The Women Leading the Coronavirus Response From City Hall

When Lori Lightfoot was elected mayor in Chicago in April 2019 (becoming the first black woman to serve in the office), she had a sense of what was about to fall on her plate.

In that race, she’d run on promises to stamp out corruption, deal with an impending fiscal crisis, reduce crime, and reform policing. There were bound to be unexpected problems, but she had her marching orders. Then, six months into her tenure, a once-in-a-lifetime virus put her plans on hold. When she’d mapped out how her first term in office would look, a pandemic that would compel her to shut down one of the biggest cities in the United States for months on end was, as she puts it, “not on the list of possible options.” She has rejiggered her to-do list.

Since states explored (and then instituted) lockdowns several weeks ago, much attention had been paid to the warring approaches of their governors. Washington Governor Jay Inslee moved fast to curtail an outbreak in Seattle, enacting a plan that has in all likelihood saved thousands of lives. Meanwhile, Governor Brian Kemp ruled that some non-essential businesses in Georgia could reopen in late April and lifted additional restrictions last week, ahead of the recommended timeline from public health experts. The decision has been so denounced that even President Donald Trump expressed disapproval.

But while it does fall to governors to make the call to close—and later, to reopen—their states, cities and the people who lead them have decisions to make too. Municipal governments can make funds available to small businesses to keep them afloat or plan for meal distribution for at-risk children who can’t get them at school while in quarantine. Local officials can mandate mask-wearing or clear streets to open up space for pedestrians or streamline access to essential services. In cities and towns across America, it’s mayors— even more than state-wide politicians or the president—who are responsible for sounding a clear note to constituents who have perhaps received muddied signals from other leaders. And it’s mayors who have the closest look at the minute-to-minute, ever-compounding desperation that people in their communities now feel.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot visits Wrigley Field, mobilized to distribute food and supplies for COVID-19 relief.

“I don’t think there’s a female way of leading, nor do I think that most women would say that,” says Juliette Kayyem, who leads a virtual convening with hundreds of global mayors each week that Bloomberg Philanthropies hosts. “But what many women have demonstrated in this crisis is both truthfulness, which is needed in a pandemic, in terms of being honest about what we know and what we don’t know, and quick decision-making. Their cities have benefited from actions taken early and decisively, even if imperfect.”

(Not every mayor has quite met her moment. Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman recently offered up her residents as a “control group” to see how many people would die without social distancing.)

For women who lead towns and cities—as for women in all positions of leadership—the job is complicated. Be empathetic, but firm. Be decisive, but not cold. Be understanding, but don’t be a doormat. Be focused, but never be unavailable. Be omnipresent, be kind, be assertive, be “relatable.”

Over the past two weeks, Glamour interviewed five women who know the role’s tightrope walk well—Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, San Francisco Mayor London Breed, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Mayor Rosalynn Bliss in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway in Madison, Wisconsin. Here, the women look back on the first two months of this crisis—low moments, beacons of hope, unexpected, absurdly popular memes—and plan for an uncertain future.

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms

In 2017, Bottoms was elected mayor of Atlanta, Georgia. She previously served on Atlanta City Council.

Keisha Lance Bottoms was in Tennessee, campaigning for former Vice President Joe Biden whom she endorsed last summer when she learned that Georgia had its first positive cases. For months, she’d been watching the virus take hold in China and spread outside of it. It was just a matter of time before it arrived in the United States. When she heard the news, she reached out to her team and sounded the alarm. “I said, ‘God bless the child who’s got his own,’” she recalls. “We’ve got to be prepared for this regardless of what the federal preparations and the state preparations will be. We’ve got to make sure that, as a city, we are prepared.”

Bottoms leads a blue metropolis in the middle of a red state. Even as she takes care to emphasize her collaborative work with conservatives, she knew that she and Governor Brian Kemp, a Republican, would not have the same attitude on how to cope with the pandemic. And so she steeled herself. “We’re going to assume we won’t have help from anywhere,” she told her staff. “And we’re going to operate this if we’ve got to navigate it ourselves. And then anything above that, any assistance that we get, we will consider it to be extra, and will be grateful for it.”

