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Transcript: Leadership During Crisis with Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney

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MS. WINFIELD CUNNINGHAM: Good afternoon, and welcome to Washington Post Live. I’m Paige Winfield Cunningham, deputy newsletter editor here at The Post.

One month ago, the city of Philadelphia took away its mask mandate, but on Monday it became the first major U.S. city to put that mandate back in place as COVID hospitalizations rose. And today I'm joined by the mayor of that city, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, to talk to us about how--about his decision to put the mask mandates back in place, and the path forward as COVID cases rise. Mayor Kenny, thank you so much for joining us today.

MAYOR KENNEY: My pleasure. Nice to meet you.

MS. WINFIELD CUNNINGHAM: A reminder to our audience that we do want to hear from you during this conversation. Please tweet your questions to @PostLive, and I'll try to get some of those in during our conversation.

So, Mayor Kenney, as I just noted, Philadelphia recently went from all clear level to level two, which I know means that residents and visitors to the city have to wear masks indoors in public spaces. Can you lay out for us why you made that decision and what specific metrics you used?

MAYOR KENNEY: Well, our health professionals recommended that we do a mandate again because their data have shown that mandates get people to wear them more than just highly recommended. Our case counts were 240 percent higher than they were when we got rid of the mask mandate a month ago. We usually track what's going on in Europe, what's going on in Great Britain and knew it was coming here. And our belief is that, you know, wearing masks again will tamp down the case counts and hospitalizations and allow us to continue to reopen and get back to more normalcy.

The mask issue which I do not understand--and in my lifetime, I've never seen anything like it--has become such a politicized issue. It's the most simplest thing you can do to keep yourself safe and to keep people safe. And the politicization of this issue based on national politics and, you know, politics around the country, have just made everyone crazy about it. It's not a big burden to wear a mask, walking into a restaurant, sitting down at your table and when you eat, you take your mask off. It's not a big burden to wear your mask on a plane or on public transportation. So, I'm sad to say that this is--you know, this nation has devolved into a selfish, selfish bunch who want what they want for themselves and are sometimes not willing to help each other out as Americans.

MS. WINFIELD CUNNINGHAM: And I do want to talk more about the politicization because that's a really interesting part of that here and an important part. But I do want to press you a little bit on, you know, we saw the CDC revised its guidance on masking and now it seems to be based more on hospitalizations. And it seems--and correct me if I'm wrong--but that your sort of benchmark for determining when to put the requirements back in place is now stricter at this point than the CDC’s. Why not go with the CDC guidance on that?

MAYOR KENNEY: Well, because we set up--our business community for the most part wanted some metrics they could be transparent and they could depend on. And so we set up those metrics. We share them with the business community, and they agreed. And then when we--when we exceeded those benchmarks, we either had to live up to those metrics or not and then figure out why we were going to argue we shouldn't live up to the metrics that we all agreed to. So, every area of the country is different. Every city and state is different. We just believe that and believe today that taking the--this very minor precaution of wearing a mask is easier than slipping backwards into lockdowns and other types of restrictions that we don't want to go back to.

MS. WINFIELD CUNNINGHAM: And yet I know Philadelphia seems like a bit of an outlier at this point, being the only major U.S. city that is putting those restrictions back in place. And it does seem like a large--to a large degree that the Biden administration, leaders of states and particularly Democratic leaders of states and cities that maybe were stricter earlier in the pandemic, it feels like they're sort of moving on. Are you--do you feel as though other leaders are moving too quickly? And would you like to see similar mandates put back in place in other parts of the country?

MAYOR KENNEY: Well, it's not for me to judge leaders of other cities or states. I mean, it's not--I’m the mayor of Philadelphia, and that's my responsibility. I've--committed through this whole--this whole dilemma, this whole pandemic, to follow the guidance of health professionals, you know, doctors and scientists. And that's what we're doing here. And we're hoping that taking these measures now--and we see our case counts and our hospitalizations going down--that in fact this has worked and we can get out of the mask mandates sooner than later.

