Important now: A portfolio of reliable technologies, robust emergency response teams, active volunteer groups and strong relationships with local businesses is key to effective COVID responses and support measures.
Should a wildfire, earthquake, tsunami, hazardous materials spill, act of terrorism, pandemic or even a meteor strike befall Carlsbad, CA, the city is prepared to combat the crisis and protect its citizens. No superpowers necessary just meticulous forethought, solid foundations and a predilection for innovative thinking.
The city maintains a long list of disaster scenarios to prepare for and keeps a Continuity of Operations Plan and robust emergency activation center at the ready. So when COVID-19 began to spread and the state declared an emergency, Carlsbad already had a basic structure set up to begin addressing the situation, including zeroing in on the number of cases in the city (because they were only getting countywide information), procuring a sufficient supply of PPE (personal protective equipment), and shifting employees to work remotely.
The city had to act quickly and efficiently. “This was a situation where if you told me at the beginning of February that come July everything would be shut down and everyone is going to be teleworking, I wouldn’t believe you. It just didn’t seem fathomable,” says City Manager Scott Chadwick (see related interview with Chadwick in this edition of CityRevive). “Here we are in September and our dedicated city employees have risen to the occasion and delivered services in a professional, timely fashion and haven’t missed a beat. They focused on the mission and continued to deliver quality services; I could not be prouder of them for that.”
The depth and breadth of COVID-19 impacts required creative ideas to be implemented quickly in several different areas of city operations. As it turns out the best, most effective ideas have come from taking existing systems, processes and technologies and morphing them to fit the new demands.
“When put in crisis mode, the people in our organization come up with some of the most brilliant, innovative ideas,” says David Graham, chief innovation officer for Carlsbad’s Office of Innovation and Economic Development.
“The pandemic effectively made us hit the fast forward button and leapfrog past the usual grind and crucible of checking every single box and solving every single complaint in deploying solutions,” says Graham.
A good example: San Diego County initially was not releasing COVID information by city. To get a better handle on the number of cases in Carlsbad, Graham’s team took the county data and began “visualizing it.” That meant a focus on cities in the region of 50,000 or more in population and creating a ratio of cases to population (see chart below).
Then, the team integrated data about actions by the city, county, and state that may have an effect on COVID cases like the impact of beach openings, outdoor restaurant dining, as well as the reopening of businesses such as personal care, gyms, bars and leisure travel.
“What the county provides is good data, but by bringing in other data, such as significant milestones, we have been able to create more understanding and awareness about how the disease is progressing in our city and what actions the city should be taking to address it,” explains Graham.
Getting Creative with GIS Mapping
For upwards of 30 years, Carlsbad has had a GIS [geographic information system] and knew it could be leveraged for COVID-19 purposes. Generally, the system is used to associate data with a physical location so, for example, relevant information about a community or land development project will get put into the system. It is also used to track assets, infrastructure, and more recently to provide information to the public about capital improvement projects. Public safety departments like police and fire are big users of GIS as well. The maps they use to get around the city and data regarding physical locations all exist in GIS, explains Graham.
So when restaurants were mandated to close indoor dining, within one week a map of every participating restaurant was set up on the GIS and users could see which restaurants were open and the services they were providing such as curbside, delivery, or takeout—information that Yelp and Google were not accurately providing.
“We have about 300 restaurants in Carlsbad and we had 110 that were on that list. Every restaurant that went on to the GIS map, which was easily searchable for residents, reported an increase in revenue due to that visibility,” notes Graham.
The city also worked with its 911 dispatch agency to track people with COVID-like symptoms and used the information to create a heat map. First responders were then provided situational awareness information on which areas had more or less potential cases.
Carlsbad’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) serves as a GIS hub where decisions are made using data that are flowing through the system. It tracks active COVID cases broken down by zip code and specific demographics, like people age 65 and over, with higher incidents of positive cases.
It even logs EMS (emergency medical services) people with flu like symptoms then automatically populates that data on a heat map which shows where the density of positive cases exists. Graham believes this level of detailed tracking has helped Carlsbad maintain the lowest number of cases in the region.
Using Trusty Tools to Fit New Tasks
Some of the technologies the city was using for regular purposes are now being redeployed for COVID responses. For example, data from the city’s traffic management system was studied to assess the relative activity in business parks. This would give a better understanding of the level to which employees were following health orders, i.e. whether people are continuing to go long distances or taking shorter trips.
