The mayor reflects on dealing with impact of COVID-19 and what he thinks will remain in city government after the pandemic.
Here is a transcript of Steve Burger's interview with Evansville Mayor Lloyd Winnecke:
Burger: Can you tell me what you remember from that time?
Mayor Winnecke: I remember right out of the gate and what we really stress to people because there was so much we didn't know and there was so many rumors that we really stress the importance of getting good quality information from Vanderburgh County Health Department's website the Indiana State Department of Health Website and the CDC. We stress that time and again, especially in the first several weeks of the pandemic because you know, my recollection is, you know, things were changing if not daily sometimes hourly. So we really wanted people to have solid information from reputable sources.
00:00:40 Burger: How difficult is it to plan your response under those types of conditions?
00:00:46 Mayor Winnecke: It was extraordinarily difficult. I would tell you it was it was the most stressful crisis management situation, we've gone through in our nine-plus years in office. Now part of the challenge. One there was new medical information and new medical guidance coming out on a regular basis, but then there were also restrictions. You know, what what could we as local policymakers do and so we were counting on the briefings from the city attorney Marco DeLucio. We work closely with County Commission president Jeff Hatfield. So county attorney David Jones was involved in a lot of these meetings. So we relied on their expertise. Cuz they were getting new legal guidance about everything from how to conduct a public meeting virtually what was allowed and what wasn't allowed all that was changing again. It seemed like daily looking back at it. And I know I told our department heads many times and I'm sure I went back through the archives. You probably find me saying this to the general public, you know, here's our plan. Here is our community's plan for now, but it may change, so, you know be flexible be flexible and understand that everyone is making decisions with the best information we have at that time.
00:02:11 Burger: The thing that you tackled first was information, is that fair to say or something else?
00:02:19 Mayor Winnecke: No, I think information was was- Yeah. I think that was the first thing we tackled and and I wouldn't say we kind of checked that box and moved on. I mean throughout the pandemic, we relied on what we faced, you know changing guidance, whether it's early on it was a no masks are required in many weeks and (then) masks are required, you know, then there's all kinds of this all that kind of stuff was evolving quickly. And so we had to be calm and take the information as it came to us. But that was the most critical thing out of the gate was to communicate what we knew and do so in a calm calm manner, so people understood that we were calm and we were acting.
00:03:08 Burger: As mayor, of course, you're the top local city official. At what point would you say that the weight of that professional role really began to become obvious in terms of the pandemic?
00:03:22 Mayor Winnecke: I'd have to go back and look at my calendar, but I can give you the exact date. It was probably the date that we had a briefing in late February with local hospital officials. I invited them in along with health department leaders. Just give me a briefing on what they knew and what they were seeing and reading, you know, it was very eye-opening and it became abundantly clear that this was not going to be a you know, a two-week sort of crisis to help manage for the community, but it was going to be a months on end and now a year in the making so it was early in the pandemic. I would tell you Steve and you know, thankfully we have just enormous cooperation between the two health systems and our health department. We relied and they were like, hey, we need a meeting and they were here there was no well, we're kind of busy, you know, we're running- none of that. They were here and they provided us with very blunt nd candid advice about how we should be proceeding as a community and what we should anticipate.
00:04:36 Burger: It is a common answer that the thing that really made this work the best that it could was the cooperation,
00:04:45 Mayor Winnecke: You know looking back at me as difficult as the last year has been I can't imagine working in a community where there wasn't this level of cooperation and see we found it at every level we found it between Governmental agencies. The health department is a county department, but we talked to Dr. Spear and Joe Gries and Lynn Herr multiple times a week. Sometimes multiple times a day always taking our calls always replying the text messages each of the health systems. As I said earlier, we work very closely with county commissioner president Jeff Hatfield because we were making decisions about what to do with the Civic Center. So we did that in close cooperation collaboration with county government. So while there were a lot of difficult decisions to be made and we made a lot of difficult decisions. It was made easier by the fact that people had a common goal and a common vision and that was to protect the public health of the community and we needed to get along to do it. And thankfully we're all wired to do that. So it's not like it was a heavy lift to get people to work together.
00:05:59 Burger: Is there a single greatest challenge through all this?
