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Obama urges local leaders to "speak the truth" amid coronavirus: "The biggest mistake any us can make in these situations is to misinform"

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President Barack Obama joined leaders from more than 300 cities around the world for a virtual talk hosted by Bloomberg Philanthropies, and in his remarks, the former president highlighted the crucial role mayors have in responding to the coronavirus crisis.

Attendees of the virtual COVID-19 Local Response Initiative included mayors, local leaders, and members of response teams, as well as former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, who also spoke. Mr. Obama urged mayors to build strong, reliable teams of experts, saying, "The more smart people you have around you, and the less embarrassed you are to ask questions, the better your response is going to be."

He also warned against the spread of misinformation during this time. "Speak the truth. Speak it clearly. Speak it with compassion. Speak it with empathy for what folks are going through," Mr. Obama said.

Many mayors and other local and state government officials have had to deal with unprecedented challenges like enforcing social distancing, deciding which businesses to shut down, and supporting struggling hospitals. In some cases, there has also been a disconnect between local and federal officials in the handling of the pandemic. 

Some local officials like San Francisco Mayor London Breed, opted to shut down their cities before the federal government suggested doing so. Breed issued a state of emergency for her city in February, and it became one of the first areas to go into lockdown.

In other cases, however, state officials did not heed federal recommendations. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis resisted issuing a statewide stay-at-home order until last week, even as cases spread across the region.

President Trump said it was up to governors to make these decisions, even though he and his White House Task Force promoted social distancing guidelines as effective measures to slow the spread of the virus. "The governors know what they're doing," the president said during a Coronavirus Task Force briefing on April 3. One of his top medical advisers, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said he didn't understand why all 50 states didn't do so.

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"The more smart people you have around you, and the less embarrassed you are to ask questions, the better your response is going to be," Mr. Obama said during the virtual chat hosted by Bloomberg Philanthropies. Spencer Platt / Getty Images

During the Bloomberg Philanthropies talk, Mr. Obama spoke about the challenges of accurately addressing the public and their needs during this unprecedented time. "The biggest mistake any [of] us can make in these situations is to misinform, particularly when we're requiring people to make sacrifices and take actions that might not be their natural inclination," he said. 

Mr. Obama also thanked Bloomberg, a former 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, for putting the virtual conference together, because "it's making a difference at a time when I know a lot of folks feel isolated. To be able to share information and best practices makes all the difference."

Bloomberg spoke about his hometown of New York, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in America. "Here in New York, we've now lost more New Yorkers to this virus than in the terrorist attacks of 9/11 — and the numbers continue to grow. While we're starting to see ICU admissions stabilize, the city is still losing hundreds of people per day," Bloomberg told the attendees.

"People need to know that you are understanding what they're going through —  and that it's hard. They also need to know that better days are ahead. It won't be tomorrow, or next week, but things will get better —  and they'll get better specifically because of the sacrifices everyone is making today," Bloomberg said. 

Bloomberg Philanthropies has hosted several of these events as a way for global leaders to share advice and inspiration with local officials. Former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have also been guests. 

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