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A Commitment to Information Communication with Josh Maxwell

Podcast published: October 2, 2020

As the challenging effects of COVID-19 continue across southeast Pennsylvania and beyond, many businesses and non-profits are still struggle to cope. We sat down with Josh Maxwell, one of three Chester County Commissioners, to talk about what the county government is doing to support the local business economy.



How has Chester County supported local businesses and non-profits during COVID-19?

  • The County government appreciates the value that the business.
  • First COVID-19 case hit Chester County as early as March 13.
  • The County ran an emergency business grant scheme for small businesses:
    • Grants were for up to $25,000 per business
    • The County allocated $5 million for the program
    • The program was focused on supporting businesses who could not pay their bills, like rent.
  • The grant plan was support local area small businesses to get them through the early stages of lockdowns – and to re-assess needs mid-summer.
  • The County understands that the restaurant and hospitality sectors still need significant help.
  • Chester County as a region received $225 million in grant funding from the State of Pennsylvania – the most in the state.
  • The County launched a website to provide relevant and up-to-date information for local businesses at restorechestercounty.org.
  • The County partnered with the Chester County Economic Development Council to deliver the grant scheme and Restore Chester County website.

How has Chester County prioritized communication?

  • “Culture is everything.”
  • The three County Commissioners collectively committed to transparency for their office.
  • The County wanted to open source as much information as possible – and to then trust the public to make the best decisions moving forward.
  • The County distributes information via websites and social media.
  • Chester County has experienced some of the lowest spread rates of COVID-19 in Southeast Pennsylvania.
  • The County government works to share both “good” and “bad” numbers and information as part of its commitment to transparency.

How does Chester County manage its communication efforts?

  • The County declared a state of emergency in March 2020; following that declaration, the County Health Dept. took over the emergency management response room to direct the local response.
  • The County had to produce the websites to share data – and then double-check the data to make sure that it is accurate.
  • Accurate data is hugely important to Chester County to ensure that the public trust the data and information that the County shares.

In light of virtual learning, how is Chester County supporting parents and families with children?

  • Chester County has a population the size of Wyoming in a land area the size of Rhode Island.
  • There are hundreds of schools across the county: public, private, charter, online, and more.
  • It is a challenge to create county-wide policies for such a diverse range of school sizes and formats.
  • The County set out recommendations, but did not set guidelines or rules on schools opening or not.
  • The County is working to produce guidelines and programs to support parents and schools as schools begin to consider re-opening.
  • The County is working to deliver programs for both the short term needs, but also for longer term growth and stability of the local business economy.

Liam Dempsey:  Join us in person and mingle with the start local community. 

Joe Casabona: We have been talking about it for a few months now. So, we are very excited to share the specifics of our first in-person gathering. Folks who subscribe to our emails already have these details, but we are sharing them now with our listeners. 

Liam Dempsey: Come on out to meet and get to know the wonderful people in our start local community. We’ll gather at Stolen Sun in Exton on Wednesday, March 27th from 5:00 – 7:00 PM. Experience engaging conversations, dynamic people in great food and drink. 

Joe Casabona: Attendance is free, but registration is required. Learn more and register on our website at [startlocal.co /gather]. 

Hey, everybody and welcome to another episode of Start Local, the podcast focused on helping businesses in Chester County, PA, and the greater Philly area as they try to navigate through the COVID-19 economy. 

My name’s Joe Casabona, and before we bring in the rest of the folks on this fine show, I want to tell you about a very monthly, very free newsletter that Liam and I are starting over here called Start Local Monthly. You can sign up for free over at [startlocal.co/news]. And the benefit of that is you will get recaps of our episodes from each week of the month. You’ll get news around the county, maybe even some tips and tricks.

We wanna hear from you about that too. So whatever you wanna know, we’re open to feedback, but you’ll definitely get recaps of the show takeaways and news happening around the county. That’s over at [startlocal.co./news] for the totally free, totally monthly newsletter. 

Okay. So, with that out of the way, I wanna bring in my fellow co-host, Liam Dempsey. Liam, how are you today?

Liam Dempsey: Hey, Joe. I’m fantastic. Thanks for asking. 

Joe Casabona: Absolutely, absolutely. And our guest today is Josh Maxwell. He is a Chester County Commissioner, and we are going to be talking about some current events related to COVID-19 around communication and local school challenges and things like that. But first, Josh, how are you? 