MS. WINFIELD CUNNINGHAM: There have also some--been some questions around the effectiveness of masks, particularly as we've seen many people wear sort of the cloth masks, maybe not the N-95s that I know have been recommended. And obviously we know the effectiveness of vaccines. Have you ever considered doing some kind of vaccination requirement instead of masked mandates, and thought about how you might measure the effectiveness of both of those things?

MAYOR KENNEY: I think it's more difficult to do vaccination mandates than it is to do mask mandates. And I agree with you that these types of masks, my--actually my Philadelphia 76ers mask are effective measures. But even the cloth masks that are not as effective as these do cut down transmission of COVID-19.

MS. WINFIELD CUNNINGHAM: I know the city was sued on Saturday by a group of business owners and residents who say that this mask mandate is illegal. What considerations on the impact of businesses did you have before setting this mandate into motion? And I know you mentioned talking to business leaders, but can you kind of characterize for us what those conversations were like and then give a response to that lawsuit?

MAYOR KENNEY: Well, as I said earlier, when we set the metrics, we circulated those metrics to the business community, and there was almost universal agreement that these were good metrics and that were they were transparent and dependable. And then when we abided by the metrics, people complained. So, I mean, I just think that we're in this environment where people will complain about just about anything that we do or that a government does to keep people safe. You know, people complained back when we were--had to go through the lockdowns. And that was not something that we wanted to do, but we're up to pre-pandemic employment rates in the city. We have 33 new restaurants that are opening the spring. We're open for business. We're getting people back into office buildings. We're doing really well. We're getting convention business back, our hotels. Censuses are up. And we're getting--we're getting back to normal.

MS. WINFIELD CUNNINGHAM: You've been mayor, of course, through the last two years of this pandemic. What changes have you seen in the attitudes of Philadelphians about the pandemic two years ago until [audio interference] been a lot of talk about pandemic weariness. And along with that, are you concerned that there's going to be less compliance with the mask mandates because people are just kind of tired of it?

MAYOR KENNEY: Well, I mean, I'm tired of 5,000 people dying in our city from COVID-19. And we want to try to avoid any more loss of life. We have people who are--who are susceptible to disease because of other comorbidities and other health issues. And I just would hope that people would want to care about each other more by making a small sacrifice to keep elderly, children, people who have pre-existing conditions safe. I mean, I think that's the responsibility of us as Americans, us as Philadelphians, and I'm hopeful that people will understand that and make us a small sacrifice for the good of others.

MS. WINFIELD CUNNINGHAM: Does the fact that you’re term limited and unable to run for reelection make this decision to reinstitute the mandate a little bit easier?

MAYOR KENNEY: I mean, I haven't thought about it in those terms. I mean, I'm happy with term limits. I’m happy to not have to run again. And it does give you a modicum of freedom to make decisions that sometimes are difficult. This is not a decision that we wanted to make, that we were looking forward to making. But when I'm advised by people who know more than me about science and medicine that it was--it was the right thing to do, I'm happy--not happy, but I'm glad to have done it. And we're hoping with the numbers going in the direction that they're going now we'll be able to not do it really shortly.

MS. WINFIELD CUNNINGHAM: It seems like if it was a year ago most of the people criticizing your mask mandate might be Republicans. But now Pennsylvania's Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who's a member of your own party, has called your new mandate counterproductive. How do you respond to that?

MAYOR KENNEY: I like Josh Shapiro. I’m supporting Josh Shapiro, and I hope he becomes the governor. He is running in a state that's not necessarily always blue, coming from an area of the state that is blue. So sometimes you have to take positions that necessarily I don't agree with, but I'm still supporting him. I think he's the best candidate for governor that we have out there.

MS. WINFIELD CUNNINGHAM: Just zooming out to the national level for a minute, a few days ago, as I’m sure you're aware, a Florida judge struck down the CDC’s mask requirements on public transportation. And now the Biden administration is going to appeal that. Do you support that decision to appeal the ruling? And is it something that Philadelphia might sign on to?