Still, “going in with that approach”—a low-expectations attitude that will be familiar to women the world over—“has allowed us not to be disappointed,” Bottoms says. With Kemp tied up with his ill-advised reopening, Bottoms has stepped up, coordinating hot meals for children on free or reduced lunch, supporting seniors who are homebound, and working with Senator David Perdue, a Republican, to ensure that their state receives the funds it needs in each successive stimulus bill.

She has also continued to call for people to remain indoors, a counterweight to Kemp’s open-for-business approach. It “disturbs” her to think that Kemp believes it’s possible for someone like a barber to maintain a six-foot distance from his clients. “The nature of the business doesn’t allow people to be at distance,” Bottoms says. “And if I’m struggling to get personal protective equipment for sanitation workers in Atlanta, I’m not sure how I should expect my manicurist to have what she needs.” She agrees with Trump that Kemp has pushed too fast to send people back to work, but that’s perhaps the one area of consensus the two share.

“I wish I even had a word to describe what I see from the White House,” she says. “I’m at a loss for words to describe that.” In a state like Georgia, Bottoms is used to figuring out how to work with conservatives. It’s not partisanship that has soured her on the White House. “I don’t think that’s a partisan issue. I think it’s just poor leadership.”

Her candor—about Trump, about Kemp—has provoked a sometimes frightening response. Last week, Bottoms received a text (also sent to her 12-year-old son) that called her the n-word. State officials are now investigating the message to make sure it wasn’t sent from a government worker. Even so, Bottoms maintains her composure, finding equilibrium in her personal support network and Atlanta’s broader public health apparatus. She knows what needs to be done. In making decisions, she likes to recall one of her mother’s favorite refrains—a little bit of common sense goes a long way.

“There has been no playbook; it is just us sitting down, trying to quickly think through the list,” she says. “We ask, ‘Who is going to be the most vulnerable? What will their needs be?’”

Bottoms has also looked to the example of other cities—or, as she puts it, “as much as we do now, as much as we led, we’ve also followed.” She watched Mayor London Breed shut down San Francisco and proceeded to lift Breed’s order “almost word for word.” She admires how Mayor Randall Woodfin communicates with his residents in Birmingham, Alabama. She noticed Mayor Melvin Carter made direct deposits of up to $1,000 available to families in St. Paul, Minnesota. Smart, she thinks. Now her team is looking into whether that’s doable in Atlanta. And conference calls with the U.S. Conference of Mayors have become more than just a place to trade good ideas. “Sometimes, for me, it’s almost like a therapy session. You just get to hear from other mayors and you realize that, the problems you’re having—you’re not facing it alone.”

Mayor London Breed

Breed won a special election after former Mayor Ed Lee died in December 2017. She was elected to serve a full term—becoming San Francisco’s first black, female mayor—in 2019.

London Breed had been having conversations with her staff about the coronavirus as far back as December 2019, but it was in the first weeks of 2020 that she activated San Francisco’s EOC—the emergency operations center that would serve as the central command in the event that the virus took root in the area.

“And that’s when [our public health experts and I] got into an in-depth conversation about what was happening in the rest of the world and what would happen if it hit us here in San Francisco,” Breed says. “I just remember looking at the people there, like, ‘We have UC San Francisco, we have California Pacific Medical Center, we have Kaiser Permanente, we have San Francisco General—we have all these health facilities, and what I’m hearing is that if there is an outbreak and we take no steps to protect this city, that there is a real possibility that we will have to turn people away because we’re not going to have enough ventilators or ICU beds to help support people when they need it?’” Breed was dumbfounded. “That was in January,” she says, “And that’s when I thought, ‘This is serious.’”

Breed declared a state of emergency in San Francisco on February 25, despite the fact that her city didn’t have a single confirmed case of the coronavirus at the time. In early March, she banned gatherings of more than 1,000 people, effectively outlawing sporting events. Some chided her, whispering about overreach and alarmism. But Breed had seen the numbers—she was alarmed. If she wanted to keep her hospitals from facing an overwhelming number of patients, she needed to curb people’s potential exposure to the virus.

