How Omicron ruined new mayors’ honeymoons

BOSTON — Michelle Wu wakes up nearly every morning to protesters outside her home demanding the new Boston mayor call off her vaccine mandate for city workers.

In Atlanta, Omicron-fueled staffing shortages are wreaking havoc on everything from Mayor Andre Dickens’ public-safety plans to residents’ trash pickup. In Cincinnati, Mayor Aftab Pureval and his team are scrambling to secure more Covid-19 tests as already strained city hospitals near capacity.

With Omicron sending Covid cases and hospitalizations skyrocketing, new mayors across America’s major cities have had to kiss their honeymoon periods goodbye.

“We stepped into a crisis on day one,” Pureval, a 39-year-old former county clerk of courts, said in an interview. “We’re all hands on deck.”

The Omicron surge didn’t just upend mayors’ inaugural fetes. It’s overtaken their first days and weeks in office, jeopardizing their approval ratings before they get a chance to push their agendas. And for Democrats, who run most of America’s big cities, any perceived missteps or overreaches could reflect poorly on the party heading into a midterm year where conservatives are already running against Covid restrictions and President Joe Biden is slipping in the polls.

Mayors are filling up coronavirus task forces just as quickly as their cabinets. They’re signing executive orders for mask mandates while juggling plans for new police precincts and clearing snow from city streets. And they’re battling to keep schools open in the face of Covid-induced staffing shortages and student absences.

“I did not anticipate that so much of my first week and a half would be devoted to Covid and to this surge,” Pureval said. “And I don’t think any incoming mayor anticipated that, either.”

Positivity rates hit record highs in Cincinnati this month. In Boston, Covid cases spiked so rapidly the city needed to use a bigger graph. Cases and hospitalizations have soared in Seattle and Atlanta and plenty of places in between. Even as the Omicron wave starts to recede in New York and other cities it hit first, it has left a trail of shattered records in its wake.

And as pandemic fatigue sweeps the nation just as quickly as the virus, mayors have not been immune to backlash that both Democrats and Republicans blame on misinformation and the trickle-down effects of partisan national politics. A protester disrupted Dickens’ inauguration earlier this month by yelling at him to take off his mask. New York City Mayor Eric Adams has drawn criticism from both the left and the right over the city’s Covid restrictions. Republican Fort Worth, Texas, Mayor Mattie Parker said her pleas for people to get vaccinated have been met with conspiracy theories.

Wu’s hecklers, some of whom are first responders who work for the city, have taunted Boston’s first elected female mayor and first Asian American mayor with chants of “Shame on Wu” and slapped racist and misogynistic slurs on signs they bring to her events. On her 37th birthday last week, they stood on the street outside her house in a densely populated neighborhood and shouted: “Happy birthday, Hitler.”

Stepping into the surge

It didn’t start off so vitriolic for Wu, a Democrat who took over from an acting mayor in mid-November, about a month before Boston confirmed its first Omicron case. Her early days were more focused on expanding a fare-free bus pilot program and connecting people experiencing homelessness with housing and substance-use treatment programs.

But, by mid-December, Covid infections had spiked — up 89 percent in two weeks — and Wu handed down a proof-of-vaccination requirement for restaurants, gyms and entertainment venues. She also tightened the vaccine mandate for city workers by eliminating their weekly testing option.

Her announcement was nearly drowned out by a few dozen protesters, including a Republican candidate for governor. The city’s non-emergency hotline has been flooded with “hateful calls and messages,” Wu said.

After several more protests and a failed court challenge from a trio of public safety unions, the vaccine mandates for businesses and city workers went into effect over the weekend, though the latter won’t be enforced for a few more days. Democratic city and state leaders have rallied around Wu amid the backlash and praised her efforts to stop the spread.

“It’s really a reminder of how much our day-to-day interactions in our communities and neighborhoods really are shaped by this moment of division in national politics,” Wu said in an interview. “It reminds me every day when I step outside to protests that are grounded in misinformation and conspiracy theories that we need strong policies to counter this.”

In New York, Adams is caught between progressives knocking his push to have office workers return to their desks in midtown Manhattan, and Republicans who are demanding he overturn former mayor Bill de Blasio’s private-sector vaccine mandates.

After Covid forced Adams to swap his big inauguration plans for a brief swearing-in ceremony at the Times Square New Years Eve ball drop, the new mayor vowed on his first day that the virus wouldn’t shut down his city again.

“This is 2022, not 2020,” Adams said in his first address to New Yorkers. “With vaccines, testing and treatments, we have the tools now to live with this virus and stay healthy if we all do our part to keep each other safe.”

