Cities in the Time of COVID-19: Live City Check-in—One-on-One with New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell

5 Key
Takeaways

A roundup of the most compelling ideas, themes and quotes from this candid conversation

1. New Orleans, a model of resilience and recovery

Whether it is rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina or the decline of the local oil and gas industry, New Orleans and its people have first-hand experience of what resilience means. One of the nation’s hotspots in the early days of the pandemic and soon experiencing community spread, Mayor Cantrell spoke of the hard work that it took to flatten the curve and become a model of recovery. Testing rates that rival the best international examples are one of the keys to the improvement, but as in other challenges, Mayor Cantrell says that it is connectivity with people that is most important.

2. Disparities on display and the challenges ahead

Hurricane Katrina put the disparities in New Orleans on display. And now, says Mayor Cantrell, COVID-19 is putting the disparities in the U.S. on display. Existing and systemic inequalities have meant that Black populations have been disproportionately impacted by the health and economic effects of the pandemic. Mayor Cantrell is painfully aware of the 529 people that have died of COVID-19 in New Orleans; 402 of them are African American. When federal benefits are withdrawn at the end of July, many will face significant hardship and Mayor Cantrell is looking to “saturate the worst hit communities with support”.

3. Moving beyond monument removal

COVID-19’s exposure of racial injustice has tied into the civil unrest in response to the murder of George Floyd. During another period of similar unrest, the previous mayor responded by removing four monuments to Confederate era figures and events. This time, Mayor Cantrell sees that the response is different, and the call for change is coming “from the bottom up”. There is an opportunity for this community process to go further towards real reconciliation, healing and reform. New Orleans has been an early supporter of the #8CantWait movement and is a model of police reform through greater community investment.

 4. Cities as islands and the importance of local leadership  

The impact of COVID-19 has hit New Orleans much harder than any other part of the state of Louisiana and the City’s response has had to be much more restrictive in order to successfully flatten the curve, making New Orleans something of an island. Mayor Cantrell’s focus on “keeping the city safe” and making sure front-line workers have what they need has been a success despite the lack of a national framework. Mayor Cantrell is clear that when responding to the challenges of a pandemic, “leadership matters” and most of that has had to come from the local level.

5. “This is our time”

When asked about whether a “new normal” is coming to New Orleans following the pandemic, Mayor Cantrell responded with conviction that “this is our time”. As a destination city, and in particular in its fabled French Quarter, tourism and hospitality have been important economic drivers, but now Mayor Cantrell is looking at a recovery that includes a transition to other industries and brings back the locals to the Quarter, starting with a move to ban cars. With no big businesses centered in New Orleans, the economy is driven by families and small businesses and this is where support will be focused.

 

Full Panel
Transcript

Note to readers: This video session was transcribed using auto-transcribing software. Manual editing was undertaken in an effort to improve readability and clarity. Questions or concerns with the transcription can be directed to events@canurb.org with “transcription” in the subject line. 

CityTalk June 26 One on One with Mayor LaToya Cantrell

 

Mary Rowe [00:00:21] Good morning, everybody, it’s Mary Rowe. I want to welcome people in Louisiana for tuning in with us this morning from New Orleans. I’m the president of the Candian Urban Institute, really, really pleased to be hosting a city talk today with one of my colleagues from many, many years ago when I lived in New Orleans after Katrina. And she’s taking time out of a very busy and demanding schedule to be with us. City talks originate in Toronto, which is the traditional territory of the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Annishnabeg, the Chippewa and the Haudenosaunee, as well as the Wendat peoples. It’s now home to many diverse First Nations, Inuit and Metis peoples from across Turtle Island. Toronto is also covered by Treaty 13, which is signed with the Mississaugas of the Credit and by the Williams Treaty signed with multiple Annishnabeg nations. We always begin these sessions Mayor Cantrell, for your benefit, acknowledging the traditional territory and also trying to be mindful of the exclusionary practices that cities have had for centuries that have discriminated against people of color and vulnerable populations. And we see it now as COVID has arrived in urban environments that the folks that were vulnerable before are disproportionately affected by the negative impacts not only of the virus, but of the lockdowns that have been occurring in cities around the world. So happy to have so many people tuning in to listen to Mayor Cantrell. She’s the mayor of one of the oldest cities in America. It’s really one of the oldest cities. It’s certainly one of the oldest cities in North America. Tennessee Williams said famously that there were only three cities. America. San Francisco. New York and New Orleans. The second half of that statement was the rest was Cleveland. But anybody that’s been to New Orleans knows what he was getting at. There is a unique, unbelievable fabric to New Orleans life. And you’ve had so many challenges in that city and you continue to be, as you and I would say, extraordinarily resilient. So Mayor Cantrell thank you for joining us. And we’re very keen to hear from you. What New Orleans has been challenged by principally through COVID. And we’ve only got you for 30 minutes. And so we want to hear where you think you’re going. But just tell us what the particular challenges have been since the pandemic landed.