At the time, the experts that Breed consulted with were still hoping for the best, but explained the risks of the worst—the potential for an outbreak that would tear through San Francisco, the realities of how fast the virus could spread. “I started to be like, ‘Dude, it sounds like we’re going to need to shut it down. We need to shut it all down.’”

Breed remembers someone telling her, “Well, that’s where we’re going to end up.” But that person implied a full lockdown was still a few weeks off. Breed didn’t want to wait. “The sooner we get there,” she told her team, “the faster we can get out of there.” She issued a shelter-in-place order on March 17, with fewer than 50 reported cases. New York waited until March 22 to make a similar decree; it had more than 10,000 reported cases.

San Francisco still isn’t “out of there,” but there are indications that Breed’s approach has done its job. As of April 29, it had recorded 25 deaths—compared to over 1,000 in Los Angeles. L.A. has 11.5 times the population of San Francisco, but more than 40 times its number of deaths. She has extended her lockdown order to maintain those achievements, but knows that the measure will exacerbate other kinds of pain. Breed grew up in public housing; she understands the economic havoc that this crisis will continue to cause. San Francisco has established a disaster relief fund for small businesses and—in a first-of-its-kind measure—Breed implemented a cap on the fees that services like GrubHub or Seamless can collect from restaurants whose modest margins have been decimated in the pandemic. She has heard from several other cities who want to follow suit.

“We send them whatever we have,” she says. San Francisco’s shelter-in-place order, its child care policies for essential workers, now its cap on fees—similar text has been drawn up in cities nationwide, looking to Breed’s example: “As soon as someone asks, we send it. We’re here to help.”

Like Bottoms in Atlanta, Breed has benefited from others’ quick thinking. She called Mayor Sam Liccardo in San Jose, who’d instituted a moratorium on evictions. “I was like, ‘How did you do that?’ He had done a whole bunch of research around it. So he had this information and was happy to share it with us. So that’s how this network has worked. We share information, and we try to move quickly because this virus is moving fast.”

Not all of Breed’s actions have been popular. Advocates have criticized her policies toward the homeless and the lack of action taken to support them in the crisis—she counters that her team is moving hundreds of unhoused people into hotels. (An outbreak of the virus in one of its shelters had infected at least 70 residents and staffers.) But she concedes that she’d like to do more to help vulnerable populations.

For now, Breed, who lives alone, is hunkering down like the rest of her residents, mobilizing San Francisco’s resources from her kitchen. It’s lonely, she says. She misses hugs, hanging out with loved ones, interacting with people face-to-face. She misses getting her nails done.

But she’s also proud of the job she and her staff have done, and she’s not about to let up now. “I think women are just better at multitasking,” she tells Glamour, of the success San Francisco has had in its multi-pronged response. “So for example, when I have morning calls, I’m also doing my hair and makeup. No one sees me, but see? I’m multitasking.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot

In 2019, Lightfoot was elected mayor of Chicago, Illinois. She is the first openly gay black woman to be elected mayor of a major city in the United States.

It is said that no one can be in more than one place at one time, but Lori Lightfoot seems to have done the impossible. Or at least, a two-dimensional version of her has. Ever since a rather severe Lightfoot addressed the press in late March and someone circulated a photo of her—expression serious, arms folded at her waist—images of her visible displeasure have gone viral.

Residents have since taken to photoshopping Lightfoot into crowded scenes, a reproachful cutout. An Instagram account called @whereslightfoot has almost 60,000 followers. One post of Lightfoot superimposed on Chicago’s lakefront path—staring down a runner—has been shared 25,000 times. “People in Chicago are talented and innovative,” Lightfoot insists, with a laugh. “Really, I mean literally I have seen myself everywhere.”

