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Chiefs' COVID-19 handling ‘will be a model' for the rest of U.S.: Kansas City Mayor

Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas joins Yahoo Finance’s Zack Guzman to discuss the decision to allow a limited number of fans at the NFL opener tonight.

Video Transcript

- Today is a very big Thursday, especially for people out there like me who have been awaiting the return of the NFL season. It kicks off tonight, when the Super Bowl defending champions Kansas City Chiefs hosts the Houston Texans. And interestingly, unlike other sports leagues, the NFL is going to be having something in that stadium that most others did not. That would be fans. And Arrowhead Stadium we'll be welcoming up to 16,000 fans, as that the Kansas City Chiefs are one of five NFL teams that have opened up.

The idea of hosting fans despite fears of coronavirus and what hosting that many people inside a stadium might lead to, we chatted with a former White House doctor earlier in the week, Dr. Jennifer Peña for her thoughts. And what a decision like this might mean. Despite the fact that a lot of safeguards have been put in place, I want to play what she told us earlier this week. Take a listen.

JENNIFER PENA: It's hard to believe that with, with opening up the season, even in a limited capacity as they're planning to do, that we're not going to see an uptick in cases. And it would be tragic. And so I would have to say I, I disagree with that decision.

- So those are the fears, but officials there in Kansas City say they consulted with health officials and got the green light. The team choosing to set occupancy levels at Arrowhead and about 22% what normal capacity would be, a marked decrease from all the fans that would be there in a normal year for the season kickoff. And here to discuss that decision with us, as well as everything else that's going on in Kansas City right now, is the mayor of Kansas City.

Mayor Quinton Lucas joins the show once again. And Mayor Lucas, look, I mean I'm a football fan too, I would probably want to be in a stadium here to see my team play on a season kickoff. But talk to me about what went into this decision and why you feel that it's safe for people in your town to be going to the game now.

QUINTON LUCAS: Well, we first of all, as you noted, listened to medical advice. This wasn't just the Kansas City Health Department. We worked with doctors at a local hospital, we worked with the NFL, the Chief's physician, and so many others who were part of the process. And there were a few things that we were looking at. One, as you may or may not know, Arrowhead Stadium is a large, cavernous, about 80,000 seat stadium. So we're able to keep social distancing, we're able to keep people outside, and we're able to make sure that people weren't interacting in close spaces and not touching surfaces.

So everything about the experience will be different than if you went to a game recently at Madison Square Garden or anywhere else, right? You'll have that level of spacing, you will have less contact frankly with others, you'll have people that are staying in smaller groups. And we think going through those steps in the same way that you've seen a return to things like air travel, or return to things like school in some places in our country. We think that it's appropriate. And frankly I think that it's largely safer than a lot of the other areas of life, restaurant eating, and so many others that have reopened. Not just in Kansas City but elsewhere in the country.

- Yeah and it might be safer. I mean, especially as you put these things in place, have fans wear masks only to take them off for when they're eating or drinking. Which might be a while at these games. But when you talk about the data that's going into it, and this is kind of what Dr. Peña raised with us, is you look at things trending in the right direction.

In Kansas City specifically in terms of case count, that's dropped over the last few weeks. But the state as a whole has seen it move up. And you also have a pretty high positivity rate about nine times what we have here, under 1% percent, in New York City. And even here we're not going to get indoor dining back until the end of the month. So I mean, these things aren't made, these decisions aren't made, as you know, without risks here. So I guess, what are you hoping for in terms of watching the case counts? Because I'm sure you guys had discussed that it's not inevitable here that you might see a tick higher.

QUINTON LUCAS: Well, first of all, we think that our protections, much like wearing a mask, is to actually make sure that we're not seeing further spread. So I agree with the doctor's perspective in the sense that, if you have that number of people, then you are likely to have someone who has been infected by COVID-19 that may come into the stadium. That said, alright, if people keep their distancing, if they have their masks, if they go through all of the safeguards that we've established in Kansas City, then we're not likely to see further spread.

One point that I will make distinguishing Kansas City, which is in Missouri, from the state of Missouri and the state of Kansas, which we border, is that, yeah, you're seeing that mask rules work. In this part of the country, I know it may be hard to believe for New Yorkers, but you know, there are people that are very angry about even wearing masks. They are very angry about any restrictions at all.

