Local Commentary

The Best Path Forward Through the Coronavirus Pandemic

By David Snyder

“We are standing at a crossroads in time and in history.” So begins the foreword to the City’s 300-year history by Bradley E. Gernand and Nan Netherton. Since that book’s publication in 2000, our community has successfully prevailed over the challenges of terrorism from 9/11 and snipers, fierce storms, and the financial crisis. Now the COVID-19 pandemic presents another defining moment.

The foreword to Falls Church: A Virginia Village Revisited continues, “We know that it takes everyone to make a little City such as Falls Church work — there are no divisions between the government, the people and business — are all part of the same civic ecosystem. It works because we work together to make it work.” Our City has repeatedly responded according to that principle.

The pandemic hit Falls Church, the commonwealth, the country, and the world with unexpected speed and lethality. When I first raised concerns within the region at the end of January, the view was that the novel coronavirus could be geographically contained. Evidence now suggests, however, that the contagion’s spread was already global, and that the virus hit older people and those with underlying conditions especially hard.

Personal losses began to be felt here as the virus sickened and killed more people everywhere. The 24-hour news cycle brought home in highly personal terms not only the statistically predictable losses, but also the unpredictable deaths of seemingly healthy younger people and the supreme sacrifices of health care workers and first responders.

Our immediate reaction created its own long list of victims. Sometimes government-ordered and otherwise organically created, schools shuttered, businesses closed or shrunk overnight, depression-era levels of unemployment were quickly reached, the stock market crashed, whole sectors of the economy were devastated, and everyone’s lives were changed — either a little or a lot.

How did we respond? First, City Council approved emergency actions that tried to walk the line between normality and reducing the health risk to citizens. The Farmers Market and many restaurants continued with restrictions, parks stayed open, and essential functions were maintained, in person with social distancing and online when necessary.

Our second step was accomplished this week when Council and City management evaluated the effects of the pandemic on this year’s budget and began work on a greatly reduced budget for 2021 — one that maintains the current tax rates and recognizes reduced revenue by postponing much-desired storm water and traffic calming projects and freezing personnel positions and compensation while creating a small business loan program and assistance to citizens with low incomes.

What do we do now? I recognize this is a hazardous undertaking amid an unfolding calamity, but here is my best attempt.

First, we need to learn from what went wrong. That means applying with laser focus increased health care resources on vulnerable populations where they are, especially nursing homes and low-income communities. It means fixing supply chains for medical equipment and surging trained and protected health care personnel where they are needed. It means avoiding at least some of the economic damage that has occurred from too broad and sudden shutdown orders.

Second, we must continue what has gone right. While the pandemic has deprived us of critically important in-person interaction, it has forced us to explore the possibilities of better using online and other resources. Covid-19 and our response have also resulted in cleaner air, reduced motor vehicle accidents, and a greater sense of collective welfare and volunteerism.

Third, we must develop and execute plans for rapid economic recovery. The US Treasury, Federal Reserve, and Congress have supported the economy with significant cash infusions. But such actions are not sustainable. Confusing and often contradictory preconditions for recovery from the federal and some state governments, if strictly adhered to, will indefinitely postpone the kind of revival we must have. Working within reasonable top-down requirements, I advocate a bottom-up approach where we encourage the ingenuity and adaptation of businesses, share those approaches and best practices, and support them with flexibility from local government.

Fourth, we should consider what we want a local, national, and globally recovered economy to look like and act accordingly. Can we preserve the environmental and safety gains by permitting more telework and periodic remote learning? Build out the internet so that all communities have reliable connections? Address equity issues in the provision of healthcare and assure better, earlier interventions to protect vulnerable populations?

The foreword to the 2000 history concludes: “…we are part of the most diverse, educated, economically successful, technologically advanced, compassionate, free and influential region in the world. That is a lot to celebrate and a lot to dedicate ourselves to maintaining in the future.” The future is now, and if we act as I think we are capable, others who write the history of this period will look back and conclude that we made it work.