reopening while coronavirus circulates


How can public agencies re-open their operations, for workers and the public? A client asked me to research this question, and they have graciously agreed to share the answers I found with you. This information may be useful, as you navigate the impacts of the pandemic on your operations and stakeholders.


The novel coronavirus pandemic developed quickly, spreading around the globe within a few months. Workers were sent home to shelter in place, and decision-makers grappled with adjustments to essential operations. For a time, people felt that “this situation is temporary; we’ll get back to normal by summer.”

But now, that view has changed. Several factors — asymptomatic contagion, high infectiousness, and slow declines after peak infection rates — indicate the virus will be circulating in our communities for a long time, longer than any community can afford to remain shut down. As a result, the most important insight from recent sources is that strategies for re-opening must assume the virus could be present at any time, any where, and in any one.

For more on this finding, please read the clear logic presented in “A New Strategy for Bringing People Back to Work During COVID-19.” Authors Lanhee Chen, Bob Kocher, Avik Roy, and Bob Wachter are associated with the non-partisan think tank Foundation for Research and Equal Opportunity.


I scoured a wide range of resources (see reference list below) to find re-opening strategies and specific practices being used by cities and counties in the U.S. and abroad. These strategies are equally applicable to businesses and non-profits.

The following list distills the research into seven key strategies that you can use to return to your organizations and communities to operational and economic activity:

Employ Testing and Contact Tracing. Economic activity will be restored when people feel safe to return to workplaces, stores, and public gatherings. With this strategy, healthy people can to return to work, while specific individuals at risk of contagion can be isolated and quarantined. Data from testing will also give you essential decision-making information about which activities/venues can be opened and when.

Use Data to Guide Decisions for Returning People to Work. Several key variables influence transmission rates within a population, such as proximity, viral load, and duration of exposure. Erin S. Bromage, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Biology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, spells these out in her recent article “The Risks – Know Them – Avoid Them.” Other variables measure actual rates of infection within a population, such as number of new cases per day and number of new hospitalizations per day. Your goal is to have a plan based on rational, scientific evidence, so you can adjust your plans for re-opening as new information becomes available. Washington state Governor Inslee is competently modeling this strategy.

Minimize and Eliminate Pathways for Infection. This active strategy seeks to reduce the number and duration of potential contacts between people and the virus. The tools you’ve been using through the pandemic crisis will likely continue: teleworking, digital service platforms, social distancing protocols, contact-less technologies, reconfiguration of facilities, and many other tactics such as regular cleaning and disinfection. Addressing infection pathways may also include adjustments to the HVAC systems of agency buildings. For field staff, new practices may be needed, such as reducing crew sizes to 2 people per vehicle, and staggering shift start times to avoid large group gatherings.

Just as importantly, leaders and public agency employees can model desirable behavior, such as wearing face masks.

In all cases, minimizing infection pathways will involve a mix of changes in physical environment (barriers, one-way aisles, lower seating density, etc.), altered practices and procedures (digital signatures, hand washing, more frequent cleaning), and adaptive habits and culture (new hands-free greetings, keeping six feet of distance, mask-wearing as an expected norm). Be sure to consider all three areas, so each can reinforce the outcomes you seek.

Communicate Often, Openly, and with Empathy. To allay fears and settle uncertainty, make it your mission to fully inform your stakeholders: employees, partners, decision-makers, and community members. They should know about the COVID-19 caseload in your jurisdiction, your decision metrics, challenges, plans for addressing the challenges, and your successes.

Leaders should also mind the stress, sense of disconnection, and feelings of loss your team members may be experiencing. With personal interactions limited to digital media, leaders should take the time to connect to their employees on a personal level. In my research, many leaders said their personal outreach was one of the greatest benefits of the crisis, and bound to deliver rewards long after the crisis has passed.

Support Your Workers and the Community. The pandemic highlights the inequalities in our communities, such as between health workers at the front lines and those able to remain safely at home, or between those who have lost their jobs and those who can continue to working. Other agencies are addressing these gaps by giving front-line workers extra pay/support/recognition, adjusting policies to enable new forms of support (such as child care), and supporting local businesses by purchasing locally. In addition, many organizations are finding ways to better serve disadvantaged communities who are being hit the hardest.

Use Adversity to Build Back Even Better. On the bright side, the pandemic is spurring innovation on a massive scale, in every institution. Leaders have the opportunity to channel innovation toward improving programs, projects, processes, and practices for the long term. For example, some departments of transportation are using this time of low traffic to accelerate some road projects; other government agencies are hiring people who have slack in their workday due to the pandemic – real estate agents, consultants, and teachers – to help overwhelmed agency workers. And many agencies have shifted to fully digital contracts and procurement systems, a move that will improve service levels for the long term. What are your innovations, and how can they be leveraged for long-term benefit?

Solve Challenges Regionally, If Possible. And finally, while it is natural to be laser-focused on your community during a crisis, the undesirable result might be an uncoordinated patchwork of strategies across different cities and counties. Citizens and businesses who need to conduct business in more than one jurisdiction can be confused and frustrated if these jurisdictions have different or conflicting policies. Instead, strive to work with regional partners toward a coordinated approach on key COVID-recovery topics.


As a strategic facilitator, I work with leadership teams to apply these strategies to building their pandemic response, so that workers and businesses can re-open within the unique constraints and opportunities of their work place and community. So let’s design your next important conversation: “What to do? How to do it? Where to focus first?” I am well-versed in video-conferencing technologies as well as special facilitation methods adapted for these virtual environments.

Get in touch to find out how we can work together.


Bakaly, Tom. (April 10, 2020). Leading Through the Pandemic and Preparing for the New Normal. Accessed May 6, 2020.

Chen, Lanhee, et al. (April 14, 2020). A New Strategy for Bringing People Back to Work During COVID-19. Accessed May 6, 2020.

Dorsey & Witney LLP, no author cited. (March 5, 2020).What Construction Contractors and Owners Should Do, Today, to Prepare for the Possible Effects of Novel Coronavirus on their Projects.Accessed May 6, 2020.

Elms, Brian. (April 29, 2020).  Governments Innovation Surge Shouldn’t End with the Pandemic. Accessed May 6, 2020.

Florida, Richard, and S. Pedigo. (May 1, 2020). How Our Cities Can Reopen After the COVID-19 Pandemic. Accessed May 5, 2020.

Florida, Richard: ICMA Summary of A Webinar. (May 1, 2020). Reopening our Communities after COVID-19: Additional Insight from Richard Florida. Accessed May 6, 2020.

Foreman, Ellen. (April 7, 2020). Update 4: Perspectives from Local Government Leaders on Staff Morale. Accessed May 5, 2020.

Goldsmith, Stephen, et al. (April 14, 2020).  Rheostat Government: Replacing the On-Off Switch with a Dimmer . Accessed May 5, 2020.

O’Mara, Mark: Podcast for the ICMA (April 3, 2020). Tools and Techniques for Managing Covid-19 Recovery Costs. Accessed May 5, 2020.

Reid, Randall. (April 30, 2020). Seven Things to Consider When Reopening Communities. Accessed May 6, 2020.

Roads & Bridges Website, no author cited. (April 16, 2020). Updated: Roads & Bridges’ Survey Results on the Effects of Covid-19 on Industry Operations. Accessed May 6, 2020.

Vestal, Christine, and M. Ollove. (April 30, 2020). Reopen Means Contact Tracing. Many States Aren’t Ready. Accessed May 6, 2020.