MAYOR BOTTOMS: Thank you so much for having me.
MR. COSTA: Mayor, what is the reality in Atlanta right now, in terms of cases and in terms of challenges?
MAYOR BOTTOMS: Well, the reality is this: Our numbers are continuing to rise. So as of 12:00 noon today in the State of Georgia we had 24,551 people testing positive. That's up 23.49 percent from this time last week and up 27.66 percent is--our death rate was 1,020 people having died from COVID-19. So, the challenge is that we are lifting our foot off the pedal, and we are not out of the woods. It concerns me when I look at states that are trending in the right direction, like New York. And you see Washington State was able to make a tremendous amount of progress. It was because they were diligent in continuing to socially distance. But in Georgia we are going in the opposite direction, and that's a huge challenge.
MR. COSTA: Mayor Bottoms, when you talk about Georgia going in the opposite direction, what are you actually seeing in Atlanta in terms of people not listening to orders, not listening to social distancing guidelines?
MAYOR BOTTOMS: Well, I think there are a couple of things at play. I think some people are just tired of being in the house and want to get out and have a different set of scenery, and they want to go back to life as normal, getting their nails done and getting their hair cut, et cetera.
And then there are others who are making this very tough economic decision. Do they stay at home and continue to wait this out in the way that they know is responsible and can preserve their health, or do they go back to work because they don't have stimulus money or small loan money in their pockets yet? And it's a very difficult dynamic that people are having to choose from.
I understand people who are dealing with whether or not I go to work to put food on my table. I don't understand people who are going to a movie theater and a bowling alley because they are bored.
MR. COSTA: But they're going, as you've said. And Governor Brian Kemp, a Republican, has allowed those kind of businesses to reopen at certain levels in your state. So, you have to deal with the consequences of that. Is Atlanta prepared for a possible surge in cases in the coming weeks?
MAYOR BOTTOMS: So, I can tell you I was very disturbed this morning. I have an advisory taskforce that's composed of health professionals and also of business leaders throughout our city to advise the city on what our next steps should be as a city. Part of that taskforce is the head of Grady Hospital, which is our major trauma center in the southeast and our major hospital in Atlanta. He said they have had the highest number of people over just the last three days coming into the hospitals. So, to hear that statistic, on top of the fact that we are relieving restrictions, is of grave concern.
We do have hospital space in Atlanta. We do have a bed capacity. We just opened up an expansion of a hospital wing with around 120 beds. We have 200 beds at our World Congress Center. But the notion that we are relieving restrictions so that people will have a bed if they get sick when they go bowling really defies logic, and it defies the recommendations of health experts across this country.
MR. COSTA: We have a question from one of our readers at The Washington Post. We have readers nationwide. Catherine Little [phonetic] from Georgia wonders what's your next move. What are your options and powers in terms of being mayor to counter Governor Kemp?
MAYOR BOTTOMS: You know, my options and powers are limited in terms of what I can do as mayor, in terms of actions that I can take, because he is the governor of our state, and he has the authority to issue orders on behalf of the state. But I also have the authority to continue to use my voice, and it is the reason that I am sitting here speaking with you this afternoon, just encouraging people to please stay home, but also as a city taking actions to make it easier for people who at least live in Atlanta to stay at home. We have a small business loan fund that was launched before the federal government launched its program. Also, through the partnership of people like Goldman Sachs, $10 million has been added to that fund. We started a beauty and barbershop relief fund so that we can put a little money in pockets of people who work in that industry.
We have a creative industry fund that we are also giving out grants through that fund, and senior meal delivery programs, taking food to the doors of seniors. We've expanded that programs through partnerships with Meals on Wheels and Goodr and other organizations, and giving food to our students who participate in our after-school program. So, we are continuing to do what we can to stand in the gap with the limited resources that we have. But most importantly, we're just going to continue to advocate on behalf of people across this state, as the capital city, and just remind people that the scientists and the professionals are saying it's too soon.
