Cities Call on Congress for Help Navigating Pandemic’s Fiscal Toll

House Majority Whip James Clyburn of S.C., speaks during a Wednesday news conference on Capitol Hill. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

WASHINGTON (CN) — At a hearing meant to offer bold new strategies on how cities can recover economically from the pandemic, another crisis unfolding in Minneapolis overshadowed testimony before a select House committee.

The majority of mayors who spoke offered their sympathies this afternoon to the family of George Floyd — a black man killed on Memorial Day with a police officer’s knee on his throat. And in closing remarks, Representative Jim Clyburn, the black South Carolina congressman who chairs the group, reflected on their comments and the impact of the coronavirus. 

“And then I thought about a poem that gave rise to a play in which I participated as a college student. And that’s the question, what happens to dreams deferred?” Clyburn said. “What happens to a dream deferred? Langston Hughes wrote those words. Look at Harlem, the city of New York, when certain challenges were being experienced.”

The committee, which held its inaugural meeting only two weeks ago, is tasked with ensuring that the trillions of dollars that the U.S. government disburses in response to the pandemic is free of fraud and misuse. Since that meeting, the national death toll due to Covid-19 has surged past 103,000 cases — an increase of more than 20,000. 

Members previously heard from frontline health care workers and others about their difficulty accessing personal protective equipment, or PPE.

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, whose state was the first to confirm a Covid-19 infection in late February, said mayors and local officials had to “write our own pandemic playbook” as the virus spread — but quarantine had come with devastating economic consequences. 

Rent suspensions and the availability of federal stimulus funds had been beneficial, she said, but Congress should act in five key areas to react to economic effects of the virus, including taking bold approaches to unemployment.

“Second, Congress should invest in America through a bold, 21st century New Deal that is a fair deal, that creates jobs, and tips the scales back to working Americans,” Durkan said. “Expanded unemployment is critical, but we need a bold vision for jobs if we want to fix the economic and health chasms exposed by this virus — particularly for communities of color. We need to guarantee health care for all.”

Ravi Perry, chair the political science department at Howard University, noted in an email that African-Americans were already disproportionately affected by unemployment prior to Covid-19.

In some cities, black youth employment hovers at around 50%. A new industry also often requires learning new skills — training programs for which are not often made available to African-Americans, the professor added.

“Certainly, educating blacks to build the capacity within themselves to be re-tooled for new tasks would be most welcome; the challenge will be whether it is sustainable, and what’s the breadth of its impact,” Perry wrote. “There’s no doubt, that when considering tech, the environment, etc., blacks have had limited opportunity, and many may not have the skills needed. But in a country that is yet shifting from a manufacturing core to a tech core, it is arguably government’s responsibility to ensure the public is educated enough to perform the careers needed to keep the economy going.”

The city of Mangum, Oklahoma, is home to just over 3,000 residents. While small, though it became “the highest infected community, per capita, in the state of Oklahoma at 10.9%,” said Mayor Mary Jane Scott.

An issue in many rural communities is job loss, but Scott said this is particularly true for local hospitals — seven of which were shuttered in her state last year.

“In the heart of Mangum we have an 18-bed, critical-access hospital established in 1967,” Scott said. “And they serve six counties with 24-hour emergency services. As the hospitals across the country have felt the heavy economic hit, we are fighting to keep our great hospital open.”  

Scott also said a resurgence of the virus in the fall would be devastating for the city’s availability to provide services to its citizens. Dr. Howard Forman, a Yale University professor of diagnostic radiology, wrote in an email Friday that it was hard to predict such a resurgence. 

“There are too many unknowns to give a precise (or even rough ballpark) likelihood of a second wave,” Forman said. “But it would be incredibly foolhardy to confidently state that there will not be one. I think we will see small waves occurring throughout the country during the coming months and they will increase in intensity and number in the fall.”

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Bottoms — along with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti; Mayor Stephen Benjamin of Columbia, South Carolina; and Mayor Bryan Barnett of Rochester Hills, Michigan — all testified that the global pandemic had unified their communities. A necessity for innovation also had been born of the pandemic, they said, many governments using their more-limited resources to get fulfill essential services.

Ohio Representative Jim Jordan noted that several small businesses in his state are suing Garcetti for forcing them to close, and he claimed that some cities had violated the First Amendment by closing down churches.

Jacksonville, Florida, Mayor Lenny Curry — among those who testified Friday — earned the Republican congressman’s praise for his handling of shutdown orders.

“I want to thank you mostly as someone who sits on the Judiciary Committee, for respecting the Constitution throughout this process and following exactly what the attorney general of the United States said, which is ‘during crisis, the Constitution still stands,’” Jordan told Curry.

Durkan, responding to these comments, said they were not constructive.

“Having been a former U.S. attorney and a member of the Department of Justice, to insinuate that any city in America is trying to restrict liberties is not helpful at this time,” she said.

Jordan will face a Democratic challenge in November from Shannon Freshour, who told Courthouse News in an email Friday that the lawmaker’s questions exemplified his apathy for the 100 Ohioans in his district who lost their lives to Covid-19. 

“He doesn’t care about the risk to essential workers and their loved ones or the people being forced back to work in unsafe conditions,” Freshour wrote. “Buildings were closed to save lives churches weren’t closed. Services were available online. God doesn’t exist solely within walls of building but in the hearts and actions of followers.” 

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