MAYOR KENNEY: I think what's ironic about the whole judicial ruling, or the opinion, is, you know, a mid-30s federal judge who was--who was confirmed probably by a voice vote in a lame duck session of the Senate, appointed by Donald Trump, is basically setting the health policy for the entire nation, and I think there's something wrong with that scenario. And I'm hopeful that with the--I'm more concerned with the ruling, not about the mask mandate. I'm more concerned about what it does to the--potentially to the CDC when it comes to future health crises that the CDC has to weigh in on. And I think they need to appeal this in order to maintain the CDC’s prominence in making decisions on what's good for Americans health, and not a--not a politically appointed judge from a state that has always resisted science and medicine and should not be setting health policy for the country.

MS. WINFIELD CUNNINGHAM: Well, and after that ruling, we saw a lot of private companies, airlines, et cetera, lifting their mask mandate, sometimes mid-flight, and that included Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority lifted its mask mandate for customers and employees. In your view, was that good call, bad call? What do you think of that?

MAYOR KENNEY: Well, actually, it's not lifted for their employees. Our employees who are driving buses are still required to wear the mask. I don't agree with their decision. They did not--they did not discuss it or, you know, get together with us on it. I don't think it's the right decision. But they’re a separate independent agency that's appointed--their members are appointed by the governor and the legislature and two members appointed by me. So, I mean, I can't speak for them and what drove them to this decision, but I think it was a little bit premature, and I would have appreciated a little more of a heads-up and a little more conversation.

MS. WINFIELD CUNNINGHAM: As we look ahead to the next year where we're trying to move past the pandemic, what do you see as the biggest challenge for local elected officials such as yourself? And when does this end? At what point can people feel as though real life, normal life is back, no mandates?

MAYOR KENNEY: I mean, again, I'm not--I'm not a doctor and I’m not a scientist, but my prediction is that this particular health issue will be with us for quite some time. And my hope is that we get to the point that it's more like a flu shot every year and we don't have the continued loss of life and severe illness. I just think it's gonna be part of our--part of our health regimen for at least the rest of my life. And again, I don't--I never--I never understood the vaccine resistance. We get vaccinated for everything. Kids can't go to school without measles, mumps, and rubella vaccinations, polio vaccinations. How this all got out of control I think is probably more Trumpian-driven and politically driven, and I don't think it was in the best interest of our country. And I would’ve expected more from Americans looking out for each other, as opposed to resisting and complaining about everything.

MS. WINFIELD CUNNINGHAM: I'd like to spend our last few minutes talking about drug addiction. And I was reminded of this today because President Biden is announcing his first plan to take on drug addiction in this country. And I know that you've been the leader on pushing for supervised injection sites. You tried to get one going in Philadelphia. It was blocked by courts. It still isn't up and going. We have some in New York. But what's the status on that? Do you hope to eventually see a supervised injection site in Philadelphia?

MAYOR KENNEY: First of all, my hope was we wouldn't--we wouldn't need to even be talking about it. Secondly, we're in conversations with the Department of Justice now. We would not be running the site. It would be run by a nonprofit. My--from my perspective, if you die of a drug overdose, you can't get better, you can't go to treatment, you can't get your life back. So, if you inject in an alleyway, or you know, under a bridge somewhere, and you lose your life, your life is gone for good. If you are using drugs and can inject in a safe place, with medically supervised folks and you overdose, we can save your life, and perhaps get you to a point where you'll get into recovery. And that's--it's basically harm reduction and life-saving. I understand how it cuts against people's understanding of whether or not, you know, drugs are--drugs are not a good thing and that people shouldn't use them. But the fact of the matter is they do use them, and they're dying from them in large numbers. And if we could set up a system or situation where they can deal with their addiction, inject safely and not die, I think that's our responsibility to keep people from dying.

