St. Paul deputy mayor talks masks, closures, budget and more
Jaime Tincher sat down with St. Paul, Minnesota's Pioneer Press to discuss reopening the city, and how local leaders are managing a potential $34 million budget shortfall
By Frederick Melo
ST. PAUL, Minn. — Since the early days of the pandemic, the city of St. Paul has closed nearly 20 miles of streets to vehicle traffic and refashioned them into pedestrian and bicycle areas, distributed thousands of meals to families in need and redeployed librarians to make masks and personal protective equipment.
Now comes the task of gradually reopening the economy at a time when coronavirus is still a deadly threat to the most vulnerable. Gov. Tim Walz has said hair salons and other retailers can resume limited business on June 1, though restaurants are restricted to outdoor seating areas and take-out.
St. Paul Deputy Mayor Jaime Tincher weighed in on what that means for St. Paul, from the fate of neighborhood playgrounds and libraries to the overall city budget. Her responses have been edited for clarity and space.
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey is ordering residents to wear masks when they congregate indoors, such as in stores and schools. Will St. Paul do the same?
Tincher: We are certainly looking at it. I know that the mayor and the city attorney have been thinking about it for a while now, if and when the governor lifts the order to shelter in place, how do we move forward. A decision might be this week. It might be next week.
Between Minneapolis and St. Paul, the Twin Cities quickly closed 40 miles of roadway to vehicles and opened them to pedestrians and cyclists to accommodate social distancing. Will some of those closures remain in place for the time being?
Tincher: I would guess that they would remain. With all the things that are coming, we're looking at the June 1 date. Our city departments team work group discussions have been looking at what would be some re-opening strategies, like the parkway closures, parks and rec programming in general, how do we support our bars and restaurants. All of those things are in the mix. We're trying to quickly have the policy conversations.
Could similar street closures benefit restaurant and coffee shop owners to facilitate temporary outdoor seating areas? If it worked for parks and recreational opportunities, maybe the same could work for small businesses.
Tincher: It's absolutely a consideration. What's also under consideration is any of our other city-owned spaces or park spaces, if there's a way we can help our small businesses, we really want to lean in and do that. The thing with road closures, we really have to make sure we're being thoughtful around emergency response, and anything that could have negative traffic impacts. Sometimes a lay person like me will look at it and say, 'Hey, we should just close that road.' And then our traffic engineers will say if you do that, here's how people will start crossing that road, or here's what happens to the fire truck responding to a heart attack. We need to do our due diligence.
The mayor has indicated the city could enter 2021 with a $19 million to $34 million shortfall. Give us a picture of preparations. Are we staring down layoffs yet?
Tincher: I'm referring to it as a budget gap due to revenue loss. We're going to have to balance the budget. We have multiple revenue streams we know are going to be negatively impacted by COVID. It's kind of like looking into a murky crystal ball right now. In a situation where we know we have Depression-era unemployment happening because of COVID, how do you put all the pieces together? We know that dipping into our reserves is going to be a needed component. It won't solve all of it. Delaying projects, redesigning services or canceling services, we're going to have to solve that mass problem. We're aggressively going after grants to provide the services our community needs, wants and expects from us. We're going to have to look at other solutions, whether potentially it's layoffs or other strategies. All options are going to have to be on the table.
So the city has not yet resorted to layoffs?
Tincher: We have not. I think of the arc of the timeline of how we've responded to the COVID pandemic. When it first hit, we were first focused on basic human survival needs. Who is not going to have food? Who is going to need Bridge Fund assistance, because that's how they're not going to lose their housing. As it's evolved, we're sort of at this phase where this is the new normal, and we know this is going to be with us for the next year. Recognizing the stuff we do, we just don't have the option of not doing it anymore. People calling 911, we can't say we're just not going to respond. We will continue site plan reviews, projects like the Ford site, library computer services.
You're planning on reopening computer rooms at the libraries?
Tincher: We're going to make library computers available, because some people don't have access to the Internet at home. We had kept curbside pick-up available. We had redeployed our library staff — they were making masks for us, at one point, at sort of a critical juncture for PPE (personal protective equipment), when we were in dire straits. Now, when we're thinking of return to work, what are the things in our libraries that are most critical to make available? It could be we're going to have to make investments in plexi-glass and supplies to allow the public to come back who need to use the computers.
Parks and Rec Director Mike Hahm told the city council last week that tennis courts are gradually reopening, but no final decision has been made on larger recreational programs such as Circus Juventas and Padelford Riverboats. The governor has asked for groups to remain under 10 people. Do you foresee a point at which neighborhood playgrounds reopen?
Tincher: It would be a public health guidance, and I don't want to speculate on it. As the mom of an eight-year-old and a six-year-old, gosh, I would love it for them to open. But I don't want to speculate on the public health guidance.
The city has helped convene online "equity roundtables," or public discussions, around how the pandemic impacts communities of color. Can you summarize the intent of those?
Tincher: If you look at Chicago or New York, any cities around the country, the common theme they're seeing is the percentage of people contracting COVID who are African-American, it might be 30%. We've had a lot of conversation in Minnesota around social determinants of health. I don't think it's surprising, but it certainly is shocking when you look at the data. I think we're seeing that in our East Asian community and our Native American community. We need a really clear and decisive focus around what are the strategies around the fact our communities are being impacted disproportionately, and how do we meet that need.
(c)2020 the Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.)