COVID-19 is not a ‘big city’ problem. It’s an ‘every city’ problem

Pandemic is hurting cities of all sizes. Relief efforts from Washington should reflect that

A woman walks by a closed storefront in Washington, D.C., on April 17. The coronavirus pandemic has hit cities hard and Congress should be helping all cities, regardless of size, Barnett and Ginther write.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
A woman walks by a closed storefront in Washington, D.C., on April 17. The coronavirus pandemic has hit cities hard and Congress should be helping all cities, regardless of size, Barnett and Ginther write. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted April 29, 2020 at 6:59pm

In a country where fierce individuality is prized, it can often feel as though we are more different than alike. But COVID-19 has changed that. No matter who you are or where you live, either you or someone you know has been affected by the pandemic. Maybe you’re sick. Maybe you’ve lost someone close to you. Maybe you’re one of the millions of Americans who face COVID-19 every day as you report to a job on the front line. Maybe you have lost your job and had to go to a food bank for the first time.

As we write this, the United States is reportedly leading the world in confirmed cases of COVID-19, which to date has sickened more than 2 million people and killed at least 136,000 across the world. It is now evident that a country or jurisdiction’s size or population count does not insulate its citizens from the virus’ spread.

Social distancing practices have changed the way we live and our personal experiences. They have been necessary to save lives, but they have blurred the lines of normality. These measures, while essential, are having equally devastating impacts on economies everywhere.

In a recent survey of more than 2,400 cities, jointly released by the United States Conference of Mayors and the National League of Cities, nearly nine in 10 cities reported that they expect to see a budget shortfall due to the impact of COVID-19 on their local economies. Many of these same cities foresee likely furloughs or layoffs of city employees and cuts to critical services as a result of the massive holes appearing in budgets everywhere.

What’s worse, 52 percent of all cities responding reported that these budget shortfalls will force cuts that have a direct impact on police and public safety — the very individuals who have been on the front lines, protecting the public throughout this crisis, could be among the first to feel the impact of cities’ financial strain. These are cities of all sizes, from every part of the country, led by Democrats, Republicans and independents.

The reason for the decline in city revenue is clear. Businesses have temporarily shuttered or been forced to shut down completely. The economy is at a standstill and tax revenues have plummeted. 

What’s also clear is the need for greater support from Washington.

When Congress passed the CARES Act, our federal policymakers recognized that local leaders needed direct funding to aid in their front-line fight against this pandemic. But the CARES Act only made that funding through the Coronavirus Relief Fund available to cities with populations of 500,000 or more. That’s 36 cities, in a country with thousands of cities, all struggling to fight the same fight. Whether it’s Columbus, Ohio, with 900,000 residents or Rochester Hills, Michigan, with 75,000, we’re all seeing expenses increasing and revenues declining.

Like other local leaders, we’re working around the clock to make sure that our first-responder and health care heroes on the front lines of this fight have the tools they need, and that our residents remain safe and healthy. But while we do everything within our power to mitigate the spread of the virus, it’s critically important that we similarly do everything we can to support cities as they face the continued financial uncertainty that is inevitable to follow even in the wake of the pandemic’s peak.  

As Congress considers future stimulus efforts, they need to prioritize direct funding to cities of all sizes. Having fewer residents does not mean you feel the impact of a near-complete economic shutdown any less. And it shouldn’t mean you don’t warrant support in the form of direct federal resources. COVID-19 is not a “big city” problem, it’s an “every city” problem.

Regardless of size, every city is hurting. Every city needs help. And every city resident is looking to our elected leaders in Washington to take the appropriate action for all.

Bryan K. Barnett, a Republican, is the mayor of Rochester Hills, Michigan, and the president of the United States Conference of Mayors.

Andrew Ginther, a Democrat, is the mayor of Columbus, Ohio, and serves on the advisory board of the USCM.

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