MR. COSTA: Do you have communication at all with Governor Kemp?
MAYOR BOTTOMS: I lead the governor's taskforce for the homeless and displaced as a part of our COVID-19 efforts in the state. So, I did participate last week with the governor on a videoconference related to some updates regarding that taskforce. We did not specifically talk about his stay at home order. I did get word from his office that we would be talking over the next several days. We have not spoken yet.
MR. COSTA: So, you have not--the governor has not called the Mayor of Atlanta, the Governor of Georgia not calling the Mayor of Atlanta every day.
MAYOR BOTTOMS: You know, I want to be clear about this. I respect that he is the governor, and he has a lot of decisions that he's making, a lot of constituencies that he has to answer to. So, but on this, something of this magnitude, I do think it would have been important not just as me as Mayor of Atlanta but our mayors across this state, the Mayor of Albany, Georgia, who's having a per capita outbreak that likens what we saw in New York City; the Mayor of Augusta, Georgia, our second-largest city; Savannah, Georgia. Go down the list; nobody has spoken with the governor about this from any of our larger cities. That is of concern to me, because we obviously are responsible for our respective communities. And the governor often speaks of deferring to local control, so it has been a bit perplexing to us that he didn't defer to local control and input on this issue.
MR. COSTA: Here in Washington we were covering President Trump yesterday in the Rose Garden touting his administration's efforts on testing. What is the testing situation in Atlanta?
MAYOR BOTTOMS: So, testing has been expanded in Atlanta. In fact, my brother just went for a test today. He was having some concerns about his breathing. So, it is easier to get tested. There is more testing happening. But we aren't doing contact tracing, and there's so many other layers, as you know, to this. Testing is one part of it. But there's still so many other things that we need to do to really have a holistic approach to addressing what happens when people are positive in our communities.
And I'll just give the example of this. I have a good friend who tested positive the second week in March, and she is still testing positive although her fever broke after several weeks. And the only reason she has been tested again is because her husband has some underlying health conditions. And so, I share this because there's so much we don't know about this virus. So, we talk a lot about people being asymptomatic before they test positive, but then there are obviously people who are asymptomatic after they test positive, and that's why the contact tracing portion of this in testing for communities--community-wide testing is so important.
MR. COSTA: Is there a racial disparity in terms of access to testing in Atlanta?
MAYOR BOTTOMS: Well, some of our test sites are in some of our primarily African-American communities. So those test sites have opened up in the last few days. But I can tell you this: There is racial disparity in terms of how this virus is impacting our state as a whole.
There was a great story today in The Washington Post that talked about Georgia being 30 percent African-American yet our mortality rate related to COVID-19 is at 50 percent. And so, as we're seeing nationwide, this virus, you know, it's discriminating in so many ways against people of color because people are being infected across racial lines, but people are dying at a much higher rate in our state and across this country, people of color with underlying health conditions.
MR. COSTA: And you yourself and your family have dealt with racism because of your response to this pandemic. What is your message to those who have turned to racist ideas amid all this?
MAYOR BOTTOMS: I won't be silent. I was not elected mayor to be a coward, and I won't be silent about this. I do think there's something larger at play. I know someone else who has gotten not as inflammatory as the message that I received, but a message attempting to inflame some racial sensitivities. And again, this transcends race. It transcends gender. It transcends economic lines, party lines. There are people across this country who are being impacted. So, you know, but the facts are the facts, and the data is the data. It is impacting communities of--African-American communities at a higher rate, and Atlanta has a very diverse population with many of the underlying conditions that we've talked about: asthma, diabetes, high blood pressure. Those are conditions that are prevalent in the city. So, I will not let a cowardly text frighten me or silence me.
MR. COSTA: This is a story, Mayor, as you know, about health, about race, about community. It's also about the economy. And what is your plan for dealing with the homelessness now in Atlanta and the homelessness that's sure to come as the economy struggles in the coming months?
