The coronavirus outbreak is forcing every state, city and county to execute a plan of attack for confronting the global pandemic. It’s a process that Sarah Eckhardt, the top official in Texas’s Travis County, likened to “building the plane while in the air.”
But the virus — and the extraordinarily costly response to it — is also putting enormous pressure on all the normal stuff: the criminal justice, sanitation, transit, emergency response and other systems that residents expect from their state and local governments.
Although the nation is just in the first stages of what is likely to be a prolonged struggle to suppress covid-19, the strain on public services is already beginning to show. First responders are stretched thin. Courts are paralyzed. And everywhere, money for basic public services is running out, fast.
“We have to manage beyond the scope of anything one city has prepared for or can handle,” said Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, whose city is among the worst-hit in America. “We’re spending all our reserves right now, but we won’t make it if the federal government doesn’t step up and step up big.”
Durkan said cities ultimately will need “something bigger than the New Deal just to stay afloat.”
The U.S. Conference of Mayors on Wednesday asked Congress for considerably less than that, but still a hefty sum: $250 billion in emergency assistance just to “continue to provide vital public services.” Without it, the group warned of cuts that would “exacerbate the economic impact of this crisis.”
But as companies ranging from the nation’s major airlines to countless small businesses line up for assistance, it is unclear whether cities will actually get the money.
President Trump signaled Thursday that there are limits to how much the federal government will help. In a conference call with governors who want access to potentially lifesaving medical equipment, Trump insisted the U.S. government was “not a shipping clerk” and that the states should act on their own.
Even if Congress does appropriate money, the amount might not be sufficient for state and local governments that already were cash-strapped before this disaster struck.
“We have never come back from the reduction in public services after the Great Recession,” said Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, who is advocating for an even bigger package of federal assistance. “Now we’re paying for that. It’s showing.”
So far, authorities have been able to minimize the symptoms of just how badly they are being squeezed. But they have had to get creative.
San Francisco libraries have been transformed into child-care centers for low-income families whose children are suddenly out of school.
Texas’s Dallas County has asked local vodka distilleries to shift to manufacturing hand sanitizer for the county’s first responders. It has called on construction workers to donate their stockpile of face masks to medical facilities.
Jurisdictions around the country are freeing up space in their jails — and reducing the risk of an unstoppable outbreak among the confined — by sending nonviolent offenders home early.
In San Jose — an epicenter of the U.S. outbreak, and living under remain-in-place orders since Monday — firefighters are working overtime. They have to, given the thinning of their ranks caused by the very virus they’re combating on the front lines.
It was late January when a unit was dispatched to help a man who had fallen ill. Five days later, firefighters learned they had been assisting one of America’s first covid-19 patients.
Now a dozen San Jose firefighters have tested positive for the virus. In all, 76 are off work because of confirmed or suspected exposure — out of a department of 665.
To halt the spread, “we have had to change everything we do,” said Sean Kaldor, president of the firefighters union. “How we live at the station, how we clean at the station, how we respond to calls.”
The last is the most dramatic: With every call — whether it’s a house fire, a car accident or a medical emergency — firefighters now assume that the people they are assisting are positive for the coronavirus. When they enter a building, they go one at a time and they are required to don full protective gear: a gown, mask, gloves and goggles.
“It looks like Wuhan,” said Kaldor, referring to the Chinese provincial capital where the coronavirus first emerged. “There’s new stress now on every call — the level of precaution and realizing what’s at risk every time we walk out the door.”
The Seattle region already has had a taste of what happens when firefighters are infected but they don’t know it: A firefighter in Kirkland, Wash., the Seattle suburb where an outbreak at a nursing home caused the first U.S. coronavirus death on Feb. 29, had the disease and went to work undetected for weeks thinking he had pneumonia.
Since then, Seattle’s first responders have been taking extra precautions. The city’s fire department saw a nearly 500 percent jump in incidents for which personal protective equipment was required in just one week this month.
“If you end up with a significant number of firefighters out of service, not only can they not respond to covid-19 calls, but they also can’t respond if a house catches on fire or someone has a heart attack,” said Durkan, Seattle’s mayor.
In Texas, county leaders have activated their emergency management and public health teams to run inventories of personal protective equipment for health-care workers.
For weeks, they have been corresponding through group text messages, sharing advice about how and when to cancel jury trials, swapping guidance on how to pause evictions and debating whether to issue mandatory restrictions on gatherings. They have put together a shareable document comparing what each jurisdiction has done to try to stop the spread.
Dallas is making recreational vehicles available for exposed emergency personnel who can’t go home. The city also is bracing for cuts to services: low-priority 911 calls, like noise complaints or disturbances, will have to be ignored, said Director of Emergency Management Rocky Vaz.
All the pressure, planning and problems can at times boil over.
In Travis County, home to Austin, County Judge Eckhardt said Wednesday that she “blew a gasket” when she saw how many critical city and county employees were packed into the same room in the emergency operations center. “I told them to virtualize the room now,” she said.
Nationwide, officials uniformly say the health of citizens is their foremost concern. But money isn’t far behind.
In New Orleans, the city’s budget was strained after dealing with the October collapse of the Hard Rock hotel and a December cyberattack on the city’s computer systems. But a coronavirus-fueled knockout to the tourism industry has Mayor LaToya Cantrell considering layoffs and furloughs of city workers.
The pandemic also has threatened the criminal justice system. Public defense is largely funded through court fees and fines, traffic tickets and seat-belt violations. That money has all but disappeared as the city has temporarily stopped pursuing such cases. If nothing is done to replace the missing revenue, New Orleans Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton said he will be forced to make "hard choices" as early as May.
“We were in financial crisis in the best of days,” said Bunton, who has begun reaching out to state and federal officials seeking additional funding. “You zero us out and what looks like a crippled criminal legal system will soon not look like a criminal legal system at all.”
With the courts shut down since Monday, bond hearings for the newly arrested are being held via videoconferencing. Public defender Meghan Garvey watched the proceedings from her home Wednesday and was horrified.
“There are multiple deputies in this room in the jail where they take everybody,” she said. “Nobody has masks or gloves on, and these people who have just been booked are coming in from the street. One of the deputies is leaning right up against an inmate, elbow-to-elbow, touching him as we speak. What the hell?”
New Orleans has not done what other cities across the United States — including Baltimore, Cleveland, Los Angeles, New York and Philadelphia — already have: stopped arresting and jailing people for low-level, nonviolent offenses.
Cities might ultimately have to do far more than that to cut back. Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley said her western Ohio city of 140,000 has modeled what it would look like to have 30 percent fewer firefighters and police officers on duty.
Other public services could face budget cuts as tax revenue plummets: The city is run primarily on an earnings tax, and Whaley said the impact of mass layoffs will be evident within weeks. Services like garbage collection — critical to public health amid a pandemic — could be vulnerable.
“How do you pay for that when there’s no money coming in? That’s the issue,” said Whaley, who is second vice president of the Conference of Mayors.
Dayton has grown accustomed to disasters, having endured a tornado and a mass shooting last year. But this is one, Whaley said, that the city won’t be able to confront on its own. Federal assistance will be vital.
“We’re going to do everything we can to keep this going,” she said, “but we’re going to need some help.”
Hernandez reported from San Antonio, Scruggs from Seattle and Webster from New Orleans.