MS. WINFIELD CUNNINGHAM: Have you been able to make progress in your city trying to get more officials on board? Because I know that this idea, as you alluded to, has been really hotly debated among officials, and there's been a lot of concerns about it. What are the conversations like now? And how are you trying to bring people over to your side of supporting this sort of thing?

MAYOR KENNEY: Well, after the--after the former U.S. attorney left to run for office, the new justice--the Biden Justice Department was much more--is much more realistic about the conversations. Now they have not endorsed it, nor do I expect that they're going to endorse it. But they're at least willing to talk to us about a set of guidelines and rules that need to be followed from community standards, from police strategy standards, and how it would operate. We're not there yet. They're open minded and cooperative and helpful as a matter of fact. And we'll see where we end up. I just want to keep people from dying and give them an opportunity to recover.

MS. WINFIELD CUNNINGHAM: Well, and as you say, I was going to ask you about that very thing, the position of the Justice Department, because the plan that the administration released notably doesn't address the issue of supervised sites. Had you hoped to get a stronger support from the administration on this? And do you have a sense of why they're not endorsing this explicitly?

MAYOR KENNEY: Well, I mean, they’re law--they’re law enforcement people first and foremost, and it's still--you know, injection of heroin and use of heroin is against the law. So I understand the perspective that they're coming out of. I am thankful that they have been at least open minded and to have the discussion of whether or not it's feasible and possible. They have--again, have not made a decision yet, and you know, they’re--but they've been working with us and with Safehouse, which is the nonprofit, to try to figure out a, you know, workable plan, if at all possible. And hopefully we can save some people's lives and get them into recovery and get them better.

MS. WINFIELD CUNNINGHAM: Our time is drawing short, but I do want to ask one last question, and that is the issue of crime, which is getting a lot of attention, of course, nationwide. What's happening in your own city? I know that we've seen crime rates going up. And do you have any plans to respond to that, especially in this election year where crime can be a tough issue for Democrats?

MAYOR KENNEY: Yeah, I mean, we're--crime overall is not going up. Violent crime, gun crime and shootings and homicides are on a severe rise. We--Philadelphia is located in a state where it's harder to get a driver's license than it is to get a gun. You know, to get a driver's license in Pennsylvania, you have to take a written test, you have to take a driving test, you have to show proof of insurance, you have to do lots of things in order to get to--be able to get behind a wheel. To get your hands behind a gun, all you have to do is go to a gun show in Pennsylvania and buy as many guns as you want, including ghost guns, which you can put together at your kitchen table. So, in a state like Pennsylvania, it is more challenging for cities like Philadelphia to control the flow of guns into our city.

If you look at New York City, for example, and New York state that have very strict gun laws, it is harder to get a gun in New York than it is to get it in Pennsylvania. Same thing with California, Massachusetts, and they have less of a gun violence problem than states like Pennsylvania, states down south, Ohio, Indiana, those places. So, I'm not looking--I'm not--I don't think we're going to get gun control anytime soon. I would like to get some control on straw purchases of guns. If the legislature won't allow us to implement our own straw purchase gun laws, we're in--we're in court, we're in state court trying to get some independence, some ability for us to control our own destiny. Our Philadelphia Police Department took 6,000 guns off the street last year and they're being replaced almost simultaneously. Every time we take one off, one more pops up. They're getting into the hands of 14-, 15-, 16-year-olds who settle their disputes with their peers by shooting each other as opposed to what we did when we were younger, which would be a--be a fistfight. So, we're struggling with that. We're investing in violence prevention efforts. We're bolstering our police department. And we're working with our law enforcement partners on the state and federal level to get control over some of the activities that are going on, on our streets.

MS. WINFIELD CUNNINGHAM: Well, Mayor Kenney, we are out of time. But thank you so much for joining us here today. It was a fascinating conversation.

MAYOR KENNEY: My pleasure. Nice meeting you. Thanks.

MS. WINFIELD CUNNINGHAM: And thank you for joining us. To find out more about our upcoming programming, please go to I’m Paige Winfield Cunningham. Thanks again.

[End recorded session]