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‘No rule book’: 1 mayor’s experience with governing during COVID-19

Editor's note: This story was produced in accordance with social distancing rules, as recommended by the CDC.

Although much public conversation about the novel coronavirus pandemic focuses on the national situation and the federal government's response, many of the decisions that directly affect our lives are made by local officials. Amna Nawaz spends some time with Justin Wilson, mayor of Alexandria, Virginia, to discuss the city's experience with COVID-19 to date -- and Wilson's worries for its future.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We talk often about the implications of COVID-19 on a national level, but a lot of the decisions that directly impact our lives are made by local governments.

    We want to take a moment and focus on how those decisions are made.

    So, a few days ago, I spent time with the mayor of my own hometown, Alexandria, Virginia, for a closer look.

  • Mayor Justin Wilson:

    Our vehicle traffic, obviously, is a lot less now and Friday

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Friday afternoon in Old Town, Alexandria, and Mayor Justin Wilson is walking the city's main drag.

  • Mayor Justin Wilson:

    This allowed more space for social distancing.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    This is what phase three of Virginia's reopening looks like.

    What's it like for you to come out now and see businesses open and people outside dining?

  • Mayor Justin Wilson:

    It is definitely good to see. Everyone's tables are separate. Folks are mostly doing the right thing.

    But it comes with, of course, some trepidation, right, because you don't want to see a situation where we're back where we were.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Alexandria's a small city, about 160,000 residents, many whom cross the river into Washington, D.C., every day as federal workers.

    The economy here depends on small businesses like these, restaurants, independent retailers, mom-and-pop stores all of them, all of them hit hard in the pandemic.

  • Woman:

    This is going to be definitely a three-year recovery program, at a minimum.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Mayor is a part-time gig here. Wilson also works for Amtrak. But trying to stabilize his city's economy has now become an enormous job.

  • Mayor Justin Wilson:

    We have what was an $800 million budget that we lost $92 million out of, which is an enormous hit for us. And so we want to get our economy back going.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The financial impact for Alexandria is immense. In April of last year, dining out yielded $2.2 million in tax revenue, this year, just 570,000. From hotel stays, April 2019 brought in $1.3 million. This year, that was down to just $96,000.

    Already, pay freezes are in place for City Hall staff. Layoffs are a possibility.

  • Mayor Justin Wilson:

    If this is a prolonged, multiyear thing, this is going to be dramatic for us. It's going to be very, very significant.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And the blow to the city budget means badly needed infrastructure work won't get done.

    You mentioned a $90 million hit to your budget.

  • Mayor Justin Wilson:

    Yes, 92, Yes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What does that mean for a city like Alexandria?

  • Mayor Justin Wilson:

    The biggest question is, how sustainable is it going to be. Is that a $92 million one-time hit? We deferred to a whole bunch of capital projects. We used — drew down on some of our reserves.

    So, a planned rebuild of a high school is going to be delayed for a couple of years. Waterfront flood mitigation work is going to be delayed for several years.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    There is pushback against Wilson's push to reopen. Northern Virginia had previously coordinated plans with neighboring D.C. and Maryland, which have been more restrictive in their openings. This month, that changed.

    And Mayor Wilson pressed ahead with the rest of Virginia to relax restrictions. Alexandria's had nearly 2,500 COVID cases, and almost 60 fatalities. Critics worry the reopening has fueled further spread of the virus.

  • Mayor Justin Wilson:

    We understand that the prerequisite of any economic activity is public health. Even some of the states that rushed reopening learned that you can open everything. People aren't going to show up unless they feel safe.

    A lot of businesses are making plans around reopening.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Some kind of schedule.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Mayor Justin Wilson:

    Yes, and trying at least to get adopt to some new normal. And so the last thing we wanted to see is have to go backwards.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Like much of the country, black and brown residents here have been hardest hit. Wilson says resistance from the federal government to help undocumented workers and others who need it most remains a problem.

    What specific steps would you want to see from the federal government that would help your community right now?

  • Mayor Justin Wilson:

    What I have said every single time I have talked to our — both of our senators and our congressmen is just send money.

    I mean, I hate to say it so simply, but send money. Send money to our residents. Send money to our businesses.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    For his part, the mayor is trying to lead by example, masking up in public, safely interacting with neighbors, and running a one-man social media P.R. machine for local restaurants, featuring new outdoor dining or curbside pickup options.

    But, like local leaders across the country, his optimism is tempered by the uncertainty ahead.

    Are you worried that there could be another spike in cases?

  • Mayor Justin Wilson:

    If you find me someone who is confident about anything in this environment, they're lying to you, because this is unprecedented, right? We're all making decisions that have no rule book.

    There is no — there's no other jurisdiction you can consult. There are no scholarly journals you can look at. But, yes, I'm absolutely concerned.

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