Josh Maxwell: I am doing great, Joe and Liam, and thank you so much for having me. I wanna let you know I did just sign up for your newsletter. Why are you doing that perfectly nice introduction. So, we were a proof one on the newsletter so far, and we haven’t even posted the podcast. Yeah.  

Joe Casabona: Awesome, awesome.   

Josh Maxwell: So yeah, I’m Josh Maxwell. Been on 4th commissioner since January before that but 10 years as a Mayor in Downingtown. Before, I’m just a Chester County guy and, you know, we spent more time in a pandemic than not during our first year in office, but, here to help [Inasudible 02:48.01]

Joe Casabona: Yeah, absolutely. And I mean, we didn’t talk about this before the show mostly ’cause I was embarrassed to have to clarify that, but I thought you were the same Josh Maxwell. I just recently moved, bought a house in Downingtown. So, I’ve heard your name around and things like that. So, very cool.

Well, thank you for that introduction for who you are and what you do. Now, I know Liam has some well worded questions here that he just sent me for the show notes. So, I’ll throw it over to Liam for the first one.  

Liam Dempsey: Hey, Josh, thanks for joining us today. I know you and your colleagues at the county are busy. So, thanks for making the time. 

With so many different grant and loan programs available at the federal, state, and even county level, it all gets a bit muddled in where support is coming and from where. And I think it’s important, particularly from a local business perspective to know that not only is our state, but our county is working just as hard as we are to keep our businesses afloat and surviving. Can you talk about what the county with Chester County has done in the six months of COVID-19 and really to support local businesses and local nonprofits?

Josh Maxwell: Yes. And Liam, I really appreciate the question. Just we’re very proud of our business community,  having a thriving economy here, part of our culture. It’s why people move here. So we realize the government, it’s really important from the get go to partner with our business community to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to make sure people are afloat.

Our earlier, I think we had a first Covid case on March 13th, and saw the ramp up around the country realizing it was coming our way quickly and limitations and stopping it, certainly existed. So, we pulled together business mind and implemented a grant program, essentially an emergency grant program for folks who weren’t available to pay their rent. Small Main Street businesses grants  cap at 25K. So, we were just so worried about people in May not being able to get to July. So we did a round of $5 million grants just to make sure people can make it till the summer, and then we could readjust and figure out what industries are most hurt, what industries are okay.  I go to eat at Home Depot once a week. I’m also a new,  downtown homeowner.  So, back and forth to Home Depot they seem to be okay, but the restaurants in between, certainly are not. So now we’re putting, pulling together pieces to figure out how we can work together as a community to both advocate for our businesses that are struggling, and maybe tailor our investments into the sectors that need it.   

Another thing, and I think you touched on it, Liam,  was that, there’s all these grants out there. There were states. There was federal, county and then hosts of other things that were available, PPP.  So, we launched a website [restorechestercounty.org], which was a one stop shop for any questions someone might have. I think we were able to pull $225 million in grant funding from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania into Chester County. I think we received the most grant funding from the state just because we made the system as simple as possible.  We partnered with the Economic Development Council to help and make that happen. [Inaudible 06:02.6] You could see all the guidelines from CDC, the Pennsylvania Department of Health, the county where we are in phases. And you don’t have to click through to any other government websites. Everything you need should be right there embedded. And  there’s also an email and a phone number. If you have any questions, just [business@justco.org]. 

And please! You know, encourage business or supplier away. What grant funding’s out there for my type of business? What type of loan programs are available for my type of business? What type of rental assistance available for my type of business? So we have a hotline, an email address for people to call,  and our team’s 24/7. Wel,l not 24/7, but every day available for help. 

Liam Dempsey: Yeah. You’ve mentioned the website, the [restorechestercounty.org]. There’s another website that the URL is long enough that I’m not gonna try to rattle it off, but it launched, and it displays data. It launched pretty quickly into COVID-19, early March, April, and it tracks the medical side of COVID-19 in Chester County cases by township level, and sadly deaths and the likein addition to risk to or county.

So, as a business owner, I’ve noticed that the county has made communication a priority during this challenging time. But also as a business owner, I know that when our to-do list is very, very long and the deadlines are all kind of all due today, Communication can go out the window because we’re getting the work done.

But that hasn’t happened with Chester County from where I’m sitting. And I wonder if you can talk about the mindset and what you and your team are doing to ensure that communication stays a priority when you know, at some level, communication. It’s difficult to kind of manage that and see that as a deliverable, right? Because it’s not putting together the loan program, it’s not making sure these services are available. Yeah. You gotta make sure people know about the loan program. But, talk about how you and your colleagues at Chester County have made that a priority and what that looks like in kind of a day-to-day office environment. 

