From the Beacon, September 2020

As the summer nears its end, municipal leaders need to brace for heightened intensity in managing the COVID-19 pandemic, a natural next stage in the long battle to protect the public from an unrelenting virus that has pounded Massachusetts and the nation for the past six months. That’s because, after a somewhat calm summer, the fall will bring colder weather with more indoor gatherings, school reopenings with no easy choices, an always-dangerous flu season, and a general public growing weary of COVID constraints.

Local officials have been on the front lines of this crisis since March, mobilizing extraordinary measures and resources to protect those most vulnerable; managing and enforcing a shutdown and reopening process; remaking the delivery of essential services to keep our communities moving forward; and keeping our democratic institutions and governance systems operating through innovation and ramped-up technology.

Since April, when Massachusetts was averaging more than 2,000 new cases a day and a positive test rate well over 20%, the collective efforts of our local and state governments and health providers have yielded dramatic results. May and June were the “flatten the curve” months, and July and August brought stability and order-of-magnitude improvements. For the past two months, new daily cases have hovered around 250, and the positive test rate has been between 1% and 2%.

Given these (relatively) positive outcomes, it is natural to be lulled into a sense of complacency, believing that these trends will continue until the virus can be greatly diminished by a vaccine. Yet this is no time to relax our guard or convince ourselves that the threat is greatly diminished. The virus is unchanged, and so is the threat.

Autumn will bring cooler weather, school reopenings, and flu season – all of which pose serious challenges and high anxiety for everyone. Further, dealing with these issues will be more difficult because, understandably, people are exhausted by the ongoing pressures and restrictions on daily life that the virus has imposed.

Studies have shown that COVID-19 is transmitted up to 20 times more effectively indoors, compared to outdoor settings. That’s why outdoor restaurant dining and family visits are vastly preferable to indoor seating. And that’s why most offices are deciding to continue remote work, rather than returning to congested in-office settings.

As the weather cools in September and October, localities will be faced with the reality that restaurant dining and social events will become more difficult. Gradually, outdoor hikes and patio visits will become rarer, and people will be forced indoors. The choices will be limited to greater isolation or closer interaction, contact and exposure. This will be a huge challenge for everyone. There is no question that the virus will infect more people, which means that communities will be dealing with a greater threat in the coming months.

In terms of school reopenings, there are no easy or good decisions. Most districts are opting for a hybrid model, and others are choosing fully remote teaching. The challenge is that no matter what decisions are made, student experiences will be diminished, and teacher, student and family exposures will be higher. The virus is not predictable. Some districts will escape unscathed. Others will have students and teachers who test positive. Plans and contingency plans will be enacted, but the virus will follow no set course. The bottom line is that many communities will likely face outbreaks as schools reopen, and the result will be greater fear and restrictions in communities.

Flu season is perhaps the greatest challenge. With COVID-19 creating an unprecedentedly lethal threat for our residents, it is understandable that some will discount the traditional flu as a lesser danger. Yet, unless we can reduce the number of infected people, the flu could add a devastating burden on our health care system. COVID-19 and flu symptoms are quite similar, and our coronavirus testing system will be overwhelmed if we need to test for COVID-19 and seasonal flu at the same time. Further, each year the standard flu sends thousands of people to the hospital. We cannot afford to overflow our system with flu-related illnesses when a more deadly disease is circulating in our communities. Further, health care experts are also deeply concerned that COVID-19 could be even more debilitating or fatal to those unfortunate enough to be infected by both viruses.

This is why it is imperative that local officials take the lead in ensuring that as many residents as possible receive flu vaccinations – not just seniors, youth and those with compromised immune systems. Cities and towns should take this opportunity to create vaccine distribution systems now that can be replicated and enhanced when a COVID-19 vaccine becomes available next year.

In normal years, only about 54% of Massachusetts adults get flu shots. We must do much better in 2020. This will not be easy, especially since a cynical anti-vax movement is exerting itself more prominently, questioning science and government legitimacy, even though the science and facts are so strong. Gov. Baker’s executive order mandating flu vaccines for students of all ages is important and instructive, yet has encountered a strong backlash, which points to the resistance that municipal leaders will likely face when mounting local efforts to drive up flu vaccination rates.

On top of all of this – more indoor exposures, school reopening challenges, and the seasonal flu – local officials will be facing headwinds from rising public weariness and frustration with the deeply unpleasant, uncomfortable and difficult hardships that COVID-19 has imposed on our lives. Community leaders will need to draw on reserves of patience and understanding to deal with the public’s growing exhaustion.

At the beginning of this crisis (just six months ago, but it seems like six years), you stepped into the pandemic firestorm without complaint, without regard to your sacrifice, and without interest in political gain. Leadership in its most basic form is doing what needs to be done when it needs to be done, no matter how difficult.

Unfortunately, the “new normal” we are living in these days calls on local officials to prepare for the worse-before-better realities that autumn will bring. As you help a weary public understand these coming challenges, you will continue to make hard decisions under the most stressful and anxiety-ridden conditions imaginable.

Because of your leadership and selfless service, countless lives have been and will be saved, our communities have remained connected, and our towns and cities will continue to be the essential source of resilience for society and our economy.

We know that the pandemic will end at some point. We know that Massachusetts will get through this. While we know that the fall months will be arduous, we also know that our communities will be healthier and more secure due to your leadership.

With appreciation and admiration, we thank you for your service. MMA is honored to be your partner in navigating the challenges during the coming months and beyond.

Written by Geoff Beckwith, MMA Executive Director & CEO