A COVID-19 recovery for all: Ensuring equity as communities reopen
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As U.S. cities and counties take steps to reopen, the COVID-19 economic crisis continues to impact some in our society far more than others. By July, 1 in 4 U.S. small businesses may close permanently. Americans of color, already suffering higher infection rates, often make up most of the workforce in hard-hit sectors like hospitality and personal care. While local governments across the country are leading the charge to counter these uneven impacts, more help is necessary. We as a nation must support local government COVID-19 recovery efforts with robust, flexible aid to counties and cities so that everyone can get back on their feet.

Across the economy, the same challenges facing small businesses during the shutdown compound during a reopening. Whether adapting operations to changing safety requirements or surviving temporary closure, businesses during both lockdown and reopening are only as viable as their cash reserves and access to credit; and a lot of small businesses haven't gotten the help they need.

Further, the virus is hitting many financially vulnerable communities the hardest. In addition to an emotional toll, lost loved ones often mean lost family income. Black Chicagoans, for example, have borne a COVID-19 fatality rate of more than double that of their neighbors; Hispanics in Florida: a rate of four times that of the rest of the state. To add to these losses, Americans of color are also experiencing unemployment numbers of as much as double the national average.

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Federal aid for local governments would allow for every city and county in America to make sure that everyone can recover. Here is what some communities are doing:

Budget for equity impact in recovery spending

To maximize the impact of local government budget dollars, many cities and counties have adopted allocation strategies which seek to direct spending toward the most effective equity outcomes. The City of San Antonio Texas’ budget equity tool offers three strategies for equitable budgeting which should be adapted to crisis recovery spending:

  1. Assess spending decisions based on “potential benefits and burdens to communities of color and low-income communities”
  2. Conduct those assessments using hard equity data
  3. Seek community input and representation in decision-making.

Strategies like these, which would multiply the power of every recovery dollar, are only possible to implement with a baseline of budgetary certainty. Presently decimated local government budgets and the piecemeal nature of existing aid mean not only insufficient resources, but inefficient ones.

Identify areas of greatest need and deploy health care resources to prevent a second wave of infections

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Nothing would tank recovery or hurt vulnerable communities and businesses more than a second shutdown. Along with making use of existing equity data and community input, local governments are also systematically locating and directing resources to the areas at greatest new infection risk. Coconino County, Ariz., the second largest county in the United States, has partnered with local universities, health care systems, and overlapping Native American Nations to track known and suspected cases. Beyond isolation support, the county uses this data to deploy prevention and care measures in anticipation of community flare-ups. Existing infrastructure makes this possible in Coconino County, but federal aid to local governments—not to mention, greater access to testing—could make protecting residents and businesses from a second outbreak possible in every community.

Capitalize on all available resources

Cities and counties with populations of more than 500,000 presently have access to resources which are saving thousands of homes and businesses. CARES Act funding makes it possible for these large local governments to provide rental, mortgage and utility assistance to financially-strapped residents. Further, using funds from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, some large cities can start a small business continuity fund to award low-interest loans and grants to businesses in need. While the issues these programs address are national, existing current aid legislation leaves the majority of American cities and their residents without access or protection unprotected.

Even facing reduced revenues, increased costs, and limited aid, U.S. communities are doing as much as they can to ensure an equitable economic recovery, but much more could be done. The swift passage of a relief bill which includes $750 billion of flexible, direct aid to local and state governments will not only speed recovery but broaden it by bringing these and other effective local efforts to every community. This way, every American can get back on their feet from this horrific crisis.

Marc Ott (@CMLeader) is the Executive Director of the International City/County Management Association (@ICMA) and former Austin City Manager.