Tag Archives: Coronavirus

Finding Space for Social Distancing

Coronavirus has put space at a premium. A lot of the places where we gather weren’t set up for people to keep six feet apart from each other. Packing into crowded restaurants, churches, arenas, or malls just won’t work the way it used to, and if those businesses and institutions are going to work at all, they’re going to need more space.

You don’t have to look far to find extra space. Just watch this video from the Post Standard, and you’ll see just how much space Syracuse really has.

Acres and acres of empty streets, freeways, and parking lots. All of that space is up for grabs right now, and all of it could be put to better use.

Let’s put some numbers to that. This picture shows part of Armory Square—a spot where lots of people used to pack into tight spaces. But restaurants, shops, and offices only account for about half of the total space in this picture. Sidewalks and tiny Armory Square Park are another eighth of the space. The rest is parking garages, parking lots, parking lanes, and travel lanes. Fully one third of Armory Square is reserved for the movement and storage of cars.

This is so obviously stupid that people have fought against it for years. New buildings have gone up on parking lots, pop up markets have taken over entire streets, businesses have turned parking lanes into outdoor seating, and City Hall is looking at closing one block of Walton Street to cars for good.

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Coronavirus only makes all that even more necessary in every city neighborhood—people need space to meet up, to have church, to pass each other on the sidewalk. Syracuse can’t work the old way—ample room for cars, but not enough for people—when we’re all keeping our distance. If it’s going to work at all, then we’re going to have to make more space for people, and the fastest way to do that is to take it back from cars.

Abolish the Sales Tax

Sales taxes are no way to fund a government. They create all kinds of weird incentives that make City Hall do all kinds of weird things, and—as the current crisis shows—they leave local government helpless just when we need it the most.

Local governments like sales taxes because they’re easy to charge on non-voters. That was the basic rationale for the Destiny USA deal: we got Bob Congel to build something big by agreeing not to charge taxes on him—an influential donor—but the City and County would be fine so long as Pennsylvanians and Canadians paid enough sales taxes at the mall to make up for that lost property tax revenue.

Or remember the 2014 plan to build a new stadium for SU at Washington and University on the land that Cor got when they demolished Kennedy Square? Even though SU doesn’t pay property taxes, that stadium was supposed to generate government revenue by bringing more out of towners into the County and getting sales taxes off their ticket purchases. “Sports tourism” they called it. When that project fell through, the County came up with the Onondaga Lake Amphitheater and justified it with similar logic.

All these schemes attempt to fund local government with tax dollars collected from people who can’t vote here. This requires local government to cater to people from somewhere else, to create ‘experiences’ or whatever that get them to lose a little money while they pass on through.

And that’s a hard pill for a town like Syracuse to swallow. This isn’t a resort town that’s grown up around the idea of showing people a good time while they’re on vacation. Syracuse is, and has always been, a city for workers—a city for the people who live here. It can still be that and make money off of tourism, but that’s a difficult balance to strike, especially when City Hall has a direct fiscal interest in tipping the scales towards turning the City into a better place to visit, but less of an incentive in making Syracuse a better place to live.

Then there are the more prosaically weird incentives. How about this: the sale, maintenance, and repair of personal cars accounts for 14% of sales tax revenue in New York State. When sales tax is your main source of revenue, and when 1 in 7 sales tax dollars comes from people spending money on cars, then local government does have a real incentive to encourage more driving and less walking, bike pedaling, and bus riding.

Local government has that incentive, that is, if it doesn’t care about making life better for the people who elect it. Car dealerships are a nuisance, cars can bankrupt families, and ubiquitous car-ownership means too many tax-sapping city-killing parking lots—a bunch of little facts that all point to the bigger fact that City Hall should be doing everything it can to make life easier for people who don’t own cars. But when your next year’s budget relies on sales taxes generated by car dealers, gas stations, and auto shops, it’s too easy for City Hall to lose sight of that greater good.

