Planning July 2020

How Cities Are Taking Action on COVID-19

Public health researchers assess the government policies that respond to COVID-19, mitigate negative impacts, and help prepare for future crises.

Photo by Smederevac iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Photo by Smederevac iStock/Getty Images Plus.

By Shima Hamidi and Keshia M. Pollack Porter

Since the outbreak of COVID-19 hit the U.S., life has changed drastically in communities across the country as state and local governments have issued stay-at-home orders and closures of all but essential businesses and services.

While crucial to mitigating the spread of COVID-19 in the absence of vaccines and medical treatments, social distancing interventions also come with devastating economic costs to citizens and businesses. Lost jobs, reduced hours, inability to pay rent and other expenses, food insecurity, and permanent business closures are just some of the direct impacts.

Cities — and planning departments — have taken a variety of actions to facilitate the effective implementation of social distancing and adopt policies to mitigate its negative outcomes. We reviewed actions taken by 20 large cities in the first several weeks of the crisis in an effort to gather empirical evidence and valuable insights that communities across the country can use as they prepare for the possibility of a second wave of COVID-19 in the coming months, as well as look to build resiliency and response plans for future highly contagious infectious disease outbreaks.

We reviewed actions taken in an effort to gather empirical evidence and valuable insights that communities can use as they prepare for the possibility of a second wave.

Social Distancing Measures

Widespread closures of schools and businesses have typically been enacted at the state level. In some cases, state and local governments have not agreed on how to move forward. That was the case in Nevada, where Governor Steve Sisolak ordered the statewide shutdown of all entertainment businesses such as casinos, bars, hotels, and movie theaters. Mayor Carolyn Goodman of Las Vegas initially pushed back, claiming that the city's economy would not survive more than 10 days under a total shutdown. Ultimately, the city had to obey the state order.

Some cities are enforcing their business closure edicts by issuing violations for noncompliance. In New York City, which monitors compliance daily, the city inspected more than 13,000 businesses and religious institutions on March 22, finding overwhelming compliance and issuing just 11 violations. In Miami, officials announced that flouting the emergency order could result in charges of a second- degree misdemeanor.

Shelter-in-place orders are the most restrictive of the social distancing measures. Most governors issued statewide orders, but states such as Alabama, Texas, Florida, Georgia, and Kansas resisted shelter-in-place orders for weeks, although they were adopted far earlier by their major cities.

Even during shelter-in-place orders, people still can leave home for outdoor exercise. To give residents the opportunity to exercise (and commute) safely while following the six-foot social distancing recommendation, several cities have closed certain streets to vehicular traffic, opening them exclusively to bikers and pedestrians.

New York City dedicated seven miles of open streets in and around parks, and recently announced plans to open up to 100 miles of streets, widen sidewalks, and add additional bike lanes in May. Similarly, San Francisco, Oakland, and Seattle announced several road closures to allow people to be outdoors while practicing social distancing. (For more on cities' responses to changing transportation patterns during the COVID-19 crisis, see "As Mobility Patterns Change, Cities Shift Gears,")

Supporting Small Businesses

Small- and medium-sized businesses across the U.S have been severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Recent data shows that, as of May 8, more than 33 million Americans had filed for unemployment and about 3.5 million businesses are in danger of permanent closure. Cities and local governments are taking various actions to mitigate this trend and to support small- and medium-sized businesses.

Los Angeles is providing $11 million in no-fee and zero-tax microloans of $5,000 to $20,000 to cover working capital. Chicago has partnered with philanthropic institutions and corporations to establish a $100 million fund offering five-year low-interest loans of up to $50,000. New York City announced a loan program to cover 40 percent of payroll for two months for companies with fewer than five employees. Several cities, including Denver and San Francisco, adopted initiatives for artists and arts organizations to pay rent and salaries and to help artists stay in their cities.

New Orleans adjusted revenue collections by waiving fines, fees, interest, and penalties on sales tax payments for affected businesses for at least 60 days. Seattle will defer business and occupation tax collections for businesses that have annual taxable incomes of $5 million or less.

Supporting Households and Citizens

While pandemics cause economic hardships to every sector of the economy, low-wage workers have been the hardest hit. In response, Denver has introduced the Temporary Rental and Utility Assistance program, which offers utility payments and up to 80 percent of monthly rent for families affected by the pandemic. Dallas is providing up to $1,500 for a maximum of three months per eligible household. Many cities have ordered moratoriums on evictions, halted utility shutoffs, and introduced utility billing relief programs.

Washington, D.C., launched the Digital Equity Fund, which offers resources such as internet access and digital devices to students, educators, and schools for distance learning. Boston has purchased 20,000 Chromebook laptops for students that need devices to participate in online classes.

Chicago is partnering with Airbnb to provide safe places to stay for victims of domestic violence, and has partnered with local hotels to open up more than 1,000 rooms for people who have been exposed to or are mildly ill with COVID-19.

