The COVID-19 crisis has confronted diverse communities across the country with similar challenges: treating and tracking the sick, making decisions to protect those who appear well as well as health care workers, and taking all possible steps to preserve the functioning of the local health care system.
But once the crisis has passed, what questions will local communities be asking? How might it change how we think about the challenges we were confronting, and new ones that emerge?
In local government, the crisis has tested all of our leaders. One faced a unique challenge: Barely two months into his new job, Monroe County Executive Adam Bello found himself in the eye of the storm with the county responsible for safeguarding public health. Bello and Health Commissioner Dr. Michael Mendoza put out strong, early statements about social distancing and have kept the public well informed about the virus’s spread. Mayor Lovely Warren closed playgrounds and postponed quarterly tax payments.
But once the immediate threat has passed, what will local leaders have learned about the functioning of key parts of government, and how departments and municipalities can work better together to serve taxpayers? There will no doubt be a need for increased cooperation and efficiency, as the economic shutdown will decimate sales tax revenues (sales tax in Monroe County raised $526 million in 2019, making up nearly 13% of the county’s budget, 30% of the City of Rochester budget and supporting suburban schools with $76 million). Fiscal stresses at the state level could result in reduced state support for local governments and schools in the upcoming fiscal year. And the crisis has increased local costs related to public health and safety, further exacerbating budget issues.
For the economy, COVID comes on top of years of largely treading water locally. Though some businesses and industries are growing, overall job growth has been lackluster (4% growth 2001-18 in Monroe County, compared to 21% nationally). Now, much economy activity is halted – CGR estimates that roughly 52% of Monroe County workers are in businesses deemed essential (health care, infrastructure, financial, news media, etc.). They’re still working, but about 48% of us are either out of work (with or without pay) or working from home. Local businesses have responded nimbly – from Hickey Freeman and Century Mold working on masks, to distillers pivoting to make hand sanitizer, to Xerox making disposable ventilators. Can those skills be applied in new ways to the rebooted economy? And with so many of us learning that we can productively work from home, how might remote working continue when it is not mandated?
The local philanthropic community has responded quickly and forcefully to assist nonprofits in providing direct aid to those who need it. The United Way of Greater Rochester and Rochester Area Community Foundation with support from other funders created a crisis response fund that has raised $2.8 million and distributed $800,000 to nonprofits so far. In addition, many funders have let grantees know that they are relaxing deadlines and reporting requirements as everyone tries to get through this trying time. What might funders learn from this experiment that they can apply to normal times?
Like their counterparts across the country, local schools and colleges quickly thrust instruction into a distance learning mode. At the K-12 level, some districts were better positioned than others for the transition. In East Irondequoit, where my children attend, our digital conversion years ago meant every student not only had an iPad but was at least somewhat accustomed to using it for learning. So Week 1, my middle schooler was receiving and handing in assignments online and teachers were figuring out how to hold online classes or office hours via Zoom. In other districts, educators couldn’t assume that students all had devices, so it took longer to get remote learning in place. Now that all schools have been working on it, how might online learning continue once schools are back in session? And for rural districts, might increased distance learning open up additional possibilities to diversify their offerings?
Internet access for households is lower in the City of Rochester (73% in 2014-18) compared to all of Monroe County (82%), and the share of households lacking any computer (including smartphones) is higher, 17% vs. 12% in the County. Equity is a priority for many of our community’s initiatives. We know that low-income populations and communities of color will be hit harder by COVID-19 than others, given the socioeconomic and racial disparities that permeate every aspect of our lives (income, poverty, education, health, etc.). Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, recently drew attention to higher rates of infection in some African-American communities. Perhaps one of the most important questions of all is how we can work to ensure this crisis doesn’t exacerbate inequity, but instead inspires us to redouble our efforts to attack inequity wherever we find it.