 

Mayor Cantrell [00:02:28] OK, well, thank you for having me and always good to be with you, Mary. We’ve been through some times together and you understand that through those times it’s really about the people, the connectivity that holds us together, that fuels the fire to get something done in the this OCVID-19 pandemic and even tied with the levels of civil unrest here.

 

Mayor Cantrell [00:03:05] Are you there? OK.

 

Mary Rowe [00:03:07] We’re here just for a minute. Sometimes it does just just sit and keep steaming through. You’ll come back.

 

Mayor Cantrell [00:03:13] OK, so the city of New Orleans was absolutely one of the hot spots in the United States in March. We were considered, you know, that that very focal point where new cases were growing and particularly we were at community spread. We have had seven thousand six hundred and thirty eight positive cases of COVID. We have lost five hundred and twenty nine of our residents here. We have flattened that curve to about ninety four percent. I’ll look at it this week. So we clearly went from being a hot spot in this country to being a an example of what recovery looks like when you really do make those tough decisions and ensure that the public health is a top priority for your city and for your people. Testing, we are testing almost second to Iceland right now. We’ve been consistently at high marks testing our residents, which is really responsible for being able to flatten that curve. We’ve identified our cases isolated in quarantine and, of course, nursed our people to health. And unfortunately, in spite of we’ve lost five hundred and twenty nine people. Out of the 529, 402 of them are African-American. One hundred and sixteen are are Caucasian residents. We have about a six percent that are identified as being other four, not six percent, six people, four Asian and one a Native American that we have lost. We know that the underlying health conditions and also the health disparities that exist in our city have definitely been on high display as we have fought through COVID.

 

Mayor Cantrell [00:05:20] It’s something also that was magnified here in the post-Katrina environment, which we really started to focus heavily on disparity gaps that exist.

 

Mayor Cantrell [00:05:31] However, your vulnerable populations are those who suffer the most. And in this city, it has greatly, disproportionately impacted the black community, black and brown community here. And so with that being very focused again on meeting people where they are ensuring that we are saturating those communities with the services that are needed to ensure that we don’t revert back into community spread.

 

Mayor Cantrell [00:06:00] But at the same time that we help our folks who have been disproportionately impacted, not just by the deaths or by the cases, but also by unemployment, we have seventy nine thousand of our residents receiving UI benefits.

 

Mayor Cantrell [00:06:18] That is coupled with state benefits. But more importantly, the federal benefits, which make up the largest portion of what our people are receiving right now. Those dollars that that they’ve been receiving since COVID will diminish significantly at the end of July. One example is that it’s about eight hundred dollars a week, give or take, for someone receiving benefits. Come the end of July, that will drop to two hundred and forty five dollars. So the federal portion is again very significant, but the impact will even be more substantial as it relates to our people who make up a large portion of our hospitality industry. Hospitality continues to be the main driver not only in our city, but the state of Louisiana, with New Orleans being the backbone of our folks, being the backbone who are the ones on the front line.

 

Mayor Cantrell [00:07:19] Again, most vulnerable who are working right now. That allows folks around the city to go and buy groceries and ride transit and and get their mail and go to the grocery store. And even as we’ve moved into phase two with going to restaurants and those sorts of things as the people continue to be on that front line. Who are the most vulnerable also as it relates to ways that we are working to move our people, you know, into other growth sectors or industries while we know hospitality will not rebound on the front end.

