Interview: Mayor Quinton on coronavirus closures, getting barbers back to work and local emergency relief funds
On a typical Tuesday, the average American can spend an entire day busy with the business of life without once stopping to consider what’s going on in the marbled halls of government. The coronavirus pandemic has upended that, as citizens face down the twin plagues of deadly disease and mass unemployment. Normal life has powered down, and every decision our leaders make juts into stark relief.
Based on public commentary, it seems that most of Kansas City has been happy to see Mayor Quinton Lucas at the wheel. The charismatic “Mayor Q” won the election in a landslide last year when he was not yet thirty-five years old. As the severity of the pandemic came into focus, he worked with leaders across the region to implement policies that have seemingly stopped the deadly virus from finding a large toehold in the region.
Lucas has also shown the common touch that made him an electoral force last year, displaying leadership through simple gestures like honoring a vow to patronize a local restaurant every single day during his term as a way of supporting the local economy and service industry.
Still, it’s a long road from here to normal—and we wanted to know how the mayor of the largest city in Missouri is planning to get there. His answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Of all the nightmare scenarios out there, what is most keeping you awake?
I worry about those areas of the community where we have our poorer population—if we start to see a rash of coronavirus in those communities. People that are able to get diagnosed quickly, who have a primary care physician and resources to get care more, are having better results. I worry a lot about the people who are most vulnerable.
I have a lot of fear about what happens if our homeless population is negatively impacted. That’s why [KCMO] purchased a block of hotel rooms for homeless persons, to make sure that those who need to be quarantined aren’t spreading throughout the community and can receive care.
In the 1918 flu pandemic, historians say Kansas City had things worse than other cities because the various jurisdictions could not come together and work out a plan for a quarantine that covered everyone. It was really impressive, and a little surprising, that in the coronavirus pandemic, you all came out with the same rules at the same time. We very rarely get that on anything.
In terms of how the core four [Jackson, Johnson and Wyandotte counties and KCMO] got together, it was interesting. I think I’d actually convened the call, and my goal was to talk about our economic reaction to things. I wanted to make sure that we were doing work to create a small business support fund and that sort of thing.
Wisely, I think, all of the leaders on the call wanted to talk about what we were doing from a public health perspective. KCK Mayor David Alvey, I think, started asking, “Is there a stay-at-home order coming? Is it shelter in place? What will this all look like?” Kansas City, Missouri, already had plans to do that. We were able to share that plan with every other jurisdiction on the phone and they seemed to think it was important not only that we all take this important public health step but that we do it together.
It’s never an easy conversation because we’re four people. We all have city councils and county legislatures, county commissions. But I think we said, “Well, this is pretty darn important. Let’s kind of stick our necks out there.” And we were able to get it done. And I think the public has responded to it tremendously.
If you hadn’t been able to agree, do you think we might have been looking at a border war situation?
Yes, it’s that—but it’s also the idea that we are one place. I say that all the time to people, but it’s not B.S. At the end of the day, yes, I got elected by people in Kansas City, Missouri. But I grew up going to school on the state line itself. I still work at the University of Kansas. There are no lines between where we go. So yeah, different rules for Price Chopper in Leawood versus Kansas City versus Blue Springs are just really unnecessary. That’s why I think it was important for us to just agree, and I’m proud of that.
Looking at the projections everyone is looking at from the University of Washington, it was interesting how Kansas City went from a situation where it was like, “this could be really, really bad” to “this isn’t good, but we’ve got this under control.” Were you watching those same projections and reacting?
I’m in my office just today—with my chief of staff and my team—and we were looking at some of the projections. It’s not just amazing, but something that I think shows how important early intervention is, especially when you see the difference in our trajectory versus other cities in the middle of the map. I’m looking at what’s happening in Detroit right now and my heart goes out to them. They’ve got a high number of infections and deaths there when compared to this region. And I think that relates in large part to the steps that we took early to make sure we were counteracting this crisis that we saw coming our way.
I’ve lived and worked on both coasts, and it was interesting to hear people there say to me, “You guys are behind, but this is coming for you.” And I’m like, “We already closed our restaurants and you haven’t—why are you lecturing me?” I think people were really surprised that Kansas City was at the absolute forefront—especially for a place that didn’t have a crisis yet.
We weren’t shy about the steps we needed to take. I still remember I think the first night of the Big 12 tournament, when the big leagues canceled. I had a meeting at City Hall and convened a number of other leaders, and people thought it was odd because I’m [a huge basketball fan]. Nevertheless, I had the chance to kind of say, “This is gonna be more serious than we might think.” And I think we made one hundred percent the right call, and the reason behind that is that we’ve recognized time and time again how important it is for us to always look to the public health data, more than anything.
I know there were some people who were pushing back when we issued our early orders, saying, “That’s necessary in New York City. That’s necessary in Seattle. That’s not necessary in Kansas City.” I know I have to change some of my preconceived notions on it because I think the way that this crisis was originally being seen in America, to our detriment in some ways, is we thought, “This is a China thing. It’s an Italy thing.” I didn’t want us to fall behind saying, “Oh, that’s a New York thing, that’s a West Coast thing.” It’s something that all of us are dealing with and confronting, and I think Kansas City can be proud of the steps we took.
On the other side of this, how are we possibly going to find a way to make up the lost productivity and economic opportunity from being shut down maybe two months?
We all have to do a lot of things. There are the government answers that the Kansas City, Missouri, government has already started doing, including, of course, our Small Business Emergency Relief Fund. I’m proud of the fact that we announced that and we were able to get it past City Council and we’re gonna have money out on the streets even before the end of this crisis.
There is work we all need to do as individuals—as consumers. Instead of canceling events, we postpone them. When we’re planning expenditures, we figure out how we can support a small business in our own communities.
For those of us in government, we need to see how we’re charging fees and taxes in the future to make sure that we can defer them and, to whatever extent we can, waive them for folks so we’re in a better position long term.
So I think there are going to be a limitless number of steps. I’m committed to making sure we address them, particularly in those communities that are most negatively impacted—the businesses that don’t have the ability to operate remotely, which is a lot
I was talking to a barber last weekend about the fact that he has no way to make money right now. We’ve got to make sure we stabilize him. Now, I wish I could continue to grow hair for the barber, but I guess I won’t be able to do that quickly. But nevertheless, there are lots of ways we can find to support him.
Speaking of that: You made a pledge to get food from a local restaurant every day because of this crisis. How’s that going?
Oh, I’ve been very good at ordering and getting takeout to make sure we support Kansas City businesses. I made a pledge to eat out every day for the rest of my term, so I will be rolling into the mayor’s office by my third year. But I think it’ll be important for us to step up. And I think a lot of Kansas Citians will be with me once we’re ready to reopen.
No politician answers here: Of all the new places you’ve tried, what’s the one you were blown away by?
I will be good. I won’t be that equivocating mayor who picks seven but they’re all connected. It was a place by the name of South of Summit, which is not only providing a wonderful build-your-own Mexican-American meal but also provides toilet paper, which really has their sales going. It’s down on 75th Street in Waldo. I’m at 18th and Vine, and to the extent I can go somewhere, it’s usually City Hall. So it’s nice to get out of downtown and support a Waldo business. It was a great meal—better than I would have ever thought, and it was a brand new place for me. I hope to go back when we’re through the crisis.