Leading Through a Pandemic and Preparing for the New Normal

Tom Bakaly, CEO of Beach Cities Health District and former city manager, describes how his organization has responded to COVID-19.

By Tom Bakaly, CEO of Beach Cities Health District and former city manager | Apr 10, 2020 | BLOG POST

On January 29, 2020, Beach Cities Health District (BCHD) issued its first COVID-19 alert. Utilizing preventive actions gleaned from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and LA County Department of Public Health (LACDPH), the alert delineated strategies to protect our community against respiratory illness just in case the novel coronavirus began to spread.

It’s been a whirlwind ever since. 

As a Special Service District (5-member elected board) that provides preventive health and wellness programs and services to people who live and work in Southern California’s Beach Cities area – Hermosa Beach, Manhattan Beach, and Redondo Beach – BCHD is responsible for keeping its 123,000 residents informed about and physically connected to all health-related issues. 

I’ve been an ICMA member for more than 25 years, so I’m well aware how important it is to provide solid and dynamic leadership, especially during emergencies and times of change.  We used to think that the “New Normal” was that we needed to now provide services that were good, fast, and cheap, as opposed to getting to pick two.  The "New Normal" is being rewritten for us as we speak, and the health of our community is at the forefront.  So, soon after BCHD’s initial January warning, I challenged key staff members to stay ahead of the curve and to create ways to lead and educate our community if the coronavirus targeted the United States and, heaven forbid, the Beach Cities.

In February, our leadership team designed and implemented a three-pronged approach to continually supply factual data and news about coronavirus to local residents and businesses:

  1. The foremost element was – and continues to be – communication.  We monitor and relay CDC and LACDPH recommendations to residents as well as BCHD-generated information via our newly created webpagesocial mediae-newslettersfact sheets, and videos.
  2. To set an example for the rest of the community, BCHD began conducting routine cleanings and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces in our buildings.
  3. We updated our internal policies – and suggested employers do the same – including telecommuting guidelines, employee sick leave, and evaluating continuity of operations in case movement restrictions became necessary.

In early March, when it seemed we were steaming toward COVID-19 potentially upending our everyday lives, we formally activated our Critical Situations Plan.  This plan was first developed 10 years ago in the aftermath of the H1N1 outbreak.  I also asked the staff to set an example for how to be good citizens in extraordinary times. By mid-March, BCHD evolved into a seven-day-a-week District Operations Center, and our focus switched fulltime to coronavirus operational objectives, such as education and containment of community spread; enhanced testing in the region; creating meaningful opportunities for citizens to volunteer; and providing health and well-being tips for people to stay connected while practicing social distancing. All staff, except some leadership members, began working remotely on March 18, 2020, and BCHD went fully remote five days later.

Turns out we were about a week ahead of business and school closures, so we were able to meet with leaders from our three local cities, schools, and chambers of commerce and we created a unified message around health. Clear, coordinated, and supportive communication is imperative.

For the past 60 years – in generally much quieter times – BCHD has worked to promote health and prevent diseases across the lifespan, most recently helping Beach Cities residents reduce smoking and obesity and improve eating habits as a certified Blue Zones Project® Community. It’s an entirely different job, though, to meet an unprecedented pandemic challenge by shifting resources to become a COVID-19 information source that keeps residents engaged, connected, and, hopefully, healthy. Some specifics created by my wonderfully collaborative BCHD team include:

  • Converting our website into a coronavirus update center, with health strategies, restaurant and grocery store take-out/delivery information, live blogs, and more.
  • Hosting multiple social media posts per day -- a blend of inspiration, news, guidance, resources, and tips.
  • Identifying at-risk older adults in the community. We’re telephoning seniors to “check-in,” to assess if errand assistance or health referrals are warranted and to be a friend. (More than 3,500 calls have been made, including to every member of BCHD’s Center for Health & Fitness, where the average age is 65.) We are now virtual with training and classes happening on a daily basis.
  • Creating 32 hours of video content, including interactive fitness training for virtual participation at home, a “neighbors helping neighbors” segment featuring the mayor of Hermosa Beach, “how to properly deliver groceries to the elderly,” and activity videos for kids – who can’t currently visit our AdventurePlex play facility – to help “get their wiggles out.”
  • Expanding our Assistance, Information and Referral Line to operate daily – including weekends – to connect community members to much-needed resources.
  • Helping alleviate traffic at our jam-packed local hospitals by working to establish a public COVID-19 drive-up testing site in the Beach Cities, as testing kits and supplies become available.

ICMA has always been a valuable resource for helping me think outside the box, to be innovative, and focus on what is next. For the foreseeable future, we will continue to listen to the science and data, update local residents and businesses accordingly, and devise strategies to help the community cope with this pandemic. Then comes a new health care test -- focusing on post-pandemic mental health and recovery, which will be unlike anything we’ve ever experienced.  Unlike most emergency events that have an end to a threat and a recovery, our recovery will be trying to happen while there is still a threat. 

Once businesses open and revenue flows, there’s still going to be a physical and mental health risk for the foreseeable future.  We’ve all been aware of keeping our social distance for so long, will we trust that it’s truly all right to return to our old way of life, including going back to the workplace? Will the general public be afraid to travel, go to movie theatres, restaurants, concerts, and ballgames?

Leaders are going to need a strategic framework to properly deal with this phenomenon. We’ll need to help people manage their stress and provide tools to help. We’ll need to focus on helping people feel connected by understanding we are all in this together.  It will require cities, counties, schools, faith-based organizations, health care professionals, and businesses pulling together to align messages and objectives to help the public recover quickly and safely. It is up to us to lead the way.

For additional information, visit ICMA’s Coronavirus Resource page.

Tom Bakaly will be featured in ICMA's upcoming webinar, Managing Crisis Communications During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Register for the webinar here

Bakaly worked for Park City, Utah, from 1995 to 2012, the last 10 years as city manager. During his tenure, the city hosted numerous 2002 Winter Olympic events (less than five months after 9/11), the annual Sundance Film Festival, and in 2009 reported one of the first cases of N1H1 Swine Flu. In 2012, he became city manager of Hermosa Beach, Calif., before being named CEO for BCHD in November 2016.


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