 

Mayor Cantrell [00:08:01] Know of this? We’re not even post COVID, but we know in this environment. So it’s an opportunity, though, to make sure that our folks are being trained up, you know, and provided with the resources so that they can pivot into other growth sectors like blue infrastructure, blue, green.

 

Mayor Cantrell [00:08:23] Of course, gray infrastructure, which continues to be a priority for us here. But we’ve been dealing with the challenges due to not only climate change, but drainage and all of that stuff.

 

Mayor Cantrell [00:08:37] So.

 

Mayor Cantrell [00:08:40] Whether it’s in health care as well, I.T., renewable energy platforms, really trying to redirect and get more dislocated worker dollars from the state so that we can do some training as well as provide stipends for training. Kind of like earn while you learn so that people can be built up and redirected into industries that are sustained and that can be sustained. So we’re looking at it as an opportunity, as we always do, to be better and better for our people. Also, small businesses our small businesses hit very hard as well. The majority in the city, over 50 percent, are African-American or minority owned. But even pre-COVID those same businesses made up about two percent of the receipts. So, again, an opportunity to really pivot to a place where we’re building them up, giving them the resources again they need. The resources are scarce. We don’t have a lot and we don’t have a large business community either, meaning Fortune 500 like that. That industry to kind of help provide some gap financing and opportunities like that. But we partner like with Goldman Sachs, small businesses. Twenty million was allocated to Orleans, specifically to our city, community utilizing them to meet our business owners where they are, to again help them with gap funding. So really looking at creative ways to help our small businesses, help our unemployed residents. And of course, our families across the board that we know are food deprived, you know, in terms of the scale and the lack of of resources that they have access to. And so, again, trying to think creatively, we were able to get FEMA to approve a mass feeding program for the city at 18 million that will provide one point eight million meals a month. This is unprecedented. And it’s not just looking at homeless. It’s looking at your homeless, your seniors, all folks with disabilities, every family with children. So really more comprehensive this program is because we know.

 

Mayor Cantrell [00:11:08] That when the end of July comes, it’s really going to get more difficult for our families.

 

Mayor Cantrell [00:11:17] And so just trying to be creative. Even still looking at infrastructure in terms of the built environment.

 

Mayor Cantrell [00:11:25] We know that we’re a destination city. We know that that industry has been hit. And we as I mentioned, we’re looking at ways to create more pedestrian malls, more walkability. No cars in the quarter, kind of concepts which will expand the businesses ability to operate and serve more people will help us navigate in this COVID environment until a vaccine happens. It also allows us to focus on, you know, I say, hey, I want New Orleans to be the safest place to visit. And that means not only walkability, but being able to, again, practice physical distancing, but also enjoy our culture.

 

Mayor Cantrell [00:12:16] So trying to look at that in and as we recover as well. So I’ll stop there and open it up for questions or however you want to go.

 

Mary Rowe [00:12:28] Well, you’re fantastic. My gosh. Mayor Cantrell. It’s fantastic. I, I’m interested. I heard that no cars in the quarter.  For our Canadians, that means no cars in the French Quarter, which is the historic heart of New Orleans, which has a storied history. And I’m interested how locals have responded to that idea.

 

Mary Rowe [00:12:47] In Canada, this is a very hot topic. Should streets be given over to more pedestrian space? What does that mean? Are people going to go back to taking transit or do they want to be in their cars? What kind of local reaction have you got to some of these ideas you’re putting out?

 

Mayor Cantrell [00:13:02] Well, timing is everything OK? And it’s the right time for these type of innovative approaches that we’re seeing across the world, quite frankly.

 

Mayor Cantrell [00:13:14] And the public, the residents are responding very well. The industries are responding very well. This is our time. And so and we are moving towards it. You know, I have a Tiger team on it. The planning is real. There are some things that we’ll be able to activate even in this phase two. But, of course, as we move into phase three and the like, more things will come online.

 

Mayor Cantrell [00:13:43] But.

