Live City Check-In—St. John’s Mayor Danny Breen and Barrie Mayor Jeff Lehman

A candid conversation with Jeff Lehman, Mayor of the City of Barrie, and Danny Breen, Mayor of St. John’s, on how their cities are dealing with the challenges of COVID-19 and what the short, medium and long-term impacts could look like

5 Key

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

1. More than one pandemic  

The differential impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are becoming clearer. Vastly different infection and transmission rates are being experienced in large metropolitan areas like the Greater Toronto Area compared to neighbouring urban areas like Barrie. For St. John’s, “challenges became advantages” when the isolation of being an island seems to have contributed to the low number of cases they experienced. But both Mayor Lehman and Mayor Breen question whether transmission rates are simply a factor of density and both credit the response of their communities in flattening the curve of the pandemic.

2. Impacts and resilience

Notwithstanding lower infection rates, the impact of the pandemic has been significant. Both cities have already experienced dramatic decreases in revenue and the tourism dollars that they typically draw in will not be there this season. St. John’s has cancelled its three major festivals. As Mayor Breen puts it “2020 has been an interesting year.” Starting with a record snowfall that shut the city down for eight days, and a substantial drop in oil prices, COVID -19 is just the latest shock for the city to absorb. Both mayors expressed new appreciation for the resilience of their constituents.

3. Supporting the recovery

Mayor Lehman identified the three elements of recovery as confidence, capital and capacity. The confidence is something that will need to come from all members of the community, the capital, from the federal and provincial governments, and the capacity is something both city governments are working hard to support in local businesses within the new environment. Much remains unknown, however, as economies are gradually opened in the absence of schools and childcare, restricted transit systems and the ongoing threat of a possible second wave. “There is no play book for what to do in this pandemic” says Mayor Breen.

4. Cities out front

Mayor Lehman noted that when the pandemic was first declared, cities moved “lightning fast” to close things down with an efficiency that surprised many and were able to prevent the worst effects of COVID -19. Cities are now being called upon again to surprise with their nimbleness and innovation in responding to the needs of local businesses and communities in the first stages of reopening. Mayor Breen calls on other levels of government to recognize the unique ability of cities to lead the recovery based on local strengths and priorities, with the reminder, “city building is nation building”.

5. Changes needed moving forward

Mayor Lehman has spoken of the need for recovery, relief and reform following the pandemic. The situation that Mayor Breen describes where the “feds have the funding, the province has the jurisdiction and the cities have the problems” is no longer an option for moving forward. The opportunities for structural change from this crisis include some form of “crash modernizing” of federalism. A Canadian resiliency bulk transfer from the Federal government, new taxing capacities for cities, or sharing a fixed portion of the HST are all options. The conversation is not new but the opportunity for meaningful change is.