Local Government FAQ
Q: What role does local government play in the NRV Public Health Task Force?
A: The NRV Public Health Task force first emerged from an effort spearheaded by the region's emergency service leaders back in mid-February. That group was focused on getting the region as prepared as possible before the virus got here. While the initial focus was on emergency services, they recognized more expertise and coordination would be needed on a whole host of issues, so that group pulled in representatives from the health departments, the hospitals, local government managers, and school administrators among others. From the outset, all have recognized that we are stronger and more effective when we work together as a region rather than figuring it out as individual localities. The group is currently meeting three days a week facilitated by the Regional Commission - mainly to respond to unfolding circumstances and to share ideas and best practices on how to manage quarantine efforts while still providing basic services to citizens. More recently, the group has been focused on how to transition into the recovery phase in a coordinated way. It has been so inspiring and gratifying to see the region pulling together like this.
Q: Each of you established a local state of emergency, can you walk us through that process and the purpose of declaring a state of emergency locally?
A: A state of emergency allows a locality greater flexibility in how they address certain issues and also enables them to move more quickly to address challenges that would normally require a more lengthy decision-making process. One example is streamlining the procurement rules to obtain the items needed to open up testing sites. It’s important to note that a state of emergency has to be ratified by the elected officials of a locality - a county administrator or town manager cannot declare a state of emergency on their own, but once established, it allows the managers and administrators greater flexibility to do what is needed. A state of emergency also allows a locality to secure resources they wouldn’t ordinarily have access to - such as medics from the national guard to assist with testing. Lastly, a state of emergency lets the public know that the community is facing a serious situation; it may increase the likelihood that citizens will follow guidelines more closely. Throughout this process, there has been a high degree of coordination across the NRV about how and when to declare states of emergency.
Q: You all have had to make difficult decisions about closing facilities. How did you arrive at making those decisions? How will you approach decisions about re-opening facilities?
A: Closing facilities is never easy. This was a fast-moving and ever-changing situation. We were able to work together and compare notes as a region. We also relied heavily on guidance from the Governor’s office as well as the Departments of Health, the CDC, and the Virginia Department of Emergency Management to determine what we needed to do to keep our employees and the public safe. We will be taking a similar approach to making decisions about how and when to open those facilities again to the public. When the public is able to come back into those spaces, they will see new things such as plexiglass or outdoor walkup windows where folks can obtain services without having to go inside. We are working on providing PPE to protect both staff and the public. We have also had to make major changes to the way we do public engagement at this time. We have been shifting meetings to virtual formats like Zoom and have been encouraging submittal of applications and other documents electronically to minimize face-to-face interactions wherever possible.
Q: We know the public is very interested in when re-opening is going to start happening?
A: All the localities are focused first on the health and safety of citizens and their employees. We know we have to do this carefully. When it comes to municipal facilities, most localities are going to be opening up over the next few weeks, with certain limitations in place to enable appropriate physical distancing. We would advise calling ahead to inquire about any facility you plan to visit - some may have limits on the number of people admitted at one time, or other restrictions you should be aware of. Everyone is responding as quickly as they can to support citizens and small businesses as we transition into reopening. We have heard from the business community that they have had some challenges in evaluating the guidelines for how to safely reopen - and we are trying to help with that. For example, we are working hard to develop creative and flexible solutions to expand outdoor dining opportunities that will enable our local restaurants to get up and running again. We would recommend that business owners and managers make use of the New River Valley Working Smart Working Safe Guidebook which was developed by a subcommittee of this task force. It provides excellent guidance on the steps different business types can take to reopen while keeping their customers and employees safe. We would also like to recognize that this public health emergency has required a lot of adaptation and sacrifice on the part of our local businesses. These local businesses will particularly need our support right now and in the coming months. If you are in a position to do so, please buy what you can locally and support local restaurants. Another way you can help is to consider a “staycation” in the NRV - another great way to support the local economy as we move into recovery.
Q: Will local elected officials and bodies function differently going forward?
A: Over the last couple months, we’ve tried a little bit of everything from physically spacing people out in council or board meetings to going completely virtual. There are specific laws governing public meetings and public access. We have had to get creative with technology to make that happen. We expect the General Assembly to tweak those public meeting laws to allow for greater flexibility in future in case we’re in a situation like this again. The main thing is to ensure the public is able to participate in the public meeting process and make their voices heard - even if physical presence isn’t possible in the short term. One thing that has come out of this is many localities have been forced to do some technology upgrades to make virtual participation possible. As we envision a post-COVID future, we think these investments will serve citizens well by making engagement easier for folks who haven’t traditionally been able to come to public meetings in person.
Q: Can some of you speak to how you’ll approach future community events? In particular, what can people expect for summer events such as 4th of July fireworks, parades or other activities surrounding the holiday celebration?
