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Coping with COVID-19 in California’s Cities

Lori Pottinger April 14, 2020
Photo of San Diego, California

California’s cities have been at the forefront of bold actions to manage the coronavirus pandemic. We talked to Carolyn Coleman, executive director of the League of California Cities, about the big challenges that the pandemic is bringing to cities across the state.

PPIC: How are cities coping with this unprecedented crisis?

Photo of Carolyn ColemanCAROLYN COLEMAN: Local government leaders are some of the most pragmatic people I know. This comes from being on the front lines and hearing from your constituents everywhere you go—grocery stores, parks, and churches. Local officials are problem solvers, and they signed on to help their residents have a better quality of life. They have approached this crisis with the same dedication and commitment to serve that they brought to dealing with past crises, like the recent wildfires.

Across California, city leaders have stepped up with tools like eviction moratoriums and measures to prevent utility shutoffs or price gouging to protect their residents. Several are creating funds that will provide short-term financial assistance to help keep their small businesses afloat.

City officials are also working with public health entities, hospitals, schools and faith-based organizations to make sure medicines and meals are delivered to vulnerable populations.

Cities have also been very nimble in adapting government business to a virtual model. Council meetings, town halls, and public hearings have moved online with virtual tools that ensure public engagement. They are also using websites, social media, and new technology platforms to engage with their residents and make sure they have needed information.

Early orders by California cities to stay at home or restrict gatherings are being credited with flattening the curve. There was some pushback when these orders were announced, but they’re saving lives here in California, and that started with local government leaders who were out in front of the crisis.

The economic disruption this crisis is having on families, businesses and governments is devastating. While saving lives, stay-at-home orders have led to business closures, furloughs, and layoffs, as well as decreases in tax revenues that local governments use to fund essential services like police, fire, and code enforcement. At the same time, cities are experiencing increased expenses because of COVID-19. We’ll be working closely with federal and state partners to fill revenue gaps so we can continue to provide the services our communities need right now.

PPIC: Are there particular needs in rural communities?

CC: For years, we’ve known that access to high-quality broadband is not as widely available as it should be in our rural communities. With schools closed and some health services moving online, this crisis is a wake-up call to get more broadband deployed across the state.

Rural communities also tend to have smaller budgets with fewer resources to respond to economic disruption caused by this crisis. As they navigate the shortfall in revenues and increase in expenses, their need for fiscal assistance from the state and federal governments could be proportionately as large as our biggest cities.

The federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act targets cities with more than 500,000 residents. Most of California’s 482 cities are smaller than that, and yet they may end up with needs that are proportionally as large as those of big cities. That’s why the League will continue to advocate for fiscal assistance for all of our cities, to ensure that none are left behind—during either the pandemic or the financial recovery from it.

PPIC: Talk about the ongoing housing shortages and homelessness in the context of this emergency.

CC: I applaud the governor and local leaders who in recent weeks have partnered closely to safely house more Californians. Every day we hear about cities opening new emergency shelters, putting out more handwashing stations, passing out hand sanitizer in homeless encampments, and taking other steps to protect public health. The governor is sending more trailers to cities for emergency housing, and housing construction is continuing—it’s an essential service. Pandemic or not, we all know we have to increase housing production so more of our families have places to live.

We’re also seeing some new ways to streamline the housing production process, which could become mainstream once the health crisis is over.

PPIC: What gives you hope during these challenging times?

CC: I’m heartened by the public leadership we’re seeing. Local leaders, and leaders at all levels of government, are stepping up to save lives. And the selflessness that surfaces in times like these is a reminder that we’re all connected. People rise.

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