Much of the national discussion about COVID-19 has revolved around the federal and state governments’ response to the pandemic, as well as the intermittent tensions between President Donald Trump and a number of state governors. Local governments have seen their share of conflict in relation to the pandemic too. But they have also been extremely active on the issue, considering a wide range of measures.
The conversation about the pandemic in this country has largely been led by the president and the nation’s governors, with the former and a few of the latter repeatedly criticizing each other’s response. But Congress has passed significant legislation addressing the crisis, including the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. And state lawmakers have mounted one of the most vigorous legislative efforts ever, introducing more than 400 bills and resolutions concerning COVID-19 - and passing 100 of them - between early March and early April, as SNCJ previously reported.
Kevin Schmidt, Supervisor of Client Services for LexisNexis State Net, said that in a little over a month the issue had “overtaken 98 percent of the other legislative issues” State Net tracks, many of which states had been taking action on since the start of their two-year sessions in 2019.
Local governments have also occasionally found themselves embroiled in conflict over COVID-19.
For instance, officials in Austin, Dallas and San Antonio came under fire from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) in May for imposing COVID-19 restrictions that were more strict than those issued by the state, as the Texas Tribune reported. The AG’s office sent the officials a letter warning them to withdraw the “unlawful” orders - including those directing residents to wear face masks in pubic - or face legal action.
Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins countered that he’d “intentionally modeled” his city’s “public health guidelines based on the Governor’s recommendations, never imagining he did not want his own guidelines followed.” And San Antonio City Attorney Andy Segovia said Paxton’s letter labored to “construe inconsistencies where there are none” and undermined “the language of the Governor’s order that allows local officials to facilitate implementation and enforcement.”
In Pennsylvania, several counties drew the ire of Gov. Tom Wolf (D) for saying they would allow local businesses to reopen ahead of the state’s phased reopening plan.
“These folks are choosing to desert in the face of the enemy. In the middle of a war that we Pennsylvanians are winning, and that we must win,” Wolf said, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “They need to understand the consequences of their cowardly act.”
Officials from the renegade counties, which include Beaver, Dauphin, and Lancaster, argued that they’d met state benchmarks for reopening and that the shutdown was inflicting too great a toll on their economies and residents.
“I have great sympathy for those who have lost loved ones to COVID-19,” stated Dauphin County Board Chairman Jeff Haste (R). “I also have great concern for the families that now have to struggle with financial concerns, mental health stress, addiction, and more because of the shutdown.”
In Wisconsin, meanwhile, a running battle between Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and Republicans who control the Legislature resulted in a 4-3 decision by the state’s Supreme Court immediately lifting the governor’s stay-at-home order and leaving the orders of a dozen cities and counties as the only restrictions on businesses and gatherings in the state.
Despite having sued the governor to force him to work with lawmakers on the state’s plan for addressing the coronavirus pandemic, GOP legislative leaders suggested after the court’s ruling that new state guidelines weren’t needed right now.
“As a Republican, I believe in local control,” said Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R).
Some local officials didn’t welcome that approach. Brown County Executive Troy Streckenbach (R) said the “state failed us,” according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.
“We were hoping for state guidance in terms of how 72 counties were to operate going into the future,” Streckenbach said. “Unfortunately, we did not receive that guidance.”
There have also been tensions between local governments and businesses, including a high-profile dustup between Tesla and Alameda County, California over the company’s desire to resume “limited operations” at its car factory there in defiance of the county’s shelter-in-place order. After the company filed a federal lawsuit seeking an injunction against the order and CEO Elon Musk threatened to move the company’s headquarters out of the state, the county agreed to allow the plant to reopen under new safety guidelines.
In spite of such episodes, local lawmaking bodies, like their counterparts at the state level, have been prolific on the issue of COVID-19. The roughly 240 major jurisdictions in LexisNexis State Net’s local government database have considered nearly 1,000 COVID-related ordinances.