A: Most localities in the NRV still plan to host July 4th fireworks in such a way that people are able to safely view from either their homes or vehicles. We may try to expand our fireworks or even purchase larger fireworks shells that will be visible from more parts of town. We’re definitely open to exploring some creative solutions. As for other community events like parades and festivals, there is more of a wait and see approach. We anticipate that the governor and the CDC may come out with additional guidelines on outdoor events as we move through the phases of reopening, and we plan to follow those. More recently a lot of our focus has gone to figuring out how to celebrate and honor our graduating high school seniors.
Q: Any thoughts on the ability to have summer camps this year?
A: We know how important summer camps are, especially for working families. Figuring out if summer camps are possible is a topic of daily discussion within each of the localities right now. It may be possible to hold them with the understanding that they may fall into the daycare category, which has always been considered essential. We are exploring every option - but this situation is ever-evolving and quite complicated. All localities advise parents to check their respective town or county website for the most up-to-date information on summer camp plans. We are likely to be able to make some firm decisions by the first week in June. In a similar fashion, localities with public pools are exploring if they will be able to open pools to some degree. We will let folks know as soon as we can - these are difficult decisions to make, and very complex.
We recognize it is very important to return to a sense of normalcy as soon as we safely can. Hosting events like 4th of July fireworks, expanding outdoor recreational opportunities, and supporting families is a major focus of our attention right now.
Q: As of last Friday, most of Virginia entered Phase 1 of re-opening, which allows for some expanded business operations with limitations in place. At the same time, some state laws such as ABC have adjusted somewhat to accommodate outdoor dining. Many folks are very interested in outdoor dining and how that might work. How are you all working with local businesses to facilitate outdoor dining, for example, are there creative opportunities you are exploring like closing down certain streets to allow for expansion of outdoor seating for restaurants?
A: All localities are working closely with the restaurants in the communities to create outdoor dining options. Some options include closing down nearby streets (or making them one-way), putting tables with umbrellas in public spaces adjacent to restaurants, and helping restaurants explore spacing and table configurations that adhere to the Governor’s rules on physical distancing. We all want our restaurants to be able to open back up and be successful, and we also know that our citizens are eager to get back into the community and be able to gather again, but in a safe way.
Q: I’d like to shed light on some positive initiatives as a result of the pandemic. What have you observed locally that has been inspiring in the COVID response?
A: Municipal staff have worked hard to ensure public services are not interrupted for citizens, and although the localities of the NRV already had a strong history of regional collaboration, these unusual circumstances have expanded opportunities for us to problem-solve together and devise plans for how we will back each other up if one locality is in need. It is commonly said that in the toughest times, you’ll see the best and worst in people. We have pretty much only seen the best in people. Community members have stepped up to provide meals for first responders, make masks for healthcare workers, support feeding programs in the schools, check in on vulnerable seniors over the phone each day, and have come together to deliver food, supplies and medicine to our immune-compromised and elderly population. We’ve also been hearing of many acts of financial generosity - people sending their barbers or favorite restaurant staff a tip. People seem to be realizing how important certain workers are, such as sanitation staff, and have found ways to show them their appreciation. We’re all self-reflecting on how important these folks are in our community and as a result, we are recognizing and expanding our definition of who is on the front lines. Lastly, we are seeing some unique collaborations emerge from the private sector. One example involved two Floyd County companies - one that makes high-end bed linens and another that manufactures the base material for N95 masks. These two companies have teamed up to make other styles of masks from these materials that can help solve supply problems with PPE. There is potential for an entirely new business venture to emerge from this short-term partnership.
Q: How have you seen local government innovate during this unique situation?
A: As local governments, we have seen every element of our operations change. Everything that could be done remotely or virtually was moved into those spaces; Zoom for meetings, and expanding options for citizens to communicate and do business with us online. Of course, some municipal services by their nature can never be done remotely. For those services (such as public transit, or trash collection) that require hands-on or in-person interaction, we have worked hard to maximize safety for our staff and citizens alike. Much like the private sector, municipalities have had to innovate to continue to serve our citizens and fulfill our responsibilities to them. Naturally, technology has been a big piece of how we’ve adjusted, and some of those changes were long overdue. There have been technology changes behind the scenes as well, especially ramping up protections on the cyber security front. Once we’ve gotten beyond this current crisis, we believe many of these innovations will enable us to serve our citizens more efficiently and effectively.
Q: Can you describe the economic impact of COVID-19 on local governments? What are your current strategies for addressing budget impacts?
