Life after Coronavirus: The Municipal View

How long will the COVID-19 pandemic persist in Canada? What will its consequences prove to be? Will life ever return to normal? For the past few weeks, Canadians have been consumed by these questions. While no one can be certain of the answers, many of us are eager to know how other Canadians — and especially our political leaders — are thinking about life after coronavirus.

Between April 3rd and April 17th, the Canadian Municipal Barometer asked mayors and councillors in municipalities across Canada how long they expect the negative consequences of the pandemic to last in their communities. The answers – from more than 550 mayors and councillors, across more than 300 municipalities – provide an insightful first look at what political leaders across Canada expect in the months to come.

The Big Picture

First, the big picture. We asked mayors and councillors how long they expect the negative consequences of the pandemic to last in four areas of local life: the public health of the community, the general welfare of the community, the local economy, and municipal administrative operations. The figure below provides a big-picture summary of the percentage of respondents who selected each option in each area.

The results are sobering. Across nearly every category, a majority of our respondents believe that the negative consequences of the pandemic will persist for six months or more. In the case of physical health, expectations are slightly more optimistic, with about a third of respondents choosing 3-6 months. In all of the other categories, local leaders expect the consequences to persist for longer – indeed, in the case of the local economy, nearly two thirds of respondents believe the pandemic’s negative consequences will linger for more than a year. All told, municipal leaders across Canada expect that the negative consequences of COVID-19 will be with us for a very long time.

Public Health Consequences

The COVID-19 pandemic is, first and foremost, a health crisis. Mayors and councillors recognize that they will not be able to seriously address the other negative consequences of the pandemic until the health effects have begun to fade, and a slim majority expect this to happen in less than six months.

However, these expectations vary substantially across Canada. In the figure below, we break down the health impact responses by province, reporting results for all provinces with more than ten survey responses in our COVID-19 survey. In five provinces – Ontario, Manitoba, New Brunswick, British Columbia, and Quebec – more than a quarter of respondents expect the health consequences of the pandemic to persist in their communities for more than a year. Even in the other provinces, where expectations are more optimistic, most expect the consequences to persist for many months.

General Welfare

When it comes to the more general welfare of local residents – mental health, food security, and so on – most CMB respondents expect the effects to persist long after the physical health consequences have faded. In most provinces, at least a fifth of respondents expect these consequences to last for more than a year, and a majority in every province anticipates that the consequences will persist for at least six months.

Municipal Operations

Our survey respondents are especially well informed about the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic on Canadian municipal governments. In the past few weeks, municipal political leaders and researchers have publicly discussed the potentially severe fiscal and other consequences of the pandemic for Canadian municipalities. These concerns are reflected in our survey responses; in every province, a majority of respondents expects the negative consequences to persist for at least six months – and often longer.

The Local Economy

Finally, we turn to the most sobering category of all: expectations regarding the local economy. In every province, at least half of our respondents expect the negative economic consequences of the pandemic to persist for more than a year. In Alberta, where an energy sector price collapse has combined with the COVID-19 pandemic to provoke an especially acute fiscal crisis, a truly overwhelming majority of mayors and councillors – some 86% in total – believe the negative consequences will last for more than a year. Even after the health and welfare consequences of the pandemic have faded, Canadian municipal policymakers are steeling themselves for a long and challenging economic recovery in their communities.

Data and Survey Details

The CMB COVID-19 survey was completed by mayors and councillors in municipalities with populations greater than 9,000 residents between April 3 and April 17, 2020. A total of 551 individuals in 306 municipalities completed the survey, for a response rate of 16%. A complete codebook and data are available here.

Our question on the expected effects of the pandemic was modelled on a question included in the 2020 Michigan Public Policy Survey. The question was worded as follows: “The COVID-19 crisis could have different impacts in different communities. While circumstances can change rapidly, based on what you know today, how much longer do you think any significant negative impacts from COVID-19 will last on… (1) …public health in your community? (2) …economic conditions in your community? (3) …your residents’ welfare (mental health, food security, etc.)? (4) …your municipal government’s operations?” Selection options were: “Less than one month”, “1-3 more months”, 3-6 more months”, “6-12 more months”, “More than a year”, and “Don’t know”. On all four questions, “don’t know” responses were minimal, ranging from less than one percent (impact on economy) to just over three percent (impact on residents’ welfare); these responses have been excluded from the analysis in this report.