From the Front Line: Running A City During the COVID-19 Pandemic
A first person account by Temecula City Manager Aaron Adams
When I wake up tomorrow, this will have been a bad dream or probably more accurately described, a horrible nightmare. I’m sure many of you shared this same hope as we watched businesses worldwide begin to close, people across the nation getting sick and dying, and rampant job loss and unemployment. The severity and magnitude of this situation hit closer to home as the great State of California inserted stay-at-home orders in mid-March. Yes, this really is happening and makes for a very interesting time in history to be a city manager or affiliated with any form of government. City management is a difficult profession in “good times;” a global pandemic puts this profession into a whole new realm. If we did not feel like we were in the “eye of the hurricane,” this would be a fascinating case study for all the public policy and local government wonks. Maybe later.
So as the restriction orders became a daily occurrence in the midst of a global pandemic, it required municipal leadership to be as nimble and flexible as possible. We began by closing facilities, followed by canceling and postponing events as both of these were required to address the congregation order. In doing so, you eliminate responsibilities for a good percentage of the workforce. And the questions mount. Where do they go? Can they be reassigned as disaster service personnel? Can they telework? How long do you responsibly compensate? How long will this last?
In the midst of making multiple operational adjustments, it became clear we too, must join the federal, state and county governments, and sign a local Declaration of Emergency, a first for me (as a 25-year local government employee), which I signed on March 17, 2020. The Declaration was then ratified at a virtual City Council meeting on March 24, 2020. The execution of this document positioned the City of Temecula for possible reimbursement from the state and federal government, while delegating full authority to me as city manager to sign all agreements, documents, and procurements needed in times of an emergency, maintain authority over required staffing, and make necessary operational adjustments in these unprecedented times.
Following this step, it was necessary to activate our emergency operations center (EOC). We began early in a “management watch” but shortly into the crisis escalated to a Level 3. Within EOC efforts, we identified three primary objectives for the situation: Public Information, Organizational (continuity of government services), and Recovery (federal/state financial relief and stimulus legislation). Interestingly, under such a disaster, you cannot fill an EOC with your key city staff meeting often and in person, so the new normal became standing up a “virtual EOC.” I remain grateful that our city has invested wisely in technology platforms over the years and has had a laser-focused vision on e-government services. This priority in technology has served us well before, but particularly now as we were required to close the doors of City Hall to the public, and pivot to running a city virtually. This exercise occurred in less than 48 hours and required the commitment from so many dedicated professionals, and a will to accept a rapidly changing, unconventional workplace environment from our employees. I am very proud of them and have appreciated the mutual working relationship with our labor union during these times of unprecedented nature.
Orders continue to change. We respond. Remember, it’s important to be nimble and flexible in a global pandemic. This occurs seemingly daily, in trying to keep up with what we need to do, how we enforce the newest and most commonly used phrase of “social/physical distancing,” and what reasonable expectations we put forth to our citizens. As the world changes and orders come down, and then quickly change again, we, at the lowest level of government, scramble to understand and convey meaning to the residents and businesses we serve. Whistle-blowing on neighbors and businesses out of current compliance becomes a popular pastime, as many have time on their hands and fear and anxiety begin driving behavior.
We recognized at the beginning of this pandemic that public information dissemination was going to be critical to project calm, provide facts against rumor, and share and clarify what the rules were for our community. Fortunately, we have deployed many varied forms of public information, which include daily updates on our social media platforms Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. We created dedicated COVID-19 information web pages that are continually populated with the most important and current content, made easy to find on the city’s website. We continue to upload new and evolving content to our local Educational Government (EG)
television channel that plays 24/7. We developed a COVID-19 app to assist folks in reporting and communicating with the City, and set up a hotline and dedicated email to help our citizens understand our recovery efforts. We also lit up City Hall red, white, and blue as a symbol of hope for our city and country, and respect to our front line workers; and have created a “Temecula Revive” website to help restart our local economy as restrictions are rescinded.
Not all forms of communication involve technology. We are also publishing full-page ads, designed to be educational, in local newspapers to help redirect our community to appropriate resources. We are drafting numerous press releases for all media. We commandeered message boards from Public Works (commonly used for road work) and reprogrammed them with the message “Stop COVID-19, Stay Home,”
to be revised with a new message as California’s stay-at-home orders are modified and lifted.
But how do you reach the maximum amount of people with your important messages? We chose to fall back on the tools and technology in which we have invested, including e-blasts and citywide telephone alerts to all phone numbers with recorded messages of hope and awareness, and information on where residents can find good, reliable information on city platforms. A redirect.
City Managers know your most valuable resources are your human resources. These times require a great deal of sensitivity, equity, and balance with employees. We created several guidelines and temporary policies to give clarity to the organization, including essential vs. non-work employees, telecommuting, expanding no-interest loan programs for computer procurement to assist telecommuters, compensation clarity related to leave time and expiration of such dates, and opportunities for employees approaching ceilings on leave time to cash out or donate to an established bank for other employees in need.
Temecula city council members, city staff, and of course our community also quickly recognized we had a need to protect and provide for our most vulnerable population. This translated to organizing drive-thru meals on a weekly basis for our seniors, who had become dependent on such meals at our now closed senior center. It also meant partnering with the local school district to organize drive-thru operations on city-owned properties for daily low-income meal distribution to students who were now no longer in a classroom. And finally, we had an obligation to responsibly house, case manage, and test homeless individuals requiring entry into a hotel or motel room. Fortunately, we directly and indirectly enjoy many valuable relationships with our government and nonprofit partners during good times. These relationships and collaborations helped us be more effective in changing gears in this dynamic environment.
I did not elaborate on the fiscal concerns that every city manager is wrestling with, as March through May are typical months to build and finalize operating and capital budgets for the upcoming fiscal year. For our local economy, built in large part around sales tax and hospitality and tourism (TOT), we won’t know the exact impacts of this pandemic for some time, but we know they will hurt. However, we must plow forward in modeling financial scenarios, making our best assumptions, and develop a responsible budget for presentation and adoption with many, many unknowns.
By nature, I am a very optimistic and glass-half-full human being. Admittedly, this global pandemic has stretched us all in ways we could never imagine. I choose to believe we will come out of this as fast as we went into it, rather than a prolonged recovery effort, and yet also believe business may not be the same post-coronavirus. Albeit a possible different way of life, we are resilient and we will not be kept down. Blessings and Good Health.
Aaron Adams, City Manager
City of Temecula
This story was featured in the CA Cities Advocate Newsletter on May 13, 2020.