvigorate the economy
By Irma Esparza Diggs
As quickly as COVID-19 began to spread across the country, the nation’s cities went into crisis management mode and haven’t stopped. Local elected officials were among the first to respond in real time to the pandemic by enacting emergency orders. They responded rapidly, taking the necessary steps for communities to socially distance to avoid overwhelming our medical support systems, while keeping essential workers safe and infrastructure moving. While the choice to protect the health and safety of communities was clear, city leaders also know the economic price of the pandemic has been staggering to local resources, residents, businesses and infrastructure.
As local leaders asked the public to stay home to flatten the curve of the pandemic, the first visual representation of COVID-19 was the dramatic drop off in transportation – from airports to transit to roads. Airports went from economic hubs to ghost towns, and typically congested roads now see only light traffic. Transit operations quickly cut down to only essential workers, and water and energy operations shifted to skeleton crews. Sidewalks seemed far too small for strollers and joggers trying to keep a responsible distance.
Our nation’s consistently overlooked infrastructure gaps came into full focus. Mayors announced they would not turn off water to households to ensure that everyone can wash their hands. Far too many school children and homes in both urban and rural areas do not have access to a reliable internet connection for virtual classes and work. Overnight, the home infrastructure that rarely gets national attention was on display, and the infrastructure plans Congress let languish were lamented.
To begin to combat the COVID challenges, Congress passed three national response packages in rapid succession to meet the demands of immediate health response and to deflect the full economic blow in key areas. The largest and most expansive package was the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act), which provided emergency relief to support small businesses, keep airports operational, ensure safe transit, and support state governments and the largest cities’ expenditures on COVID-19. Congress’ efforts were a lifeline to the first wave of impacts, and our federal leaders continue to negotiate the next step to mitigate the health impacts and economic damage. With over 100 House Representatives signed onto the Coronavirus Community Relief Act (H.R. 6467), a bipartisan bill to provide local community relief, we hope to see support reach every community across the nation. The latest data shows it’s absolutely needed.
Municipal budgets are hanging on by a thread—88% of local leaders anticipate the pandemic will lead to painful reductions in revenue this year. Local and state revenues have plunged, as expenses from COVID-19 soar, the economy is essentially in a self-induced coma. As economist Paul Krugman so aptly described, without direct aid, cities may “be forced to cut spending sharply, which will directly undermine essential services and indirectly deepen the overall slump.” Because of these losses, local leaders may be forced to cut critical public services and reduce their workforces, right as we need their help the most. NLC’s latest survey of more than 2400 local officials shows that nearly one-third of cities anticipate having to make unfortunate cuts like furloughing employees and more than half anticipate funding cuts for police and public safety. Cities will be supporting a record 22 million unemployed workers in their search for jobs, and one in four small businesses are weighing whether they can make it two more months.
Cities are calling on Congress to provide relief to get through this public health crisis. We need to move quickly toward a robust recovery package that brings together investment in essential infrastructure, workers, and small businesses to reboot our economic engines. The planning for a healthy reentry is beginning, and it may likely offer new opportunities and silver linings. For example, the slowdown in traffic and transit could allow us to speed up overdue projects on high-use corridors that were almost impossible to shut down before. We can work to close the home connectivity gap to open up telework and remote learning that could be transformative to rural towns and families. As resolutely as we moved to social distance, we must move as decisively together to stage a comeback and recover as a country.
Irma Esparza Diggs is the Senior Executive and Director of Federal Advocacy for the National League of Cities