What’s it like to be a front-line government official in the COVID era? The mayor of Hattiesburg, Miss., talks candidly about dealing “with some really awful moments,” as he navigates a pandemic, an economic meltdown and racial tensions.
It’s never been easy to be a mayor. Lyndon Johnson once reflected that when he felt overburdened by his job as president, he reminded himself it could be worse. “I could be a mayor,” he joked.
The job might be harder than ever for the men and women currently serving as mayors in American cities. They are swimming against a tsunami set in motion by a historic public health emergency, a severe economic downturn and the unleashing of tension and resentment built up over centuries of systemic racism.
Toby Barker, the mayor of Hattiesburg, Miss., is a student of history. He acknowledges that there’s no playbook for his town’s current situation. “I think you have to become familiar with existing in the uncomfortable,” he says.
Each day begins with waiting for the latest data on infection rates and hospitalization. “Most days, that’s not a fun process,” says Barker. “We’ve dealt with some really awful moments.”
The city of Hattiesburg, population 46,000, has been hit hard by the pandemic. Low points to date include the loss of a city employee to COVID-19 and forced reductions in the city workforce due to revenue shortfalls. Two senior staff are currently out with COVID, and the mayor’s own son was tested for contagion.
“That was pretty rough,” he says. “Luckily it was negative, but it all became very personal.”
The city is also facing a lawsuit from an indoor recreation facility, a high-risk business that was shut down in compliance with an executive order from the governor.
“The pandemic is really messy,” the mayor says. The big challenge is working out what it will take for his city and its residents to be better off on the other side of it.
First with Masks in Mississippi
Before becoming the mayor of Hattiesburg, Barker was a member of the Mississippi House of Representatives for 10 years and served on public health and Medicaid committees.
“They gave me some really stark reality on what they were facing,” says Barker. “As a community that was maybe a month or two behind them, we were able to use this insight into what might be coming to make some preparations.”
One graduate school cohort helped the city acquire PPE, preventing a shortage before peak demand. “I've been very fortunate to have resources to lean on,” says Barker.
Mississippi did not have statewide mask mandate until August, though Gov. Tate Reeves did order residents in some counties to wear them in July. Barker issued mask orders to Hattiesburg residents in April, beginning with employees at essential businesses allowed to remain open at that time.
“We were probably the first city in the state to issue mask orders and stick with them,” he says. As has happened in cities across the country, some residents objected. This subsided over time, and Barker thinks that the early start may have helped ease acceptance of mask wearing.
The mayor and his public health team have continued to communicate with officials in other towns and monitored their approach to COVID policy. He worked with the local library to learn what he could do about how the city dealt with the Spanish flu in 1918, finding newspaper accounts of school and business closures.
“I saw the resolve from our city a century ago,” he says, “We can summon that again."
In place of press conferences, Mayor Barker briefs citizens through Facebook Live broadcasts, scheduling them just before late night news. (Photo: Samantha McCain/City of Hattiesburg)
Boosting the Use of Technology
Video meetings aren’t new, but the pandemic has forced families, businesses and government to explore their potential. In April, Zoom reported use of its platform since December increased from 10 million meeting participants a day to more than 300 million.
Mayor Barker made his first Zoom appearance in the early days of the pandemic, joining a lunchtime meeting of young professionals to provide a keynote speech about the impact of the 2020 Census.
Online video meetings and briefings are now the norm. His cabinet hasn’t met in person since March. There’s a weekly stakeholder meeting with city and county officials, health-care providers, school districts, local universities and emergency response managers. Recently, residents learned about a new sewer project via Zoom.
The mayor provides regular pandemic briefings to citizens using Facebook Live, with updates on metrics, such as the rate of new cases, ICU utilization and hospitalization. Each briefing reiterates three goals that guide the city’s efforts: protecting vulnerable populations, preventing overrun in the health-care system and prioritizing public health while giving the private-sector space to operate creatively.
“How people interpret the information can be very different, but we just try to be transparent and put it out there,” says Barker. “If you can just ignore the comments, it’s usually a beneficial time for the public. This has been a learning curve, but it’s something that needed to happen anyway,” he says.
Black Lives Matter protestors followed a historic route used in 1964 during a Freedom Summer march for voting rights. (Photo: Samantha McCain/City of Hattiesburg)
A Legacy of Activism
In 1964, hundreds of volunteers came to Mississippi for Freedom Summer, a voter registration campaign to overcome discrimination and intimidation of Black citizens. Hattiesburg resident Vernon Dahmer, president of the Forrest County chapter of the NAACP, organized the largest Freedom Summer Project in the state. In 1966, his home was firebombed by members of the Ku Klux Klan and he died from burns and smoke inhalation.
A street and a park in Hattiesburg are named in Dahmer’s honor. In December 2019, a statue of him was installed in a new plaza at the county courthouse that recognizes him and other civil rights leaders.
More than half of Hattiesburg residents are Black, and the death of George Floyd hit hard. Dahmer’s legacy was reflected in dozens of peaceful Black Lives Matter protests.
“Marching for a cause greater than yourself is built into fabric of many in our community,” says Barker. “One protest took the same route as a 1964 Freedom Summer march to the courthouse.”