 

Mayor Cantrell [00:13:45] What we’re also doing with this is bringing back the locals to the Quarter, by thinking about it, not just visitors coming, because that’s a good thing, but it’s our people. So building it up for our people to take it back as well, making it more family friendly. Taking the big ass beer signs away off Bourbon Street. You know, the F you this. I don’t need you to display that on my street. You can have it in your store. So, again, you know, just re imagining how we can do things differently that embraces the locals, even with our French market. You know, it would close at five p.m. I want that sucker open to 11:00. You know, where I can bring in more cultural bearers that can come and work the night shift, meaning the vendors who are there now, they can work till five. They go. But I can do some other vendors, come in and that could work, you know, and do their crafts and sell their goods to give more folks an opportunity and a chance to earn earn a living. You know, a little built wealth, you know, and transferable wealth in this city are cultural bearers have been hit hard.

 

Mayor Cantrell [00:15:04] You know, from the musicians, you know, our gig economy is real to our artists visual as well as performing, you know. And we have to think creatively as well with that, giving them more opportunities to do what they do. And on the street without cars.

 

Mayor Cantrell [00:15:22] And so people are responding very well to it because. It also helps psychologically for us to pivot and embrace opportunity even while we’re going through, you know, the challenges. So it gives hope.

 

Mary Rowe [00:15:38] The benefit that you’ve had there is you’ve had so many of these challenges before. You had Katrina and then you had storms after Katrina, and then you have your oil and gas industry collapsing.

 

Mary Rowe [00:15:47] So it feels like New Orleanians are are part of an engine of constant resilience, innovation.

 

Mayor Cantrell [00:15:55] and we’re not we’re not the the only ones on display. Katrina, it was New Orleans on display. You know, our social ills on display, the disparities on display. But with COVID, it’s put this whole country on display.

 

Mayor Cantrell [00:16:17] And where these issues exist in urban environments throughout, but even in rural communities as well. You know, but it it’s not just, this is New Orleans and this is her problems. Now, in the storied past, in the you know, the influences of folks enslaved and that sort of thing. But on display, all of it is coming out. You know, all of it is on display in this country as it should be. So that ties into the civil unrest that we’ve been dealing with as well. Which, again, it’s time for change. Timing is everything.

 

Mary Rowe [00:16:57] Your predecessor was was one of the early leaders in taking monuments down, Mayor Cantrell, and New Orleans, has been on the front end of that. Tell us how that is is manifesting now. What kinds of, and I know that you’ve been very active with your police department and in the whole bail and remand system in Neew Orleans. Tell us how that is shaping up now for you,.

 

Mayor Cantrell [00:17:20] Sure so. Yes. The previous administration that the mayor did lead the charge to remove four monuments in the city. I was on the New Orleans City Council at that time. And voted, you know, for for that.

 

[00:17:38] One of the things that is is is happening now that didn’t then, just the civil unrest on the ground bottom up throughout the country. But even at the scale in this city, we saw something different. And we’re seeing something different now versus then, the opportunity now is understanding that just removing statues, you know, just taking them down, even without a process for reconciliation, with healing like that has to be a part of the fabric. And the city of New Orleans didn’t benefit from that. Although with those statues coming down, so with the time now, I think it has to be built in. And we have to be more intentional. And it’s not just about one person’s thought process about which monument should come down, but more of a community process, I believe, is the opportunity that we have now. That wasn’t necessarily played out then. As it relates to our New Orleans Police Department, again on display and with the protesters saying, you know, they wanted these eight policies absolutely adopted, by municipalities and departments throughout the country. Well, we agree with that, and we said, hey, New Orleans Police Department and this city said, yeah, you’re right, ‘eight can’t wait’. And we did not. And therefore, we’ve had those policies in place that they come through a consent decree order that we are in. But it’s been proven to be effective. Meaning adopting those policies and even going further than that. And being on display, you can clearly see that the city of New Orleans handled protesters very well. And also without any burning up. And, you know, that’s sort of thing in the street.

 

Mayor Cantrell [00:19:40] Hell, we’ve been through Katrina, you know, to rebuild our community as well.

 

Mayor Cantrell [00:19:46] But we are now the model. Of what reform looks like in this country. And even when it’s the talks of defunding the police. Well, what that really means, in my opinion, is investing in a greater way in the community and in a holistic approach. And I agree with that.

