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Pa. Municipalities Approve Of State's Coronavirus Response But Want More Autonomy, Research Finds

Selena Ortiz and her colleagues surveyed 906 municipalities in Pennsylvania in May and published a report on how local officials handled the coronavirus.
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Selena Ortiz and her colleagues surveyed 906 municipalities in Pennsylvania in May and published a report on how local officials handled the coronavirus.

The state government has taken a leading role in deciding Pennsylvania’s response to the coronavirus. But when it comes to enforcing protocols and communicating with residents, local municipalities have been providing much of the support. 

Selena Ortiz wanted to understand how local governments have been handling the pandemic. So she and her colleagues surveyed 906 municipalities in Pennsylvania in May and published a report. She is an assistant professor of health policy and administration at Penn State. 


Min Xian: Selena Ortiz, thank you for joining us.

Selena Ortiz: Thank you for having me.

Min Xian: The report you helped publish is titled, “How Pennsylvania’s Municipalities and Local Officials Confront the Coronavirus.” Can you describe the overall sentiment of local officials who responded to the survey? 

Selena Ortiz: Yes. We were really interested in getting a sense of how local officials and their municipalities were coping in the context of COVID-19 and, more importantly, we wanted to do this study so that we could better understand what resources that they identify were important for their communities. 

So, some of the key findings was that a majority of local officials thought that the state’s response to the outbreak was excellent or good. But we did find that local officials, for the most part, were spilt on whether the state was coordinating well with local municipalities and many thought that the state should have more direct communication with municipalities: clearer criteria for reopening, and improved guidance for how municipalities should function in a crisis. 

And so, even among those who thought the state response was good, there were officials who thought that, ‘Yes, it was good,’ and the way we can interpret that is that maybe the actions taken by the state were good, but that the coordination and the communication could’ve been improved.

And so we asked a question about the efficacy of the efforts by the state to slow the spread of COVID-19. We had a large majority of local officials who felt that the resident stay-at-home order was absolutely effective or a great deal of effectiveness, versus, a very small minority - five percent - who said not at all, that they didn’t think that that was very effective. 

I would say that one of the biggest surprising results of the survey was that the large majority of local officials that we interviewed did not want schools, restaurants, bars or even houses of worship to reopen immediately. And that was probably one of the biggest surprises that we found.

Min Xian: One criticism against the state’s phased reopening plan was that decisions should be left to local governments, but they were not. Did you observe this kind of state versus local dissonance in the survey? 

Selena Ortiz: Yes. So we asked the question about how prepared their municipality was to respond to new diagnosed cases of coronavirus in the next few weeks. And among those who responded that they were somewhat prepared or not at all prepared, we asked a follow-up question and that was how could your municipality be better prepared? 

And we found four emerging themes in those responses and the first was that municipalities really wanted more access to resources. They also wanted more guidance for their response. But the third theme, and this is - directly addresses your question - is that they wanted the ability to respond independently. So in other words, they felt that they didn’t want to have to either rely on other municipalities to manage the response to the coronavirus, but relatedly, this was also an issue of data and information, and not having enough data and information to really sort of assess their risk as a municipality. 

Also there were so much communication I think happening - not communication in a way that was effective for them but just sort of a bombardment. One responder said that there was just sort of a bombardment of information, that it was impossible to digest through and to organize and understand and apply all the information that they were getting. So on the one hand, you heard that there wasn’t enough communication and on the other hand, you also heard that whatever communication there was, it was almost too much. For some of these local municipalities that are very small, that was a real problem. And so just again, concerns around resources and information - again, information that comes in a very accessible way - was really important for local officials.

Min Xian: Looking ahead, what kind of changes or challenges are local governments anticipating?

Selena Ortiz: we asked a question about how the municipalities themselves responded differently from the state. So we asked whether they declared their own emergency, whether they declared their own housing ban, whether they laid off or furloughed municipal employees and what they were going to do as a municipality in the future about addressing not just the health impact but also the economic, fiscal impacts. 

And we saw that a large majority of local municipalities actually declared their own emergency and that’s really important in that it allows them to also extend and do certain things in a way that is separate and independent from the state or alongside the state. Many of them, around 77 percent, 80 percent of municipalities, weren’t likely to raise service fees. They weren't likely to raise local tax rates. They weren’t likely to furlough employees. Right? So it’s almost as though we see right now, at least at the time we surveyed, there was a more positive view of the fiscal impact as a municipality. 

Now in terms of their concerns for their residents, clearly unemployment was a major concern. But we found that the second highest concern was voting. That says quite a bit about forecasting into their future in terms of the resources that municipalities want, ensuring that voting processes are fair and they are equitable and people can safely vote when the time comes. But in terms of economic recovery and in terms of strengthening civic participation, this is on the forefront of local officials’ minds.

Min Xian: Selena Ortiz, thank you for your time.

Selena Ortiz: Thank you.

Min Xian: Selena Ortiz is an assistant professor of health policy and administration at Penn State. I’m Min Xian, WPSU.

Min Xian reported at WPSU from 2016-2022.
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