The memes are meant to be jokes, but Lightfoot’s attempt to do everything, be everywhere, and tell every single person in Chicago not to gather in public spaces is true-to-form. Since the outbreak, she has exercised her power as the leader of one of the nation’s biggest cities. That has caused some consternation within local government. And Lightfoot also came under fire for her decision to get a haircut, despite the fact that salons in the area are closed. Still, her decisive action has also won considerable praise.

“In moments of crisis, I tend to think about being in the eye of the storm,” Lightfoot says. “In the eye of a hurricane, there’s incredible calm. I have a personality where I don’t get too high or too low. I’ve been very, very conscious about what I need to do to keep residents of the city hopeful in the midst of a lot of fear.”

That has meant, sure, knowing how to be a good sport and a game participant in the “memeification” of her office. (She released her own version with a PSA.)

But it’s also demanded “digging down and uncovering the impact of COVID-19 on our economic and social fabric,” as Lightfoot puts it. She wants to dispel some of the uncertainties and worries that residents have about where risks lie when Chicago does open back up. “The big buckets that we need to deal with are economic stimulus, mental health and emotional health, marketing and business development, and then regional coordination. Just as this virus doesn’t know geographic or demographic boundaries or distinctions, in thinking about how we recover we can’t just be focused on the outlines of Chicago. This is a regional, state, and national issue.”

When it comes to the federal government, Lightfoot has few expectations. But like leaders in cities and states across America, she appreciates the fallout that could come from a White House order—or a White House attack on her state. She was not surprised to see Donald Trump pounce on Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat. She knows how some receive women in positions of power. In Chicago, where Lightfoot won her own election with 73% of the vote and remains popular, support for her leadership has for the most part been louder than criticism. But Lightfoot is realistic.

“Let’s not kid ourselves—sexism is not dead. It is alive and thriving,” she tells Glamour. “There is not a woman leader that I know, whether she’s a public servant or in business that doesn’t understand the seriousness of that fact. That doesn’t mean that we go to a corner and wait for the storm to pass. It means that we have got to deal with the cards that we’re dealt. I think I’ve been fortunate here. But I’m conscious of the fact I am a black woman lesbian from a small town, not native-born Chicagoan, and there are always going to be people who are going to challenge me in ways that they would never dare challenge a white man.”

“I have a very good sense of who I am and what I stand for,” she continues. “I’ve got a great team of people around me. I also have a great group of trusted friends and advisors. But I also know, as I said before, that I’m a black woman in America. Nobody’s coming to rescue me. I’ve got to get it for myself, and I feel the same way with what we need to do here in our city. The cavalry is not coming over the horizon to save us. We have got to get it for ourselves. That’s what we’ve been doing every day since I’ve been mayor and that’s what we’re going to do every day with this pandemic.”

Mayor Rosalynn Bliss

In 2015, Rosalynn Bliss was elected mayor of Grand Rapids, Michigan. She was the first woman ever to win that office.

In late April, demonstrators in Michigan started to swarm the state capitol. The protests—which have grown over the past several weeks—come after Donald Trump tweeted “Liberate Michigan!” on April 17 and scorned Governor Gretchen Whitmer, whom he dismissed as “the woman in Michigan.” (She’d criticized the weak federal response to the coronavirus.)

Last week, some carried guns and hundreds crowded onto the grounds, in defiance of Whitmer’s shelter-at-home executive orders. At one point, as Vox reported, protestors chanted “lock her up” and “heil Whitmer.”

Meanwhile, 65 miles from the scene, Rosalynn Bliss has been doing her best to keep the 200,000 residents of Grand Rapids calm and protected. When she’d spoken to Glamour earlier in the week, she’d fumed—to the extent that her polite, midwestern disposition allowed—over the discord and laid at least some of the blame at the feet of Donald Trump.

Bliss has heard from constituents who are upset about Whitmer’s orders, and she understands their perspective. People who are window washers, who feel confident that they could do their jobs and maintain the necessary distance. Small business owners. Someone who delivers flowers. But she distinguishes between those people—people who are struggling, people who are desperate to draw a paycheck—and Trump.

