The ongoing novel coronavirus (also known as Covid-19), crisis presents a special set of complications for municipal government.  Unlike our school counterparts, municipalities cannot close.  While some aspects of municipal government can be put on hiatus, many local government services are the very definition of vital.  You must be thinking very hard as how to both protect yourself and your employees while also continuing your mission of public service to your residents.

1. Emergency Declarations 
By now, most municipalities have declared an official state of emergency, as has the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and most Pennsylvania counties.  If you have not done so yet, you should strongly consider doing so.  First, having a declared emergency is often a requirement of certain financial reimbursements that may become available at some point in time.  Second, a declared emergency allows the municipality to streamline the public sector procurement process, so if you need to hire additional labor or obtain materials, having this declaration in place is helpful.  Third, it is a useful reference point to refer back to for any other policy changes that need to be made, such as adjustments to work schedules or changes to paid time off policies. Finally, it is a signal to the public that you are taking this situation seriously and doing whatever you can to serve the public.

2. Rescheduling/Canceling Meetings 
Generally, municipal codes require municipal governments to meet on a monthly basis.  If a municipality has already held its March regular meeting, it could conceivably reschedule the April meeting until a later date in the month.  If meetings are to be held, the Office of Open Records has offered guidance on how such meetings can be conducted that will offer compliance with the Pennsylvania Sunshine act while limiting potential exposure for staff, elected officials and above all, your citizens. Boroughs must also take into account the limitations in the Borough Code on the use of telecommunication devices for participation in public meetings. Consult with your solicitor and your information technology staff for the solution that best works for your municipality

3. Employment Decisions
As mentioned above, municipalities have the unique challenge that they must stay open and continue to serve their communities.  Every community must do what it needs to do to have a functional public works department, and most have the additional requirement of maintaining police service as well. In addition, many workers are likely to be quarantined due to having symptoms consistent with COVID-19 without being actually tested for the virus.

Be aware that if one of your employees contracts Covid-19 during the course of his or her duties, that employee will likely qualify for workers’ compensation.  If said employee is a police officer or other employee covered by the heart and lung act and he or she contracts Covid-19 while responding to a call, he or she likely qualifies for heart and lung compensation.

Most employment decisions are going to be specific to your municipality and your particular contracts.  Some of the key questions to think about are – will you require workers who miss work due to coronavirus to use paid time off?  Are you able to offer staggered shifts for key workers to avoid all workers in a particular category, such as public works, to be impacted at once?  Will you allow workers to serve as volunteer fire fighters in their off hours, or will you in fact encourage them to do so?  Do you have contingency plans for mass outages of police?  Does your local EMS service have contingency plans for a mass impact on its workforce?

All the above will be unique to your municipality and your particular contracts.  Talk to your solicitor about them and make a plan.

4. Municipal Facilities 
Given the current CDC guidelines that no more than 10 persons should be in the same room at the same time, all municipal facilities should be closed.  You must make a decision regarding parks. As of the date of this memo, most parks are still open.  That will probably change soon.  Regardless, all pavilion or facility rentals should be canceled, as should any organized recreational activity or events.  Do not allow an event that violates CDC guidelines to occur on your property.

5. Planning and Zoning Issues 
The construction and building industry is continuing to operate.  If you are able, make sure that your permits are available online, as well as payments.  If you must meet with individuals, do so by appointment only.  Ask applicants if they will consent to a streamlined planning process that is handled primarily in house.

6. Miscellaneous Issues
Be sure that your emergency management coordinator is engaged.  He or she is a vital bridge to make sure that police, fire and ambulance services are working together.  If you have the budget to do so, consider making additional contributions to your local ambulance and fire companies.  The cancellation of fish fries may have a major impact on their budgets, and you don’t want them risking additional exposures serving food.  Make sure you are talking to neighboring municipalities.  Should one municipality suffer a major loss of personnel, the most likely source of additional labor will be through a neighboring town. Make sure those lines of communications are open.  Talk to your municipal tax collector about his or her office policies.  Encourage the use of mail or a drop box for tax payments.  Talk to your police chief about his or her, response policies.  Consider allowing for non-emergency reports to be taken over the phone.

Above all, stay informed!   This situation is changing frequently.  Be in regular contact with your solicitor to make sure you continue to implement best practices. If you find that you need additional guidance on this matter, don’t hesitate to contact our office.

Falco A. Muscante
Falco A. Muscante

Falco Muscante focuses his practice in the Public Sector School and Municipal Law Practice Groups. He has served municipal clients as legal counsel and solicitor with “outstanding services and the highest level of integrity” for over 30 years.