By Fontana Mayor Acquanetta Warren and Former Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard

The following opinion article was published in The Hill on September 10, 2020.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic the country has sought and developed solutions to flatten the curve of the virus’s spread and lessen the financial impact felt by business and government alike. It doesn’t matter if you run a neighborhood convenience store or a city government; you’ve likely taken a severe revenue hit since March 1.

To flatten the curve, we’ve all been asked to take specific measures like wearing a mask that covers your mouth and nose, washing your hands, physical distancing and limiting the size of gatherings.

Remember a time before plexiglass was between you and your barista? How about life before vinyl stickers on the floor to remind you not to get too close to the person in front of you? Touchless grocery pickup is now a very real thing. Digital thermometers were only seen in medicine cabinets and hospitals — now they’re deployed everywhere. Hand-cleaned shopping carts have become a standard in many places. Mixed drinks to-go from your favorite restaurant was not common — sometimes not even allowed — before all of this started.

And before COVID-19, “Who is Dr. Anthony Fauci?” would be the Final Jeopardy question that even Ken Jennings would likely miss. Not any more.

As a nation, we continue to work very hard to shut down the physical effects of this virus. But as we make an effort to combat the physical effects, we can’t let our economy be shut down at the same time. The economic health of local communities during this pandemic is essential for the success and opportunity for every single person in America’s cities and towns.

The responsive innovations to this crisis have brought out the best in our nation — from individuals, small business, big business and, yes, even from government leaders.

When faced with a mandated dining room shutdown order threatening the biggest revenue week for the restaurant, Arlington, Texas, eatery J.Gilligans pivoted immediately to one of the first COVID-19 era drive-thrus in north Texas. It was either that type of Lone Star State ingenuity, or closing its doors on customers, employees and suppliers alike.

When fraudsters and rip off artists showed up online, it was big tech companies like Facebook, Amazon, Google and others who stepped in and used their platforms to stop bad actors from gouging consumers for everyday items that they need. They also helped direct people to the best information and resources available online to answer their COVID-19 questions.

And city after city — no matter where in the country or what size the budget — developed creative solutions, oftentimes partnering with business leaders and nonprofits, to help local businesses keep their doors open and their people employed.

The common threads that run through each of those solutions are clarity, predictability and safety. Without those three key elements, any response to this pandemic fails.

An ongoing debate throughout this unique time has been what business or service should be classified as essential, thereby able to remain open and serve the community and what business type should be classified as non-essential.

To date, there’s been a patchwork approach to this problem, and that’s not working for any one who’s engaging with our public sector or private sector. Open one week, then closed the next. It’s simply not sustainable.

The federal government provided initial guidance addressing the critical infrastructure sector — communications, manufacturing, health and safety — related to establishing who could stay open and continue to serve. We are at a point in the economic recovery process — some may say we are past such a point — where it is important to have more than guidance and to move to broadly accepted and implemented principles that will help guide municipalities and businesses alike to create a predictable and consistent standard for getting people back to work while delivering much needed services to communities.

It is imperative for all community leaders to recognize and act on the fact that essential services and products are provided by businesses that range from neighborhood convenience stores, employing a few men and women throughout the day, to multi-shift manufacturers with hundreds of employees serving the nation and beyond.

Speaking for a diverse range of communities and private sector partners we suggest a set of principles that recognize the economic, societal and community importance of local businesses and the families they support. It’s time to shift the essential vs. non-essential debate to one of safe vs. unsafe, using these very simple principles: 1, operate in a manner that is consistently safe, for employees and customers alike; 2, adhere to established and scientifically backed guidelines; 3, keeping our economy moving forward.

If your business meets these three simple principles, your business should be able to remain open and serve the community.

It’s that simple. With rigorous guidance, responsible adherence and effective enforcement, we can open back up in a way that is predictable, clear and safe.


Acquanetta Warren is the mayor of Fontana, Calif., and the chairwoman of both Community Leaders of America — Forum for Community Leaders and the CLA-FCL COVID-19 Response & Economic Recovery Program Advisory Committee.

Greg Ballard is the former mayor of Indianapolis, Ind., and a member of the CLA-FCL COVID-19 Response & Recovery Program Advisory Committee.