How have city and county managers addressed the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and what strategies were most effective? These after-action issues, lessons learned, and recommendations were reported at ICMA’s Governmental Affairs and Policy Committee on October 16.
1. Move quickly and communicate frequently with residents, businesses, and elected officials.
The City and County of Broomfield, Colorado, started the Broomfield Community COVID-19 Update on February 27, sending as needed until March 10, then daily through June and weekly starting in July. Broomfield launched its Public Health COVID-19 webpage on March 17 and began publishing daily safer-at-home activities on Facebook on March 18. Later, Broomfield mailed all 9,000 residents information on how to stay up-to-date, the mayor launched a podcast, and a new call-in hotline was developed for seniors and others to get updates via phone messages. A chalk-artist created positive and proactive public health messages across the community at popular trails, parks, and open spaces.
Virtual Broomfield town halls began on April 7, later transitioning to virtual council meetings. These meetings kept residents and businesses informed and provided a forum to answer questions.
Once more testing became available, many communities took steps to provide free testing in neighborhoods where there had been high infection rates.
2. Be flexible and creative to adapt services and staffing.
After evaluating business processes in the community development department, Broomfield implemented changes to allow for more virtual services and continues to look for efficiencies. When virtual work had to be implemented and the town of Somerset, Massachusets, had no full-time technology staff, the town hired a local consultant to acquire laptops and equip them with VPN for remote employees.
To reduce operating expenses, Mankato, Minnesota, did not hire seasonal or temporary employees to maintain facilities and parks; the city reassigned its event staff to handle those responsibilities. The events staff also organized volunteers to make and distribute over 50,000 masks. They also organized sanitation for critical care sites serving low income, the homeless, and the elderly. Recognizing the challenges of distance learning and childcare, Mankato worked with schools, the university, and the YMCA to provide capacity for additional learning assistance, as well as childcare support for employees.
Responsive, innovative programming has kept staff and residents engaged during a prolonged crisis. While the library was closed and personal protective equipment was scarce, the Broomfield InventHQ staff began making cloth masks for employees and residents and used a 3-D printer to provide face shields for health care professionals. Later, Broomfield by Appointment offered structured in-person and online services like motor vehicle, marriage licenses, passports, and more city services.
3. Centralize decision-making authority and designate a COVID-19 expert
When the governing body gave the manager the authority to make tough administrative and operational decisions, there was less chaos. It was equally important for the manager to keep the elected leadership fully engaged. Elected officials can serve as a vital daily sounding board on policies. To deal with the immediate challenges of the pandemic, the Somerset, Massachusetts, Board of Selectmen authorized the town administrator to take action on its behalf absent a vote.
Having a designated point of contact for COVID-related issues improves the consistency of communication. The borough of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, relied on a health and safety employee to become expert on the changing guidelines issued by the Center for Disease Control and the Pennsylvania Department of Health. He provided information, conducted inspections, and trained staff.
The borough has had a pandemic response plan in place for 10 years, which included coordination with local churches to provide food for those in need.
4. Be prepared for anything, update, and practice your plans
When the president declared the ongoing pandemic a national emergency on March 13, it was hard to imagine all of the ensuing disasters:
- A severe economic downturn.
- the second most active Atlantic hurricane season in history (so far).
- historic wildfires in Colorado and the Pacific Coast.
- social unrest that unfolded after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
"Don't wait for a crisis to develop the relationships and partnerships you'll need," observed Andrea Arnold, city manager, Decatur, Georgia, at the ICMA UNITE session, Leading in Crisis. "Ten years ago, we developed a pandemic plan for the H1N1 virus that we could adapt."
Local governments that had a pandemic plan and had trained for a range of disasters have been able to respond quickly and robustly. Today, many local governments are preparing for the potential of protests in the aftermath of the presidential election next month.
Cities and counties prepare for disasters by updating their plans, ensuring that staff have regular emergency management training, and practicing tabletop exercises. Local governments have learned the value of training many staff outside of the traditional public safety and public works responders. A wide range of expertise is often needed when disaster strikes. The director of Human Service and Community Vitality in Surprise, Arizona, was immediately tapped to join the Incident Management Team because he had the connections with the community nonprofits, the faith community, senior programs, schools, and after-school programs. He was able to leverage those connections to create a program overnight to provide 12,000 meals to seniors.
Many places updated their continuity of operations plans and adjusted employee work schedules during the pandemic, including Mankato, Minnesota. Establishing rotating staff schedules to protect critical workers and focusing on sanitation, social distancing, and isolation when necessary, has resulted in low infection and exposure rates among employees.
5. Take care of your team and yourself. It’s a marathon.
Recognizing that employee morale and support is needed in a sustained recovery effort, local governments have implemented flexible schedules and are offering extended counseling hours. Childcare has been a major challenge for working parents with many facilities closed, virtual school, and increased costs for those facilities that are operating. Orange County, Virginia, is using CARES Act funds to cover the incremental cost increase that some employees and residents have faced for in the post-COVID environment. The differential funding is paid directly to the childcare provider.
Taking breaks from an intense work schedule, getting enough sleep, exercising, and spending time with friends and family are essential to maintaining wellbeing in this extended disaster recovery reality. The pace of change and the challenges we see affecting our communities and our organizations can be daunting. And yet, this has also been a time when many employees took on new responsibilities and were energized by them.
Many local government managers take pride in the resilience of their team and their community, and rightfully so. Developing and harnessing the talent of our staff, connecting with our community, and strengthening partnerships with others makes it possible to focus on enduring change that matters.