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.

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 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.

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.”

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