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The Kansas City Mayor's Biggest Coronavirus Regret? He Wishes We Would Have Masked Up Sooner

Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas talks with attendants at a press conference in early March.
Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas at a press conference in early March.

Mayor Quinton Lucas announced a ban on gatherings of more than 50 people on March 15, 2020. A year later, Lucas says he misses eating out and mourns the loss of small businesses in Kansas City.

It's been a year since Kansas City implemented restrictions on gatherings to limit the spread of the coronavirus — forcing the cancellation of large events like weddings, funerals and other important milestones.

Life has changed a lot since then, with mask-wearing and physical distancing almost second nature. KCUR spoke with Mayor Quinton Lucas to reflect on how this past year has changed Kansas City. Here’s an edited version of the conversation.

Q: What was the moment when you realized that everything would change, that the coronavirus would upend our lives in Kansas City?

A: It was not when we canceled the Big 12 Tournament, it was more when we recognized that we could not do any large events. And so we issued an order that was banning large events, and I started getting a lot of calls from wedding planners and then concerned brides and grooms. And if you want to know an angry group, that is one who said, “Do you mean you're canceling our wedding in April or May?” And the answer was yes. And I recognized that we were fundamentally distorting springtime, summertime traditions — things that families were expecting.

Q: What is one small thing that you've missed the most?

I ate out probably every night of my life for three or four years. I've been running for office for a while. I then got elected. And so you get to know a lot of the waitstaff at different restaurants… It hurts when you hear about a place closing that you grew to love. I think there's a mistake sometimes from those who really hate any type of COVID orders that they say, “Oh, you just revel in shutting down businesses.” But, you know, I miss that because that's been actually more part of my life, perhaps it should have been. I'm not a home-cooked meal guy. I'm somebody who likes to be out in the world.

Q: Looking back at how the city has handled the pandemic over the past year, what's your biggest regret?

A: I wish we would've known about masks earlier. I really do… You know, otherwise, I think Kansas City has actually done fairly well… Kansas City, Missouri, itself has done well compared to peer cities and other cities in this region in having fewer infections per 100,000 and fewer deaths. But 500 plus [deaths] is still too many. And I wish that we could have probably slowed that spread at the beginning with more [information] about masks.

Q: In the middle of the pandemic, you were also responding to protests over police brutality and systemic racism. In a June NPR interview, you were asked if you feel hopeful that the country might head in a better direction. And you said no — saying “America has broken my heart too many times.” Do you still feel like the country will fail to make progress in ensuring Black Americans are given the same opportunities as white Americans?

A: If I'm speaking from the heart now, I will say I continue not to be as optimistic as I would like to be. That doesn't mean that every day I don't try to push policies… But I also see our homicide victims. I also read too many results that show what our long-term systemic inequities have meant on things like, heck, COVID vaccination percentages and our atrocious numbers for particularly our Latinx population compared to white Americans. I continue to have some concerns. It doesn't mean that we won't keep trying, but I think it's important for us to recognize sometimes where we're failing.

Q: A year from now, where do you want to see Kansas City?

A: I still want us to be safer. We have not turned the tide there in the way that we need to… I also hope that we use a lot of this significant stimulus money we're receiving now to help support small businesses.

Q: Your term as mayor ends in 2023, do you plan to complete your full term?

A: You know, as of today I do. I certainly recognize that there are always opportunities that may come up and to the extent that I think that they are for the best interest of either the people of Missouri or the people of Kansas City, actually, always both, then I'll explore or evaluate. But look, I love being mayor even in tough times.

Q: So what does this mean in terms of whether you'll run for the U.S. Senate in 2022? It sounds like you haven't given a clear answer.

A: I think you would be correct. I’ll evaluate if that's something that I think would be helpful to Kansas Citians. And you know, we'll decide that way.

As Kansas City reflects on a year shaped by COVID-19, KCUR is looking back with decision makers whose leadership played a crucial role in the beginning of what we know now as a once-in-a-lifetime crisis.

Aviva Okeson-Haberman was the Missouri government and politics reporter at KCUR 89.3.
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