 

Mayor Cantrell [00:20:14] And so the city of New Orleans was one of the first in this country to put money into early childhood education in which we’re doing. I created an Office of Youth and Families, the first ever for the city, again, focusing on our children, our families as a whole. Mental health and behavioral health services that are embedded in government, where not only social workers are available in and embedded in our libraries, our New Orelans Recreation facilities, our police department, crisis intervention training happening. So we have embraced not only policies that are being requested now, but we’ve gone deeper and we’ve turned it around. And so now I’m saying, Department of Justice, recognize it. And, you know, bring us and say, hey, we’re in compliance of this consent decree so that we can stop putting millions into it and redirect those dollars back in the public health.

 

Mary Rowe [00:21:22] Well, it’s interesting, you know, Mayor Cantrell next week, both your country and mine celebrate their national days. Canada Day and July 4th all next week.

 

Mary Rowe [00:21:33] And here we are at a time when local leadership seems to have been the the really extraordinary deciding factor in how our communities have fared. I’m wondering if you want to comment at all about how you navigated. When I first met you, you weren’t the mayor. I always want people when they meet Mayor Cantrell to know that she was a neighborhood organizer and then became a city council person and is now mayor. And you you have been leading this charge for a resilient New Orleans for 15 years. And talk to us about navigating with the governor and the president who aren’t always on the same page. How do you see at the moment urban life in the United States? How important are local leaders like you? And how can what kind of a, plus, you’re also part of this, the C40’s mayors covenant that’s trying to move all cities post COVID so maybe comment a bit about that.

 

Mayor Cantrell [00:22:24] Well, I say thank God for us and thank God for us.

 

Mayor Cantrell [00:22:30] The impact that COVID has had on our community could have clearly been avoided with some real leadership. And it has also put on display that leadership matters. And this pandemic has been highly politicized, which has had everything to do with how we responded. At the federal level and even, quite frankly, at the state level, we do have a Democratic governor. But we are still very much a Republican state, heavily. So navigating that and as prior to COVID my way, has been really trying to build relationships and being the first female mayor, being a black woman. That was really something that I embraced from day one that I knew I had to let folks know. And really, you know, my white counterparts and, you know, my white men and let them know, you know, I’m not the angry black woman.

 

Mayor Cantrell [00:23:33] You know, I have a sense of humor as well. I can love you, you know. I know how to make decisions like I am a collaborator.

 

Mayor Cantrell [00:23:45] But I’m also, I’ll stand for what I know is right for this city. So I’ve been able to build those relationships, being very honest and upfront, but collaborative. And no matter who you are, because that really doesn’t matter.

 

Mayor Cantrell [00:24:03] Working sides of the aisle. You know, that’s what you have to do. But it’s important because that’s how you get things done. But it’s through building relationships with people. And that’s how I’ve been able to navigate whether that was at the community level and brought more post-Katrina where government was saying, hey, your neighborhood is not going to be rebuilt. But also with residents who I didn’t even know in my community before Katrina, who had ideas but embracing those ideas and saying, hey, you I may not have known you before, but I know you now.

 

Mayor Cantrell [00:24:36] And we have to have a unified process and voice and vision for us to recover. And it takes us all. So that really set the tone, I think, for me of how to navigate the strong need the weak and the weak need the strong. And it sounds cliche, but on the ground, that was literally how we were able to do it. Embracing it. And, you know, facing it head on.

 

Mary Rowe [00:25:07] What do you think’s ahead? I mean, on Friday, we had one hundred days of COVID, We marked it here by publishing a report called Signpost 100, where we see a lot of the things that you’re talking about disproportionately affecting people of color, low income people.

 

Mary Rowe [00:25:20] We’ve had disproportionate what very, very large majorities of the incidents have been in long term care facilities in Canada. What do you see for the next hundred days Mayor Cantrell? and then we’ll let you go back to being the mayor. What’s your what’s on your top three things, maybe.

 

Mayor Cantrell [00:25:36] Well. New Orleans has has had to be more restrictive than the state of Louisiana in regards to our approach and rightfully so.

 

Mayor Cantrell [00:25:51] And when we look today, we can clearly see now we’re an island.

 

Mayor Cantrell [00:25:56] Even in our own state and of course, when we look at neighboring or neighboring communities and states around us.

