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Preparing for a post-pandemic Wayne County

The dream, of course, is that we get the signal some day soon. The signal to re-open our cities, end the quarantine and resume life as we knew it before COVID-19 hit the world.

The reality is likely going to be much more complicated than that.

While some of us may become immune to the virus after being infected, most of us will remain vulnerable to it until a vaccine is developed. The timeline for vaccine development, production and widespread administration is being discussed in years, not months. Scientists, healthcare professionals and historians of pandemics past are predicting that we’ll see gradual bits of resuming daily activity followed by the periodic need to return to self-isolation and many of the more strict measures we’re taking now. Mask wearing, physical distancing and special precautions to protect those with compromised immune systems could be a way of life for a while.

So what can Richmond and Wayne County do to prepare for life after this initial round of pandemic lockdown? How can we look ahead to make sure we are ready to make the most of the situation, thriving where we’re able and taking precautions where we must?

Here are six places to start:

  1. Strengthening neighborhood support systems. COVID-19 has emphasized the importance of being able to depend on the people around us when we need it the most. From child care to friendship at a distance to meal preparation to home maintenance to just checking in on each other, we know we can get through hard things when we have help, and when we are able to offer it. Doing this effectively means knowing our neighbors, having efficient ways of communicating with each other about unmet needs, and understanding what talents and resources each of us can provide when the time is right. We also need ways to escalate requests for help without overwhelming emergency services, through social service agencies, hotlines or other channels. That’s all work that we can be doing now so that when that time arrives, we’re ready.
  2. Making our supply chains more resilient. Whether it’s groceries and food, fuel, medical supplies or equipment, we need to make sure that as a region we are protected from disruptions in the national supply chain. Building more independence through local production and planning, and doing it without endangering the health of front line service workers, will be key to surviving some of the future shortages that may come.
  3. Retooling workplaces, schools and public spaces for physical distancing. There will be future quarantine periods. We saw stay-at-home orders issued because we knew that our workplaces and public spaces were not equipped to handle life at 6 feet apart. But what if we could update the way we gather in some spaces to facilitate the kind of physical distancing needed to slow the spread of a virus, and still be able to operate? Beyond reducing maximum occupancy, what would it look like to be able to go to a local restaurant where you could enjoy the food and drinks you love without worrying about infecting someone or being infected? What does a day at the office look like in that new reality? What does a modern classroom setting look like with distancing built in? We have the ingenuity to design a new approach to these parts of our life, and it’s time to start applying it now so we don’t have to close everything down so completely in the future.
  4. Enable better distributed/remote work. Evolve from asking everyone to unexpectedly work at home during a crisis to finding ways that local organizations and businesses that are able can provide tools, processes and cultural changes for solid, productive work from a remote location. If much of someone’s workday is in front of a computer, how can we allow them to effectively continue that work during a period of self-isolation while reducing the stress that goes with figuring out technology on the fly, trying to find a way to home school their kids, or caring for other family members? How can our city and county governments function effectively in a distributed environment when need be?
  5. Develop deep testing, tracing and reporting capabilities for the area. Countries and regions that were able to minimize the impact of COVID-19 on their way of life and economies did so in part through developing clear, data-driven ways to understand how the virus was spreading, where it came from, and how to measure the effectiveness of their quarantine and treatment actions. By formalizing and extending our testing, tracing and reporting infrastructure here, we can be ready to more swiftly understand and act on the implications of this and any future public health crises.
  6. Prepare for an increased interest in lower-density living. People who have been through the challenges of quarantine in close quarters in dense, large cities like New York City may be seeking a change in living situation, voluntarily or out of financial necessity. Some of them will be attracted to the quality of life and relatively low cost of living that smaller towns like ours can provide. While it probably won’t be a land rush, we can still make sure we adapt the way we advertise ourselves to the world to help people understand why the wide open spaces of the Midwest are worth a look.

These steps will require intense coordination, communication, transparency and forward-thinking at all levels of government, business, the not-for-profit community and each of us as residents. We can build on the sense of common purpose that has developed and strengthened in this time to prepare us for the future.

The one thing we cannot do is just wait around for things to get back to normal. We live in a different world now, and if Richmond and Wayne County are to thrive in that world, we have to plan and adapt accordingly.

What else should our area be doing to prepare us for the reality of living with the possibility of virus outbreaks or similar public health issues? What have we learned from this last couple of months that we can apply moving forward? I welcome your comments below.

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