Overreliance on sales taxes means that City Hall has greater fiscal interest in the grey asphalt of car dealerships and highway interchanges than it does in green neighborhoods like Park Avenue

And finally, this economic crisis—like every other one that came before it—shows just how insane it is to fund a government with sales taxes since the government is most needed at the very times when people stop buying stuff. Onondaga County is spending huge amounts of money on Coronavirus testing. Centro is transporting essential healthcare workers to the hospitals while also voluntarily forgoing all fare revenue in order to protect its bus operators from infection, and it needed a federal bailout to keep going. Syracuse needs libraries and community centers to help people apply for unemployment, find new jobs, and fill out the census now more than ever, but instead OCPL is laying off staff. This is what comes of using a tax on consumer spending to fund the very services that become most necessary when people don’t have any money to spend.

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I don’t know what the better option is. Income tax, payroll tax, land tax, making non-profits pay property tax? There are probably good practical and theoretical reasons to oppose all of them too. But here’s what I do know: sales taxes are bad. They make Onondaga County and Syracuse City Hall do weird things, they get in the way of making the City a better place to live, they all dried up right now exactly when people need local government the most. Can we please try something else.

Coronavirus, the Sidewalks, and Race

The coronavirus has disproportionately hospitalized black people in Onondaga County. The County’s population is 76.5% white, but only 54% of people hospitalized for coronavirus are white. The County’s population is 11.5% black, but 27% of people hositalized for coronavirus are black.

Looking for a possible explanation, the County Executive “speculated that the trend might be due to the fact that African-Americans have, as a whole, larger percentages of diabetes and heart disease, preexisting conditions that can make the virus much worse.”

That checks out. The overwhelming majority of black people in Onondaga County live in a few segregated neighborhoods in Syracuse, and those are the very same neighborhoods where the CDC has found the highest rates of diabetes and high blood pressure.

Why though? Why is it that black people in Onondaga County are so much likelier to have been sick than white people, even before all this started?

The CDC also keeps data on factors (like lack of sleep) that contribute to health outcomes (like diabetes and high blood pressure). Here are maps of obesity, lack of sleep, and lack of exercise.

Put all this together, and you get a pretty stark picture. Black people are segregated into specific neighborhoods where environmental factors like polluted air and lack of access to opportunities for exercise have made it difficult for people to maintain their health, contributing to chronic conditions like diabetes and hypertension which have put them more at risk to contract coronavirus.

So it was a good thing that City Hall had announced its intention to maintain the sidewalks. Better sidewalks are the kind of positive environmental factor that would improve health outcomes by making it easier to get around on foot, making that light exercise a more prominent part of the routine of daily life. This is particularly true in those neighborhoods where people are less likely to own a car and more likely to live within walking distance of job centers like University Hill and Downtown—neighborhoods like the segregated ones where negative environmental factors have made coronavirus so much of a problem today.

But on the same day that we learned of coronavirus’ disparate racial impact, City Hall postponed that plan to maintain the sidewalks because the coronavirus has blown a hole in the municipal budget. City Hall was going to introduce a new frontage fee to pay for that maintenance, but Mayor Walsh explained that “we didn’t feel it would be fair to constituents to bear that burden now.”

But why should it take a new fee to pay for the sidewalks when DPW manages to maintain the rest of the street with money from its regular budget? Why can’t City Hall just redirect some of the road repaving money to fix the sidewalks? Why is the funding so fragile for a public resource primarily used by Syracuse’s poorest residents while the funding for the roads driven on by relatively richer City residents (and County commuters) is so resilient?

Taken together, these environmental conditions that contribute to poor health in black neighborhoods and particularly fragile funding for the mitigation of those conditions amount to an instance of structural racism—a series of seemingly neutral, unrelated, and agentless decisions that conspire to yield inequitable outcomes divided along racial lines.

Clearly, the Mayor isn’t postponing his sidewalk maintenance plan because he’s racist. And clearly, fixing the sidewalks would not, on its own, mitigate coronavirus’ disparate impact on black people in Onondaga County. And that’s the problem with structural racism—when inequity is the unintended effect of boring stuff like appropriations, when no one makes those original decisions for racist reasons, and when unmaking any one of those decisions will only have a slight and delayed effect on the enormous overall problem of racist inequality, then it’s too easy to put anti-racist action off indefinitely.