Calls to confront systemic racism added heat to a long-standing controversy about the Mississippi state flag, which incorporates the Confederate battle flag. In July, the governor signed a bill to remove the Confederate emblem from flag, and ordered it to be taken down at state buildings within 15 days.
Hattiesburg was prepared; the flag had not flown on city buildings, or the campus of Southern Mississippi University, since 2015.
Police recruits take part in an conversation about diversity, empathy and cultural sensitivity with the mayor (front center) and Eddie Holloway (front right) of The University of Southern Mississippi. (Photo: Samantha McCain/City of Hattiesburg)
A Different Conversation Around Policing
This summer, protestors in cities throughout the country, with support from allies in the nonprofit, academic and public sectors, have called for police departments to be defunded. To some, this means investing more in new approaches to public safety; to others, it means eliminating police altogether.
Barker says that his community’s relationship with the police changed in 2015, when two officers were killed during a traffic stop. It was the first time any officer had been killed since 1984.
This had the effect of rallying the community around the police department and the families of the officers, despite the national rise of Black Lives Matter protests at the time. “We were still reeling,” he says, “It’s very fresh for us still.”
Hattiesburg is not contemplating defunding, and Barker says there have been no “credible calls” to do so from the community. Instead, it is investing in things that it believes will help officers do their jobs better. The police department has a longer training program than others in the state, pays better and has agreements with local universities to allow officers to attend college at no cost. Some officers have been certified in crisis intervention.
In recent months, city officials have been talking with officers and the community about establishing a community review board. The ultimate outcome of these discussions will be subject to what state law allows.
‘These are proactive conversations,” says Barker. “It’s very much possible we will be able to support and encourage our police while pushing the department to engage with the public.”
Mayor Barker and Councilman Jeffrey George (left) count supplies in preparation for a mask distribution event. (Photo: Samantha McCain/City of Hattiesburg)
Hattiesburg is at the center of a large metropolitan area, and Mississippians from more than a dozen counties come there to work or shop. For now, restaurants operate at 50 percent capacity, and retail businesses are open, but are encouraged to limit occupancy.
Barker is “mostly satisfied” at the public’s willingness to endure small inconveniences to safeguard public health. He recognizes that people are frustrated, in various stages of grief, and unsure how long their lives will continue to be disrupted.
Still, at times it’s necessary to deal with dissent from those determined to fend for themselves. “I ask them to name people in their own lives that they might be willing to sacrifice in a futile attempt to get back to the way things were in February,” he says. “That helps.”
Barker is also working with community leaders to roll out a business-led mask campaign to increase usage and to prepare citizens for the possibility that restrictions could continue into the fall and winter.
The city relies heavily on sales tax, and Barker finds himself holding his breath each month as he waits for the latest report. A military base, two hospitals, two universities and a strong manufacturing base have helped provide some stability, but even so he’s had to let 22 full-time and six part-time city workers go.
“The city had a number of fiscal challenges that pre-dated COVID-19,” he says. "This forces us to deal them faster, and affects every facet of how we do work.”
Mayor Barker returns to City Hall with City Clerk Kermas Eaton. (Photo: Samantha McCain/City of Hattiesburg)
Forecasting School and Health Care Concerns
As Hattiesburg negotiates current challenges, it also has to look ahead. One of the most immediate problems facing the city is what to do about school reopening. Each district is grappling with its own plans.
“A lot of social damage can be done if we don’t have something for our kids to do, but I don’t think anyone can say with any degree of certainty that it’s safe to put 20 or 30 third-graders in a room together,” he says. “A lot of people are hoping that some hybrid model of traditional and virtual learning can work.”
More than 90 percent of public-school students in the city receive free or reduced lunch. Not only could they be undernourished if they can’t come to school, they are not likely to have the technological resources to attend school from home.
“Whatever the plan is now, it will be totally obsolete three days from now,” says Barker. “As we work through these things, I hope people will recognize our teachers and educational leaders as heroes in the same way they have embraced our health-care workers.”
Another issue that looms large is the potential for Hattiesburg’s hospitals to become overwhelmed if COVID cases surge. So far, they are at normal capacity, but there’s no reason to be complacent.
“It won’t be just our city that overwhelms the health system,” says Barker. “We serve 15 to 20 counties, and I believe this issue has to be addressed at least regionally, if not statewide.”
It can be hard for government to pivot when needs and resources are constantly shifting, but Hattiesburg has experience with resilience. It’s been visited by Katrina, tornadoes and floods.
“This is a very different storm, because it’s not a one-event kind of thing where three weeks later you’re back to normal,” says Barker. “The thing I worry about is knowing that we may be in this for another year.”
As his community faces the overwhelming and the unknown, Barker is convinced that healing can come from sharing even the smallest steps forward – a road paved, a sidewalk repaired, a new mural. “When I do my regular briefing, it thrills me to have some non-COVID news to share,” he says. “These things matter to people right now.”
Barker also finds encouragement in the work that colleagues in other states are doing and from words of support that come when he least expects them, from citizens who send text messages or who stop him while he’s walking his dog. “We believe that this season will pass and that every dream that we have for our city is still very much possible,” he says. “I just want everybody to be OK.”