'It's Allowed Us To Step Up And Lead': Atlanta Mayor On Coronavirus
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has issued an executive order directing Atlanta police officers not to enforce laws prohibiting selling alcohol to-go from bars and restaurants.
It's the latest in a series of emergency measures she's taken to both limit the spread of the coronavirus and support those who have been impacted economically by the pandemic.GPB's Rickey Bevington interviews Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottom about how she's responding to the coronavirus pandemic.
GPB's Rickey Bevington spoke to Mayor Bottoms immediately after she issued the order Friday morning.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.
Rickey Bevington: We're speaking by phone because you are practicing what you're preaching, social distancing right now. You and your husband have four school-aged children. I just want to begin by asking you, what is the view from inside the Bottoms household today?
Keisha Lance Bottoms: Well, you know, it's a lot going on. Thankfully, my children's school was very prepared for this transition. So it's as much about creating some sense of normalcy for them. But my mother usually comes and helps me every day with breakfast. So I'm now the cook and the home school teacher and also the mayor. My husband's working from home, too.
But I said this week, in all seriousness, managing the city in the midst of this pandemic really does pale in comparison to home schooling. So to all of our teachers and parents who do this each and every day, you are doing God's work and we really, really appreciate you.
Bevington: Speaking of the city's business, today you did issue an executive order temporarily directing the Atlanta Police Department not to enforce laws prohibiting takeout alcohol. This is a highly unusual step. Why are you taking this?
Bottoms: What we've been trying to do, Rickey, is really listen to what the needs are from our respective communities. We know that the hospitality industry is a huge part of the fabric of our city. And we have been trying to keep up in implementing our policies and issuing the executive orders in real time to help address this very quickly changing environment that we're in.
So as we transition yesterday or at midnight to "take out only," many of our restaurant and bar owners have said that it would help them economically if we could continue the alcohol sales.
Our law department advised me that state law really prevented us from doing that. So I sent out something on social media and said, listen, if you all have some information that will be helpful in legally making this transition, please send it to us. We received some good information [and] continue to work with our law department. And we came up with a policy that we think will address that. And, essentially, we are not going to enforce that provision in our city code that stops people from serving alcohol on a to-go basis.
Bevington: Atlanta often leads with public policy. Other Georgia communities look to Atlanta for leadership. Are you hearing from other local officials to help them, other cities in Georgia make decisions like this?
Bottoms: We are and we really are listening to each other. Dr. Carlos Del Rio from Emory University has been a godsend for the City of Atlanta. I've worked with Larry Hanson over at the Georgia Municipal Association to set up a statewide call with mayors across the state so that they could receive the same information that I was receiving in helping us implement some of the policies that you've seen us put forth.
And not just statewide. I've been talking with mayors across the country. We're sending information back and forth and really talking through some of the policies and things that we're doing in our respective cities that are helping us navigate this. So if there is an upside to us really as elected officials, one, it's allowed us to really step up and lead.
But secondly, it's really allowed us to communicate in a way that we often don't do. We're hearing from each other. We're working with each other. We're sending emails. You know, I signed this executive order. Getting something from Mayor Woodfin in Birmingham, for example, what they've done with some of their communication things. And I could go down the list.
And so, I mean, this is for all of us, Rickey, as you know, this is something we've not ever seen in our lifetimes. But when you think about what's facing other countries, and really what people in other countries face on a daily basis, whether it's a time of war or whether it's a time of famine, this really is an inconvenience for us.
And it really is about us thinking about those who don't have the resources available and how we can help one another. And even as a city, as an organization, how we can stand in the gap and help our residents who are really going to face some very challenging times in the coming weeks.
Bevington: On that note, Mayor Bottoms, we are hearing from from people who are facing hard times because of this, a lot of people losing their jobs. You and I do a regular live radio show called “Ask The Mayor,” during which you answer audience questions. We've gotten an email this week from a citizen named Diana Atterbury.
And she was wondering if the city of Atlanta would “stop or suspend the food stamp department from taking the tax and stimulus check.” She says, "We're in a state of emergency and we really need that money to help with our family in this bad time.”
I'm not totally familiar with how that works, but I thought I would ask since we are getting listener questions for the city.
Bottoms: I've seen that question on social media. That is something that will be regulated by the state and the federal government. But I do want to remind people to please be mindful of scams out there. I'm not sure specifically what information people are receiving.
I have not been made aware of any effort to suspend food stamps during this time. So people need to triple check the information and solicitations and notices that they are receiving. Making sure that they're not sending personal information or they aren't clicking on to links because there are a lot of scammers out there.
I saw a scam where someone sent you something, you click on a link and they shut down your phone waiting for Bitcoins. So I just urge people to please go online to safe, secure, verified government sites and get more information on that. And we'll do what we can on our end to also get information that we can share with the public.
Bevington: There's so many scams happening right now. It's really just awful.
Bottoms: It's just it's disgraceful.
Bevington: Disgraceful. Absolutely. Has your administration gone through any kind of even theoretical emergency disaster planning for a pandemic of this scale?
Bottoms: Well, I know that over the past few weeks we have gone through various scenarios internally as to how we will respond. Thankfully, we have a great emergency preparedness team, so we're always ready for emergencies and we have a business continuity plan in place.
