The keys to effective local leadership on COVID-19? Empathy, confidence-building, and bold action: Roundup on local leaders and coronavirus

(Last updated: 4/01/2020)

Across America, as hundreds of millions of citizens experience lockdowns, the governors, mayors, city councils, and local officials that serve them are stepping up. The Centre for Public Impact has identified three key actions that local leaders are employing to respond during this crisis:

Engaging with empathy

Leaders are listening to resident concerns and communicating that they understand their fears. They are speaking in human terms and sparking solidarity.

Montana Governor Steve Bullock

  • During a March 31 news conference, where he announced multiple relief measures including freezing evictions, stopping utility shutoffs, and prohibiting late fees, Governor Bullock spoke movingly about the need for Montanans to have shelter, saying

As long as this virus forces Montanans to shelter at home, Montanans need to have a home to shelter in.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo

  • On March 24, during his regular Coronavirus update, Andrew Cuomo ended his briefing with a much-praised speech centered around his love for New York, and New York’s love for its citizens.
  • In a funny, affectionate, stern, and extremely personal March 31 news conference, Andrew Cuomo revealed that his younger brother, CNN’s Chris Cuomo, has tested positive for COVID-19. Filled with anecdotes about their childhood and love for each other, Governor Cuomo used the situation to dramatically illustrate several key points about this virus, including the extreme likelihood of exposure if you’re in public regularly, and the risks that asymptomatic carriers pose to elderly relatives, such as their mother.

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez

  • On March 18, Suarez penned an Op-Ed in the New York Times titled:

I’m the Mayor of Miami, and I Have the Coronavirus.

  • He discussed his symptoms, his anxieties, and his determination to help see the city through this crisis. He also has been posting daily updates on his Instagram documenting his symptoms and addressing his constituents in an effort to put a face to COVID-19 and keep them informed.

Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum

  • On March 19, Mayor Bynum jumped on the nationwide trend of decorating a tree in his yard to show solidarity amidst the crisis. Bynum encouraged residents to follow his lead, saying:

When you’re going through a dark time, it can help to see a light in the darkness.

Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear

  • On March 25, Beshear opened up his daily Coronavirus update with a specially produced 10-minute video for preschoolers and young children who might not understand the current situation. On March 20, his office also produced a video aimed at older children and teenagers.  His daily updates emphasize the need to take care of oneself and show solidarity with one’s community. Beshear also lifts up selfless acts happening throughout the state.

Ohio Governor Mike DeWine

  • On March 25, DeWine emphasized his commitment to protecting his residents in a speech, saying that

The essential job of this government is to protect its people, especially the most vulnerable. These decisions weren’t easy, but they were based on protecting Ohioans’ lives.

  • During a March 30 news conference, Mike DeWine focused a segment on the need for local communities to include homeless shelters in their pandemic plans. He announced the creation of a task force to specifically address preventing the spread of COVID-19 within the population of individuals experiencing homelessness and emphasized the need to reduce crowding at shelters.

Articulating a clear, simple plan that builds confidence

Leaders are reducing anxiety and bringing residents a sense of control with easy-to-understand plans highlighting the most important collective actions of government and society.

Washington Governor Jay Inslee

  • Governor Inslee laid out, in detail, the exact consequences that citizens and businesses can expect for violating his stay-at-home order in a March 31 news conference. He walked through the escalating consequences for each subsequent violation, giving both law enforcement and citizens throughout the state a simple and clear playbook to follow.

San Francisco Mayor London Breed

  • Mayor Breed announced, on March 30, that the shelter-in-place order would be extended until May 1. She emphasized the need to keep citizenry informed of the city’s plans as soon as they were made, noting that she announced the extension specifically to prevent citizens and businesses from making plans based around the original end date of April 7.

L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti

  • On March 20, Garcetti gave an interview on MSNBC where he laid out the reasoning and logic behind his early citywide shelter-in-place order. He pointed to the importance of flattening the curve and repeatedly emphasized the point that:

If it feels wrong [too early], it is the right time to do it, by the time it feels right it is too late.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo

  • On March 25, Cuomo laid out his twin goals for the outbreak: “flatten the curve,” and increase capacity. He then clearly explained several measures that had been taken to achieve each goal. He repeated this message in a tweet later that day.

Demonstrating commitment through bold action

Leaders are following words with action. They are making bold decisions and demonstrating the consequences if people don’t act. When plans fail or come up short (because all good leaders will fail and adapt when addressing rapidly evolving and complex problems) they admit it, share their learnings, and ask people to move on with them.

Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum

  • On April 1, Mayor Bynum penned an op-ed entitled “I’m a Red-State Mayor and I Ordered My City to Stay Home.” The piece detailed his bold decision to order a shelter-in-place in Oklahoma. While Bynum’s actions were polarizing among his constituency, Bynum firmly believes:

Most people are willing to sacrifice a bit of freedom and convenience to protect the lives of the people they love. And in the end, love of neighbor is more important at a local level than political party or ideology. This is what will get us through the current pandemic together.

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh

  • On March 30, Mayor Walsh announced a plan to ensure up to 1,000 homeless or at-risk families who have children in Boston Public Schools receive rental vouchers to keep them off of the streets during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam

  • On March 31, Governor Northam included in his stay-at-home order a provision that prohibited colleges and universities from holding in-person classes, a quick and decisive response to a local university’s decision to welcome students back the week of March 30.

California Department of Corrections

  • On March 31, the California Department of Corrections announced a plan to reduce their prison population to 3,500 inmates by expediting parole for low-level non-violent offenders. It further announced that it was no longer taking transfers from local jails, which could reduce the inmate population by another 3,000 within a month, in order to reduce the risk of mass COVID-19 outbreaks in crowded prisons.

New York Mayor Bill De Blasio

  • Bill De Blasio announced on March 31 that New York City would immediately release 900 non-violent offenders from its jails, as coronavirus spreads throughout its prison system.

Ohio Governor Mike DeWine

  • On March 25, DeWine announced on Twitter that he has already “taken action” against one company that “clearly are not essential but remain open,” and that he will continue with further such actions towards entities violating shutdown orders. On March 24, DeWine called on the public to report businesses that remained open despite his orders.

Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear

  • On March 20, Beshear changed the benefits given to newly unemployed Kentuckians, doubling their first check and eliminating a week-long waiting period. He also made several programs, including Medicaid and SNAP benefits, available to those who had lost their jobs due to coronavirus. Beshear additionally extended all public benefits an by three months beyond their previous expiration date, stating:

There is no stigma for public assistance. We want everybody who qualifies to be on it.

Jacksonville, FL Mayor Lenny Curry

  • On March 24, Curry threatened to condemn businesses that violated shutdown orders by shutting off their utilities.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot

  • On March 25, Lightfoot warned Chicagoans that she would close the city’s parks and waterfront if residents continued to flout the stay-at-home order, and, significantly, stated that first-time offenders would be charged $500, while repeat offenders would be arrested.


For the latest information on COVID19 response, please visit the CDC and your local government websites.

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