Torn by advocates hoping to slow the spread of COVID-19 and those hoping to slow the downward spiral of the economy, local governments are placed in the middle with dwindling revenues, trying to hold the fabric of our communities together. As professional managers and administrators, it is our job to help inform policymakers as they determine a path forward. We must offer solutions to help maintain the public health of the residents while also creating opportunities for economic and social stability. Additionally, we must establish a culture and workplace environment where our public servant staff members are valued and respected.

Unfortunately, there is no blueprint for professional city, county, and town managers to follow. The reality is that every decision we make will have unknown impacts on the well-being of the people we serve—physically, emotionally, and financially. What we must do during this time is learn from each other, monitor the results of the actions we take, and work together to lead our communities through this difficult time.

What We Know

Social distancing is working to slow the spread of the disease. For some communities, the lack of resources for adequate testing and contact tracing to reduce the spread of the coronavirus makes social distancing the only viable tool to slow the spread. And while strict social distancing measures urged by the CDC have successfully flattened the curve in terms of the spread of the disease, it has also resulted in the highest recorded monthly job loss in U.S. history.1

The job loss, economic impact, and social impact in our communities has created demand for more relaxed social distancing measures. Yet, the federal guidelines to determine when to begin relaxing restrictions continue to be out of reach for most states.2 At the local level, there is a wide variance in how specific communities have been affected by the virus and by the resulting economic impacts. And so, local governments are working with their states to develop reopening guidelines that test different tactics to see what may work to stimulate economic recovery while minimizing further spread of COVID-19.

As businesses continue to open and residents are able to engage in more activities outside of their homes, research from the University of Maryland shows that loosening stay-at-home orders significantly reduces the likelihood of people following social distancing practices.3 The more activities people are permitted to engage in, the less diligent in following social distancing practices they become.

Outbreaks are likely in workplaces where employees are in close proximity. This has been a significant issue in the food production industry as food processing plants nationwide continue to flare up as COVID-19 hotspots.4 We also know that downtown office buildings are highly susceptible to spreading the disease. With commuters traveling from different locations, individuals placed in close proximity in elevators and meeting rooms, and the number of surfaces that are touched (from door handles, shared restrooms, even the company coffee machine), the spread can occur quickly if we are not diligent about maintaining personal hygiene and implementing social distancing policies.

What We Must Do

Ultimately, we need to make certain that we provide clear guidance and policies that follow federal guidelines to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, while at the same time being creative and flexible to allow innovative solutions to take hold. For example, cities from Vilnius, Lithuania, to Ashland, Virginia, have been closing streets to create open-air shopping and dining areas that can safely accommodate social distancing. This can help ease concerns from residents, while allowing retailers and restaurants to increase foot traffic.

When it comes to how to manage the reopening of businesses, churches, community amenities, and other facilities, local governments need to lead by example. We need to establish guidelines for screening employees and patrons. We need to make these guidelines part of our community-wide reopening efforts. We need to meet with all sectors to identify potential solutions for safe reopenings. We need to partner with local nonprofits and bring their resources to the table to support the community in ways that government cannot on its own—particularly given the significant reductions in revenue we have experienced and the further reductions we anticipate.

We needn’t create policies and guidelines from scratch. We are all facing similar challenges. We all need to restart our communities safely. We all need to find ways to protect our most vulnerable populations. We all need to figure out a way to provide health screening and protection to underinsured workers, who are at greater risk of serious health complications if exposed to the coronavirus. The challenge ahead is great, but together, we can ease the burden.

ICMA Connect is proving to be an invaluable resource to learn from others. Continue to use ICMA Connect to describe how you are managing the crisis in your community. Provide content that we can share with our members around the world and we’ll keep creating resources for that reflect these best practices. And in September, we will be able to Unite with our members around the world—through the ICMA Annual Conference, which will be a digital experience like no other.

We are all in this together. There is no one right decision, only difficult ones ahead. Proper planning, listening to our residents and businesses, and learning from each other is the only way we will succeed in moving through this trial-and-error phase of reopening our communities.

MARC OTT is executive director of the International City/County Management Association (ICMA).


Endnotes and Resources



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