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Coordinating The Reopening Of Neighboring Towns During Pandemic Proves Difficult


We've heard a lot in our country, with its separation of powers, about the differences between the states and the federal government. As big metro areas reopen, we learn of distinctions between different local governments. One place to find some frustration is metro Kansas City. Aviva Okeson-Haberman is with member station KCUR.

AVIVA OKESON-HABERMAN, BYLINE: You need a three-page spreadsheet to piece together all of the different requirements and reopening dates around Kansas City. The region crosses two states and spans nine counties. And because of that, there are now weekly coordinating calls for local leaders to discuss strategy. They started in early April. On one call earlier this month, Gladstone Mayor Carol Suter told her fellow elected officials that they've created an almost impossible situation for people to navigate.


CAROL SUTER: We look like chickens running around with our heads cut off - 'cause how can it be safe to have a wedding on this side of the street but it's not safe to have a wedding across the street?

OKESON-HABERMAN: Nonessential businesses in her city started opening May 4 while, less than 10 miles away, Kansas City gyms and hair salons had to wait about a week and a half longer to open. Suter is concerned about confusion resulting from the piecemeal approach, but she argues that cities like hers that haven't been hard hit should be able to reopen sooner. That's where Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas disagrees.

QUINTON LUCAS: I figured I'd hop in because Carol and I always love a good back-and-forth.

OKESON-HABERMAN: Kansas City has roughly seven times the number of cases as Suter's county. Lucas says easing restrictions too early in one place poses a danger for everyone in the region. He's quick to note that an outbreak at a meat processing plant roughly 50 miles away led to a surge in Kansas City COVID cases.

LUCAS: The thing that this group - and maybe we will never get to this - but the place that we actually need to get is all of us recognizing we're one place.

OKESON-HABERMAN: About 20 miles east of Kansas City, Blue Springs Mayor Carson Ross is concerned that other jurisdictions don't fully grasp the economic toll of restrictions.

CARSON ROSS: I think there's a reality check for us elected officials. For those people that have not already lost confidence in our leadership, they're losing confidence in our leadership because we are not on the same page.

OKESON-HABERMAN: Reopening conversations like these are happening across the country. Irma Esparza Diggs with the National League of Cities is seeing tension about reopening plans.

IRMA ESPARZA DIGGS: There is confusion in places clearly, in particular where you have a difference in city infection levels.

OKESON-HABERMAN: When suburban businesses near the city started reopening, that pressured Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas to reconsider his plans. But he mostly worries that some people around the region don't grasp the threat of COVID-19.

LUCAS: I have people who tell me all the time - you've had more people die of homicides during the stay-at-home orders than you have of COVID. So why should I care?

OKESON-HABERMAN: Like in much of the nation, in Kansas City, the virus has disproportionately affected minority communities. Mayor Lucas says he gets comments from people saying the virus hasn't hurt their area.

LUCAS: And it makes me, as a black mayor of a city with more black people than anybody in this metro or this region, it has frustrated me tremendously.

OKESON-HABERMAN: Lucas says there was a sense of unity when leaders throughout the region issued stay-at-home orders in late March. Now comes the hard part - figuring out how to move forward.

For NPR News, I'm Aviva Okeson-Haberman in Kansas City.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Aviva Okeson-Haberman

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