Both Chicago and Los Angeles have prioritized resources to provide emergency shelter space for residents experiencing homelessness. Baltimore is relocating vulnerable homeless residents who are over the age of 62 from emergency shelters to motels, and New Orleans also moved homeless people to a hotel in the central business district. Denver has opened a new women's auxiliary shelter for 300 women and transgender individuals, providing screening and medical triage for those exhibiting symptoms or who have been advised to isolate.

Cities Respond to COVID-19

The pandemic measures shown here were drawn from publicly available city data, news reports, and city and department websites as of May 15, 2020. This may not be a comprehensive list. Some cities may have taken actions without updating their websites. In addition, specific responses may have evolved over time.

Cities Respond to COVID-19

Sources: Cities' websites, news outlets, mayoral orders, and statements in the selected cities, as well as the list of actions in the COVID-19: Local Action Tracker, a platform developed by the National League of Cities in partnership with Bloomberg Philanthropy.

Food Supply and Security

Food security is a critical consideration during a pandemic. Almost all cities in this review offer free lunch to children and teenagers, and several of them offer free meals for seniors. Seattle is contributing $5 million to provide emergency food vouchers to 6,250 families; New Orleans, through a public-private partnership, provides free meal delivery service to at-risk residents; and Philadelphia residents can pick up a free box of food at several locations across the city.

Cities are also protecting an uninterrupted food supply in grocery stores. Los Angeles exempted grocery-related freight deliveries from nightly curfews to help ensure stores remain well stocked. Detroit, Austin, and Seattle initiated programs to make picking up food from restaurants easier, including freeing up parking and creating special carryout zones. New York City has changed its regulations to allow restaurant delivery workers to use e-bicycles, while Washington, D.C., extended sidewalks near grocery stores and other essential retailers to allow pedestrians enough space to practice social distancing.

Supporting Health Workers

Health-care workers have shown an exceptional sense of duty, working for long hours in life-threatening conditions to help patients. Local governments, in turn, should do their best to accommodate the needs of health workers on the front line. Our review shows relatively fewer efforts in this regard, but it could be because cities have not published their supportive programs on their websites.

New York City issued more than 10,000 citywide parking permits to health-care personnel, while San Francisco and many other cities offer free childcare for health-care workers in 12-hour shifts. New York City and Boston are partnering with bike-share companies to lend bikes to essential workers, and Chicago has partnered with hotels to provide first responders and health-care workers a place to rest, sleep, and shower without having to return home and risk the health of their families.

Many cities have ordered moratoriums on evictions, halted utility shutoffs, and introduced utility billing relief programs.

Transportation and Mobility

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted different transportation modes dramatically. Chicago and San Francisco have seen transit use decline by about 97 percent, while New York's ridership has dropped by 87 percent for subways and 70 percent for buses. Consequently, most transit agencies decided to reduce services to mitigate the financial loss. Others have made changes to allow for social distancing, which include requiring back-door boarding and limiting the number of seats on buses.

Transit isn't the only mode impacted. Uber's ridership in Seattle dropped 60 to 70 percent, while New York banned ride-hailing services altogether. Uber suspended its ride-share UberPool services in major cities. Miami suspended all its e-scooter and bike-sharing programs, and several companies, including Lime and Bird, cut service in major cities such as San Francisco, San Jose, Sacramento, Portland, and Miami due to low demand. On the other hand, bike-share companies such as Chicago's Divvy are partnering with cities to offer steeply discounted membership during the pandemic.

People are increasingly turning to biking as a safer alternative to using transit. Philadelphia, where biking is up more than 150 percent, is among the cities supporting that trend; the city has closed a 4.4-mile street to vehicles to enhance safety for cyclists. New York City has also installed two temporary protected bike lanes along two busy bike corridors in Midtown and downtown Brooklyn.

Where We Go from Here

As we look to the future, the optimal time to relax the interventions is still an open question. At the time of this writing a number of states and localities had begun transitioning out of stay-at-home measures and relaxing the mandatory business closures.

However, based on this review of city actions, one thing is clear: planners and local decision makers have major roles to play during public health crises, and their actions can help both save lives and mitigate the devastating outcomes for citizens and businesses.


APA's COVID-19 Resources: APA is committed to providing resources, information, and tools. Learn how we use the practice of foresight to "learn with the future," prepare for uncertainty, and help you navigate this disruptive change.

Shima Hamidi is Bloomberg Assistant Professor of American Health in Environmental Challenges at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She is also the founder and former director of the Center for Transportation Equity, Decisions and Dollars, funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation. She can be reached at

Keshia M. Pollack Porter is the associate dean for faculty and a professor of health policy and management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She also directs the Institute for Health and Social Policy. She can be reached at