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Enabling new ways of using urban pubic space during the COVID-19 pandemic

Shortly after the spring COVID-19 lockdown, my neighborhood in Washington DC resembled a ghost town.

Bars, restaurants, and other retail stores started shutting down, while businesses, government offices, public libraries, schools, and parks were temporarily closed.

At night it was eerie. The silence was punctuated by occasional sounds of ambulances or fire truck sirens taking the next unfortunate person to the emergency room of the closest hospital.

Now that we know more about the corona virus, and how it is spread, many jurisdictions, business owners, educational institutions, and government offices have adjusted the manner by which they provide services to their customers, enable their employees to work, and students to learn. In general, over time these policies and practices have become more rational and less knee jerk in nature.

Most city parks and services have reopened but with restrictions. Signs prominently posted on the entrance to retail stores and other “third spaces” (semi-private locations), requiring customers to wear masks, and recommending that people social distance (not that everyone reads them or follows the directives), proliferate.

Most businesses, complying with recently passed city ordinances, are limiting the number of people who can be inside, and either setting up places where hand sanitizer is easily accessible or dispensing hand sanitizer upon entrance. Some urban public spaces like subway systems, and train stations have redoubled their efforts to clean surfaces, though much of this activity is simply hygiene theatre.

Many bars and restaurants (and retail stores) that survived appear to have done so by switching to take out orders through contactless on-line delivery, or curbside pick-up. Some eating establishments have even taken over nearby street parking spaces or parking lots to enable outdoor seating where social distancing is encouraged. Some jurisdictions have enabled pedestrian traffic by decreasing the speed limits on city streets, or closed down streets to encourage people to walk on the streets.

Still more needs to be done. As less people take public transportation for fear of contracting the virus, more creative solutions should be made for transportation, with a greater emphasis on pedestrian traffic and bike mobility. Where possible more roads should be closed to vehicular traffic and converted to pedestrian malls. More bike lanes should be constructed to enable cyclists to use them. Jurisdictions should be encouraged to give, or continue to give grants and interest free loans to small businesses to retrofit their business to operate in these times.

The future is now. In addition to implementing practices that will enable public space to be opened in a safe manner, we need to develop metrics to determine which ones work, including how these changes to our urban public space affect the constituent bodies that use them, and attempt to maintain them if they work for urban dwellers.

Trump gets COVID-19 and the world goes crazy

This past week we learned that not only did Hope Hicks, President Donald Trump’s former trusted advisor contract COVID-19, but so did Trump and many of the people whom he closely associated with during a recent Rose Garden ceremony.

Predictably lots of people from the drunk at the end of the bar, to the army of pundits appearing on our major cable networks are talking about this situation.

Some are scolding Trump about his failure to seriously heed the advice of trusted medical professionals about preventing the transmission of COVID-19 including downplaying and mocking the evidence about the virus, and mask wearing. Others have joined the chorus of people who are basically saying that he got what was coming to him.

Then there have been a succession of scenarios spun about when, where, and to whom he has spread the virus.

Numerous predictions are floating around about the veracity of all these claims, and if true what this means for the near term. Some pundits like Michael Moore, have taken the conspiracy theory route, and have suggested that Trump’s contracting COVID-19 is just a ruse, a sort of October Surprise, and it was designed all along to create sympathy from selected members of the American public that will assist Trump win the election. Others have suggested that Trump’s contracting of COVID-19, is a way for him to save face if he loses the election.

In the background questions have been raised about what happens if Trump is incapacitated and Pence becomes the president? Will the Republicans temporarily hault their attempts to get Judge Amy Barrett installed to replace the vacancy left by Ruth Bader Ginsberg?

So what? What does this all mean? Have we really gotten closer to the truth? Probably not.

We are a news and gossip obsessed nation, suffering from collective attention deficit disorder, waiting for and hanging on to every small tidbit or morsel of information selectively released and creatively spun by those with vested interests or nothing else plausible to say.

Unless you work for the White House, and want to know whether to come into work tomorrow, all this speculation, like sports talk about the likelihood of a team winning the next big game, is one big distraction.

This distraction prevents us from doing our work, meaningful pursuits such as attending to and spending time with our loved ones, and following our goals and our passions. Whatever happens to Trump will have consequences for our country, but in the short term, in the day to day living we must do, is will have little effect on the progress we make on working towards our goals. And thus, we must put Trumps’ current bout with COVID-19 into perspective, see it as another distraction, and move forward with more meaningful work including but not limited to putting into putting in to place and ensuring a better and stronger democracy.

Why must our elected leaders remain in office after they lose an election?

This past week the American public, no less the world, learned that President Donald Trump, stated clearly and repeatedly that he would not commit to peaceful transition of power unless he wins the upcoming election. He argued that if he loses, the election was fraudulent. And if he wins, it wasn’t. This hardly came as shock to all of us who’ve been observing over the past 3-and- a-half years one of, if not the most, erratic and unprepared contemporary political leaders of the free world.

Pundits are spinning out various scenarios, including violence on the streets, and how Trump, his supporters, and enablers might frustrate the transition if he loses. But whether he leaves peacefully or not, we can’t lose sight of the fact that he may continue do as much damage to liberal policies and practices as possible and will try very hard to push through a GOP agenda that includes rolling back measures to improve accessibility to health care, police reform, protecting the environment.

While Trump tries to erode our democracy by casting doubts in the most essential democratic principle – the right to vote, the United States has been fighting a pandemic (more than 7,168,077 infections and more than 205,372 since January 21, 2020) and an 8.4 percent unemployment. Trump has been unable or unwilling to devise and coordinate a national strategy to battle COVID-19.

With so much at stake, not just our economic power but the lives of our citizens, one has to ask why can’t incumbent presidents simply leave their position after the election is decided?

Does the public seriously believe that candidates running for election haven’t put any thought into what their cabinet or executive might look like? Do they really need two months or so in the case of presidential elections to finally take this task as seriously?

Although some critics suggest that we don’t want to make government look more like the private sector, maybe in the case of political transitions this can be an exception. In the private sector when people are fired the boss either calls them at home and tells them not to go to work tomorrow, or the director of human relations, or their immediate subordinate walk into the persons office (sometimes with a security guard) and they are escorted out of the building.

Why does this happen? It’s because we worry that the person will do something to sabotage the workplace, or they will steal so-called company secrets.

In the case of presidential transition of power, we should consider either having elections in early January or shortening the official presidential term to three years ten months (my preference). The Nov 3 to Jan 20 period is a huge transition time and in the hands of this president (even if he were to leave peacefully) this period of time will give him plenty of time to cause more harm to the country and its citizens.

Maybe this lengthy transition period was appropriate back in 1789 when communication and transportation processes operated at glacial speed, compared to now. But today, due to innumerable advances in technology, could we not carry out a transition in a week or two?

This brings us to Trump and the American presidency, members of Congress. The way we used to do things doesn’t have to be the way we continue to do things. Maybe we will not solve this quandary in this election cycle, but it should be something that the American public should consider in the future. If Biden wins and everything settles, Trump should leave as soon as possible.