Many of those ordinances declare, amend or extend local emergencies or shelter-in-place orders. A large number also deal with appropriations for COVID response in general, as well as for specific purposes like emergency dental services, homeless assistance, housing opportunities for people with AIDS, medical supplies and senior care. And several jurisdictions have taken up the issue of applying for state or federal grant funding.
Aside from emergency declarations and funding matters, moratoriums on commercial and residential evictions figure most prominently among the local ordinances, considered by 18 jurisdictions, although all of them were located in a single state: California. (The top COVID-related issue for state lawmakers, in contrast, has been telemedicine.) A number of cities and counties have also considered rent relief measures, such as mortgage and rental assistance programs [Dallas (20-753)].
More than a dozen jurisdictions in multiple states have proposed business assistance measures. They include loan and grant programs for small businesses [Jacksonville, Florida (2020-0201)]; deferments of rent payments by airport concessionaires and other tenants [Ventura County, California (2020-0004392)]; and extensions of business tax filing deadlines [Anchorage, Alaska (AO 2020-43)].
A number of cities and counties have also proposed measures aimed at food service businesses in particular, including those allowing restaurants to use parking lots as outdoor dining spaces [Kansas City, Missouri (200377)].
Several cities and counties have proposed worker protections, including paid leave for full- and part-time employees [Omaha, Nebraska (42185)]; a prohibition on retaliation against employees for obeying state-at-home orders [Cincinnati, Ohio (202000639)]; and a temporary right of reemployment for workers laid off due to COVID-19 [San Francisco (200455)].
Other notable issues addressed by the ordinances include: bond sales [Portland, Oregon (270)]; contact tracing [Santa Clara County, California (101280)]; expansion of voting by mail [Harris County, Texas (02020-67)]; sheltering of the homeless [San Francisco (200453)]; protocols for nursing homes and assisted living facilities [Boston (0670)]; guidelines for the distribution of ventilators and ICU beds [Boston (0638)]; a moratorium on “small cell” and other wireless infrastructure [Grass Valley, California (02020-71)]; authorization for meetings of public bodies to be held electronically [Norfolk, Virginia (02020-11)]; the leasing of hotel space for COVID quarantining [Houston, Texas (02020-231)]; and guidelines for reopening local businesses and services [Grass Valley, California (02020-42)].
Local measures considered by the County of Los Angeles - the hardest-hit county in California - have been particularly wide-ranging. They cover everything from assessing medical equipment and resources (20-1459)and providing for the expedited acquisition of such supplies(20-2037), to consumer protections during declared states of emergency (20-1818); cancellation of penalties resulting from delinquent property tax payments(20-1874); the safe release of incarcerated persons particularly vulnerable to coronavirus(20-1993); and a moratorium on water service shutoffs by water utilities for unpaid bills(20-2044).
The City of Los Angeles also passed a few measures, including a requirement that anyone leaving their home wear a face mask(20-0429) and a prohibition against third-party food delivery services charging restaurants service fees over 15 percent for online ordering(20-0470).
Local governments have clearly demonstrated they have plenty of room to legislate on COVID-19, despite action at the state and federal level as well. And with cases rising again in many states as they continue to open up their economies, all three levels of government may have a lot more to do.
For a free, sample report showing the current status of all the local ordinances mentioned in this story click here
-- By KOREY CLARK
Top COVID-19 Priorities for Local Governments
Over a dozen cities and counties in multiple states have considered ordinances to help businesses weather the coronavirus pandemic, including loan programs and extensions of business tax filing deadlines, according to LexisNexis State Net’s local government database, which currently covers about 240 such jurisdictions. Another top priority for local governments has been worker protections, such as COVID-19 leave. At least 18 cities and counties tracked by State Net, have also considered moratoriums on COVID-related commercial and residential evictions, but all of those jurisdictions are located in California.
Source: LexisNexis State Net