A: Meals and occupancy taxes have certainly taken a big hit, and that has forced us to take a hard look at our budgets - what can be trimmed or delayed. Schools are the biggest expenditure for any county and we’re keeping a close eye on things to figure out ways to minimize impacts to school budgets in the coming year. At the same time, we know many folks in the region have experienced a sudden economic hardship. To provide some relief, localities across the region have elected to reduce fines for late real estate taxes payments to $0 with 0% interest accruing on those fines through September 3rd. While this is the right thing to do to help our citizens, we also know that could result in some additional budgetary hardship for localities - at least in the short-term. Additional losses of revenue have hit Blacksburg, Christiansburg and Radford particularly hard. Relative to the counties, a larger portion of their budgets come from visitors to the area, especially when large numbers come during university move-in, graduation and sporting events. The taxes from meals, sales, and lodging make us around 43% of these localities’ budgets (on average). A second major impact for these localities is the sudden and steep loss of the student population who would ordinarily be contributing to the local economy by ordering food from local restaurants and buying household goods and groceries. It is difficult to plan for the unknown; and there’s no roadmap for how to plan and budget for the remainder of this year and the next. As localities, we are planning for a range of different budgetary scenarios. Regardless, we are doing whatever we can to support our citizens and local businesses through this tough time, but the reality is, we are having to make some hard choices on capital expenditures on infrastructure projects or instituting hiring freezes in order to preserve budgets to maintain basic services for citizens.
On the other hand, the many outdoor recreation opportunities the New River Valley has to offer may really help us as we move into re-opening. These can offer alternatives to more crowded tourist spots around the country and the world. We have such a wide range of recreation opportunities, from the Blue Ridge Parkway, to the National Forest, to the New River, to the Appalachian Trail - all of which offer ways for folks to visit and recreate while maintaining safe physical distances.
Q: What are you all doing to support businesses at this time?
A: We’ve touched on a number of these elements already this evening, but they bear repeating. We would encourage local businesses to use the New River Valley Working Smart Working Safe Guidebook. In addition to that, we have been developing a business continuity team to provide a full suite of services in the event an employee tests positive. The business continuity team will be offering a technical advisory group to help the business adjust their practices to get their operation running again safely. This will also help to create confidence among citizens and customers that they will be safe patronizing local businesses. Localities are also supporting local businesses by waiving penalties and interest on late payment of meal and lodging taxes at this time. Additionally, we are working with Virginia Small Business Financing Authorities to defer loan payments through our Economic Development Departments. Anything that is in our power to support them at this time, we are pursuing. We’re really trying to be responsive to the specific needs of individual businesses. Rather than employing “cookie-cutter” strategies, we’re open to unique solutions that will help them weather this crisis. And as we do this work, we are developing a set of shared best practices and building on the innovations that are emerging from our respective localities.
Q: How will local citizens be protected if college students are permitted to return?
A: We’ve worked closely with the New River Health District as we have addressed and responded to COVID-19 in our community. When college students return to campus, that will not change. In fact, our local public health officials are working closely with our universities to help bring back college students in a manner that is safe for the community. In addition, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the majority of college students who remained in our community acted responsibility and followed preventative measures as outlined by local, regional, and national public health experts. We will continue to communicate best practices and health and safety guidelines to all of our citizens, as well as our college students when they return.
Q: There is obviously a need for lots of supplies to address response locally, can you speak to your role in facilitating the acquisition of supplies?
A: Two key components have led to the success in securing the necessary supplies to respond appropriately to the COVID-19 pandemic in the NRV: the formation of a collaborative and comprehensive Public Health Task Force and our localities declaring a local state of emergency. Those two things helped us quickly identify what we needed regionally as well as helped us secure the supplies in an efficient and timely manner.
Q: The Counties and City have access to CARES Act funding through the Commonwealth that are dedicated to COVID-19 response. How do you all plan to utilize these funds?
A: Just as we have approached our response to COVID-19 collaboratively through the Public Health Task Force, we will continue to collaborate on how best to utilize the CARES Act funding. The county, town, and city administrators will continue to meet on a regular basis to determine needs and how best to address them with the funding.
Q: Both Town of Blacksburg and Radford City work extensively with Virginia Tech and Radford University, respectively, given their physical locations. Discuss the involvement of higher education in your ongoing community transition discussions.
A: Since the initial formation of the Public Health Task Force, the universities have been involved in our discussions. The universities are the economic engines in our communities. We will continue to work with our local public health officials as well as the university administrators to determine how best to bring students back.
Q: Currently, the Census for 2020 is underway and I know each of you has an appreciation for the importance of a complete count because many of the programs you administer rely on population and demographic information. Talk about the need to have a complete count in our communities.
A: The 2020 Census equals federal funding for our community. However, every person living in our community needs to be counted in order for us to secure the funding we need. Every resident missed in the county equals a $2,000 loss to our community annually over the next 10 years. By taking the time to complete the Census, you do your part to help us secure our portion of the $675 billion available funding for education, public safety, healthcare, transportation and infrastructure, and much more. As a result, we urge everyone who hasn’t already done so to please take a few minutes to complete the 2020 Census.