“It’s been unbelievably frustrating to me,” Bliss says, of watching his treatment of Whitmer. “This is no time for partisan politics and cheap shots. We have got to pull together and work together to get through this. And it's just, plain and simple, not helpful to anyone. Adding divisiveness and polarization at this moment in time? I have little to no tolerance for that.”

In Grand Rapids, she’s stressed the resilience of the human spirit. “We’re building on people’s sense of community and caring for one another,” she says. “And it’s been disappointing to see some of the statements made that I believe contribute to ongoing divisiveness. I think that's the best word I can use.”

Like most leaders, Bliss is thinking about how best to structure a phased reopening: “There are going to be waves and phases that we have to work through to ensure that we’re mitigating the spread.” She is drawing up plans to develop workforce training for those who don’t have jobs to go back to, to support local businesses in particular that will need to reopen and rebuild after months of lost revenue, and to boost civic pride, an element that too few people have prioritized. “A lot of cities and downtowns—we’re an epicenter for gatherings,” Bliss points out. “We have events and concerts. We have music halls and symphonies and shows.” Those are places that stoke human connection, that bind us to each other and remind us what our communities are capable of. For Bliss, it’s not just about figuring out the logistics of how to open those places back up. It’s also about restoring their atmosphere—the culture and festivities that make cities come alive.

But Bliss doesn’t want to just return to life as usual. “Something that has weighed on me throughout this and will continue to weigh on me, is the disparate impact that COVID-19 is having on our communities of color,” she tells Glamour. “Racial disparities and racial divides have existed here throughout our history, as they do in many cities, and we’ve done a lot of work to not just elevate the issue of racial [justice], but really to operationalize how do we dismantle those racialized practices and policies that have led us to where we are.”

Bliss won’t be able to claim true success in fighting the pandemic until she can figure out how to use its lessons to “more aggressively address racial inequities.” In mapping out Grand Rapids’ “new normal,” she is struggling with how to answer one question: “How do we look at this and make sure that the future is more equitable?”

Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway

In 2019, Satya Rhodes-Conway was elected mayor of Madison, Wisconsin. She is the first openly gay person to serve in that office.

It’s a small thing, but Satya Rhodes-Conway likes drinking her coffee out of a Wonder Woman mug. It’s one of the few routines that the coronavirus has not interrupted. Outside of that, the world is upside down.

When Wisconsin first went into lockdown, residents understood and even reached out to Rhodes-Conway to express their gratitude. She received messages urging her to take whatever action she needed to: “Do it. Do this. Do more.”

But in late April, the toll the closures and isolation have taken on residents is clear to her. Earlier last month, a battle between Wisconsin’s Governor Tony Evers, a Democratic, and the state legislature, which Republicans control, resulted in an election held in the middle of the pandemic. Democrats came out on top, netting an unexpected win in a race for the Wisconsin State Supreme Court. But the experience was—as much of the crisis has been—bruising, according to reports.

After weeks at home, the effects are cumulative. “I think that the longer this goes on, the harder it gets for people, which I understand,” Rhodes-Conway says. “We are hearing from people, definitely. The economic pain is real. The impacts on mental health are real, and the more people feel those, I think the more concerns we hear about how much longer this is going to go on.”

It’s not just residents who are worried. Rhodes-Conway is feeling the crush too. “The initial fear was just thinking about how to adapt all of our services,” she says. “I think that still remains challenging, particularly for our frontline workers, who have fewer options to protect themselves.” But those anxieties have been compounded as the crisis slammed businesses: “It’s just hard to watch all of our small businesses suffer and to know that not all of them are going to make it through this.”

She’d like to do more, but Madison is not New York or Los Angeles—cities which are of course themselves struggling. It has modest resources, and she’s limited in the extent to which she can redirect them. “Our budget is a complete and total mess,” Rhodes-Conway admits. “We’re going to have a really, really tough time pulling out of this.” And if her own government finds its bottom line shredded, she knows restaurants and boutiques are bound to have it even worse. “One of the things that I love most about Madison is our neighborhood business districts and the small and local businesses that make them up. And to imagine losing that—it’s just heartbreaking.”

Mattie Kahn is the culture director at Glamour.

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