It Hit Us First: COVID-19 and Your Municipality

The first municipality in Florida to have a confirmed positive case [PM Magazine, May 2020]

By J.C. Jimenez, ICMA-CM | May 1, 2020 | ARTICLE

On March 10, 2020, our town entered the history books of this major global pandemic. We were the first municipality in Florida to have a confirmed positive case of COVID-19.

No one wanted to believe it, at first. In Bay Harbor Islands, a tiny town of just under 7,000, the call came from our HR department. The report was that an employee who works with children and seniors at our community center wasn’t feeling well, and that the worker, a female, was a “presumed positive.”

I didn’t know what that meant. Of course, I had been following the news about the coronavirus: Wuhan, China was closed on January 23, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a global emergency on January 30, the Diamond Princess cruise ship was quarantined February 5, and nation after nation began locking areas down and restricting travel.

Our staffer, who had traveled internationally, hadn’t yet been tested. But the medical information I had was to treat the case as if it were positive. That’s a warning an employer should always take seriously.

I called my mayor and delivered this message: we have to act fast. She drafted a letter declaring a state of emergency, which allows us to more quickly take protective actions.

If you are reading this, and your municipality is fortunate enough to not have had any cases yet, you are exactly in the position I was the day before our case. When that first case comes in, your town, faced with the immediate presence of COVID-19, will face the same kinds of pressures and the same kinds of attitudes that we did. Just like the virus, you are not immune from the realities of crisis management and the emotions they bring.

Count on your phone to explode with calls and texts.

At one point, I couldn’t use my phone because so many incoming text messages were popping up in rapid succession, preventing me from accessing the keyboard screen. Plan to have way of dealing with that. If you have a second line available, it’s a good idea to get it ready.

When I could speak to people, they were often yelling at me. There were calls from businesses, naturally worried about losing customers and revenue. But most troubling were the calls from state officials, who were very critical of our decision, saying we were premature or overreacting. As was clear to us then—and should be clear to everyone now—we were not. The employee’s job put her in contact with a sizeable vulnerable population. Although our demographic has been trending a bit younger, our senior population (those 65 or over) stands at about 16 percent.

As town manager, it was the most challenging moment of my career. I came down on the side of safety. “If I don’t react, and it is something, I’m dead,” I thought to myself. The WHO declared a pandemic on March 11, and confirmation of our case came the next day.

Deliver your message with a personal touch.

People want to hear critical information directly from you, not just via TV or email. We used a technology called a “Telephone Town Hall,” a way to place a call to every phone line in town and invite them to a live, interactive forum. We had about 1,200 people on this call, which is kind of like a radio show delivered over the phone, which is about double our population. We had a representative on the line from the health department to answer questions directly.

Other actions we have taken:

• We set up a call center to handle questions from our elderly, who aren’t always comfortable with email.

• We partnered with local religious organizations to arrange for food (including Kosher meals) to be delivered to residents with immediate needs. We also maintained a list of food delivery services on our website.

• We reached out to three major hotels to help them with Miami-Dade County’s closure order.

Be ready for the questions you can’t answer.

People asked—demanded, even—that we release the name of the employee. They were insistent. We stood firm to protect our staffer’s medical privacy right, and you should, too. As an employer, let your staff and the community know of your commitment to respect your employees’ privacy.

Operationally, we have made adjustments even as our county mayor and governor have issued updated emergency orders. We continue to operate essential functions using our stocks of protective equipment and a six-foot distance.

Like everyone else, we are trying to anticipate needs as we stare into a future that in so many ways becomes more and more unimaginable every passing day.

 

 J.C. JIMENEZ, ICMA-CM, is town manager, Bay Harbor Islands, Florida (jcjimenez@bayharborislands-fl.gov).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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