A Candid Conversation With Carmel’s Mayor: On Managing a City During Pandemic

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May 2020

Earlier this month, the City of Carmel announced the development of the Reconnecting Carmel Task Force that consists of business leaders and health care professionals and is chaired by Deborah Wood, CEO of DWA Healthcare Communications Groups. The mission of the task force is to advise the mayor on the implementation of Gov. Holcomb’s five stage as “We begin to reconnect as a community.”

The plan is for future meetings to take place prior to each successive phase outlined by Gov. Holcomb and then periodically to review ongoing issues as best practices are implemented. The task force may also be asked to meet if COVID-19 cases spike or there is a major new scientific discovery that impacts the reconnecting process.

We spoke with Mayor Brainard about his thoughts on reopening parts of the city—as per Gov. Holcomb’s five-stage plan—his thoughts about how Congress could be assisting local governments and his thoughts on managing the city during a pandemic versus during the financial downturn of 2008.

Practicing “Physical Distancing,” Not Social Distancing

Mayor Brainard refers to the recommended 6 feet of distance [between humans] as “physical distancing,” so we asked him why.

Carmel's Mayor

“I’m referring to it as ‘physical distancing,’ not social distancing, because we’re trying to connect people socially and virtually in lots of ways,” Brainard said. “This requires a lot of public education. We’re talking about actual physical distancing. We have to assume that each of us is asymptomatic or presymptomatic, carrying the [COVID-19] virus. Obviously, we will continue to have more cases identified because we are testing a greater number of people, but that is not the data point that we want to look at. We want to look at the data points that show: 14 days of declining hospital admissions [COVID-19 related] and less than 5% asymptomatic spread [active COVID-19 cases] within the Carmel community, and we’re not there yet.”

Brainard continued, “So, we need to be very careful as we reopen or we will be in a much worse position with a second wave, and the governor would have to consider going back on his order and I may have to draw back. I hope we don’t have to do that, but as Gov. Holcomb said, the guidance is not to restrict ‘liberty but to save lives.’ We have a responsibility in our elected positions to do what we can to keep people safe. That is the No. 1 responsibility we have as elected leaders in this time.”

As the city continues to work with medical and scientific experts, state government and its public safety agencies to provide current information to the residents and business members of Carmel, the mayor is asking this from the public. “I’m calling on the community to do the right things. There is a lot of science out there that tells the story. and while young and [seemingly] healthy people can carry it, by not wearing a mask, they can infect dozens of other people who may then infect more people. and it could result in somebody’s death. Wearing a mask is not about protecting you as it is about protecting somebody else.”

The Importance of Setting Objectives Based on Data Points

“It is important to set data points,” Brainard emphasized. “We can clearly set objective criteria when looking at science and data and not at emotions. When those data points are met [visit city’s website for details], I will be more comfortable about reopening. Indiana is a big state—geographically—and there are different sets of circumstances in the more rural counties than the metropolitan areas.”

Brainard continued, “Again, we’ve got to set our data points upon the advice of the experts in the medical and scientific communities. And if we see our hospital admissions start to spike up, we will need to reevaluate and draw back.”

What More Should the Federal Government Be Doing to Assist Local Governments?

“Carmel’s in good shape,” Brainard stated. “We’re fortunate in Indiana that the legislature has based [operating] essential services mainly on property tax, followed by income tax. Many other states base it on sales tax, which are very volatile—especially in a recession or pandemic. I know mayors, city managers and city councils—in other states—who are wondering how they’re going to continue to pay their police, fire, EMS and other essential workers. And that’s not the case here in Indiana.”

According to Brainard, cities with populations of more than 500,000 receive reimbursements for revenue shortfalls from FEMA. He added, “I’d like to see Congress move that number from 500,000 to 50,000.”

The Challenges of Managing a City Through a Pandemic

“I’m in my 25th year of managing this city,” Brainard said. “I never would have thought that I or any of us would be trying to manage city government through a pandemic. We’ve had a pandemic plan that we put together as part of our emergency planning, and it was sitting on a shelf—rather dusty. We were looking at [the plan] in December—as reports of cases in China were increasing—but the virus wasn’t something we were terribly prepared for anywhere in this country. We were fortunate that our fire chief sought permission and purchased extra PPE early and was proactive so that we were not scrambling like a lot of other cities and towns to get sufficient PPE. And I issued a restricted travel order several days before the governor issued a stay-at-home order because the virus was spreading here—a metropolitan area—much faster than it was in more rural parts of the state.”

Carmel's Mayor

Brainard concluded, “It [the pandemic] wasn’t anything that we expected. We’ve been diligently working to gather all the information we can find and base our decision making on the best science and best medical advice and not on emotions.”