The City of East Lansing Is Holding Back on Some Coronavirus Measures. The Mayor Questions That.

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Friday, March 13, 2020, 7:35 am
Emily Joan Elliott

UPDATE, March 13, 2:40 p.m.: Mayor Beier has declared a State of Emergency in East Lansing. Read more.

Meridian Township has set up a special coronavirus task force. The City of Ann Arbor is revoking permits on big gatherings and closing buildings at parks. But, so far, the City of East Lansing is not taking these kinds of steps in response to COVID-19.

East Lansing Fire Chief Randy Talifarro — who is the manager for emergencies in this city — and City Manager George Lahanas told City Council this week that they are making plans with the assumption that cases will occur here. But they have yet to pull the trigger on measures like shuttering certain meetings and programs or specifically limiting the size of gatherings.

At this week’s City Council meeting, Mayor Ruth Beier questioned why more isn’t being done now.

Above: Mayor Ruth Beier at this week's meeting (photo by Gary Caldwell)

In his opening comments on the subject, Lahanas told City Council that Mayor Ruth Beier had been on a conference call in which the White House briefed the leaders of more than 5,000 local governments on the coronavirus outbreak.

But in her response to Lahanas, Beier suggested what she had learned so far is that East Lansing is missing its opportunity to act preemptively — taking action before East Lansing has any confirmed cases.

On Tuesday, March 10, the day before East Lansing’s Council meeting, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced two confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Michigan and issued a state of emergency. By Thursday night, the statewide number of cases had risen to 12 and Whitmer had ordered K-12 schools to close across Michigan.

But both Lahanas and Talifarro expressed repeatedly that the City of East Lansing was part of a regional joint planning and response effort, suggesting it should not make big decisions unilaterally.

In his comments, Talifarro explained that a good response to a pandemic is a coordinated response. East Lansing’s response is linked to Ingham County’s response, and it is up to the county to take the lead. Lahanas explained that public health decisions rest at the county level with the Health Department.

ELFD Chief Randy Talifarro speaks to Council on Wednesday. (Photo by Alice Dreger)

During any emergency, most response efforts happen behind the scenes, Talifarro explained to Council. He said that he has been in meetings with the Ingham County Health Department and with other regional leaders and that East Lansing is also coordinating its efforts with the District 1 Regional Medical Response Coalition, which includes counties in central and southern-central Michigan.

Coordination allows communities to resource-share. Talifarro sees this as crucial for emergency response if East Lansing is hit hard by the coronavirus.

Related to that, Beier asked Talifarro what would happen in a situation in which all local hospitals are full and all ventilators are in use. Talifarro answered that the City would be dependent on outside support.

Knowledge of federal, state, and county plans and procedures are considered key to receive help from other communities, Talifarro said, but he also addressed the realities of coordination. Those planning the response come from different jurisdictions and all have information that varies slightly.

For example, all seem to agree that large events should be avoided, but no official maximum number has been provided to East Lansing.

Still, Beier asked why East Lansing was not implementing changes and scaling back events now, when there still may be a chance to prevent a significant local outbreak. She suggested that once the first case appears, it is too late to stop the spread.

Talifarro responded that the City had actually been scaling back events. In fact, the planned introduction of new firefighter-paramedics to Council originally scheduled for that evening had been postponed as one such measure. (That event typically brings dozens more people to Council because firefighter-paramedics’ families attend.)

In the face of Beier’s questions, Talifarro stood by the idea that well-measured coordinated responses were best in the long run. MSU’s abrupt decision to transition to online teaching “caused ripples” in the community, he said, as MSU’s decision seemed to push other Michigan universities to move away from in-person teaching.

Talifarro suggested that a more coordinated response permits officials to explain their reasoning to the public and does not force other communities to make rushed decisions after one takes sudden action.

In his comments, City Manager George Lahanas emphasized that while public health was a county-level issue, the City was taking what he considers appropriate action.

City Manager George Lahanas taking notes at this week’s meeting. (Photo by Gary Caldwell)

As an employer, the City has used many of the tactics it already employs during flu season. It has made hand sanitizers and disinfectants available to its employees in addition to calling for social distancing — maintaining wide gaps between people to prevent virus transmission.

Lahanas told Council this week that the City had to grapple with the problem of how some employees view work. It is well known that compared to other countries, Americans are less likely to take vacation and sick time. The City of East Lansing is encouraging all employees to stay home when sick.

Slowing the spread of the disease so that it is gradual instead of exponential will allow hospitals and medical care providers to better cope with the pandemic should an outbreak become significant in our area.

ELi asked the City yesterday what sort of protections and compensation are in place for full-time and part-time employees who might have to miss work for illness or quarantine. If an hourly or part-time employee of the City is forced to stay home for two weeks — as CDC guidelines stipulate following known or suspected exposure — will they receive any pay or financial assistance? Will they be able to return to their jobs?

East Lansing Communications Coordinator Mike Frey responded, “We are currently working on a leave policy that will address what you are asking about, but it’s not quite finalized yet.”

Lahanas’ communication teams have not responded to questions from ELi sent before the Council meeting on Wednesday about whether the City has any plans to name a task force like Meridian Twonship's, what provisions if any are being made for businesses that normally rely on students being here to survive economically, and what special provisions are being made for emergency personnel who may need to respond to suspected cases of coronavirus.

ELi has created a special section for our reporting on COVID-19’s impact on East Lansing. Find it here. © 2013-2020 East Lansing Info