00:06:03 Mayor Winnecke: Well, I don't know that I could pick out one single greatest challenge. I would tell you that one of the challenges, you know, and we frankly we were so busy. We didn't keep a diary or a log looking back. It probably would have been smart to have done so we could probably go back at our calendars and kind of recreate some stuff, but I would tell you probably in the spring summer kind of time frame when our numbers and Evansville and Vanderburgh County where the best of any metropolitan area in the state of Indiana and our cases were low There were just was not a lot of community spread of the virus at that time. Yeah, if you watched the national belt no national news or listen to national news that was not the case in other parts of Indiana are other parts of the country. And so consequently people were saying, oh my gosh, what's happening in New York is And Evansville and in fact in the early weeks and months the pandemic that was not the case. So while we were trying to manage how we can best proceed for our community. We're all trying also to help people understand what's happening in New York or Los Angeles or in any other major Metropolitan Community didn't mean it was happening here. Therefore let's let's reconsider what some people were thinking we should do in terms of restricting.
00:07:30 Burger: Are there any positive changes that you can think of that will stay that will stick from this?
00:07:36 Mayor Winnecke: Oh, I'm sure there are some. I think the use of technology has certainly changed and that helped this interview for instance does not have to be conducted in person. All of us who are in the news on on any given day are just looking to find to do a virtual interview as something in person and One especially during a pandemic. We know it's safer for everyone involved. But also it's a lot more convenient. You don't have to trek down on the Civic Center and it's just easier. So I think technical aspects of what have transpired will certainly stay in place. You know, I think one of the things that I'm probably most proud of is when we started to look at the reopen the reopen task force, we identified food security as a major gap in our community. There were organizations and individuals working in this space prior to the pandemic but it wasn't all that coordinated. So Feed Evansville was born of this because there were people who saw the greater need and saw the gap and the gap was created because in the spring schools were closed. So the students weren't getting a breakfast or lunch. And in many cases the schools were the primary source of nutrition for these young people. So people in our community saw okay, we've got to fill that gap and they jump into it. So Lisa Vaughn and Alex Burton and an army full of volunteers jumped in to do that and that allowed us to city was prompted to spend some Cares Act money to buy a refrigerated truck to help the effort of put the creating effort. And now we've established the food commission much like the commission on the homelessness the food commission will really force all those people who are working in this space to really work more collaboratively. So we understand who's doing what and how we can best feed our friends and neighbors who are looking for nutrition.
00:09:43 Burger: An area that has come up during my interviews that really is interesting. What would you say the pandemic has done from local government standpoint in terms of attitudes towards Public Health prior to the pandemic?
00:09:57 Mayor Winnecke: You know the role of city government. Public Health they existed but not really working together because what the health department does typically does not directly affect city of Evansville government, but because of the pandemic, Dr. Spear and Joe and Lynn and their great team, I mean they were providing vital data to us and really good perspective which helped us make public policy decisions. They help manage the community aspect of the virus and I will tell you I sat in on a virtual meetings with mayors around the state the relationship between the mayor's office in Evansville and the Vanderburgh County Health Department is extraordinary that does not exist all over Indiana. And so again, it's difficult as all this has been we're really fortunate in our community that we all get along and we all understand when one calls the other we're just trying to get the latest information in order to make the best decision. The other thing that this has shown is that there are gaps and public health implementation and public health policy outside of major Metropolitan communities all over Indiana. There are Health departments in our region that are not nearly as large not nearly as robust or sophisticated as the Vanderburgh County health department and they have been relying on our health department and you're seeing that all over the state so mayors around the state have taken note of that and it certainly raised that issue to the state and state of seen it but it's always good to hear from a different perspective. So I think what you'll see in the future is that cities and there are two three cities in the state that have their own health department versus having County Health Department. I think in the future you'll see mayors being advocates for greater investment in public health all over Indiana.
00:11:56 Burger: Okay final thoughts
00:11:58 Mayor Winnecke: We tried to do a couple things, well more than a couple. We try to manage this crisis from the public's perspective from the community's perspective, but we're also a large employer and we have 1200 employees. We've had three at one point almost three dozen detectives in quarantine at one time at one point. We had the parks maintenance department in quarantine. So we had to figure out how to cut the grass and 66 parks in the city over a couple week period so we're a large employer. I think sometimes people lose track of that. So we're yes. We're very we're knee-deep or a hip deep or probably neck-deep in helping manage the public crisois, but we're also managing working through it as an employer and it's been challenging every day presents new challenges. And you know, I would tell you it's been mentally exhausting. Just when you think you have to reach your bandwidth, you have to expand your bandwidth. And that's some days and some weeks that's easier to do than others. But I am really fortunate that we've had the level of cooperation across the city to help get us to the point where we are today.