Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, the 60th Mayor of Atlanta

Atlanta’s COVID-19 Pandemic Response and Flipping Georgia: Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms on the Challenges of Leadership in 2020

The number of COVID-19 cases in the United States is approaching 200,000 per day. News outlets repeatedly report cities and towns that shatter the case record yet again. As the Color of Coronavirus project demonstrates, the communities impacted by the highest COVID-19 cases and death rates are Black, Indigenous, and Latinx. While the pandemic re-exposed long-existing health inequities, continued police violence against, and murders of, Black Americans also reinforced the reality of oppression embedded within U.S. culture and institutions. With the 2020 election around the corner, the summer required leadership on COVID-19 and flipping Georgia from its traditional vote for the Republican party.

On Monday, November 9, 2020, the Voices in Leadership webseries welcomed Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, the 60th Mayor of Atlanta, and Dr. Mary T. Bassett, Director of the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, for our first event of the 2020–2021 school year. Their discussion spotlighted the role of leadership in confronting the COVID-19 pandemic alongside a national election in which Georgia played a pivotal role.

Mayor Bottoms is a graduate of Florida A&M University and the Georgia State University College of Law. She is the first mayor in Atlanta history to have served in all three branches of government, including being a judge and a member of the city council before being sworn in as mayor. In 2020, in acknowledgment of notable achievements like establishing Atlanta’s first fully-staffed Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights (LCCR) Under Law awarded Mayor Bottoms the Distinguished Civil Rights Advocate Award in recognition of her equity-driven leadership to help guide and protect marginalized communities. Additionally, Mayor Bottoms served as Chair of the Community Development and Housing Committee in the Census Task Force of the United States Conference of Mayors.

The Pandemic Response

After being on a statewide lockdown for only a few weeks, Georgia was the first state to reopen in late April 2020. As cases rose, Mayor Bottoms defied Georgia’s Governor Kemp by issuing a city-wide mask mandate through an executive order. While Governor Kemp was in favor of masks and promoted their use in his travels, he did not want mayors to have the ability to mandate masks in their respective cities, due to the negative economic impact he perceived a state-wide mandate would have. The very public battle with Governor Kemp resulted in a personal lawsuit against Mayor Bottoms and the city council, though the lawsuit was later dropped in August.

Mayor Bottoms saw the lawsuit’s publicity as an opportunity to continue to educate about the importance of wearing masks. She shared: “The silver lining — people heard us repeatedly talking about masks. And I think more people are wearing masks now than they were before.” In late July, After noticing that people reverted to not wearing masks, in addition to the mask mandate, Mayor Bottoms promoted the #MaskUpGA Campaign to stress mask-wearing and maintaining high hygiene standards.

National data suggests that 40% of Black-owned businesses are not expected to survive coronavirus. Although Atlanta is a hub of Black entrepreneurship, Black-owned businesses there have also been struggling under financial duress. To provide employment opportunities, Atlanta has repurposed city employees to new roles, including helping with food deliveries for public school students reliant on school breakfast and lunches. While Mayor Bottoms recognized concerns about the economic impact of pandemic-related closures, she sees flattening the curve and controlling COVID-19 as essential for economic recovery. She expressed hope that more relief would be coming, remarking that “a stimulus package would be great”, as Atlanta has taken every measure to soften the effects of the economic downturn — such as placing a moratorium on evictions and suspending water payments. But she feels “there’s still so much to be done.”

Unlike much of Georgia, Atlanta has not completely reopened as of November 2020. Mayor Bottoms stated that the city was technically still in phase two of the reopening plan, with an advisory task force providing recommendations for phased reopenings. Currently, executive orders from the Mayor’s Office continue to promote preventative measures, as these orders have stopped permit issuance for large gatherings and shuttered city facilities. As community spread of COVID-19 increases, the city’s public school system is also closed for at least the rest of 2020.

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, the 60th Mayor of Atlanta (Right), was virtually interviewed by Dr. Mary T. Bassett, Director of the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, (Left) for the Voices in Leadership web series for the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Flipping Georgia

The last time Georgia had gone for a Democrat in a presidential election was 1992. After nearly thirty years, voters were able to turn the state blue. Mayor Bottoms attributed the Democrats’ success to a huge demographic change to a younger, more diverse state and the implementation of the Motor Voter Act, which resulted in the registration of 800,000 new voters on the rolls in the past years. These efforts, led by Former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams’ organization The New Georgia Project, Black women, and progressive activists throughout the state shifted the dynamic in the formerly red state.

Toward the end of president-elect Biden’s campaign visit to Atlanta, Mayor Bottoms stated that she felt the excitement in the air and started to believe that Georgia could flip. After all, “Atlanta influences everything.” Though she acknowledged that the two upcoming Senate races will be an uphill battle, she stated that the momentum will make it less of a challenge to get people to vote. And despite the negative impacts of COVID-19 and continued racial oppression in the U.S., Mayor Bottoms is optimistic about president-elect Joe Biden’s ability to resurrect the idea of bipartisanship.

Leading with Authenticity

Mayor Bottoms found it deeply troubling to see the federal government’s haphazard and fragmented response (or lack thereof) to COVID-19, where its patchwork nature squandered public trust. Being a leader tasked with marshaling facts, rebuilding public trust, and guiding the city through crisis is no small feat. Mayor Bottoms shared: “You only have a finite amount of energy. It takes a lot to pretend.” She went on to assert: “What I’ve learned in leadership, especially about myself, is the more exhausted you are, the more authentic you become… I think what people have seen from me is just — it’s who I am. It’s who my parents raised me to be.”

As the U.S. continues to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic and the unfinished elections in Georgia, Mayor Bottoms will continue to practice leadership in Atlanta. With the Senate runoffs approaching in January 2021, all eyes will be on Georgia. Hopefully, Mayor Bottoms’ authenticity and courage in leadership will continue to set an example for elected officials.

Story written by Vanessa Beltran, a MPH Candidate in Health and Social Behavior, concentrating in Public Health Leadership, at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Vanessa is also a member of the Harvard Graduate School Leadership Incubator, Rose Service Learning Fellow, and member of the Walker Study Group. Vanessa was born in Mexico City and raised in Texas, where her passion for working with the Latinx community developed. Vanessa is a Registered Dietitian and holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Nutritional Sciences from the University of Texas in Austin. Outside of her research and practice interests, Vanessa is committed to increasing diversity in dietetics and nutrition education. Currently, Vanessa is the Mental Health Policy Fellow at Girls Empowerment Network in Austin, Texas, where she works to increase self-efficacy for advocacy in girls across Texas.

Story edited by Sherine Andreine Powerful, MPH (ID: Sherine, Mx., she, they), a Doctor of Public Health candidate at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. As a Black Caribbean Feminist, she is committed to celebrating and furthering pleasure, healing, and liberation for Black, Brown, and Indigenous peoples and persons of diverse a/genders and a/sexualities, particularly those from the Caribbean. In this current critical juncture, her lived experiences are moving her towards the creation/curation of a life in which pleasure is greater than productivity. Her present interests additionally include feminist global health and development; gender and sexual health, equity, and justice; and resilience and anticolonial sustainable development in the context of climate change.

Voices in Leadership webcast series enhances leadership, connecting high-profile leaders with the Harvard School of Public Health community. hsph.me/voices

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