This week cities and counties throughout the southeast (SE) begin in earnest to reopen not just their city halls but their business communities as well. Most states in the region have established May 1 to June 1 as critical dates to end their stay-at-home requirements and design the next phase of dealing with COVID-19, which entails reopening their state economic and civic life.
While controversial and debated in the media, most local city officials are complying with the intent of their governors. They are attempting to mitigate the damaging impacts of COVID-19 stay-at-home orders on the local economic vitality of their communities, particularly small retail and manufacturing, which provides their citizens’ livelihoods.
Many SE coastal states like Florida, which are dependent on tourism, have begun to open beaches to ensure statewide economic stability. Private companies, including large car manufacturing plants in the Southeast, such as Honda and BMW, are opening this month, typically by bringing on single shifts.
Officials described this effort, along with earlier federal fiscal economic stimulus, as actions to “dial up” the economic activity and social connectivity of their communities versus a dramatic “switching on.”
Recognizing the complexity of health-related issues, many governors are phasing in statewide reopening, with guidelines as to what components of the local business community should open in distinct phases. Others have given local government managers very little guidance.
Here are seven critical items most local government managers will need to consider in the process of reopening their communities in the southeast and nationwide in the weeks ahead. Each state’s reopening schedule may vary but there are some common best practices to consider.
Plan for the proper oversight.
Reopening community activities and local government facilities may require more planning than the original emergency shutdown itself. Most cities and counties find it helpful to create reopening teams made up of key employees and departments to plan and develop policies on how to phase reopening of both their internal operations and their community services. All jurisdictions will have to diligently obtain and implement COVID testing for employees if and when it is readily available.
SE cities recently discussed the advisability of selecting a single individual as a reopening coordinator to oversee coordination of departmental actions, ensure personal protective equipment (PPE) issuance, and hear feedback or appeals of coworkers concerned with any violations. This task may involve close collaboration with purchasing officials, as supplies of PPE equipment, such as face masks or sanitation supplies, may remain in short supply, particularly in rural areas.
Other cities appointed special employee teams or special local business reopening liaisons in lieu of sending police officers to ensure local business and social separation is implemented. In Pelham, Alabama, the library director and reference librarians are helping to educate businesses and deal with citizen concerns.
Know your community culture.
In the Southeast, where a tradition of conservative and independent thinking exists in local communities, managers say they are regularly facing very assertive small businesses owners understandably desperate to reopen to preserve their livelihood and investment.
Jeff Downes, city manager of Vestavia Hills, Alabama, described a call he received from a concerned citizen reporting that a popsicle street vender was attracting hundreds of children in their neighborhoods with no consideration of social distancing recommendations, which required dispatch of police.
Parks and recreation are another flash point, with concerns such as social distancing in community pools. Managers have described dealing with zealous volunteer athletic league coaches violating athletic facility closure notices or league activities resumption guidelines.
These issues require local government leaders to advise employees on the appropriate manner of response. Few local governments want law enforcement to police restaurant customer separation.
Organize resources for the reopening effort.
Many city halls and county facilities have been closed or are operating with large numbers of employees still working remotely. Reopening is an opportunity to critically examine the onsite workforce necessary to provide current and future service delivery in local government facilities.
For example, some locales have divided workforces into “A” and “B” teams coming in at different times or shifts. Others have used COVID 19 as an opportunity to undertake an assessment of advantages and cost reduction potential of continuing a more remote or telecommuting workforce.
Online inspection and permitting and licensing system are in high demand to assist in the reopening process and protect employees and citizens. Remote training and virtual meetings that have become the norm during this crisis will likely continue at a high level during reopening, as not all employees and citizens feel comfortable returning to facilities and civic functions.
Protection of employees and citizens.
The single most critical issue facing managers is the protection of their own local government employees and citizens while preserving some commonly held expectations of customer service in this COVID 19 era. Personal hygiene, social distancing, and new norms of social greetings will need to be continued during the reopening period.
There are many private business practice to learn from essential businesses that continued operating. These include such practices as monitoring the number and spacing of citizens entering facilities and physical reminders of spacing to ensure social distancing. Signs, soft barricades, and floor taping of confined activity zones are common. Most local governments have installed glass or plexiglass shields between frontline counter staff and customers. Single points of ingress and egress may need to be established.
Jefferson County, Alabama, has instituted the practice of reducing crews to two per vehicle, one in the front seat, one in the back seat and both wearing PPE masks while in transit. Entry into buildings may now need to include health assessments, temperature checks or as in Marietta, Ohio, scheduled appointments with assigned escorts to interior offices.
Dayton Beach, Florida, has used drones to scan entry access points in buildings and other cities in the Southeast have established health stations scanning for temperatures with infrared temperature thermometers monitored remotely by cell phones and laptops. Florida officials have planned how to handle the impacts of COVID 19 guidelines on the operations of emergency shelters as hurricane season approaches.
Sanitation is key to reopening.
In a COVID-19 environment, a critical component of any reopening strategy will depend on a greater reliance on continuous sanitation of the workplace. This requires increased cleaning of hard surfaces in buildings multiple times a day, and will typically require training and expansion of custodial crews assigned to this critical task and automated systems such as hydrostatic sanitation spray stations for hand cleanliness at entry points and around meeting rooms. As in private shopping facilities, doors and handles need disinfection and a major effort is required for playground and recreation equipment.
Employee and customer interfaces need to be redesigned with minimal points of contact, such as reducing physical exchange of paper forms and requiring physical credit card signatures. These efforts are only a part of a community strategy to reduce the risks of infection from COVID 19, but as more people participate in civic activities, sanitation will remain the central consideration and responsibility in public reopening.
Communication and collaboration on reopening plans.
Successful reopening will require additional efforts to communicate with the community and empower leadership within public and private sectors. Reopening will require concentration on the linkages between workplaces, childcare, and schools that must be coordinated to assure the pragmatic and safe reopening of communities.
In Shelby County, Alabama, the Zoom platform has been used for meetings between the local government officials and chamber officials, realtors, and local school officials to coordinate activities, agree on approaches to critical issues, and listen to anxious citizens and assertive business owners. In many places, the reopening of parks, pools, recreational programs, and athletic leagues will be complicated by joint agreements between schools that are closed for the remainder of the academic year.
Remember the ICMA Code of Ethics.
Equity issues need to be considered to ensure reopening benefits the entire community. Controversy over timing of reopening is ripe for debate over the appropriate levels of risks between assuring physical health and economic survival. Dissension between governors and urban political leaders are often exacerbated by rural and urban divisions in legislative districts and political party concentrations in the Southeast.
There is no zero-risk solution in this situation. It is incumbent on our leaders to articulate the best pragmatic solutions and the considerations that have been made in making these difficult decisions. This will help mitigate the danger of negative or one-sided data being used to politically divide communities or spread misinformation about idealized solutions.
It is also critical that police agencies need to establish guidelines on intervention into noncriminal disputes with small businesses in our very disadvantaged minority communities and neighborhoods. This is an important moment for community leaders to unite their communities and honestly define the new normal with unprecedented citizen support and engagement.
Those that travel throughout the Southeast on coastal roads quickly recognize that they often have dangerous drainage ditches or swampy wetlands on both sides of the road. The goal is to stay on the road no matter what, and not go into either ditch. Partisan views on reopening timing can easily have professional managers become partisan gladiators for opposing political factions.
Hopefully, health and economic data, science, and listening to diverse expertise can help keep us on the road to reopen our communities prudently and protect the well-being and security of our employees and citizens. In this critical reopening effort, we will define the new normal for our communities for years to come.