But we have to take that action now. The truth is that it’s never easy to dismantle the racist structures that hold up our municipal government. The coronavirus may make it seem like now is a particularly bad time to start, but a look at the racial disparity in infections should be enough to prove that Syracuse needs to do this work now more than ever.

Coronavirus, the Digital Divide, and Public Libraries

Social distancing has moved so much of our work, learning, and social interaction online, but we’re leaving too many people behind. Only about ¾ of Syracuse households have internet access. That leaves 13,000 families where the parents simply cannot telecommute and the kids simply cannot participate in a virtual classroom.

In more normal times, these families use free wifi or public PCs when they need to get online. They go to school, to the library. That’s why libraries have left the wifi on even though they’ve locked their doors—so that people who need the internet can sit in the parking lot, log on, and check their email, submit an assignment, join a video meeting, or whatever else it is that they need to do online in these crazy times.

But that’s clearly not enough. For one thing, too many of the families that need public internet can’t very well drive to the library because they don’t own a car. At the same time, only essential workers are supposed to be on the buses, and there aren’t enough branch libraries to be within walking distance of all the neighborhoods.

Internet access (in green) and car access (in yellow) in Syracuse. The black lines show streets within 1/2 mile of a library

So how are all of those people without internet and without reliable access to public wifi supposed to work from home or become distance learners? For that matter, how are they supposed to file for unemployment or look for jobs or see the faces of loved ones living away from here?

And while coronavirus has highlighted the digital divide, it’s a problem that’s been around for years, and it will still be a problem even after the world goes back to ‘normal.’ In a few months time (god willing), the same people who can’t telecommute are going to have to go to the library to file for unemployment, to apply for new jobs, to fill out the census.

So it’s extremely distressing that Onondaga County just laid off a slew of library workers. Will they have jobs when all of this is over? Will the branches be fully staffed when they reopen? Anybody who’s spent any time in a public library can tell you that the staff is just as necessary as the computers for ensuring equal access to the internet. 

The coronavirus is widening the fault lines in the community. Who gets laid off versus who can work from home—who can enroll their children in a private online learning program versus who has to home school without any resources at all. These  lines are expressions of the digital divide. If Syracuse is going to come out of this crisis even more united and less unequal, it’s going to have to bridge that divide. Instead of laying off library staff, the County has to open new branches in more neighborhoods. That’s what it will take to make the City stronger than it was before.

Coronavirus and the Bus

Crises reveal what really matters. Work that used to be forgotten is now understood to be essential. Workers who used to be taken for granted are now recognized as heroes—fighting on the frontlines against this global pandemic—the hospitals, the nursing homes, the garbage routes, the checkout counters.

Renewed appreciation for these people and the work that they do is shaking up Syracuse’s ideas about what makes the City work. When Syracuse started social distancing, a lot of people expected Centro to cut its service. After all, demand was bound to go down, and anyways, no one really rides the bus, right?

Instead, the entire community is learning just how much Syracuse needs the bus. While big cities like Chicago and Boston have seen 75% drops in transit use, Centro’s ridership has only dropped 55%. And the people who are still on the bus are the ones getting Syracuse through this crisis. As Centro spokesman Steve Koegel pointed out, the remaining bus riders are often in uniform: “A lot of people are wearing hospital garb. It’s visible those are the people using our service. They are critical-need workers.”

So while the buses remained full of heroes riding to work in the hospitals, and highway interchanges went empty, our transportation priorities shifted. The federal stimulus included $21.5 million for Centro, a necessary lifeline for a perennially underfunded service. After years of getting cut out of budget deals, left to languish with declining local, state, and federal support, this crisis shook people up and made them realize that Syracuse needs a functioning public transportation system to survive.

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But the risk is that once this crisis is over, once we’ve moved from dealing with a global pandemic to managing its economic aftershock, the people in power will forget that lesson and go back to business as usual—back to neglecting the basic necessities that made it possible for the City to get through this, back to starving the bus.

We can’t let it happen. We need to come out of this smarter than when we went in, with a greater appreciation for what makes life in Syracuse livable. That means a new commitment to the services that support the people who do Syracuse’s most essential work—it means better bus service.