Adams pledged to keep kids in schools even as districts across the country shuttered or went remote as infections swirled among students and staff. But high student absentee rates have now pushed Adams to consider a remote option for students who are sick or required to quarantine. And high school students have staged walkouts to push for an online-learning option.

In Cincinnati, where Covid cases and hospitalizations are now swelling, Pureval has expanded testing and is calling on Ohio’s Republican Gov. Mike DeWine for more. The Democrat’s Covid task force — a group of hospital chief executives, county elected officials and health departments — meets daily to discuss infections, hospitalizations and testing. He also enacted a mask mandate for city facilities and employees, but has stopped short of the citywide mask mandates handed down by some of his counterparts in other cities.

Not everything is about Covid. Pureval has also welcomed a new city manager and is rolling out housing reforms.

“But there’s no doubt that a large chunk of my bandwidth is being devoted to managing this current Covid crisis,” Pureval said.

‘You couldn’t have seen’ what was coming

The advent of vaccines last winter meant that Covid, for a time, took somewhat of a backseat on the campaign trail. Some candidates still carried around their masks, but the shots offered a new sense of safety — and offered a stretch of campaign season that felt almost normal again.

The summer Delta surge brought renewed precautions and some talk of mask and vaccine mandates. But mayoral hopefuls in Boston continued to be pressed on how they’d handle the twin homelessness and housing crises in a struggling pocket of the city. The rise in homicides and shootings thrust public safety and violent-crime reduction to the forefront of contests from Atlanta, to New York, to Seattle.

“On the campaign trail, you couldn’t have seen what mid-December and now January was going to be like,” Dickens, the Atlanta mayor, said in an interview. “Whatever we said about rounding the corner and almost home free, well, something else happened — and it’s called Omicron.”

Dickens was no stranger to battling the virus by the time he took office in early January. He’d contracted a mild breakthrough case just a few days before Christmas.

By the time he was sworn in, Dickens had tested negative but infections were sweeping through city workers in Atlanta. He extended the citywide mask mandate for indoor public spaces signed by his predecessor, fellow Democrat Keisha Lance Bottoms, and is offering financial incentives to city employees to get vaccinated.

Dickens vowed in his inaugural address that his administration would be “laser-focused on reducing crime” in its first 100 days. He unveiled a new police precinct in Buckhead, a more affluent neighborhood where some residents are threatening to secede from Atlanta.

But the virus continues to challenge basic city services.

“I’m trying to make sure that we collect garbage, recycling, yard waste,” Dickens said. “But 196 sanitation department workers were out [earlier this month] with Covid.”

Similar problems persist in most corners of the country. In Florida, St. Petersburg’s Ken Welch started his tenure remotely after the vaccinated-and-boosted mayor-elect tested positive three days before his inauguration. Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb formed a task force and vowed to tackle the city’s lagging vaccination rate “head on.” Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell forwent a public inauguration and temporarily extended his city’s eviction moratorium.

Parker, who took over as mayor of Fort Worth in June, battled a breakthrough case in October. She’s now fighting her second Covid surge in office — and is running into a wall of misinformation and distrust she says isn’t helped by mixed messaging from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on masks and isolation periods.

“It’s like you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” Parker said in an interview. “I hope Americans in all of their respective cities can give mayors and elected officials some grace. … Many of us are trying to navigate different opinions from the federal government or state leadership.”

New mayors aren’t going through this trial by fire alone. Pureval teamed up with Bibb for a virtual joint press conference days after they both took office. Mayors have traded phone numbers at events and mingled with each other — and Biden — at the White House. And they’ve joined regular calls with other big-city mayors that, for nearly two years, have served as both an information hotline and a lifeline for city leaders isolated and overwhelmed in the pandemic’s darkest days.

“I feel for them,” Dan Pope, the third-term Republican mayor of Lubbock, Texas, said. “There’s nothing, I don’t believe, that can prepare you for the phone calls and emails that you get from scared constituents, moms and grandmothers that are concerned about their kids going to school.”

Pope advised the newcomers to lean on their public health experts and hospital leaders. Many are also bringing experience with the virus and within their city halls to their new gigs. Wu and Dickens were both city council members up until their inaugurations. Harrell had served on Seattle’s council until 2019. Adams was a borough president in New York. Parker was former Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price’s chief of staff.

“There might be an advantage for them,” Pope said of his new counterparts. “They’ve gotten to watch nearly two years worth of public policy and health policy, and the way we’ve reacted as a country, and as states and cities, to Covid.”

New mayors know their crash course in Covid management isn’t likely to end soon. Access to testing remains a challenge. Even as cases appear on the decline in the Northeast, they’re still spiking elsewhere. Hospitalizations and deaths will lag behind.

“It’s a working honeymoon,” Dickens said of his first weeks in office. “I did not get a vacation.”

Julia Marsh contributed to this report.

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