 

Mayor Cantrell [00:26:05] So our efforts have proven to be effective. But you know this, week the state hit a very grave milestone. Fifty thousand cases, you know, three thousand deaths. And we’re moving backward. Around us is moving backward. So when I think about the next 100 days, it’s doubling down. To keep this city safe.

 

Mayor Cantrell [00:26:33] And navigating in spite of the national framing, which has an impact. Meaning, it’s it’s not it’s going… Don’t wear a mask where it’s just a joke. And even you know how that’s impacted us at the state level, you know, having, you know, can you know, Governor, can you can you say “New Orelans, you have my back on that”. So my business community here isn’t fighting me because I’m saying we have to be more restrictive. You know, and so my focus within the next hundred days is making sure the city remains safe and that the people who have been doing the work.

 

Mayor Cantrell [00:27:18] On the front line, even my public safety team that has been hit hard by COVID is continuing to do the work. We have to make sure that they’re OK to continue to do the work. And I don’t want us to regress, which is a slap in the face to the people who have been doing the work. And where we’ve lost five hundred and twenty nine people in our city. You know, when I was somewhere last night and just get me a Margarita to go.

 

Mayor Cantrell [00:27:55] With my mask on and somebody passed me and said something about all this freedom and all this stuff.

 

Mayor Cantrell [00:28:04] And I say, you know, five hundred and twenty nine of our residents have died. He said, people die every day. I said, Lord have mercy. This is why I have that much security with me, I didn’t have them with me at the time. And not that the man was gonna do me something, but I didn’t want to do something to the man.

 

Mary Rowe [00:28:21] Well, you know, they do say that masks protect others from us. So the mask takes a different form. You know, Mayor Cantrell we are, there are city builders all over in communities everywhere who are so appreciative of leaders like you. We’ve been saying that the municipalities and municipal governments and agencies are on the front lines of this pandemic. The rubber has been hitting the road in cities and in communities like yours. And as you suggested, you had a number of challenges before New Orleans, before a pandemic in New Orleans that you were coming to terms with. You’ve made so many great strides. And I know from watching you after Katrina, you will emerge with a new a new normal that you will probably lead us into.

 

Mayor Cantrell [00:29:10] I believe it. I do. I believe it. No doubt about it. I really believe that. And we just have to keep pushing forward. And thank you. Thank you, Mary. Just seeing you, and you’ve done something special for me today, and that will carry me through my next 100 days. So thank you.

 

Mary Rowe [00:29:34] Well, Mayor Cantrell, I hope there’s another Margarita in your future, too.

 

Mayor Cantrell [00:29:37] Oh, you can best believe it, my friend.

 

Mary Rowe [00:29:42] We’ve had a fabulous half hour with Mayor Cantrell. So great to see you and so great to see what real leadership looks like on the ground. It’s all about the local, my friend, as you just said.

Mayor Cantrell [00:29:51] Absolutely.

Mary Rowe [00:29:53] Thank you very much for joining us. Thanks, everyone, for joining us on City Talk.

Mayor Cantrell [00:29:56] All right. Take care.

 

Full Audience
Chatroom Transcript

Note to reader: Chat comments have been edited for ease of readability. The text has not been edited for spelling or grammar. For questions or concerns, please contact events@canurb.org with “Chat Comments” in the subject lin

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12:04:17 From Canadian Urban Institute: Welcome! Folks, please change your chat settings to “all panelists and attendees” so everyone can see your comments.
12:04:23 From Linicha Hunter to All panelists: Hello from Dallas Tx
12:04:54 From Canadian Urban Institute: You can find transcripts and recordings of today’s and all our webinars at https://www.canurb.org/citytalk
12:04:55 From Emily Wall, CUI Staff: Today’s conversation is with LaToya Cantrell, Mayor of New Orleans, Louisiana.


https://www.nola.gov/mayor/
12:05:33 From Canadian Urban Institute: Keep the conversation going #citytalk @canurb
12:20:51 From Brian Owen: The Quarter ped. only initiative is fantastic for New Orleans! During my time well spent, I can reflect on how more walking and tourist friendly that would be, as well as for residents.
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