In just two months, the coronavirus pandemic has thrust municipal governments across the country into uncharted territory. As New Jersey went into near lockdown in mid-March, with Gov. Murphy ordering all non-essential businesses and then schools to close and residents to stay home, towns had to transform nearly every aspect of how they work.
“COVID 19 is impacting every aspect of municipal operations; to say it is a game changer is a complete and utter understatement to say the least,” said South Orange BOT member Donna Coallier, who also serves as President of the Board of Health.
Seemingly overnight, administrations have had to identify essential in-person employees and ensure they are equipped with hard-to-find PPE and sanitation supplies; convert non-essential services to virtual operations; coordinate with federal, state and county personnel to gather and disseminate vital safety information to residents; fundraise for vulnerable citizens, and contend with the economic and budgetary fallout of Covid-19.
All of this is taking place as health officers and leaders are dealing with residents and families directly affected by the virus.
“South Orange has learned a lot from operating a ‘virtual village’ while stay-at-home orders are in effect,” said Village President Sheena Collum. “While it hasn’t been easy, we’re quickly learning new ways we can take some of the skills we’re gaining now and integrating them into our departments moving forward.”
Collum has been the public face of the crisis in South Orange, sending out regular communications to residents and updates on social media. She has also spearheaded raising more than $40,000 to help seniors, vulnerable families, and frontline municipal workers.
Trustee Steve Schnall said he was impressed by Collum’s “leadership, passion and skill”. He continued: “Sheena has tirelessly worked to find effective solutions for mitigating potential disasters. All the while, she leads with grace and a deep caring for our community, and most specifically for our individual residents.”
Collum is supported by the Board of Trustees, Township Administrator Adam Loehner, Health Officer John Festa and OEM Coordinator Scott Egelberg — all of whom “swung into action early and with conviction,” Coallier said.
Maplewood Mayor Frank McGehee told Village Green that the crisis has presented many challenges, “but working in coordination with our team, our township administrator, [Business Administrator Sonia] Viveiros, our OEM coordinator Committeeman Victor DeLuca, my Township Committee colleagues, our Health Division [helmed by Candice Davenport], our department heads, the county leadership, our Assembly representatives, our Congressional and Senatorial leadership, and the Governor’s office, we have been able to provide vital information and resources to our residents.”
Viveiros noted at the last virtual Maplewood Township Committee meeting that township staff are “working on skeleton crews” but still managing to serve residents. “Everyone really has been operating as best as possible during these conditions…I can’t say enough about our EMS and our police. I applaud all first responders in addition to the DPW who continue to maintain our operations throughout all our buildings.”
The administration was even able to procure nearly 1,300 N95 masks for workers from a vendor on their own. She said, “We are doing our best to hang in there and continue to serve the residents of Maplewood.”
Like many other local leaders across the country, the towns’ mayors have witnessed firsthand the virus’s effect, as they see the heartbreaking impact on their friends and neighbors.
“Making calls to family members who have lost loved ones to this horrible virus is especially hard,” said McGehee, who was only sworn in this past January. “These are mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, children, cousins, aunts uncles and friends, who are all hurting deeply. Each call is emotional and very sad. There is no playbook to prepare for this and I will continue to be there for them.”
DeLuca, who was Mayor of Maplewood for 14 years and shepherded the town through Hurricane Sandy, commended McGehee’s leadership: “I’ve sat in that chair a lot of years and had my own disasters to deal with; this is by far something way beyond those. I want to applaud your work, your efforts in keeping the community informed and all that you’re doing…we are all behind you.”
For his part, McGehee preferred to focus on the many local residents making a difference. “I am humbled and inspired by the countless members of our community who are making such an incredible impact in so many ways — people like Jake Ezzo [of SOMA NJ 3D Printers Alliance], Kate Cahill [MEND/Our Lady of Sorrow Food Pantry], Birthday ‘drive by’ teams, SZA, the list goes on and on. We look forward to celebrating all of our MAPSO heroes in the months ahead.”