And I think the reason that you've seen some of those high case counts, particularly and increasingly in rural America in places like college towns and states like Iowa which is nearby, is the fact that they're not following some of the same guidance that we have. Kansas City, as we've reopened, we've always looked to say, how can we reopen safely?

I think we've been able to do that, and in a way that interacts well, even having other jurisdictions that don't have the same rules. So no, I'm, I'm not dramatically concerned that we'll get that many more cases out of Arrowhead Stadium. I think the protections should work, but it's something that we'll continue to look at each week.

- Yeah, but I mean, like kind of just to push further. I mean, it kind of sounds like you're saying that you might be seeing a rise in Kansas or Missouri because people aren't following those guidelines that are out there to protect them. But even in opening up this stadium, it's suggested that people wear masks outside and tailgating. Which would still be allowed to happen in pods and socially distanced.

But if those are the rules. I mean, we've all been at a tailgate. If someone's cooking something better on the tailgate next to you, you might want to go over and talk to them. I mean, these things seem inevitable. So if you're, if you're admitting that maybe some people aren't following the guidelines, is it not dangerous to allow them back into a crowded stadium where you're talking about, there might be someone with COVID?

QUINTON LUCAS: So I get the concern, I would say a few things. First of all, you know, we're really kind of, and it seems odd because this does seem like a high number of people. You know, there really won't be crowds in the same way at the stadium. You're going to continue to have significant distance.

Part of the reason that we get to a weird number, like 22% which some have pushed back at us on, is because that actually is the measurement of what you need to have. Aisles, pardon me, rows between people. You have social distancing between your different pod groups.

You will see if you watch tonight, and I hope you do, right? Lots of little pockets of people throughout the stadium but none of which are supposed to be together. The next thing you're going to see is the Chiefs and others helping to enforce our rules at the tailgates. Suggest to people that you can lose your season tickets, which people care a lot about, if you actually violate some of the rules.

So look, we can never get perfection. That's the same metric that any mayor and any governor has had when talking about opening schools, opening restaurants, in some jurisdictions opening bars. Something that we've seen in other areas. And I know that from my friends in New York, having seen that although there's outdoor dining, you've seen some kind of closeness in spaces. There will always be challenges but we're trying to say, how can we make responsible steps to get us to the next phase of our recovery from COVID-19? I think with a doctor's help, with so many others we're able to do that here in Kansas City. And, you know, I think it'll be a model for the rest of the country.

- Well, I don't know if losing your season tickets is always a good thing. I mean, as a Bears fan I would welcome that very quickly. You guys won the Super Bowl so I understand where you're coming from. But last question here too, Mayor Lucas. I mean, when we talk about this, this isn't in a vacuum. This decision is being made, obviously there are economic consequences to deal with here as well.

Your city dealing with it just as all other cities across the US are. I mean, when we think about budget cuts necessary to be made here, and what more should be done at a federal level. We had this discussion last time you were on. Not much has changed in terms of support for a lot of these cities out there. How are you grappling with this when you weigh the economic consequences of tax revenues falling, the economy slowing here? What looks like it in small towns and larger towns here in Kansas City in terms of these decisions being made?

QUINTON LUCAS: Yeah, it continues to be a significant challenge. I think when we talked weeks ago there was some conversation about police budgeting and all of that. And something I've said too, both people who want defunding of the police and those who vehemently oppose it, is that more than political decisions that are being made? Really just the numbers that we have coming in will make a real difference on how we fund not only police but fire, public works, parks et cetera.

There is going to be, without an intervention from Washington-- if there is not an intervention from Washington, American cities large and small are going to have trouble with service delivery. Are going to have a trouble with providing constituent services. Are going to have trouble for years, not just next year, but the years to follow.

And making sure we can employ the folks who work for our city. And I would say this. You talk about stimuli that are a potential to keep American workers at work. There is nothing to me that's more important than keeping our thousands of city employees.

In Kansas City we have 7,000. We're a city of about 505,000 people. So you go bigger cities, you have a larger number. These are people that are supporting families, they're the backbone of our economy and it's going to be a big challenge. So in Kansas City right now, we're expecting about an 11% budget reduction that will hit every department across the board. And we're going to try to do what we can in cost savings but we really could use help from Washington, particularly if you're looking at infrastructure, spending, et cetera. To make sure that we're having real investments long term.