A nationwide response from an unusual place: City halls
America’s governors have attracted the lion’s share of attention throughout the COVID-19 crisis, whether it was New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) for his hard-facts, off-the-cuff briefings at the outset or Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) for his better-late-than-never mask mandate last week.
But when it comes time to accurately write the history of our nationwide effort to combat this pandemic, we will need to bypass the statehouses for city halls. That’s because, as we navigated the tumult of the crisis’ first phase — and now that we’re careening through the second phase — it’s mayors who are providing the country the most consistent and decisive public-sector leadership. Gov. Abbott’s mask order in Texas? That didn’t come about until after Mayor Steve Adler took action in Austin. The move last week from California Gov. Gavin Newsom — one of the most proactive governors — to rollback reopening? Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti put his city on pause one week earlier.
Mayors, collectively, are delivering to this country the closest thing to a unified national response that we’re likely to see from a different direction than we’re accustomed: from the bottom up.
Our own analysis of data from the National League of Cities shows that mayors of the largest U.S. cities often issued or advanced stay-at-home orders, closed nonessential businesses, and banned large gatherings ahead of governors.
The result? Flattened curves, fewer infections, and less death. While now-surging infection rates across the country show we’re nowhere close to the end of this struggle, research shows that swift local decision-making at the outset made a critical difference in saving lives by preventing more than 60 million infections across the United States.
How did this happen? Certainly not because there were any clear directives from the federal or state governments. In fact, by the time the president declared a national state of emergency on March 13, mayors in one-third of the largest 100 U.S. cities — in red and blue states —had already taken similar actions. And while direction from statehouses was more robust, it was inconsistent from state to state.
Instead, it was city-to-city peer networks, and the personal relationships between mayors, that helped city leaders act quickly decisively and, in doing so, fill gaps left by federal inaction. These formal and informal bonds facilitated the flow of public-health guidance from city to city, helped mayors gauge potential emergency responses with each other in real-time and in a rapidly evolving policy-making context, and provided a foundation for mayors to offer each other sage advice or experienced reinforcement as easily as many of us connect with another parent, neighbor, or colleague. They are now just an SMS or WhatsApp message away from hundreds of other leaders who know exactly what they’re experiencing.
That’s why, when Seattle’s Mayor Jenny Durkan needed to quickly bolster her city’s supply of COVID-19 tests in the critical weeks of April, she leveraged her relationship with city leaders in Seoul, South Korea, who she knew through C40, an international network of leading cities focused on climate change. She also worked with the South Korean consulate and businesses. Within weeks, Mayor Durkan had access to up to 1,600 tests per week, and Seattle began offering free citywide testing.
It’s why mayors of California’s largest cities — San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Jose — issued or advanced stay-at-home orders just ahead of Newsom. Those and other mayors were connecting and coordinating in the earliest days of the crisis through a daily call — a call that helped fuel a bottom-up, regional approach ahead of state action. In Ohio, mayors from Akron, Dayton, and other cities jointly developed a shared standard for reopening that Governor Mike DeWine used to inform his statewide plan.
As Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms noted in a recent interview, “I woke up to a phone call from Lori [Lightfoot, mayor of Chicago] this morning talking about how we look at real police reform in our city. I received a text from London (Breed, mayor of San Francisco). I received one from Muriel [Bowser, mayor of Washington, D.C.) and we’re constantly comparing notes — whether it be for COVID or how we’re dealing with the unrest in our communities right now.”
While inter-city collaboration and city networks are not a new phenomenon, the role city-to-city networks are now playing in managing this domestic crisis appears without precedent. In the wake of our last national disaster, the Great Recession, cities were primarily lobbying for federal aid, rather than coordinating local policy responses.
This time, it’s different because over the past decade networks have matured and expanded significantly, from collective action on climate change (C40) to broadband (Next Century Cities) to gun safety (Everytown). There are more buy-in and active participation from mayors in more places —not just Seattle, but Sioux Falls, Syracuse, and Shreveport as well. There is broader and more diverse nongovernmental support (including from our organizations).
Today these networks reflect a powerful enabling infrastructure — a platform for bottom-up problem solving and inter-city collaboration — that accelerates, elevates, and propagates change in America.
These networks are uniting mayors as they address today’s infection spikes. And it’s likely they’ll also shape the nation’s response to the economic fallout and the speed and degree to which we confront policy racism — starting with much-needed police reforms.
In an ideal world, we would be seeing strong federal vision and coordination for the crises at hand. But in a far less than the ideal world — that is, in the United States — this bottom-up approach may just be what fuels America forward.
James Anderson is the head of government innovation programs at Bloomberg Philanthropies. Jorrit de Jong is a senior lecturer in policy and management at Harvard Kennedy School and the faculty director of the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative.