To keep the virus under control and health-care resources within capacity, counties and towns rely on trust and try to cajole residents to comply with mandates, rather than punish them for flouting rules.
Prime Time for Local Governments Mesa County Public Health
Back in March, when the COVID-19 virus first exploded and the federal government abdicated its role while state governments gyrated through an ever-shifting series of mandates, rural counties found themselves on the front lines of a confusing war. To keep infections under control and health-care resources within capacity, counties and towns relied heavily on an unofficial and almost intangible resource: the bond of trust between citizens and the government closest to them.
In the new upsurge of cases, they still depend on trust. From California’s Central Valley to Colorado’s Western Slope and Idaho’s Teton Valley, this reservoir of trust has some cracks, but endures. As infections climb, small communities are crucibles of tension and turmoil, riven because residents inhabit two different worlds. In one, the virus is no worse than the flu; shutdowns and mask mandates show government overreach. In the other, COVID-19 is a fearsome plague to be contained by any means necessary.
The most common response: elastic enforcement. Cajole people to comply with controls. Don’t insist. “The hardest thing is enforcement,” said Jose Sigala, mayor of Tulare, a city of 67,000 people in California’s agricultural heartland. “Nobody wants to be the bad cop. Cops don’t want to be the bad cop. City officials don’t want to be the bad cop.” Governors in California and Colorado establish tiers of restrictions based on the outbreak’s local severity, but it is up to locals to enforce them. Or not.
A simple premise guides Matt Lewis, the sheriff in western Colorado’s Mesa County: “not to criminalize a public health emergency.” With low caseloads and few deaths, his county sailed through the first months of the pandemic. That changed dramatically in the past month. “We went from six deaths to 25 in no time,” said Jeff Kuhr, the executive director of the Mesa County Health Office, which serves a population of 154,000 in an area where dry ground rises up against angular mountains. As December began, the number of deaths had climbed to 63.
Geoff McGhee/Bill Lane Center for the American West
Surging cases “mean the work we have to do increases tremendously,” Lewis said. “We need to be an example of following health department rules. We need to be the calm, steadfast force in our community as it goes through mounting fear.” When a local CrossFit gym stayed open in defiance of state orders, it was the sheriff whom the county’s health office called in. As Lewis recalls,“We sat with the owner and said, ‘Let’s find a happy medium.’” The solution: members continued using their key cards, the owners put up a sign limiting use to 10 people, and video cameras monitor compliance.
“I took the gym owner to the health department and was being a peacekeeper,” said Lewis. Facing defiance from the gym or a local amusement park, Kuhr, the health officer, would say to himself, “‘Is this the battle you want to choose?’….Public health is physical, mental, and economic health. I don’t want to be seen as part of a pattern of shutting people down.”
Code enforcement has always been discretionary. As John Lollis, the city manager in Porterville, a city of 60,000 in Tulare County, said, “Even before COVID, getting compliance without penalizing folks” was the norm. “Whether it’s building codes, fire codes or the municipal code, our intent is not to red-tag you.”
Tulare County’s sheriff, Mike Boudreaux, lives by that ethic. “We’ve spent years developing our community trust,” he said. “But it’s very difficult for law enforcement to continue that trust, if I’m going to go out and cite people for not wearing a mask. That’s not law enforcement’s role.” He added, “We go to school with these families, play soccer with these families, go to church, to stores, to movie theaters. You have to have the discretionary ability to enforce or not enforce for the overall good.”
Early in the pandemic, he said, “I went to the health department and said, ‘How many masks can you give me?’” Boudreaux then told his deputies to hand them out. “We put out an informational pamphlet in Spanish and English,” he said. “We told people, ‘Here’s the importance of this. Here’s a free mask.’... At the end of the day, COVID, we hope, goes away completely. Our community is going to be working with us forever.”
Local officials ran for office expecting to referee zoning disputes, trash pickups or building codes. “Nobody gets into office and expects to have a pandemic. This is new territory for everybody,” said Amy Shuklian, vice chair of the Tulare County Board of Supervisors. “We’ve been frustrated with everything coming at us differently all the time” as state orders were revised. The county has 466,000 people, many of them Latinx agricultural workers who often live in poor communities. By Dec. 1, COVID-19 had killed 312 people.
A core frustration for her and others has been the handoff of responsibility from higher authorities. Bob Heneage, a commissioner in Idaho’s Teton County said, “Harry Truman once said, ‘The buck stops here.’ Now you’ve turned that concept on its head – we’ve got a trickle-down buck that stops at local government.” Teton County hugs the border with affluent Jackson, Wyoming; its population is about 12,000. As December began, it had had two deaths from COVID-19.
On Oct. 26, as statewide case numbers began to soar, eventually passing 100,000, Idaho Gov, Brad Little, complained that local officials, to whom he had handed responsibility, had failed. “The eventual shift to a localized approach was the right thing to do, but it’s not worked as well as it should, because the virus is relentless, and in some parts of the state there simply has been insufficient effort to protect lives,” Little said.
User “Daniela” via Flickr
In an earlier interview, Mayor Will Frohlich of Victor, a Teton County town of 2,400, pointed out, “Once a decision goes to a local level, that’s very dangerous… When you put 100 percent of the responsibility on local officials with extremely limited bandwidth, that’s when things start to fall apart.”
Victor’s politics are more purple than those of red areas nearby.“There’s definitely more buy-in than less buy-in” to restrictions, Frohlich said. A local mask mandate, he added, prompted spontaneous support. “They say: ‘Thank you for doing this;’ ‘You shouldn’t have to be doing this.’” Is there opposition? “Absolutely.” This split is common around the rural West. “As a city government, we found ourselves in a no-win situation. The city council is trying to ride the middle, and that makes no-one happy,” said Randy Groom, the city manager of Visalia. “Either they want nothing or they want everything.”
At a May 19 meeting of Tulare supervisors, one Porterville resident, said, “It would be great if you guys could declare yourselves a sanctuary county from the governor.” By a 3-to-2 margin, the board then voted to defy Governor Gavin Newsom’s restrictions, adopting less rigorous mandates. Shuklian, the vice-chair of the board, was one of the two who opposed defying the state. Later she said, “I’ve never gotten so many emails. They were thanking me for not taking that vote.”
Mesa County Public Health
How does the increasingly fraught relationship with constituents compare with normal times? Attendance at public meetings has grown, as have protests and sharp emails.
Sometimes pre-existing relationships helped officials navigate challenging conditions. Jeff Kuhr, executive director of Mesa County’s Board of Health, and Diane Schwenke, the head of the Grand Junction Chamber of Commerce, both have roots in Nebraska. They enjoy Cornhusker football games together. When the virus hit, Schwenke joined a team of health professionals and law-enforcement officials that Kuhr headed.
“Because of our relationship, we started collaborating on reopening plans,” she said. Last summer, “We were the second [Colorado] county granted a variance [by the governor’s office] so we could start the reopening process. We were allowed to open restaurants to in-room dining.” She added, “There needed to be strong channels of communication to the business community specifically. We had a relationship before, so it was really easy to begin the dialogue.”
In Teton County, collaboration with local mayors and health professionals framed the commissioners’ design of COVID-19 protocols. The eight-county regional health board was not proactive, said Cindy Riegel, a county commissioner. When the pandemic began, “I would say, yes, there was trust in local officials … because we were doing something,” she said. “There’s trust issues everywhere,” added Riegel, who pushed for restrictions. “A lot of people … were just confused why we didn’t have a mask order in place” as vacationers arrived in June.
Ken Lund via Flickr
In early July, the Eastern Idaho towns of Victor and Driggs put in mask mandates. Teton County commissioners sought to follow. The regional health authority, Eastern Idaho Public Health, preempted them with a regional order. When it was rescinded in three weeks, the county put in its own. “The majority of people in our community support mask requirements,” Riegel said. But not all. “I got an email saying: ‘Who do you think you are taking over the job of the public health district and enacting your own ordinance and going against what they are recommending?’”
John Lollis sees an emotional undercurrent in such attacks. “The things that gave you joy, and the freedoms that we had, we don’t have now… Anger and mistrust of government is about the things that relate to us personally. Some will say it’s about wearing a face covering. But the real core of it is: ‘I can’t do the things I’m used to doing, the things that make my life worth living.’”
Randy Groom in Visalia, Tulare County’s biggest city with 137,000 people, said, “People absolutely don’t trust the state, whether the governor or appointed officials. They say, ‘They’re messing with us, driving the economy into the ground, going to kill us. Local officials may push us more than we want, but they get us.’”
Recent polls on trust in local government had small sample sizes, but did support its importance. In an Economist/YouGov poll in late September, 52 percent of westerners rated local government handling of the virus excellent or good — more than in other regions. By contrast, only 29 percent of westerners rated the federal government’s handling good or excellent; 47 percent felt the same about state efforts.
An Edelman “Trust Barometer” poll of businesses in September found about 28 percent of respondents in the West felt decisions to return to work should be based on state and local guidelines — more than any other region of the country. (In the South it was 17 percent; in the Northeast and Midwest 23 percent.) Westerners believed state and local guidance was more reliable than decisions by managers or workers.
An Edelman “Trust Barometer” poll of businesses in September found about 28 percent of respondents in the West felt decisions to return to work should be based on state and local guidelines — more than any other region of the country.Click the headers to sort.
Geoff McGhee/Bill Lane Center for the American West
Deborah Gilk of the UCLA School of Public Health examined how inconsistent messages affect community trust in a 2007 study. “Multiple consistent messages are usually more effective than single messages or inconsistent messages,” she wrote. But as COVID-19 knowledge grew, messages changed. “We all like lives of certainty, and we’ve never had as much uncertainty as we have now,” said Lollis, the Porterville city manager.
In Visalia, inconsistent approaches to COVID-19 mean paradoxical sights everywhere. “Things have reverted to the Prohibition era,” Groom said. “Everything’s turned into a speakeasy. You can still get a drink or a haircut, but you have to go in the back door. I would see people crossing the street in karate outfits, but not going out the front door” of a “closed” studio.
Tulare County Sheriff’s Office
Risk perception is a key to the political cleavage. As Visalia’s Groom explains: “Here’s what people are saying to themselves... ‘I don’t know anybody that has been hospitalized or died, I know people who are positive and I know people who got a little sick, but I don’t think it’s that serious.’”
Aaron Fukuda, general manager of the Tulare Irrigation District, said, “there’s a certain sentiment around here that this is just a political game. I’ve heard statements like, ‘It will all be over in November.’” Said Jose Sigala, mayor of the city of Tulare, “The skepticism is generated from President Trump on down. If the president doesn’t worry about it, why should I?”
Sheriff Boudreaux does know someone who died of COVID-19; he won’t tolerate “flagrant disregard” for restrictions. He warns homeowners hosting large parties to stop. “Don’t gather 200 people at a football game and expect me to look the other way….I still have to look out for the community and their belief system, but also … I have to look out for the reality of the people I represent” and try to protect their health, he said.
Tulare County’s school superintendent, Tim Hire, thinks news stories exaggerate risk. “One thing I struggle with is the media’s influence on this pandemic,” he said. “I think we report in such a way that it creates drama, it creates fear.” He said businesses should be able to choose what safety measures to enforce, and patrons should be able to choose the places they feel comfortable. “We’ve taken away people’s ability to choose.”
Mike Trimble via Flickr
In Visalia, Groom said, “I think city council members believe the facts and the science,” but “they are unwilling to irritate their constituents who either don’t believe the facts or believe it’s overly politicized. They aren’t as compelled by people on the side of science.”
How do Tulare citizens approach science? Selectively. Farmers, after all, depend on scientific findings to increase their yields. “We have some farmers out here, they farm by spreadsheet and science,” said Fukuda of the Tulare Irrigation District. That’s not their approach to COVID-19. “The media played it so much as a political thing that people responded, right or wrong, depending on what political party they are in.”
In the summer, an Idaho state legislator made his distrust of scientific expertise clear. In August, as several lawmakers advocated for stripping public health districts of authority to close schools, State Sen. Steve Thayn from Gem County, near the western edge of the state, said, “Listening to experts to set policy is an elitist approach and I’m very fearful of an elitist approach….I’m also fearful that it leads to totalitarianism, especially when you say, ‘Well, we’re doing it for the public good.’” The measure he supported died.
Local officials like Bob Heneage, the Teton County commissioner, feel science must be a bedrock for decisions. “When I first got elected, I really thought most of what I was going to be dealing with were typical local issues -- land-use planning, affordable housing, all quality-of-life and health, safety and welfare issues. But not life-and-death issues.” Now, he said, “we are forced into making decisions that ultimately will be life or death for somebody... To not base decisions on science? I can’t imagine that.”
He remains troubled by his board’s role. “For us to attempt to address a global pandemic at the local level is so completely absurd,” he said. “It’s trying to put out a raging fire with a squirt gun.”
What will become of trust in local governments? “I don’t see that changing,” said Lollis. “In my experience, you can come to a council meeting and you can talk to the council. In other levels of government, that [kind of contact] is limited.” He added: “Talk about trust. Is someone willing to meet with you, listen to you, dialogue about your concerns and interests?” Riegel, who was reelected to the Teton County commission last month, thinks the pandemic gave people a close-up look at local government, enhancing trust.
If they are right, when the era of COVID-19 ends, trust between local officials and their citizens may be weakened, but is likely to survive.
Edited by Geoff McGhee.
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