MAYOR BOTTOMS: Well, you know, it's two-fold. We have our existing homeless population which on a normal day is a challenge to address some of those underlying needs. But also, we are concerned about people who may become homeless and displaced because of this virus. So again, what we've been able to do, you know, leadership not just from me but across our team, is to be very thoughtful in anticipating the needs of people in our communities.
So, we said very early on that we would not disconnect border service. We suspended towing and ticketing in the public right away. We have also asked our partners who offer financial assistance, whether it was through housing vouchers or through financing for construction financing, we've asked them to stay evictions. So, we've taken those steps. But also, just calling upon our private landowners to have some compassion. We aren't like many other states where we have rent control in our city and in our state, but certainly, you know, we have good will in this state and in this city, and we've just called on people to please not evict people during this time.
MR. COSTA: Mayor, we only have a minute left. As a political reporter, Congressman Jim Clyburn from South Carolina, as you know, has mentioned you as, quote, "a tremendous VP candidate." And so, I wonder, has the Biden campaign or a top Democrat reached out to you about that position and being vetted for the position?
MAYOR BOTTOMS: You know, any time you have someone with the stature of Congressman Clyburn mentioning your name, then it's an honor. So, I'm honored to be a part of the conversation. But I have more than I can say grace over right now leading our city in the midst of this pandemic. But what I've said repeatedly is I want Vice President Biden to put on that ticket the person who will best help them beat Donald Trump in November of 2020.
MR. COSTA: And you'd be open to being considered.
MAYOR BOTTOMS: It would be an honor to be a part of the conversation, but it's certainly not where my focus is.
MR. COSTA: Understood. The focus is the pandemic. And Mayor, I will let you get back to that. I appreciate your time as you deal with these difficult issues. Thank you very much.
MAYOR BOTTOMS: Thank you for having me.
MR. COSTA: And in just a moment I will be joined by New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell. But first, a snapshot of the response in her city. Take a look.
MR. COSTA: Mayor Cantrell, welcome to Washington Post Live.
MAYOR CANTRELL: Good afternoon. Thank you for having me.
MR. COSTA: We appreciate it. What is the latest in New Orleans, Mayor, in terms of the case numbers and the death toll?
MAYOR CANTRELL: Well, the latest in the City of New Orleans, we still have over 6,000 that are positive. Our death rate today is 410. We had the first day of zero deaths--that was on yesterday--and added an additional four today. So, we are moving in the right direction. We need to stay the course, stay on track so that we can continue to see the progress that we're making in the city.
MR. COSTA: So, is New Orleans on a decline, in your view, or is it too soon to say?
MAYOR CANTRELL: Well, based on the data that we look at daily, it is safe to say that we are flattening the curve, no doubt about it. We have made tremendous progress, and we're just seeing again the decline in positive cases, as well as deaths. That's the number one priority. We do not want more of our people to die in our city.
MR. COSTA: Well, let's turn to the news because New Orleans, like any city in the country, it's not isolated. And on Monday Governor John Bel Edwards, a fellow Democrat, announced he would extend your state's stay at home orders through May 15th. Are you comfortable with that decision, and were you involved in that decision?
MAYOR CANTRELL: Well, I was not involved in his decision. However, the governor did reach out to mayors and parish presidents across the State of Louisiana. But my proclamation within the City of New Orleans is May 15th. So, the state, with his change, aligned with the City of New Orleans, and I appreciate that.
MR. COSTA: The governor has been talking about having restaurants and hair salons at 25 percent capacity. Is that a realistic plan, in your view?
MAYOR CANTRELL: Right now, I am working with that industry. I cannot say that I am in a full agreement with that equation there. I think that is--the jury is still out. But it will be working with industry leaders to come up with the best protocols and processes and guidelines that are of course aligned with that of the state and aligned with that of the federal government.
