Inside his City Hall office, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey juggled two of the most significant moments of his life.
His wife, Sarah Clarke, was in a medical exam room, waiting for an ultrasound technician to show her one of the first images of the couple’s first child, due in September. Because the facility limited visitors to protect against the coronavirus, Frey had to watch the moment on video.
At the same time, the mayor worked out the final details of an order that would declare a public health emergency in Minneapolis, closing hundreds of businesses and bringing life in the bustling city to a halt.
As Frey signed the order that day, March 16, the image of his child appeared on screen.
“I was trying to think of a more bizarre moment that I’ve had in my life, and I could not think of one,” Frey said. He added later: “It happened at exactly the same time, and having the most consequential act, perhaps, of my professional life in one hand and the most consequential thing of my entire life in the other hand, is something else.”
Nothing has been the same for Frey since that day.
The coronavirus pandemic has forced mayors across the country to quickly redefine their priorities, as they seek to play a supporting role in the public health response, which is largely being led by the states.
Frey ran on a platform promoting broad ideas like boosting affordable housing and reforming the police department. Now, with the city’s budget office predicting the pandemic will deprive Minneapolis of as much as $200 million in revenue, he has scrambled to find ways to cut costs while maintaining basic services like clean water and police protection.
“I think his mayoral style hasn’t been one where he has to sweat the budget, has to sweat these issues,” said David Schultz, a political-science professor at Hamline University. “I think, as a matter of style, he may have to do that. He’s just not going to have the money, not going to have the resources.”
In addition to the new budget constraints and the fresh concerns about public health, Frey has adjusted to the council’s decision to grant him extraordinary powers for a Minneapolis mayor.
When the council agreed to extend the public health emergency indefinitely, it also gave him the ability to make decisions unilaterally that would normally require their blessing.
In the seven weeks that the city has been in a state of emergency, Frey has ordered 11 temporary regulations. He limited bars and restaurants to takeout or delivery. He temporarily waived some licensing fees for businesses. He required temperature checks and limited visitors to nursing homes and similar facilities, the site of many of the city’s 71 deaths to date attributed to COVID-19.
Frey instituted a hiring freeze at the city, with an exception for workers crucial to the COVID-19 response. He authorized emergency purchases for cleaning supplies and protective gear.
The pandemic is unlike any other disaster in recent Minneapolis history. The last two were declared in 2011 after a tornado struck north Minneapolis and in 2007 after the I-35W bridge collapsed.
The dynamics appear different, too, from the response to the influenza pandemic that struck in 1918 and 1919 and killed millions worldwide. Newspaper stories from the time show that the City Council and the local health department made many of the response decisions.
Council President Lisa Bender has repeatedly praised the council and mayor’s office for working together during the emergency.
Council members have mostly gone along with Frey’s new regulations.
Council Member Cam Gordon last month attempted to give council more oversight on exemptions to the hiring freeze. Gordon said he feared that there was too little transparency when exemptions were granted during hiring freezes put in place by past administrations.
The council consulted with city staff members and negotiated a compromise. Bender will also be consulted on exemptions, until the City Council and the mayor pass an updated budget together this summer.
Frey appears to be taking the adjustments in stride. That back-and-forth is “inevitable,” he said, when government is adapting to an emergency.
Frey’s schedule — usually divided into 30-minute increments full of groundbreakings, government meetings and other public appearances — now consists of a litany of phone calls and video conferences.
The transition has been difficult for the extroverted mayor, who gets his energy from interacting with people.
“Being a mayor is fulfilling,” he said. “I also simply love it, and so many of those facets that I love are now reduced to electronic Skype meetings which, needless to say, are totally different.”
When he is not at City Hall, he and Clarke work out of their apartment. His loud voice carries through the walls, giving Clarke a new glimpse into the intensity of his job.
Sometimes, to give his wife some peace and quiet, Frey works on the fire escape or the roof of a nearby building.
Their lunches together or their runs — done separately because they move at different paces — provide some brief mental breaks.
Like the rest of the city, they’ve had to come to grips with the fact that life is no longer how they planned it.
Clarke, a lobbyist, can no longer chase down lawmakers in the hallways of the State Capitol but must instead reach them via phone or e-mail. Her law school classes moved online, and the bar exam is up in the air.
“I guess I just felt pre-pandemic, I was so clever. ‘Oh, I’ll be able to take the July bar, give birth in September, have a productive legislative session.’ I guess I am laughing at my past self thinking life might go according to plan,” she said.
When they discovered they were expecting their first child, Frey and Clarke discussed which schools they could enroll their child in, how to pass along good values and what the climate would be like in 50 years. Now, there are more immediate concerns.
Speaking to the public, Frey has tried to strike a balance between providing stern warnings — telling people that he expects full compliance with the governor’s stay-at-home order — and providing hope.
“There is really nothing normal at all about this new normal,” Frey said during a recent council meeting. “We’re in this and adapting alongside the rest of the world and, yes, this new normal has reshaped Minneapolis, but it does not define us.”