Perhaps the most important principle of crisis management is an effective public information plan – a strategy that allows local government to gather, verify, coordinate and disseminate accurate, accessible, and reliable status updates and briefings to keep constituents informed.
Does that sound anything close to what we’ve experienced in Volusia County during the coronavirus “response”?
Let’s take a brief look back, shall we:
In the early days of Volusia’s effort to establish reasonable public policy that kept a balance between personal freedoms and social distancing requirements, the Volusia Watermen’s Association – the collective bargaining unit of Volusia County’s Beach Safety Department – issued a panicked open letter to the Volusia County Council vehemently demanding the complete closure of our beach after “tirelessly and privately pressuring the County to do the right thing, but they have refused to act appropriately.”
The letter concluded with a shameful threat that, “If a single Beach Safety employee gets sick while you continue to fail to act, we will all know who to blame.”
This politically charged ultimatum was delivered to the Volusia County Council by a steward of the Teamsters Union – an act which, in my view, crossed the line as career civil servants played an outrageous game of political chicken with duly elected officials during an emergency.
That’s not how our system works. Nor should it.
This wasn’t a union working for political change – or fighting for wages and benefits – it was ugly, and gave the appearance that our Beach Safety officers had lost their nerve in the face of a crisis – and many of my neighbors have told me they will never look at the agency the same way again.
That’s called a loss of public confidence.
Naturally, Volusia County Councilwoman Heather Post used the opportunity to break ranks (during an emergency declaration) and lobby on behalf of the Volusia Watermen’s Association – which she prominently lists on her social media page as having “unanimously endorsed” her political campaign – issuing a weird manifesto demanding that county leadership direct the closure of all “parks, beach accesses and recreational facilities.”
In addition, Ms. Post “urged” that the municipalities respond by “…shutting down businesses completely for the two-week duration.”
What followed was an unrelenting series of “executive orders” spewing from Governor Ron DeSantis’ office, changing by the hour, each slowly tightening the noose and further limiting our constitutionally protected civil liberties, while Councilwoman Post and her “colleague” Councilwoman Deb Denys, continued to spew blurbs on social media commenting on everything from airport screening procedures to beach closures and burn bans with little background or context – leaving their confused constituents with more questions than answers.
Not to be ignored, Daytona Beach’s Lord Protector Mayor Derrick “Henny-Penny” Henry unrelentingly fanned the flames by running in metaphorical circles, demanding that the last hours of Bike Week be shut down by Royal Edict, clamoring for the complete closure of our beach and monarchically discussing which businesses in our community are “essential” and which are not, as he fought for a curfew to even further restrict lawful movement and commerce.
(Why is it government officials always list which businesses are “essential,” but never provide us a record of those they have deemed “non-essential”? Just curious. . .)
Add to that the uncertainty and misinformation surrounding screening procedures at Daytona “International” Airport – the “who did what, and when” in closing the gaping hole in our coronavirus defenses by enforcing yet another of Governor DeSantis’ disjointed orders which requires a mandatory 14-day quarantine of anyone traveling to Florida from high incidence areas – with no way to enforce it.
As a result of this Carnival of the Absurd, Volusia County’s official public information strategy now looks more like a frenzied clown act than a public education campaign – bits, pieces, speculation, manifestos and politically motivated diatribes come at us from all directions, at all hours, leaving constituents horribly confused – and increasingly frightened.
Then, on Thursday evening, everything changed when the DeSantis Lockdown took effect – a weird “do this, don’t do that” edict which our government benevolently calls “Safer at Home.”
Late that afternoon, County Manager George Recktenwald announced at a weird press conference that he was unilaterally closing all 47-miles of Volusia County beaches effective 12:01am Friday morning.
I say “unilaterally,” because that is what he was previously authorized to do.
But when the natural public backlash that comes with having something so intimately intertwined with our local culture and economy totally shuttered with little notice or explanation hit – Councilwoman Billie Wheeler announced in a post entitled “The True Story” that she strongly opposed “totally closing the beach.”
In turn, Ms. Wheeler’s stance was echoed by Councilwoman Deb Denys on Friday evening when she stated on social media, “I have just sent an official request to the County Manager and County Attorney to “…open the beach and follow Cocoa Beach’s Ordinance, to be effective immediately.”
What followed was public outcry and speculation that, perhaps, the beach could be partially reopened to walking, fishing, jogging, surfing, swimming, etc. – activities that comport with the DeSantis Lockdown’s recreation provisions – essentially anything that doesn’t involve sitting down, relaxing and enjoying the beach.
I happen to agree.
The beaches should be open to responsible use – but whenever I voice that opinion, it prompts backlash from the other side of the issue who always invoke the “public safety” argument that paints anyone opposed as a socially irresponsible asshole.
Like Ms. Post’s earlier demand to close the beaches, I’m not sure the public requests made by Wheeler and Denys conform to the Volusia County Council’s agreement to allow County Manager Recktenwald to make emergency management decisions either – but these are the times in which we find ourselves. . .
On Thursday, Volusia County issued a press release which stated, unequivocally, “Volusia County Beaches Closed” – then, 48-hours later, we learned through various unofficial sources that County Manager Recktenwald had apparently come to his senses and reopened the beach – or did he?
The county’s public information apparatus issued a convoluted release with the contradictory language that, while the beach remains closed, something called the “Fifth Directive of Emergency Measures” (?) “relaxes” the prohibition of certain exercise-related activities on the beach.
It gave the impression that Councilwoman Denys – who is actively running for County Chair – had won the day – and once again resulted in more questions than answers – allowing jogging, but not sitting, fishing but no “loitering,” etc., etc.
Then, I read a news article containing an official statement from a Volusia County Beach Safety Ocean Rescue mouthpiece that, during the initial hours of the first coastal blockade, officers issued some 120 warnings to hapless beach goers – including one citation to a recalcitrant skateboarder who reportedly became “belligerent” when told his otherwise lawful activity was now a criminal offense – before announcing that, when it came to throwing people off a public beach, “It was heartbreaking for us, too.”
Wait a minute.
Didn’t the Beach Patrol’s union demand at the point of a political spear that our beaches be closed immediately or else?
Then, when the County Manager caved to the pressure and actually closed their jurisdiction to all public access – the work of enforcing the order they insisted on is “heartbreaking”?
But I guess it’s never too soon to start rehabilitating your image, eh?
Mixed messages, indeed.
In my view, when the COVID-19 threat has passed, and we return to whatever the “new normal” will be – we need to have a critical discussion about single-point information management, consistency of message and Volusia County’s ability to provide essential communications to residents in an age where elected officials feel free to circumvent the responsible leadership and compromise the public’s trust in whatever incident management system has been established, simply to get their name in the paper during an election cycle.
Because what has happened over the past two-weeks bears no semblance to a coordinated response – and we simply cannot allow this hodgepodge process to become the new reality.