The data is also used to signal areas that have higher destination activity to determine what may be drawing people there as well as get a handle on the influx of people from outside the city, especially during holidays.
Carlsbad is also working with UC San Diego on a proposal for the National Science Foundation to help provide data on social distancing using LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging). Rather than using cameras and analytics, laser sensors are used to develop data regarding objects and distancing like beach areas where hotspots of people gathering closer than six feet apart can be detected.
“The good thing about LiDAR is it’s passive and is not facial recognition; it’s non-personal information. No video is being taken but you’re still able to have an accurate view of moving objects,” notes Graham.
Easing Permitting Requirements
With outdoor dining key to the survival of restaurants, there was a need to rush through the appropriate permits. Several prerequisites existed for permitting plans, so the city began cutting its own red tape. Normal regulations were followed but in a liberalized form. For example, a restaurateur could submit a Google map with tables drawn on it versus a more involved scaled drawing. “We relaxed the level of rigor that were an impediment for many of the businesses,” says Graham.
To allow for additional outdoor seating the city applied part of its “temporary events code.” The permit is free and normally used to for on-property, specialty events like a parking lot for selling Christmas trees.
Because of the expanded space allowances, a few restaurants now have more tabletops than they did when they only had indoor-dining and some have had their best months ever because of pent up demand once they began to reopen.
“At the same time there are restaurants that don’t have enough space outdoors, so those restaurants are still struggling and we’re trying to help them out with other permitting options,” says Graham.
The same permitting approvals will apply for use of public sidewalks, private parking lots, and public on-street parking as well, where businesses such as personal care service companies can also operate al fresco. Several dozen hair and nail salons have already applied for those permits.
Some requirements have been temporarily lifted for inspecting construction sites as well. It used to be mandatory for an inspector to be on the premises for a walk-through to ensure construction meets code and merits a signoff.
Now video calls from a smart phone are acceptable where a contractor can do the walkthrough and show the inspector, who is safely ensconced in his or her office, everything needed to be evaluated.
“The technology we are walking around with in our pockets gives us the ability to understand and see things remotely,” notes Graham. “You can see that hose connection and where the two-by-four was installed just as if your own eyes were there.”
Calling Upon Businesses and Volunteers as Resources
Of nearly100 businesses surveyed, 83% experienced some drop in revenue and over half had a 50% or greater decrease so the pressure was on to come up with supportive measures. The Economic Development Department of the city engages with local businesses on a regular basis. So, when the city needed them to augment their, “We Are Open” campaign (#staysafestayopen), 435 businesses participated (see related YouTube video below).
“We realized people were tired of hearing from government about COVID-19 and although we weren’t going stop that messaging, we wanted business owners and employees to tell the story as well,” says Graham.
Promotional materials were provided for the companies to drop in their logos, and place signage in their stores, with messages like, “We’re happy to be back serving you again, help us stay open…” The goal was to encourage residents to help the businesses stay open by continuing to visit them and make purchases—while wearing masks and social distancing—because that was the only way for the stores to survive. The city is helping its hotels with the same campaign.
Graham also emphasizes the value of regularly engaging with the community and maintaining a group of loyal volunteers who can ramp up in times of crisis. Carlsbad has a Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) made up of trained residents who have been crucial during COVID-19. They provide support for city staff and a link with the community.
When the need for masks became an urgent issue, the city set up its Sew2Care program and began producing face masks resulting in 5,000 so far available to the community.
The city provides the instructions and the distribution sites and the makers provide the materials and crafting. Once the masks are made, they are dropped off at a city location and then distributed by CERT volunteers.
Word of mouth was a powerful tool in kickstarting Sew2Care. An e-blast went out to the several thousand followers of City Manager Scott Chadwick’s twice weekly COVID-19 updates and sewing groups were specifically targeted to help the cause.
Graham points out that the sense of community that has come from a shared crisis like COVID has prompted the city to be more engaged with one another and open to doing things differently and more collaboratively. “Community members are a little more forgiving with our employees when something isn’t working. They’re a little more willing to provide solutions rather than complaints. Internally, our employees are more responsive and understanding of each other. That human nature and kindness is where innovation can really breed.”