By Mary Jane Smetanka
This spring, when city officials all over Minnesota confronted the emergency of COVID-19, they were facing something that was new for all of them. That included Brooklyn Center City Manager Curt Boganey, who’s worked in government for more than four decades.
“It’s been stressful, it’s been energizing, it’s been challenging,” Boganey says.
While Brooklyn Center is one of Minnesota’s bigger cities, many of the issues Boganey confronted with the pandemic weren’t that different from questions faced by smaller cities like Mayer, Slayton, and Biwabik. LMC Board of Directors members from these cities shared their experiences and, though every place is different — Slayton had to figure out what to do about its city library, and Biwabik suspended grave digging at the cemetery — the city officials said they all had to adapt to keep their cities running while protecting employees and the public.
In each case, solutions old and new kept things operating. Simple conveniences, like drop boxes outside public buildings, gave residents who usually go to city hall to pay utility bills a way to keep doing that, and do it safely.
City council meetings became virtual, using streaming technology that allows members to socially distance from home while preserving public access.
Springing into action
Officials in the four cities say they were aware that a pandemic was coming, and that their connections with other cities, counties, and the state helped them prepare. Still, when Gov. Tim Walz declared a peacetime state of emergency on March 13, they needed to quickly turn knowledge into action.
Brooklyn Center, with over 32,000 residents, already had an emergency pandemic plan adapted from a model created as a response to the 2009 H1N1 flu. City Hall, the Community Center, and the city’s Earle Brown Heritage Center were closed to the public, and the city asked employees who could work from home to do so.
Roughly 120 of the city’s 300 full-time employees were furloughed; some later returned to work. About half of the remaining 180 employees work from home all or much of the time. The city quickly got computers to those who needed them.
“It took a lot of work for our IT staff to move as many people to work online as they did,” Boganey says. “We had been expanding those capabilities for the last 10 years or so and were relatively well-prepared.”
Schedules for police, fire, and public works employees were adjusted to maximize coverage with minimum staffing. With summer programs canceled and public buildings and the city liquor store closed, about five full-time employees and 116 part-time employees were laid off.
The liquor store later reopened for curbside pickup, and the city is planning to reopen the store once adequate protections are in place.
Brooklyn Center bought a fogger to sanitize the insides of city vehicles, trained public works staff on how to stay safe, and “strongly advised” that they wear city-provided masks and gloves, Boganey says. In parks, the city added signs asking users to stay off playground equipment and to practice social distancing. He says compliance has not been a problem.
Most public meetings were canceled, but the City Council has held virtual meetings via Webex and, though there were a few glitches, for the most part it’s gone well, Boganey says.
Brooklyn Center also stepped up use of technology, expanding its ability to accept building permits and other forms online. City inspectors wear protective gear and are doing some inspections virtually by examining videos and photos sent to City Hall.
Services that traditionally were available by phone were preserved. “Anything you could do on the phone you can still do on the phone; there’s a person to answer,” Boganey says.
City hall is closed
Mayer, Slayton, and Biwabik also closed their city halls. Biwabik Mayor Jim Weikum says that was complicated because city offices occupy the second floor of a building that has a grocery store on the first floor and businesses on the third.
The grocery store stayed open but the other two floors closed, as did a city pavilion that was used for weddings, graduation parties, and other events. Signs on the City Hall door direct people with questions to use the phone or email. A city collection box in the grocery store is available for utility payments.
Though some people probably miss regular contact with city staff, “I’ve not heard a lot of complaints,” Weikum says.
The virtual meeting tool Zoom has worked well for City Council meetings, but the mayor says that in a city of 1,000 people with a tradition of public involvement, virtual meetings come up short. The city has widely advertised the times and links for meetings, but Weikum says not everyone has access to computers.
“We have a history of being fairly open with public participation, and it’s a lot more complicated now,” he says.
Biwabik’s seven city employees have kept working, though the four public works employees are split up so that two work one day and two work the next. They have been encouraged to work alone and stick to one vehicle.
