May 22, 2020
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Lessons from a city leader: ‘We’re not basing this on emotion, we’re basing it on science’

Carmel, Indiana, Mayor Jim Brainard made the tough decision to close some of the most beloved public spaces in his town. They are now cautiously opening up in time for the Memorial Day weekend.

Carmel, Indiana, Mayor Jim Brainard made the tough decision to close the Monon Greenway, a pedestrian and biking path that characterizes the pedestrian-friendly nature of this Indianapolis suburb. The city opened the trail, with new hand sanitation stations installed along the route, on Friday.

For the last 20 years, the mayor of Carmel, Indiana, has been working to create a community that thrives on connectedness. You can see it along the walking paths that zag through the city and in the pedestrian-friendly Midtown Plaza. The Indianapolis suburb of about 100,000 is modeled more closely after the dense, walkable downtowns in Europe than a typical Midwestern ‘burb.

Of course, in a time of social distancing due to COVID-19, many of the spaces that characterize Carmel’s sense of community—such as the popular running and biking trail, the Monon Greenway—were forced to close. It was just one of the many hard decisions city leaders like Mayor Jim Brainard had to make.

“We had to close that area because it encouraged people to be near each other,” Mayor Brainard said. “That has been one of the ironies of this time.”

We spoke with the mayor this week to talk about what leading through a crisis looks like at the local level and also the city’s remarkable testing program. In fact, early on in the crisis when tests were hard to come by, the city worked with a local lab company, Aria Diagnostics. They produced COVID-19 tests for every city employee and had enough left over to donate 50,000 tests to New York City.

All 700 city employees and their families have been tested for the disease. And since April 1, every employee who interacts with the public, such as first responders, has been tested weekly. Of those who tested positive, about half were asymptomatic, said the mayor. This includes Carmel Police Chief Jim Barlow, who tested on April 7. “I had no symptoms. I never expected I could feel as good as I do and test positive,” the chief told the Hamilton County Reporter.

In talking with Mayor Brainard for The Renewal Project, we wanted to learn what goes through a city leader’s mind when making the tough decisions that, as news events have illustrated, will never appease everyone. Here’s what he told us was his guiding philosophy:

There are people who like what you do, and ones who don’t—but you have to be able to sleep at night. You have to believe that you’re doing the right thing. That’s number one.

Number two, the philosophy we base it on is that we should not be [making decisions] based on emotion. We need to base them on science and data, and to that end put together a panel of physicians—kitchen cabinet advisors, if you will—and scientists. We have our formal groups of business advisors replete with some physician advisors as well, but an informal group of physicians, epidemiologist that we trust.

When we close things, we said, here are the criteria that our advisors say we need to reach before we reopen, and so it’s not up to me. It’s up to when the community meets those data points. When I get criticized—and I answered an email right before you called, somebody was complaining about this—I say, it’s not up to me. We took data points that were put in place on the advice and recommendation of medical experts and when those are met, we’ll reopen. We’re not basing this on emotion, we’re basing it on science.

The mayor described to us the three data points that the city must meet to open up the shuttered public spaces: Hospital ICU bed capacity must not exceed 70 percent; positive COVID-19 cases do not exceed 5 percent in the general population; and there must be 14 days of declining COVID-19 hospital patients.

Throughout the crisis, the mayor has been meeting daily with each of his department heads. From those meetings, the city has begun preparing a daily report, which is then posted online for all residents to see. “I think the leadership lesson from this has been that transparency is always a good thing'” he told us. “This data report from all of our 13 city departments is online by 10 o’clock every day. So the public can see what’s going on in the city.”

This week, the city had a lot to report. It met its three criteria for opening up and at noon today, the Monon Greenway and the Midtown Plaza in the city center opened up in time for folks to enjoy it over the Memorial Day holiday. But the mayor still advises to remain cautious.

“I hope that people recognize that it’s not about protecting themselves, it’s about protecting others when they wear a mask. It’s about protecting the person that might have to go get somebody in an ambulance and intubate them, it’s about their family members that might be at risk,” he said. “And so wear a mask and physically distance. This virus is still with us, it’s still very dangerous.”

Margaret Myers

Margaret Myers

, The Renewal Project

Margaret Myers is the editor of The Renewal Project.