/Q&A with Oxford Mayor Robyn Tannehill on leading in the era of COVID-19

Q&A with Oxford Mayor Robyn Tannehill on leading in the era of COVID-19

Editor’s Note: This interview was edited to improve clarity and length. Q: When did you realize you would have to lead Oxford through the pandemic? Our infectious disease response plan was created in February. We didn’t anticipate all the twists and turns, but we did have a plan in place for each department before we began seeing patients. That was my first thought. “Now, wait, we’re going through a pandemic?” We’re giving everything we have and praying that it’s enough. We try to use common sense, compassion, and to be as informed as possible. We are listening to the people at the state and national levels, as well as our state health officials. However, each community is unique and there is no one-size fits all solution. Our community has a lot of young people and students, as well as retirees. This presents us with different challenges than other communities in the state. Q: That was before you had your first case. What changed over time? Q: Our first case was March 18, and that’s when we really noticed the difference. That also marked the day we realized that all businesses would close. These small businesses are the backbone of our community. We’re trying to balance that with a diverse community of age and community. This community desperately needs to be independent from others. Each of these things are equally important and it’s impossible to strike the right balance in order to protect your economy and ensure the safety and health of your community. There is no set of guidelines for dealing with data that changes. We give it everything we have and hope that it’s enough. Because all of our plans are fluid, we have had to be flexible and willing to make changes at any moment. It was the hardest decision we had to make. We are a small community with large city problems. College towns are different. Our most loyal employees are our family. That was the hardest day. We know we will be down to close to $3million before the end this fiscal year, and these were dollars we had already budgeted. Q: You were part of a panel discussing leadership at the women’s summit with Starkville Mayor Lynn Spruill. She said that “You can get much done when you don’t care who gets credit.” How have these challenges shaped or reinforced your leadership style? Lynn is a dear friend of mine and she often repeats that. This is a quote that I wrote down in my notebook: “The less credit you have, the more you get done.” It has been an educational experience. This has made me more attentive to listening. It made me realize how little information I have about pandemics. I am not an epidemiologist or virologist. This has made me acutely aware of the importance of seeking input. Every day, we make decisions that can literally impact people’s lives and livelihoods. This is a huge responsibility. But you have to take decisions and move on. Sometimes, I believe that women are very analytical and can see all sides. It is easy to become paralysed by a lack of a clear path. This is a situation where compassion, common sense, and all the information you have are essential. You have to make tough decisions and then move on. It’s hard when everything seems so grey. I’m not afraid to make tough decisions, no matter how popular they are. This has been difficult because there are no clear paths. You make the best decision, but it’s not possible to look back on the past. We have to be flexible and adaptable. You have to be able react to change and reconfigure every day. Q: How can you best balance economic and health well being for Oxford when there are conflicting information from the state? A: I remind myself that state leaders have never done this before – it’s not just those at local levels that are learning as they go. As I go through this, I hope people will give me the benefit-of-the doubt. I also try to be kind to state leaders. It is hard. It is not an easy task. While the governor and the state leaders must agree on a basic bottom line for each community, they need to be able to make the best decisions for their citizens, their businesses, and the health care issues facing that community. How do you talk about this? I just went straight to the governor, saying, “Hey, you need to know where rubber meets the road, what’s happening here, and these are the unique challenges we face.” While I don’t expect the state to answer my local problems, I do need the authority to make them. He immediately clarified that the municipalities could be stricter but not more lenient. That’s all we can ask for, to have the power to make the right decisions in our community. We need to be careful and meticulous in setting the parameters and then applying them. People don’t enjoy being told what to do. People don’t like being told what to do. We have speed limits, and laws regarding seat belts. There have been laws that protect people for centuries.