COVID-19 response: 9 things local governments need to do right now

The Founder of Strong Towns shares his organization’s approach for not only weathering the COVID-19 storm, but also coming out stronger on the other side


Reiterating the economic benefit of wearing masks in public is one of the ways local leaders can help their communities through the crisis. Image: Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times/TNS

By Charles Mahorn

Local governments are on the front lines of our nation’s response to the combined public health and economic crisis created by COVID-19.

Local leaders are being forced to adapt to new realities in an environment where the individuals, families, businesses, and civic organizations within their community are under extreme stress.

And, for the most part, local governments have found themselves on their own, without financial support from the state and federal governments, spectators of a clumsy response.

To make it through this crisis with the least loss of life, to set ourselves up for the strongest possible economic recovery, and to keep our community dialogue productive and healthy, local government must fill the leadership void.

It’s time for local governments to be the leaders their communities need. Here are the first steps to making that happen.

A Necessary Mental Shift for Local Leaders

We’re in a time of transition, the process of defining a new normal. The way things used to be, local governments were largely the implementation tool of state and federal policy. In the emerging reality, our systems need to become more bottom-up.

To build strong and prosperous communities, a local leader must:

  • Step up. Recognize that local government is not the lowest form of government in an ecosystem of governments, but the highest form of coordination and advocacy for your community.

  • Orient horizontal, not vertical. Firmly ground yourself in representing the people in your community. Orient yourselves to zealously serve their needs, particularly in the face of established top-down systems that are not.

  • Be a voice of unity. Understand that, in such an emotional and volatile time, with so much difficult work to be done, divisive language will slow you down. Be your most generous self. There is too much to do—you can’t afford to needlessly alienate anyone.

  • Seize the moment. In such volatile times, small steps taken now will ripple through time and dramatically change the course of future events. You can’t wait around for others to show the way. The cities that will emerge strongest are those that take decisive action now.

The Immediate Response to the Pandemic

Before we can discuss recovery, we need to stabilize our community. Immediate actions need to focus on securing the health and well-being, including the mental health, of the people and small businesses within the community. Here is a list of nine things to get started on immediately.


Food access for vulnerable populations is one of the most urgent needs coming out of the pandemic. Image: Unsplash

#1 Get people fed

Focus on getting people food. This is an urgent and immediate need. We should think in terms of public-private partnerships because, while local governments are generally not experts at this type of work, there are many civic organizations—religious and non-religious—that are very good at it. Having the support of the local government, whether it is providing space, coordinating responses among different groups, or even public relations support to get the word out, is the quickest way to get food to people that need it.

#2 Get people shelter

Focus on getting people shelter. This is also an urgent and immediate need and we need to be creative in addressing it. The same public-private kind of relationships apply as with food. This is an emergency, so don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Be flexible to help people do what they can now with a commitment to making improvements over time.

#3 Support the public health response

Resist the temptation to make the conversation adversarial between public health and the economy. A good leader will understand that, at the local level, there is no difference. We need to fight this enemy on two fronts with equal seriousness and devotion. Be truly committed to that and people will respond positively.

#4 Connect masks to economic recovery

Ubiquitous mask use is the quickest and easiest way to get the local economy moving again, but it requires a cultural shift, which is difficult to do, especially as top-down partisanship invades our discourse. Local leaders inside and outside the government must lead by example. Be very conspicuous in wearing a mask in public and take every opportunity to explain why, emphasizing the relationship between getting the economy moving and donning a mask. You need wearing a mask to become a public duty that good citizens feel compelled to do, not for health reasons (that’s obvious - don’t dwell on it) but for economic reasons.

#5 Provide people space

Proactively make as much space as possible available for people to get outdoors. Open up streets and public spaces to people, trading space typically reserved for automobiles (now a lower demand) for the exclusive use of people walking and biking (now a high demand). Humans are social creatures and we need to keep our people mentally healthy.

#6 Go easy on enforcement

Understand that most people will practice social distancing voluntarily. If they don’t, it’s peer pressure and a sense of commitment to their community that will motivate them. There is no amount of enforcement that can ensure social distancing with a population not committed. At this moment, law enforcement can do more good focusing on education and breaking up major gatherings. Direct your public safety personnel accordingly.

#7 Support adaptation

Local businesses need to adapt if they are going to survive. Get out of their way and let them innovate. If you wish to be proactive, ask them what can be done to help them in the adaptation process. If permitting is an issue, provide 90-day waivers to allow them to try new approaches.

#8 Collect data

Reassign idle and underutilized staff to collect data and support these efforts. At the very least, have them calling and talking to people and collecting information on what is needed. Keep them busy being helpful.

#9 Preserve cash

Resist the temptation to throw money at these problems. Nobody knows what is coming next, so preserve cash by delaying non-critical projects and hires. It is almost certain that the community’s priorities will be different in twelve months and, in that case, you will be grateful you have the flexibility that the extra resources will provide.

Assistance to Small Businesses

Right now, it is very unclear how the overall economy will respond to this pandemic. Will it last three months or 18? Will federal efforts to bailout corporations be successful or is this just squandering resources? Will consumers drive an aggressive recovery or will they be unable to? Will the economy restructure to bring more critical manufacturing back to North America?

There are too many unknown factors to accurately predict. And too much at stake for local communities to gamble on such uncertainty.

The changes happening to local economies right now are like a wave of unknown size and intensity. It is a natural reaction to want to stop the wave, but there is a good chance that this wave exceeds our capacity to withstand. Instead of pushing back, our local strategy should be to weather the storm and focus our efforts on a quick recovery.

In practical terms, bailing out local businesses—diverting public resources into them directly or indirectly—is a high-risk strategy for a local government. Providing flexibility for entrepreneurs to adapt and innovate today, and creating fertile ground for a future recovery, is the best economic development strategy right now.

There will be a time to be more assertive in supporting small businesses, but now is not that time. That is painful, and it’s very human to want to help, but we need to be there for the businesses that survive the wave—and some will survive—to help them recover as quickly and vigorously as possible. Resist the temptation to spend your limited resources now.

This article originally appeared on Read the original article here along with Marohn’s follow-up piece, “10 Tasks for Cities Responding to the Pandemic.”