Countering COVID-19 at the local level

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Public parks like Thornell Farm Park in Pittsford are closed in an effort to practice social distancing.
(Photo by Robert Mantell.)

During the coronavirus pandemic, the spotlight has been on federal, state and county officials. Town and village leaders have been less visible, yet they also are playing a key role in the response to the crisis.

Local towns and villages have made difficult decisions to shut down public services and spaces such as libraries, courts and playgrounds to prevent the COVID-19 virus from spreading more rapidly. Officials are stepping up to ensure department staff and personnel operate safely—if not remotely. 

The main message is clear: Stay home aside from essential tasks, and practice social distancing as much as possible. 

“We won’t flatten the curve unless we really scrupulously avoid contact with each other. Social distancing is the vitally important thing we can all do,” Brighton Supervisor Bill Moehle says. 

Pittsford Supervisor William Smith Jr. also believes the key to stopping the spread of COVID-19 locally is through enforcing social distancing as much as possible. 

“I’m really trying to get the message across of what social distancing means: stay at home except for essential trips,” Smith says. “I found out people were playing soccer games in Thornell Farm Park all weekend long. We’ve put up tape around playgrounds and even had to re-tape them. This small group of people has become a big concern for us.”

While public parks and playgrounds are closed, nature trails within Monroe County remain open—so long as visitors maintain a 6-foot distance from other individuals.

“The mental health benefits of moving outdoors are important, but I caution people to stay safely apart,” Moehle says. The trails are 10 feet or wider and really are conducive to walking with a family member while still staying 6 feet apart.”

Town departments such as Parks and Recreation are also working to make online programming and resources available to residents. 

“The first thing we had to do was convert ongoing activities to remote activities to the extent we could,” Moehle says. “However, there’s still basic ongoing activities that must be done … like opening mail and financial transactions. Most days we’ll have one person handling those tasks.”

While staffing at local town halls is reduced to include only essential personnel, department heads are still in constant communication. Perinton Supervisor Ciaran Hanna notes that department heads who are able to come to the Perinton Town Hall meet in a large boardroom and communicate virtually with the rest of their staff who are working from home. Hanna also notes that the town has been able to utilize some staff unable to complete their regular duties, for other efforts such as volunteering at the Perinton Food Shelf.

Additionally, Monroe County’s town supervisors come together twice a week on a conference call. 

“We bounce ideas off each other to see how others are handling issues, which is very helpful. If a situation arises, you know there’s someone else in the same boat,” Hanna says.

Towns like Pittsford are focused on trimming operations to a skeletal structure to ensure town employees are kept safe and stable during the COVID-19 outbreak, even resorting to “pandemic accrual time” to account for hourly employees that might be impacted by the virus in any way.

In an online statement to the town of Pittsford, Smith wrote: “Our highway, sewer, parks and maintenance crews are at work on your behalf. We’ve divided each operational department into discrete ‘cells’ of people who already had been working in proximity with one another. Each has its own separate town building as its headquarters; each operates in accordance with all COVID-19 protocols.”

Local government officials have not shied from using technology and social media to convey messages to the public. Residents are turning to their phones and computers for updates on COVID-19 and its local impact.

Towns post updates regularly on official websites and send emails outlining the latest news regarding the virus. The town of Pittsford has gone from blasting one news bulletin per week to three times weekly to keep residents informed. The town of Greece has a special bulletin on its official website dedicated to coronavirus updates, and even set up a special email address for residents to submit their COVID-19 concerns.

The town of Perinton has a page on its website dedicated to coronavirus updates, with a special Perinton Alert Services System. Residents can sign up to receive text or email updates that would normally be used for emergency notifications. The town also plans on reaching out to elderly residents who may need assistance.

“We’re trying to do some direct mailing and set up a hotline with volunteers for elderly people who need help. The response for volunteers has been terrific,” Hanna says.

During the pandemic, town meetings in New York can be temporarily held remotely. Pittsford is posting live feeds of board meetings and virtual open houses on the first Saturday of each month. Brighton held its last board meeting on the virtual conference platform Zoom and livestreamed meetings to its YouTube channel, all of which included ASL interpreters for accessibility purposes.

However, social media is on the forefront of town officials’ minds when it comes to keeping local residents in the loop.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if social media is the main source of news people have at a local level. It’s important for people in a position like mine to keep people updated on services,” Smith says. “Pittsford doesn’t have a local radio station. TV stations have to cover the whole Rochester community and not just Pittsford, so the word really seems to be getting around because of social media.”

Greece Supervisor Bill Reilich turned to Facebook to inform residents of brush pickup efforts after hundreds of residents contacted the town regarding hazardous yard debris resulting from spring cleaning. A major part of the post called out the protective measures the town would take during these pickup efforts as a result of COVID-19. Reilich has also been actively supporting local businesses on social media, especially in the town of Greec,e which has been hit particularly hard by the virus.

For Moehle, social media is already a major element of communicating with the public—crisis or no crisis. 

“I’ve always felt that social media is a great way to get information out to the public,” he says. “As this situation intensifies, we want to make sure public health messages are getting out there. I actively push social distancing on social media.”

Some residents are showing their support of their town’s crisis communication through creative initiatives fueled via social media. Brighton residents Scott and Lisa Fybush got crafty to help spread Moehle’s social-distancing enforcements. The Fybushes are taking orders for lawn signs that play off the fact that Moehle is 6-feet-8, showcasing a photo of Moehle lying down in between two other figures who are more than six feet apart.

“The message of the signs is to stay one Moehle apart to social distance, I got such a kick out of that. Sometimes the best way to get the best message across is through a little bit of humor,” Moehle says. 

“It’s important to stay positive,” he adds. “We are going to get through this. Brighton and Rochester will get through this. We’re going to do it working together, respecting each other and with a positive attitude.”

Robert Mantell is a Rochester-area freelance writer. All Rochester Beacon coronavirus articles are collected here.

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