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Confronting COVID from City Hall

Kathy Sheehan Moving Boxes

Albany Law School alumni at the helm of two Capital Region cities found themselves providing leadership through a once-in-a-century pandemic. This is the story of how the mayors of Albany and Troy handled the emergence of COVID-19.

THE EMERGENCE

“The situation leading up to declaring a state of emergency on March 15 was a rapid evolution,” recalls Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan ’94, the first woman mayor in the city’s more than 300-year history. She and her team were closely watching the developments downstate, but as of March 11, they were still planning to hold the St. Patrick’s Day parade. “There were no cases in the area, and CDC guidance at the time indicated that if vulnerable populations stayed home and people maintained social distance, we could proceed.” Then the county health commissioner called. Albany had its first COVID-19 case, and it was “community spread”— meaning not someone who had traveled to a high-risk area or been in contact with someone who had traveled. The parade was off.

“What I remember most about that time is how dynamic the situation was,” recounts Troy Mayor Patrick Madden ’83. When he met with his department heads on March 12, they had no inkling that schools and workplaces would be shut down. They were focused on posting notices about washing hands and making contingency plans for continuing operations if 25% of workers became sick. By that weekend, the state called for municipalities to send 50% of staff home to work, so the mayor’s team adjusted their draft plan and put it into action.

EARLY RESPONSE

In the days that followed, more executive orders were issued and more changes were required; Madden likened it to “jogging through an avalanche.” Cities were asked to further reduce on-site municipal staff by 25%, excluding essential workers. “It was challenging because most of what we do is essential: police, fire, water, and garbage,” Madden said.

He and his team agreed on two primary goals early on: to continue services to the city’s approximately 49,000 residents to the greatest extent possible; and to protect the health of city staff. “Every decision had to be looked at through those two lenses.”

Declaring a state of emergency allowed the cities to access FEMA funds, Sheehan

explained, which they first used to get personal protective equipment (PPE) for their workforce—particularly essential workers. But they also had to figure out the logistics of transitioning the majority of city staff to remote work.

Sheehan’s next priority was keeping the com- munity informed. The county was giving daily updates, mostly focused on infection rates and testing. The mayor decided to hold weekly COVID-19 updates geared toward the city’s approximately 97,000 residents, communicating news about the work they were doing to feed people, when parking rules were suspended, and when restaurants started offering drive-up service.

 

Kathy Sheehan

VALUABLE RESOURCES

Sheehan and Madden are both in their second terms, but nothing could have prepared them for dealing with a full-blown pandemic. Fortunately, there was help available. Sheehan had participated in the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, a yearlong leadership development program for mayors. With COVID-19 spreading, the initiative’s organizers held weekly briefings for program participants, then formed the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Coronavirus Local Response Initiative and opened it to all municipal leaders. The program’s real-time advice from world-renowned experts proved to be an invaluable resource, Sheehan said. “Those Thursday sessions helped me frame the messaging in my Friday updates to residents and provided some uniformity among mayors across the country.”

As far as continuity in New York’s Capital District, the mayors of Albany, Schenectady, and Troy were on the phone regularly, Madden said. At the state level, Sheehan said that Governor Andrew Cuomo’s daily reports on what was happening and how he was preparing for a surge in cases were very helpful. “They communicated clearly to everyone in the state just how serious the situation was.”

 

Patrick Madden

SUCCESS UNDER DURESS

Madden kept in close contact with his Capital Region colleagues throughout the crisis, but largely credits his staff for Troy’s successful response. “It is the quality of a team that determines the outcome,” he said. “Our team was prescient and nimble, often anticipating what was going to come and acting quickly. I’m pretty proud of what we did.” They got the city’s technology staff arranging work-from-home scenarios early on and exceeded the state’s goal for employees working from home, split staff into pods to limit exposure risk, and continued to provide city services—“not at 100% but at a good, solid level.”

Sheehan was proud that the City of Albany was able to work with community organizations to get residents the resources they needed—like getting devices into kids’ hands, wireless internet hot spots to help them access online learning, and meals to children who normally would be fed at school as well as other vulnerable residents.

Patrick Madden Blood Donation

CONTINUOUS CHALLENGE

However, K-12 education was—and remains— a concern. “The inability to have students in the classroom, interacting with teachers and friends, and the lack of access to the benefits we see when children are in school, was hard to see,” Sheehan said. “The city does not run the school district and they did the best they could under extremely difficult circumstances, but our kids are going to be impacted by the loss of school time.”

Madden was concerned about autumn and the typical cold and flu season. People would likely be even more tired of taking precautions and adhering to restrictions and, he predicted, resistant to closing businesses again. “While it’s unknown how the virus will be affected by fall and winter weather,

it’s important we continue to monitor conditions locally to stay prepared as possible,” he said.

Sheehan summarized, “COVID-19 isn’t like a natural or manmade disaster where there is a beginning, a middle, and an end to the response. It’s a virus that we don’t know how to treat, or stop from spreading—other than with these drastic measures that literally shut down the economy and disrupted our ability to gather, go to school, get counseling. … It’s a continuous challenge to which we are responding, and we don’t know when it’s going to end.”

LEADING WITH A LEGAL EDUCATION

The complex challenges that come with leading a city require unique mindsets and talents. Madden said that his legal education plays a role in every decision he makes and has helped prepare him for these challenges. “It gave me a greater ability to step out of myself, examine what is driving my thinking, and question myself and others. No one is possessed of all the tools to make all the right decisions all the time. Being receptive to other ways of thinking puts you in a better position to make difficult decisions.” He added, “I was trained to think that others have a rational basis for their position, and I need to understand their position if I am to move forward. That helps me see and appreciate the perspective of others and improves my chance of making the right decision in the end.”

Sheehan learned in law school that you must argue your opponent's case in order to be effective. "It made me more empathetic, a more critical thinker, and a better communicator," she said. "These difficult situations have helped make me a better mayor and ours a better community as we have moved forward together through these challenging times."

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