But it's too soon right now to be talking about equations. Right now, I want to keep my people focused on staying at home, continuing to flatten this curve, and prevent future deaths from happening in our city. We're going to get there, no doubt about it, if we continue on this path. And that's where I am right now.
We will be putting together a reopening committee. I'm working towards that now. But it will be in line with that May 15th date. And should we have to extend, we will. But it's not about the date. It will always be about the data, as it relates to the decisions that I have to make as mayor of the city.
MR. COSTA: Mayor, you said you're working with an advisory group. You're working with industry leaders. But what kind of pressure are you under from business leaders to get New Orleans reopened?
MAYOR CANTRELL: Well, I faced some pressure about a week or so ago. I have one of the parish--what is it--he's a leader of a business council or something like that, and he sent me an email, and I responded right away and told him thank you. But there's only, you know, one mayor at a time. And not only that, there's only one that's fully accountable for the decisions that have to be made for the city, and that is me. And then probably a day or so later there was an ad in our local newspaper--full page--that some business leaders had taken out. And my response to the community overall is that we will follow the data, not a date, and I will not be bullied, you know? And it's about the people and the public health. And there is no economy without the public health of our people. And so, it goes hand-in-hand.
And this is a destination city. We're a world-class city. We are used to accommodating over 18 million visitors every single year, and we want to make sure that we come out of this healthy and stay healthy. I do not want to regress. I want the City of New Orleans to be the safest city to visit as it relates to public health as we rebound from this pandemic. And we will rebound. But you know what? Again, it's the data that dictates that, and not a date.
MR. COSTA: Could the data at some point get you to back away from your position that all major events in New Orleans should be postponed through the rest of the year, or is that a pretty firm position of yours?
MAYOR CANTRELL: Well, as it relates to the events that were planned in the city, they are shifting to 2021. Those events were like Jazz Fest that was actually going on this past weekend and the weekend coming. So, they were pushed back, along with the Essence Festival looking at, again, the fall.
But what I have to do, I have to look at the bigger picture. I have to understand the fact that in less than five weeks I'm in hurricane season. You know, and this pushes those events further into hurricane season. And so, I have to look at the whole. And this is expected to be a very busy hurricane season as it's being predicted, and we have to not only address the high river, Mississippi River that is at its highest last year, its highest since 200 years, the inclement weather in terms of the patterns that change that have a lot to do with climate change, but also in the midst of a pandemic. So, I was able to, working with my team, we found a tabletop exercise that was done in 2009 called "Hurriflu" and that was a tabletop done if we were in hurricane season and with the pandemic. So, I'm lifting up some of the lessons learned from that tabletop, folding it in to our plans as we prepare for hurricane season that starts June the 1st.
MR. COSTA: Mayor, a few days ago you talked about the New Orleans Saints, the football team, and you said if they do come back in the fall it will likely be without fans--if they're playing in New Orleans, at least. Have you heard from the NFL or the Saints about that statement?
MAYOR CANTRELL: Well, the NFL as well as other leagues like the NBA, I know that they are doing their due diligence, that they're looking at the data like I am and other leaders are, and they have not come up with a plan of action because it's complicated. It's a lot of things that we have to think over, and huge are responsibilities and liabilities that even come with that. So, I am really waiting to hear from the leaders of the leagues and work with them towards a reopening plan that works for everyone. And at the end of the day, it's about public safety, and that's what we're standing for. Public safety is public health.
MR. COSTA: The planning for Mardi Gras happens a year in advance. That's a huge event for your city, as everyone knows, a great event. Do you see it happening in 2021?
MAYOR CANTRELL: Well, you know what? It's something that we have to think about. It's something that we have put on the table. It all depends, again, on when we reopen the city, the steps that we take to reopen, meaning I want slow and steady. And if we move on this, you know, path of being healthier and without any regressions, then it puts us closer to being prepared to host Mardi Gras come 2021. But again, the data has to dictate any dates that we want to stand on top of.