So for us, it really was about taking our plans that we've never had to apply to a pandemic. We think about it with a snow storm or some event that may shut down the city for a matter of days. And we've been able to expand that.
And I cannot tell you how very proud I am to work alongside a group of professionals that are leading the city during this very trying time. And even our sanitation workers and our watershed employees and our public safety folks who are giving up each and every day going to work so that the city can continue to operate with some type of normalcy. I cannot express enough how grateful I am for the team.
But we have an operations team that's really unparalleled. So we think about things like pandemics, not expecting something of this magnitude to strike us in the way that this has.
So we've been prepared for a disruption, but I can't say specifically pandemic planning, but more so disruption planning. And I'm grateful that we had a great continuity plans in place.
Bevington: How confident are you that hospitals in Atlanta will have all the equipment that they need to serve everybody who may get sick and also keep medical providers safe?
Bottoms: It is a concern. We know that Grady Hospital is already not working at capacity because of the flood from a couple of months ago. I've heard from health care professionals who said that their hospital is just about at capacity in terms of their ventilators.
One recommendation that we passed along to the governor's office came from a great friend, Dr. Frank Jones, who's an emergency room physician. And he asked, have we thought about redirecting COVID-19 patients to one hospital to relieve some of the other hospitals to allow them to serve other patients? We forwarded that recommendation on to the governor's office.
So I think that, you know, as we make adjustments, we've got to look at what we've done in years past. My understanding, we've done that before when we've had certain outbreaks. And so I think that our health care professionals are absolutely doing the very best that they can. But we've seen the stories about the shortage of ventilators and masks and protective equipment.
And I'm thankful for partners like the Home Depot who stepped up. They've donated masks to Grady Health System. They've also donated masks to our police department. We're trying to get more masks for our are some of our other departments in the city.
And I think, you know, the short answer, Rickey, is I think everyone is doing the best that they can. But you can't watch the news and not be concerned about worst case scenarios as it relates to our health care system.
Bevington: Do you know of any local companies that are helping actually to manufacture this needed medical equipment?
Bottoms: I do know of one for a couple of small-business owners locally who are manufacturing hand sanitizer. In terms of manufacturing, this is specific equipment.
I don't know of any, but I do know companies like the Home Depot were going into their available stock and making that equipment available to us.
Bevington: This week, the president called himself a wartime president, he likened himself to a wartime president, do you consider yourself a wartime mayor?
Bottoms: No, I don't.
Bevington: Why not?
Bottoms: I think we're managing our city in the midst of a pandemic. And we'll let history give us whatever labels they deem appropriate when we get past this.
Bevington: Just a couple of more questions, Mayor. A lot of people are asking if the City of Atlanta is going to be put into any kind of lockdown. What can you say about those concerns?
Bottoms: I'm watching the news and listening to the experts every day. We will make that decision when and if it becomes the prudent decision to make.
You can't help but look at other places and see where this is headed if people don't take the social distancing and staying out of the streets and crowded places seriously. I hope it does not get to that.
In talking with Dr. Del Rio from Emory, we both agree that's important for people to get out and exercise and be able to move around. So we've been very thoughtful about not closing down the Beltline yet.
But if people are congregating and not keeping a safe distance from one another, we may have to take other measures and we may have to do it with other businesses.
Thankfully, we have, for example, Simon Properties, has closed down Phipps [Plaza] Lenox [Square Mall], and we've seen other folk taking the initiative to do it. It will be our preference if people did it on their own and not make us have to do it. But if it comes to that, we'll certainly make that call in the way that we've made so many others over the past week.
Bevington: Incredibly hard decisions that you're making right now. It's really extraordinary. One of my neighbors yesterday was asking me if I had any information as a journalist that maybe the public doesn't have about how long this is going to go on. He said, I'm basically unemployed right now. He's a realtor. I said, you know, it depends on us. Americans will determine today how long this goes on.
Bottoms: You're absolutely right. And I think that people need to watch what's happening in other countries. I just had this conversation with my 17 year-old who's getting extremely antsy. This is his senior year of high school. He's very social. This is it's hard for him mentally. It's hard for some people economically. You know, people are feeling that.
But I think what people need to understand is that this will go on as long as we make it go on. If we shut things down, if we stay in and stop thinking that this is somebody else's problem, this can be contained in a much quicker way.
I think what people, again, have to remember, it's about the burden on our health care system. So when you look at the news out of Italy, what's happening is one hospital asks how you've got 20% of the doctors who are now sick. It's about having access to resources and ventilators.
And you have to remember, people are still going into our hospitals with other issues. People still have high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, car accidents. All these things that people go into the hospitals for, those things aren't going away. But this is adding another layer that if we all get sick at once, our hospitals will not be able to help us.
Bevington: I just want to wrap up by asking you about your working with Governor Brian Kemp. How is that relationship going right now? Are you confident in how he's handling it from a statewide view?
Bottoms: Governor Kemp and the state have been great partners in this. We've been in constant communication. There's not been a single thing we've asked for that they have not given us.
Even things that... calls that the state has not yet made the governor made it very clear he will defer to our local leadership to make the calls that we deem appropriate and that he will support us with that.
So we've worked very well together. And I hope and trust that in the same way that he's working with us locally on that ... that same partnership is happening at the federal level.