Cutting the time those employees work meant that the city had to postpone grave digging for a cemetery. Weikum says that will resume when restrictions loosen.
Collaborating with other community entities
In Mayer, City Administrator Margaret McCallum says that in the first few days of the state of emergency, daily conference calls with county, township, and school officials were an invaluable source of information about issues like meals for needy people, financial support for businesses, and access to health resources. Later, those talks occurred once a week.
“It has been really helpful to get updates and bounce ideas off each other,” McCallum says.
The Community Center closed, and City Hall was open by appointment only. The city canceled non-essential meetings; encouraged residents to use email, phone, or mail for city services; and pledged to clean high-use public areas. Water shutoffs were suspended for six weeks. The City Council has been meeting via Zoom, and things have gone relatively well.
McCallum and her deputy clerk socially distance in City Hall and work behind a glass shield if a resident comes in. Visitors are directed to a table with hand sanitizer and asked to use it. Residents are asked to pay water bills online or use a drop box outside.
“We’ve pushed for people to use online utility billing, but there’s always a handful of people who feel they need to come in,” she says. “Now they use the drop box — and sometimes call to make sure we got [their payment].” The city’s two public works employees, who usually work as a team, went solo with one concentrating on water and wastewater issues and the other on parks and streets. Two-person jobs, like installing playground equipment, were postponed.
For a small city like Mayer (population 2,295), the Community Center closing cut to the heart of the community. People normally use it as a wedding venue, home-schoolers and others use the gym, and a group of senior men play cards there four days a week. Yet there were few complaints.
“I think most people understood,” McCallum says. People who had scheduled weddings “called us to cancel before we called them.”
Even rural areas hit
For Slayton (population 2,100), what seemed a distant crisis to many in rural Minnesota soon took a different turn. The city is not far from Nobles County, where one of the state’s biggest COVID19 outbreaks occurred in Worthington.
“If employees feel sick at all, they have to go home immediately,” says City Clerk-Administrator Josh Malchow.
Slayton has 14 full-time employees, including public works staff, police, and two full-time librarians. The library, the city institution with the most public contact, shut down for two weeks and then reopened with one librarian at a time doing curbside delivery.
Malchow and the deputy clerk keep their distance in City Hall, and the five-officer Police Department schedules one patrol officer at a time. Public works staff don’t take breaks together and have a designated vehicle that they keep sanitized.
To reduce public contact, city police who routinely help with emergency medical services stopped doing that unless their aid was requested, Malchow says. He credits group email discussions and Zoom sessions with nearby cities for aiding strategy development and offering a little therapy, too.
He says the City Council has been meeting via GoToMeeting software, and it’s been going well. Citizens can watch and call in with questions, but no one has.
While the technology is impressive, Malchow says it can be alienating. “We know that nationwide there is a distrust of government no matter what your political leanings are,” he says.
“I’ve really tried to flood people with information and be as transparent as possible — here’s the agenda, here’s the City Council meeting link. Communication and transparency are key through this crisis.”
What long-term lessons will we learn?
Weikum says he’s been reminded of the value of face-to-face conversations and having people physically present in Council chambers interacting with government. Cities will be financially challenged coming out of the pandemic, he says, and he wonders if new management models regarding reserves and other policies will emerge.
“We’re all getting a very powerful economic lesson right now,” he says.
Boganey shares those financial concerns, as well as worrying about continued stress on employees. But he says one lesson coming out of the pandemic is that it’s amazing how much can be done virtually. He expects more city processes to move online.
In Mayer, where the city’s deputy clerk worked with other city clerks in the region to develop a possible preparedness plan for the City Council, McCallum says she expects social distancing and other cautions to continue for a while.
“The amazing thing I’ve experienced is that everyone’s come together to try to figure this out,” she says. “I’m impressed at how at the local level we’re all working with each other to navigate this.”
Mary Jane Smetanka is a freelance writer.