An Interview with Greensboro Mayor Nancy Barakat Vaughan

This past week, I asked Mayor Nancy Barakat Vaughan if she was willing to take some time to answer a few questions for “This Week in Black and White.” They were submitted and answered just as they appear here verbatim. The same is true for Mayor Vaughan’s responses. Nothing has been changed. More importantly, there is no editorial comment of my own anywhere in this interview. My purpose is solely to give the mayor an opportunity to describe in greater detail the efforts made by her and local governments to deal with the impact of COVID-19 and its consequences for Greensboro.

MJR: How are we as a city handling the crisis? What more can you tell us about what city government has done so far, what must be done in the immediate future, and how we get there?

NBV: The coronavirus continues to be a moving target.  Every morning uncovers new issues within our city and for our residents and employees.  

From the very beginning the City of Greensboro took a leadership role in recognizing the severity of the pandemic. The Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) men’s basketball tournament was cancelled, mid-tournament, along with the opening of the Tanger Center for the Performing Arts (including 37 events). The Greensboro Coliseum and Piedmont Hall cancelled their events and the City of Greensboro reduced hours at libraries and city office buildings. We had hoped to keep libraries open for school children so they could use Wi-Fi and other services, but we soon had to close the library system. However, we do have great on-line resources.  

At the moment, all shows and special events are cancelled or modified until further notice.

I am chair of the Metro Mayors organization. In mid-March we started talking about Stay at Home (SAH) orders, since, at that time, Governor Cooper was not moving in that direction. We were in daily contact with the governor’s office and he understood the need for more densely populated areas to move quickly. The Metro Mayors adopted the “Ohio Model” as did many states.

The cities of Greensboro and High Point were going to adopt a SAH order but at that point with the urging of the Health Department the Guilford County Commissioners decided to adopt a countywide order. That was a good thing – until it wasn’t. Three weeks after the initial order, Guilford County (against the advice of their health department and other healthcare professionals) decided to let the order expire and align itself with the governor’s less restrictive order. The City of Greensboro disagreed with the county’s decision. Allowing the countywide order to expire led to confusion. It wasn’t reported well. We were one of the first counties not to extend the stay at home order.

The City has continued to press the SAH message. With funding from the Bryan Foundation we have a “Keep You Covered” campaign to give out free face coverings. We’ve pushed out videos with sign language and subtitles in the city’s most commonly spoken languages to make sure that people understand what they should and shouldn’t do. We have continued to lead the county in messaging and actions for community health and well-being.  

MJR: How do you think the people of Greensboro are handling this crisis? A couple of weeks ago, Councilwoman Sharon Hightower told me she was deeply concerned about the still sizeable number of people in her district and elsewhere who are ignoring the SAH order and social distancing. Do you share that concern? What others would you add?

NBV: Initially when Guilford County enacted the SAH people took it seriously. Once it was allowed to expire I think people were confused, or they believed, the order was over. It also coincided with the “Reopen NC” campaign.  

The discussion pivoted from public health to economic health. Were SAH orders killing business? It became apparent why the order was not extended. It was about business more than health. People started questioning the science behind the initial predictions.  

Clearly, it was closing schools, businesses, telling people to stay home and stressing “social distancing” that made the difference. Flattening the curve doesn’t make the virus go away. It actually keeps it around a little longer but at a manageable rate so it won’t overwhelm our healthcare providers.   

I agree with Sharon. People are acting like we’ve got this beat. I don’t think they understand that we don’t have enough testing to know the actual spread. It’s going to be with us for a while and people need to protect themselves and their families. This will be a new way of life. I’m a “hugger”, but I’ll hold back for a while.  

MJR: Governors are making news these last few weeks as COVID 19 hits their states hard, and the same can be said for mayors. Many have come into the public eye as leaders. But their views vary. Some want to follow the scientists and see the necessity of keeping their local economies closed. Others want to open up now or very soon. Where do you see yourself in relation to them?

NBV: I believe we need to heed the advice of the healthcare providers and epidemiologists. I relied heavily, and still do, on my discussions with medical professionals. This pandemic is outside of my regular knowledge base. I am not embarrassed to admit that “I don’t know what I don’t know.” I ask for information and I judge it accordingly. I believe we need to trust the local healthcare professionals. That is why I pushed for the SAH order and I’ll continue to take the cautious approach. I see the health and safety of our community as my number one priority.  

