On Friday, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto will announce the next steps for the city as the region moves into the yellow phase of the coronavirus pandemic. During an interview with WESA on Wednesday afternoon, he said Pittsburgh is prepared for the region’s slow reopening -- but that the city will be contending with the virus and its impact for years to come.
Peduto said leaders have been working the last few months to plan how it will handle any resumptions of indoor and outdoor activity. The most immediate concern may be a Kenny Chesney concert that had been scheduled at Heinz Field on May 30. The show has not officially been canceled yet, although the "yellow" phase of reopening still includes a limit on gatherings of more than two dozen people.
“Kenny Chesney organizers have canceled every concert up 'til Pittsburgh, and we expect that they'll be making an announcement very shortly on Pittsburgh and the concerts to happen afterwards,” Peduto said.
*Editor's note: On Thursday afternoon, Kenny Chesney announced that he would be postponing his Pittsburgh concert.
But he says discussions on restarting local activities have been far more wide-ranging.
“We had conversations throughout the past two months with our business communities, labor, our nonprofit community -- all working towards the slow build-up to begin rebuilding Pittsburgh economy,” Peduto said.
Peduto said officials had begun planning for COVID-19 in late January, which helped it be more prepared when the virus hit this spring.
“That led to us being able to prepare through public safety with the needs of equipment for our personnel and in putting together a telecommuting plan for the operations of the city," he said. "I think that we've been able to take advantage of these last two months in order to coordinate our efforts with the greater Pittsburgh community to be able to make this transition rather seamless."
And while businesses across the state have bridled at shutdown rules, Peduto says they've followed shutdown orders in the city.
“They basically know the rules" -- and know that "if they are breaking the rules, then many customers won't simply go to an establishment if they have decided to open on their own,” he said. “So, there's almost like a peer pressure that is kept. I think a lot of businesses are in compliance.”
But the equation for the general public changes on sunny days, he conceded. When the weather is mild, residents "want to be in places that other people are. It's just human nature. And so especially during the time that we were still on the upswing on the number of cases and the number of fatalities, it was essential for city government not to create opportunities for people to gather. Now that we've hit the plateau and we may be on the downside, we're still in a position where social distancing is a critical component of winning this war."
Peduto said the city was "trying to provide some opportunities for people to get outside of their homes and to be in areas where there are other people. But at the same time, we don't want to promote the oversaturation or where we could be putting people in danger.”
But even if all goes as planned, Peduto said, the pandemic will have an impact on the city’s budget for years to come. Previously, City Controller Michael Lamb said that layoffs are almost inevitable because a large chunk of the city’s budget is payroll. Peduto agrees, but he said he wants it to be a last option.
“The controller is right when he says that the type of deficits that we're looking at can only be filled by looking towards cuts to payroll. However, we're trying to find ways to do that through attrition during the 2021 budget,” Peduto said. “We do have each of our departments looking at positions that are not filled. We've put … a hiring freeze on those positions that may become available later in the years as people seek to retire.” He said the administration has also instituted a 10 percent cut in non-personnel expenses in every department.
The city’s current surplus built up over the past six years can help get through the 2020 budget, Peduto said, but those funds will have to be replenished.
“We have to plan out for the next five years over the loss of revenue in a post COVID-19 world. What that could mean is a loss of amusement tax, a loss of parking revenue, potentially lowering of wage tax as people are slower to get back into work,” he said. “All of those different revenue sources that we have relied upon will look differently” in future years.
And even as the virus ebbs, officials must still reckon with the likelihood that it will return.
“I'm concerned [that] as we move from red to yellow and hopefully yellow to green, that we have enough testing and enough contact tracing to be able to limit the virus’s spread,” he said. “I really think that that is going to become the critical next standard.”