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By Stephen Goldsmith • March 25, 2020

This article originally appeared in Governing. 

Last week the Ash Center at the Harvard Kennedy School hosted an online meeting that brought together more than 20 senior officials from America's largest cities and Professor Marc Lipsitch, director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, to help frame out facts and options in dealing with the novel coronavirus pandemic, a situation that none of the participants has experienced before.

The exchange raised complex new questions and at the same time highlighted the extraordinary importance of mayors, as well as those who hold corresponding elected positions in county government, who must make painful decisions while accomplishing the seemingly inconsistent goals of communicating bad news in a way that inspires confidence.

Mayors must ask their residents to sacrifice before the full potential horror of the COVID-19 pandemic becomes visible; if these efforts are successful, residents may never appreciate the full scope of the avoided pain. Elected officials must make decisions that will cause residents to lose wages and small business owners to potentially shut down amid the cascading economic impacts of public service disruptions, program shutdowns and canceled events. If not communicated clearly and in a way that overcomes confusion in the national message, this call to action could create a sense of government inflicting pain needlessly rather than responding prudently to a serious public health emergency.

The spread of the virus highlights one of a senior elected official's most important roles: calling the public to action to respond to a crisis. Officials who understand the importance of this role take actions on a daily basis that build trust and their capacity to rally the public. They do this through the ongoing transparency, clarity and accuracy of their messages. And they do this by seeing that essential services continue to be delivered, displaying their jurisdictions' resiliency and dependability in times of hurricanes, floods or pandemics.

The importance of calling the public to action is critical as we move from a mindset that we can contain the pandemic and impose sacrifice on only those who are ill to the concept that the only way to mitigate it is through everyone sacrificing a bit. The need for social distancing will stress the daily order of communities as never before. Leadership in this situation includes listening carefully to local and national public health experts, weighing the harms that will result from certain actions, and then acting quickly and decisively. It's the mitigation of the mitigation that takes creativity: school lunches for children no longer in school, child care for single-parent health-care workers and much more.

Lipsitch referred us to an event from history that showed the difference that courageous leadership can make: the stark comparison between the way Philadelphia and St. Louis handled the 1918 influenza pandemic. Philadelphia failed to cancel important events, including a massive war-bonds parade, and suffered five times the number of flu deaths as St. Louis, which took strong social distancing steps much earlier.

Which brings us to another tenet of effective local leadership in an emergency, the need to stretch and overcome bureaucratic rules that strangle and slow everyday decision-making. I remember the first time I heard Mitch Weiss, now a professor at Harvard Business School but who at the time of the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 was chief of staff to Mayor Thomas Menino, describe proudly how many rules he broke to get a fund set up to help those hurt by the explosions. Mayors have emergency authority much broader than many might realize, and they should use it.

The effective use of emergency powers has been a hallmark of the response to the current pandemic in Seattle, one of the country's hottest spots for the coronavirus. Fortunately, Seattle's local government is one with extraordinary capacity. Deputy Mayor Michael Fong catalogues the tough issues officials are wrestling with, such as whether to impose a moratorium on residential evictions at a time of isolation and quarantine; how to stand up financial assistance programs for struggling small businesses and their workers; and what to do about isolation and depression among older adults who can no longer congregate for meals and activities in senior centers.

"I think the most critical lesson is the willingness to move quickly and take decisive action without the typical deliberative government process," Fong says. "There is no time to study an issue or pilot a program or do community engagement. The time to act was yesterday, and mayors are on the front lines where their decisions could save lives."

Make no mistake: Cities need federal help — dollars, public health expertise, technical support such as test kits, and more. But mayors who meet the challenge of rallying the public when the virus's full harm is not yet evident, who know which rules they can break, and who are prepared to move against their normal goals of promoting civic events and economic activity will see the payoff as the pandemic subsides. Their cities will come out of this crisis more like St. Louis and less like Philadelphia a century ago.