MJR: How are city workers being protected? If you’re in the planning department, I assume you are working from home or not at all. What about police, firefighters, sanitation workers and others whose work requires public presence and possible exposure to the disease? 

NBV: City workers who can work remotely are working from home. Zoom meetings have become commonplace. Technology has allowed a lot of work to continue with just minor interruption. Employees who work remotely are still accessible by phone or electronically to the general public.  

There are many “front line” employees. Most people think about police and fire but it goes much deeper than that. We have hundreds of employees who are out every day serving the residents and businesses of Greensboro; sanitation workers, water resources, parks and recreation, street maintenance and communications. In times of emergency people do things outside of their regular job descriptions.  

For employees physically on the job we supply PPE as needed, we pay a 5 percent premium for the hours worked in the field, added five additional sick days and we did not exempt any employees from the CARES FMLA, unlike other governmental agencies.  

We eliminated yard-waste pickup due to the inability to social distance on the truck, the amount of PPE required, the nature of the pickup itself. It is not automated. It is labor-intensive and people like to speak to their neighborhood field operations person. We received hundreds of complaints regarding the temporary discontinuation of yard waste but we felt it was necessary. We waived fees at the landfill if people wanted to bring their own yard waste there.  

The bus drivers are not direct employees of the City of Greensboro, but we have worked closely with our transit provider to make sure that operator safety is a priority. Drivers have been provided with PPE. As of March 20 the transit system went fare free. To eliminate face-to-face transactions with others, riders enter through the rear door only. Seats behind the drivers are blocked off. Hand sanitizers are installed on each route and the buses are sanitized between routes. Also, the bus drivers receive the same 5 percent bump in pay as city employees who are actively in the field.  

Employee safety is a priority.

MJR: How close do you think we are to reopening business in the state and here in Greensboro?

NBV: This is still a fast changing issue. Governor Cooper’s phased opening starts on May 8.  It’s not completely clear what that looks like since it’s based on “testing, trends and tracing.” The governor’s order has a lot of gray area. And that is probably deliberate to give him flexibility.  

The City of Greensboro will follow the governor’s order unless we see a large spike in cases.  By constantly reinforcing the SAH message and face coverings we hope to avoid a potential surge. I think by late May or early June you will see many businesses reopen under a limited capacity. Some businesses will require face coverings, especially those with close contact. I hope that we will learn the “do’s and don’t’s” from states and counties that open early.

Local small-business owners have carried the burden of this business shut down. We would all like to see them open up. I’ve spoken to many owners, restaurant and bar owners, who are cautious of opening too soon. They are worried that people are going to stay away – and on the other hand – they are worried that there will be a resurgence of the virus from people going back to work and shopping too soon. They can’t afford a second shut down.  

People need to feel worthwhile. It’s been tough for some people to stay at home. They want routine. It’s even hard to volunteer under these circumstances.

MJR: How are you doing with all this? What are some of your personal thoughts as mayor and someone just like the rest of us?

NBV: As of a few short weeks ago, I never thought that I would know so much about “flatten the curve” and a Stay at Home order. But I was quick to recognize that I needed help so I reached out to the professionals who do this for a living. I believe it shows strength to admit that you “don’t know what you don’t know” and to ask the people that do. I put a lot of trust in our healthcare professionals. As mayor my first concern is the overall health and well-being of our residents. All of the decisions I’ve made are guided by one principle: the health and well-being of our community. If I was wrong I erred on the side of caution.  

Closing schools, sporting events, concerts, social activities, religious gatherings and business are difficult decisions. They keep you up at night. Encouraging people to stay home and avoid unnecessary contact with friends and family is foreign to me. Recognizing that some people have no home to go and for some people home isn’t safe.   

The impact on our city budget will be huge. We had just finished a great visioning session with tangible goals to increase affordable housing at the lower end of the average median income, to increase the per-capita income of individuals and households over the next five years, and to put more money in the city’s reserves for a “rainy day.”   

March was set to be a banner month for the City of Greensboro and our businesses; the ACC women’s and men’s tournament, the opening of the Tanger Center, the first two rounds of the men’s NCAA basketball tournament, free concerts by the Indigo Girls and KC and the Sunshine Band  – thousands of hotel rooms booked, caterers and restaurants booked in advance. The Furniture Market a few weeks later.  And then…

We will adjust. We are a great city. People have reinvented their businesses to help healthcare workers and people in need. Businesses and people have contributed to funds to help people who abruptly found themselves out of work.  

We will get through this.  #GreensboroStrong 

Posted in The Week in Black and White.