Survey takes the pulse of PA municipal leaders on COVID-19

As Pennsylvania continues a phased reopening, elected officials and municipal leaders in cities and towns across the commonwealth remain concerned about issues like testing capacity, budget shortfalls and communication with state-level agencies, according to a survey conducted by an interdisciplinary research team at Penn State.

The report “How Pennsylvania's Municipalities and Local Officials Confront the Coronavirus,” is based on the 2020 Pennsylvania Coronavirus Local Preparedness and Collaboration Survey, a representative survey of senior elected officials and appointed staff across Pennsylvania, including mayors, council members and managers.

The survey and report were compiled by Selena Ortiz, assistant professor of health policy and administration and demography; Gary Adler Jr., assistant professor of sociology; and Eric Plutzer, professor of political science and director of the McCourtney Institute for Democracy’s Mood of the Nation Poll.

Ortiz said the project came about as a result of studying health policy responses to COVID-19 in other areas and noting that only six of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties have their own public health departments. Her colleagues had also recently completed a survey of the same population of local officials on another matter.

“We became interested in how Pennsylvania local officials were addressing COVID-19, how they were responding to state efforts and what their needs were to continue to effectively confront the pandemic,” Ortiz said.

Among the most surprising findings was how concerned local officials were about the speed at which restaurants, schools, churches and other organizations should reopen despite the economic impact of keeping businesses closed. About 80% of respondents said they did not want these establishments to reopen immediately, which stood in opposition to messaging that came from some governors who pressed for quicker reopenings to stimulate the economy.

The survey also found that municipal leaders were concerned about their ability to perform COVID-19 testing and contact tracing, and about the lack of coordination with state-level agencies. Only 17% of municipalities reported that the capacity for coronavirus testing and contact tracing in their municipality was adequate or more than adequate.

“Local officials want the opportunity to more directly interact and coordinate with state officials, in some form,” Ortiz said. “We believe that strengthened communication would help to reinforce collaboration between local governments and the state.” 

Other public policy recommendations from the team include providing relevant data and effective messaging tools to local leaders, and developing both emergency preparedness plans and guidelines for conducting local government operations during health emergencies and other disasters.

Moving forward, Ortiz said the research team plans to further examine the short- and long-term impacts of the pandemic on municipal budgets and further explore concerns local officials raised about voter safety ahead of November’s general election.

A total of 1,386 officials from 906 municipalities completed the survey from May 1, the day Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf announced the state’s re-opening strategy and timeline, though May 11.

Read the full report from Ortiz, Adler and Plutzer at democracy.psu.edu/covid_report. Additionally, Ortiz will present findings from the project at the School of Public Policy’s “Policy and the Pandemic” online series at 2 p.m. June 17. Register for the webinar at bit.ly/policytalk.