Jacob Day is currently serving a second term as mayor of his Maryland hometown: Salisbury, a city of about 33,000 located on the Eastern Shore, part of the Delmarva Peninsula. Trained as an architect and urban designer, Day brings to his civic leadership experience as founding director of the Center for Towns at the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy and as a Cavalry Captain in the U.S. Army. As the coronavirus outbreak was expanding and intensifying last week, I caught up with Mayor Day (while keeping a safe distance, of course), and we discussed leadership in times of crisis and ruminated on what this might mean for the future of cities.
TS: Trinity Simons
JD: Jacob Day
Walk me through a day in the life of a mayor dealing with a pandemic.
To begin, I feel fortunate to be able to be at home every day. In the military, I’ve spent past crises sleeping on the floor of Baltimore City Hall, in tank track ruts or worse, so I’m especially thankful to be able to see my young daughters every day. After getting them off to daycare—theirs is still open—I go into the office every day, though I’m generally the only one. Right now, my mornings are a lot of budget calls. By Maryland statute, our budget is due April 15, and that doesn’t change in a pandemic. Neither does delivering basic city services. With the exception of county-based recycling, all functions of city government are still operating here.
We are also learning on the fly how to conduct business remotely, using the same tools that everyone else seems to be using, and there are new challenges with coordination and execution. But residents need some level of normalcy and look to us to look beyond the current crisis. Every afternoon, we have a call with our health department and emergency management team, and then I host a daily Facebook live chat at 5:00 p.m. These have been really well-received, and my primary goal is just to help keep people calm and give a sense of hope. To say: Here are the facts. Here are some resources. Here’s how we’re going to get to tomorrow as a community. We also do regular calls with a newly created Corona Recovery Task Force and with our regional local elected leaders. Salisbury is 2 miles from Delaware and 30 miles from Virginia, and the virus doesn’t know borders, and this impacts us all. Basically, I’ve found the only way to handle this crisis is to be available.
It’s comforting to hear that cities are learning this remote-working new world on the fly, too. How is this working with your public meetings?
We’re still holding public meetings as previously scheduled—and, yes, we are learning how to do it effectively as we go. Our City Council has held both a work session and a legislative session so far, both of which were public. We used a teleconference service, Zoom, our local public access channel, and YouTube. We allowed people to use the comment functions in those respective tools, and I read them aloud. People were surprisingly well-behaved! With our COVID-19 Task Force, we also use multiple platforms, trying to meet people where they are. We’re finding that people are waiting around on social media for information, so participation and interest is high right now. And mostly people are calm, but scared. They’re looking to us as leaders for guidance and clarification.
What do you see as your primary role as mayor in this crisis?
Well, it’s a balance. We are in a strong mayor form of government in Salisbury. I am the city’s chief executive, so the city continuing to function is my responsibility. But the mayor is also elected to be the city’s voice, to give order to the chaos, and to strike the right tone. I have to hit that balance on a daily basis, but especially during a crisis. People fear for their safety and their jobs right now. They expect that the city will keep running, but they’re looking to me to console and reassure.
This reminds me of something I was reading recently about leading through a crisis, and the differences between a routine crisis and a novel crisis. How in a routine crisis, it’s still a crisis, but there are set steps you can take to reach an expected outcome. People look to leaders to reassure a positive outcome in a routine crisis. But a novel crisis is different: You don’t have all the facts you need to make a decision, and you can’t be sure of the outcome. And in a novel crisis, people look to their leaders to reassure them that the process will work.
Yes! And that’s the reason we are doing everything with a high level of visibility. People are uncertain, their futures are uncertain. And it provides them some comfort to see us out there—proverbially, of course—and the resources we are engaging, to simply be able to ask me questions directly.
What are other things you’re doing to keep morale high? What kinds of things do you see your community doing?
I have been amazed at the resourcefulness and creativity of our community. So many industries are hurting, so many people are getting hurt, and yet, we’re seeing our community come together in a spirit of collaboration that felt impossible even a month ago. Our individual businesses are retooling as they can: Retailers switching to appointments and online sales quickly. Facebook groups popping up with clearing houses of restaurants and bars and breweries that are available for take-out. Our community, like many around the country, recognize that the lost sales of today in the food and beverage industry won’t be recouped tomorrow. We have to support those businesses now if they’re going to survive. As a city, we created a new gift card that will work for any downtown business. We did that very quickly. We have more people wanting to volunteer than we can possibly utilize, even when they themselves are hurting. We came up with an initiative where people can donate whatever they are able, and we’ll send meals from a local restaurant to a shift of first responders: our nurses, our police officers, our firefighters. People may not have the money to feed a whole shift themselves, but now they can contribute, and we’re also keeping local restaurants busy.
Switching gears a bit, and drawing from your background in architecture and planning: It strikes me as deeply ironic that the most pressing public health crisis we were dealing with before COVID-19 was one of social isolation: suicide, drug use, opioids. And in what feels like a knee-jerk reaction, I’m seeing a lot of speculation about the future of density and cities in a post–COVID-19 world. Are we going to see an overcorrection, where close proximity is bad, and we start to design for that? Our newly thriving downtowns already felt fragile, with retail changing so rapidly. What do you think? What does this spell for the future of cities?
As if I didn’t have enough keeping me up at night! I would personally crusade against any effort to tie this disease directly and only to density, and I think the numbers back that up. But more so: I think it’s premature to predict that people will come to those conclusions anyway. Let’s not forget that we are social creatures, and social media is never going to satisfy every need we have for interaction. The moment we can, we’re going to pour back into our bars, our concerts, our parks. There will be a new awareness, hopefully sustained, that it takes people and communities to support our local businesses. Online ordering hasn’t killed them yet, and I think it’ll be even less likely to after this. People have seen what we stand to lose.
And let’s also not forget that the history of cities is tied to public health, from sanitation after the Cholera outbreak in London in the 1800s to modern zoning itself to protect people from noxious industries. Our cities will change after this threat, too, but we’re the ones that get to write that narrative.
Featured image: aerial photograph of Salisbury by Patrick J. Hendrickson.