As the COVID-19 pandemic extended its tentacles into local cities and towns, municipal officials responded to decisions from the federal and state government for guidance to keep residents safe from an invisible enemy.
The experience was unchartered territory for everyone, especially municipalities who had to juggle the need to continue to provide city services such as water and trash with the health and safety of employees and residents.
To get a better picture of how different cities reacted to the early weeks of the novel coronavirus pandemic of 2020, Independent Newsmedia used Arizona public record law to understand how city leaders communicated with employees and the public.
Records reveal a snapshot of what happened behind those city walls during the early days of the global outbreak.
Independent Newsmedia submitted the following public records request to five cities with varying outcomes and response times: Three weeks of emails from city managers, police chiefs and fire chiefs to all staff, including first responders, on COVID-19 related correspondence.
Public record law provides cities and towns must respond promptly to requests and make them open to inspection. The expediency with which each city responded varied, records show.
Requests to the cities of Glendale, Surprise and Peoria were submitted April 10. Surprise responded April 23. Peoria responded May 11. Glendale responded May 29.
A request to Goodyear went out April 11 and responded May 12. A request to Buckeye went out April 22, and the request has not yet been completed.
First Amendment lawyer Dan Barr said Arizona law states municipalities have to respond promptly to public record requests, but it does not give a time limit, so each request is taken on a case-by-case basis.
He said people take their cues from government leaders and will take COVID-19 seriously if their leaders are taking it seriously. But two months for this request is too long, he contends.
“Public records provide government transparency. People want to know how the government is functioning especially now that we have some people wanting to return to work faster than others,” he said. “You have the government telling people to do certain things regarding social distancing and other precautionary measures. So it is important to see what the government itself is doing.”
--- Dan Barr
The emails handed over to Independent Newsmedia reflected how each municipality reacted to the pandemic as it came to the forefront for most Americans. The time period requested began March 13, the day President Donald Trump declared a national emergency due to the spread of novel coronavirus. A few days later he advised all Americans to avoid groups of more than 10 and urged older people to stay at home along with other guidelines designed to stop the spread of COVID-19. States and cities followed suit.
Surprise declared a local state of emergency on March 18, and Peoria did the same the next day.
Leading up to this, cities began shifting some of their staff to COVID-19-related duties, as well as requiring some to work remotely from home to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
Gov. Doug Ducey issued a statewide “stay-at-home” order, March 30, preventing Arizonans from leaving their residences except for food, medicine and other “essential activities.”
The time period for requested emails from municipalities ended April 2.
The public records request revealed on March 12 City of Surprise officials discussed shutting down senior centers and were working on a draft to update employees on the city’s response to the pandemic.
Leading up to March 13, the city was developing talking points for consistency in messaging regarding COVID-19, both to their employees and citizens.
Surprise spokeswoman Diane Arthur said a staff report from the city manager was emailed to City Council and staff to share the city’s plan for a COVID-19 response to city services and outreach taken at that time.
The letter provided the following messaging and update for employees:
The City of Peoria sent out a similar report to its employees on March 18.
City Manager Jeff Tyne sent an email to staff instituting new pandemic related measures:
“Locally and across the country, we are seeing increased measures to slow the spread of the COVID 19 virus. The overarching goal of these efforts is to flatten the curve by spreading out the incidents of infection over a longer time frame. This can minimize the disruptions to the nation’s health care systems.
To help do our part, the leadership team has been evaluating Peoria’s operations. Our goal is pretty simple: try to balance the health and safety of our employees, while trying to preserve the services we offer our citizens. With this in mind, we are instituting immediate measures through March 27, 2020.”
Leading up to this notification, Peoria created the COVID-19 Action Response Team the last week of February to assess preparedness, make recommendations, define priorities and roles, as well as implemented a communication plan in relation to the coronavirus crisis.
Neighborhood Services Manager Jay Davies, who spearheads the team, said the guiding principle of the team is to balance the health and safety of city employees with service delivery.
To provide immediate outreach and support to Peoria businesses impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, officials launched a small business task force in partnership with the Peoria Chamber of Commerce, the Small Business Development Council, and ASU-Peoria Forward.
In Glendale, Police Chief Chris Briggs sent an email to all police personnel, March 10, sharing information on protocols being implemented to help protect officers if and when they come in contact or suspected contact with the COVID-19.
Precautions included placing a surgical mask on patients with flu-type symptoms such as, cough, fever and shortness of breath, limiting exposure by staying six feet from patients, including asking patients to come outside, and limiting personnel in ambulances and the emergency department.
Assistant Chief Gary Benson sent an email notifying all personnel, March 13, that all station tours, ride-alongs, public education events and non-essential training were suspended to help assist in reducing the risk of exposure to the department.
Also on March 13, Fire Chief Terry Garrison sent an email to personnel stating the city’s emergency management division would be leading the city’s efforts during the pandemic.
“They are made up of professionals who have received extensive training, certifications and have been given the responsibility to directly coordinate with the lead government agencies in the county, state, and federal levels,” the letter stated. “The division is also keeping track of the operational expenses related to the city’s response to COVID-19 in case any expenses become eligible for reimbursement from federal or state aid.”
The letter stated that the ultimate goal of the coordinated efforts is to ensure that actions are taken that are deemed to be in the best interest of protecting human health and life, to support the continuation of government, and to prevent the spread of the disease.
“I feel very confident that our response is at the appropriate level and in line with what is being recommended by the lead government agencies. ... There is considerable care and effort taking place throughout all city departments to ensure that our employees, residents and visitors are safe and protected. I want to thank everyone involved in this effort for their professionalism and dedication to improving the lives of the people we serve every day.”