So with the City of New Orleans, you know, there was a little play out there trying to say that we were the cause for the pandemic kind of stretching out in the U.S., and which of course I had to push back heavily on that, because at the time there were events happening all over the country, and no one was given the red flag, including the City of New Orleans, to your point, who plans for Mardi Gras all year long, with a unified command that includes the federal government. And on Maris Gras day, we had boots on the ground with the federal leaders walking parades with my leadership. So that speaks to, one, no red flags given, but at the same time we have to learn--right?--from lessons. And it will give me great pause--right?--right now before I commit to saying that we're, you know, moving forward with Mardi Gras 2021. We will let the data dictate the dates.
MR. COSTA: You've criticized the Trump administration for not giving you that red flag about Mardi Gras. We've seen the Trump administration yesterday--I asked Mayor Bottoms about this--on testing, touting its success, in its own view. What is your view of testing in your city? Is it at the level it needs to be? What needs to be done if not?
MAYOR CANTRELL: Well, what I will say about testing, because we did act pretty swiftly in the City of New Orleans, not only ending large gatherings but even putting in our stay at home mandate, we ramped up testing very quickly. We were able to stand up the pilot program that the federal government did create. So, we were the first city, one, to initiate the pilot of the federal government. We stood it up in a matter of three days. We tested hundreds, hundreds of our people. And the City of New Orleans, with our healthcare leaders throughout and partners throughout the city, we have been testing at a rate faster more than the federal government and really second to Iceland. So, testing has been a part of our strategy, where we have been able to identify very quickly community spread and taking the necessary precautions to, one, have people stay at home, and to get where we are now, flattening that curve. We have moved into mobile testing going into hotspots that we identified in our city, five different areas. We were in one of these areas last week, tested over 884 people. What we're finding out of those tests and going to people is that the majority of the results are coming back negative, which is a good thing. So, it's getting us closer to a real realization that we may not be in community spread much longer. But we have to continue the rate of testing and even do more when we reopen the city.
MR. COSTA: And if you look at that data, Mayor, as you know as well as anyone, Louisiana's death toll from COVID-19 has been disproportionately African-American. How are you addressing that as mayor?
MAYOR CANTRELL: Well, one of the things for the City of New Orleans, health disparities and social determinants of health have been part of our priority, particularly in the post-Katrina environment, quite frankly, where the whole nation and the world saw, when you have a community with disparities and that community, regardless of the disaster, will be leading in terms of the most vulnerable that are impacted. And so regardless again, when you think about health disparities and those gaps, the people who are connected to those gaps will be the most impacted. So, for the city, it's taking a more intentional approach of meeting people where they are. We've seen an outgrowth in that post-Katrina environment of more medical clinics in neighborhoods than we've ever had before. But at the end of the day, we have to again create a community health worker's model. This is what I want to see deployed in the City of New Orleans, where we're touching people in those neighborhoods, because just by having the facility there doesn't mean that people feel safe or comfortable or trust, or even the fears that take over, to therefore have access or to get access to healthcare, and quality healthcare. So, it's again being intentional.
We're in the midst of census right now in the United States. And I can't say it more. Now is the time for all of our people in urban environments to be counted, because it is these federal dollars that will benefit our people and our cities in a much larger fashion, because those resources are deployed, again, to meet people where they are and to deal with health disparities and social determinants of health. So, I'm pushing census very hard, and at the same time being on the ground, making sure that we're deliberate about testing, about meeting people and linking them to quality healthcare so that they can become better.
And we've seen examples of this in our city. That's why the city went smoke-free five years ago, because, again, too many of our people are living with chronic illness and would end up going to the ER room for treatment. And that's again why we have those health clinics throughout the city as well.
So, it's a work in progress, but we have to turn the corner. And hopefully this is a teachable moment for the country to focus on our most vulnerable people. And it doesn't have to mean the poorest of our people. It's those who are disconnected from healthcare as well as the fears that they're suffering from.
