States on the Take – COVID-19 & Municipal Finance

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Barring a miracle, by Friday, the United States will have more reported coronavirus cases than China. The sanctity, or lack thereof, of China’s data is not a debate for today. Rather, join me in exploring the tremendous strain this national tragedy will have on municipal finances and public pensions, many of which arrive at this juncture in extremely fragile conditions. A brief history of the closest epidemic, the flu of 1918/19 is of great use. 

Dress rehearsals save lives. In 1889, President Benjamin Harrison appointed Dr. Hugo Maximilian von Starkloff as American consul in Bremen, the maritime city spanning the Weser River in northwest Germany. There, the civil war surgeon cum diplomat distinguished himself by preventing the spread of a cholera epidemic that had started in the neighboring town of Hamburg. In his heroic task, he was supported by the legendary Dr. Robert Koch who would go on to receive the 1905 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his groundbreaking work discovering the causative agents of anthrax, cholera and tuberculosis.

The apple did not fall far. Von Starkloff’s son, Dr. Maximillian Carl Starkloff (who dropped the aristocratic ‘von’ from his last name), was first appointed as Health Commissioner of St. Louis in 1895. Starkloff’s DNA shone through with his publication of a pamphlet that same year on how to avoid communicable diseases. But it was Mother Nature who presented his first serious challenge. On May 27, 1896, America’s third deadliest tornado barreled through St. Louis, ripping a mile-wide swath through its core and leaving at least 255 dead and more than 1,000 wounded. It would be hours into the recovery efforts he led at what was left of City Hospital before Starkloff had his own broken right arm set. Years later, the hospital re-opened shuttering the vacant convent he’d converted into a makeshift hospital.

When news first broke in early 1918 of a spike in the incidence of flu in New York and especially after an unseasonal rise in Boston that summer, Starkloff asked that all cases of influenza be reported to his office. He published an article urging locals to seek fresh air but to avoid the sick, crowds, alcohol and fatigue. By the fall, it was in Starkloff’s backyard. On October 1, the first case was reported on Jefferson Barracks Military Post 10 miles south of St. Louis. By October 7th, there were nearly 1,000 cases at Jefferson Barracks leading Starkloff to appeal to a highly resistant Board of Alderman. But he prevailed and within a day, a public health edict had been ordered prohibiting the gathering of 20 or more people and closing theaters, public places and schools.

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Danielle DiMartino Booth is founder and Chief Strategist at Quill Intelligence

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