MR. COSTA: Just in the final few minutes here, Mayor, I would appreciate your perspective on the economy, to follow up on your thoughts. There's an order about evictions in your city--suspending evictions. It's set to expire, as you know, at the end of this month. Should city courts or your office take action to extend that eviction freeze?
MAYOR CANTRELL: Well, we're actually--we're doing that right now. We are working with the courts on this. We do want to prevent evictions. And at the same time, there needs to be balance there, making sure that we're working with our landlords, even our smalltime landlords, so that they are made whole as well. So, it is a win-win, and there's a balance of the people who need the housing--and we definitely do not want to push them out of housing--but also the landowner who needs some subsidy as well. So, we have activated rental assistance in the city, utilizing public money as well as private, again, wanting to strike that balance to help both, because it does touch--it touches both the economy as well as the tenant who needs the housing.
MR. COSTA: And you mentioned, Mayor, about the census--that was an interesting point--and about making sure New Orleans gets what it deserves, in your view. We've seen three rounds of congressional negotiations so far. They're now on the phase four negotiations. What do you need in that phase four to stay afloat, to have your budget be ready to go?
MAYOR CANTRELL: Well, man, I think this is the best question you've asked me, I have to say. It's, one, because the federal CARE Act, the dollars do not cover our losses as a city. And I'm looking at about $150 million deficit. You know, New Orleans, again, hospitality industry, that main driver for the city, for the State of Louisiana. And so, with the dollars not addressing our losses--
MR. COSTA: Is that because of your population level, Mayor?
MAYOR CANTRELL: Well, one, no. It's not about the population. It's about how the CARE Act, the dollars are disseminated. So, the federal government has said they can only be used for COVID expenses. So, in terms of the deficit, the losses of revenue from tax dollars, it doesn't cover that. And that's where, in terms of cities are losing it the most because it doesn't cover our losses that are real, and we have to fill those gaps if we're even able to operate and provide basic city services, if we're even able to host--you're talking about festivals and events. I have to have the manpower. And if I can't cover my budget deficit, then how can I do that? So, what we need from the federal government and cities, we need the dollars to cover our losses.
And when you talked about population, what that means is that the federal dollars, because of our population being less than 500,000, those dollars have to be funneled through the state, and they do not come directly to the City of New Orleans. However, they're still only obligated towards expenses due to COVID, not losses. That's a big difference.
MR. COSTA: Final question, Mayor, from one of our readers of The Post, Lisa Powell [phonetic]. She says, quote, "It's hard to imagine New Orleans without music in the air and joyful people on Bourbon Street. How has the crisis changed the character of the city?"
MAYOR CANTRELL: Well, you know what? We're going to get back to it. But in the meantime, let me tell you, the City of New Orleans has been making sure that our gig workers, you know, our musicians can continue to play. They're playing virtually. They're getting paid to play, and we're streaming it live, you know, throughout the City of New Orleans so that our people can hear the great sounds of our city and uplift them in the spirit that we only doing the City of New Orleans. That culture is second to none here.
MR. COSTA: I didn't know about that. I'll have to check out that streaming. I'm a music fan. Mayor, unfortunately that's all the time we have. I appreciate you joining us here on Washington Post Live.
MAYOR CANTRELL: Thank you so much for having me, and thank you for letting me connect with my sister mayor.
MR. COSTA: We're going to be keeping a close eye as reporters on both of you in the coming weeks and years. So, thank you.
MAYOR CANTRELL: Thank you, thank you.
MR. COSTA: And thank you all for watching. A reminder that we will continue to cover all aspects of this pandemic here at Washington Post Live.
And on tomorrow, Wednesday, my colleague David Ignatius from the editorial page, he will interview two ambassadors to the United States, the British Ambassador Dame Karen Pierce, and the German Ambassador Emily Haber. That’s Wednesday, 12:15 Eastern. Just go to WashingtonPostLive.com to register and catch that conversation. It will be a good one. And I appreciate you joining us today. But for now, stay safe and be well.