Josh Maxwell: Sure.  Culture is everything. When we got started, we have two new people on the board this year and we wanted transparency to be a priority for us. 

In our first year in office when we set up things like a transition team which is really just a way to get smart people to give you free advice, you know, executives from companies like Vanguard, and I think it was chaired by the president of university and they were gonna look at everything and [Inaudible 08:35.5] 

And I came from a [Inaudible 08:39.6] government standpoint, a small town. I was a Mayor in a town of 9,000 people for 10 years, and the emails you would get if people knew what a mayor did, it would be policing or it would be trash pickup or snow removal, and people would call or email and say, Hey, this is a problem. I need fix.

Then county government, you don’t really have that back and forth because you’re just paying a mortgage on the courthouse. You know, trains are running on time. Human services is really important, but as long as the deeds get recorded, the wills get recorded. You know, there’s not a whole lot of back and forth like, “Josh, I need you right now to fix this thing.” but covid happened, and people started tuning into county government and what we were saying, I think a way that hasn’t happened in people tuning into mayors of large cities, governors of places like New York doing press conferences every day. And people started going our website and observe members. so we wanted to open source as much information as possible, realizing that people were watching the news every day. Many people were scared, if not, all people were scared. I certainly was. And we wanted to get as much information out there and just trust our public to make the right decisions moving forward. So, you know, wearing masks whether what our positivity rate is at 7%, whether it’s 3%, people really know what to do with this point based on where those numbers are.

So we just wanted a dashboard that we could frequently update, people would look at every day, people would read our newsletters, read, social media accounts and get that information. And we really trusted the Chester County public to make the right decision if we open source the information as they came in.

And so that was a big party of, and I would say generally the public we’ve {Inaudible: 10:18.2] had some of the lowest covid spread in southeast PA.  Extraordinarily proud of that.  And,  people are generally doing right by the health recommendation. And we’re so, you know, I think we’re just kind of, as you mentioned, we’re in a good fight geographically, in the April, May type of way.

So, you know I walk down the street and people say, Hey, I sold the dashboard today. Why are our numbers up by 10? I’m like, well, you know, two families, you know, add up to 10 and, you know, we contract rates and we’re gonna make sure everyone’s safe. And so, that’s the kind of way it worked out is, you know, we started getting a lot of attention,  you know, tweet out the covid numbers and, you know, some of the largest, you know, shared social media I’ve ever had. And it’s good that people are [inmaudible 11:10:0]

Joe Casabona: I just wanna jump in there because, you know, I know a lot of people from other parts of the country. My brother Robbie works at Disney World, so he’s right in Orlando and in Florida and things like that. And people are asking me how it’s going here. Well, my wife is a nurse and before she went out on maternity leave, I don’t think they had any covid cases, and that was like end of June. And it really speaks volumes to how well our area has handled it. So, for those of you who maybe are not in Chester County, are not looking at the numbers, you know, the way that maybe me or Liam or Josh do,  I’ve been really impressed with this area’s response, and I’m proud to live here in a place where, you know, the community does right by the rest of the community.

Josh Maxwell: I think it’s important just to mention is, you know, we expect these waves. There’s always one big wave and usually a smaller wave with a pandemic. And people know this. They’ve seen all the graphics, but you know, some weeks are gonna be really good weeks and some weeks are gonna be bad weeks in terms of a spread of a pandemic. 

4th of July was a really bad week for us where our numbers really spike. So, we didn’t sugarcoat any of that. If we have a good week or a good month, we say, hey, we have a good week, a good month. Keep it up. We have a bad week. We have a bad week. Delay school starting or something. It could delay school starting, but here are the numbers. So we’re not hiding anything. We’re not twisting one way or the other. It’s the same positivity rate. It’s the same cases, it’s the same amount of fatalities. We don’t alter our numbers anyway. We just open ’em up. If our numbers go high, people know to stay home more. If they’re low,  people start to feel a little more comfortable.  

Liam Dempsey: Yeah. From a business standpoint, it makes a lot of sense. We can have an intellectual debate about what is the right infection rate to open businesses, but, if we can’t agree on what the infection rate is, it makes it hard for us to really set policy.

And certainly we hear from businesses that one of the biggest challenges of COVID-19 is the unexpected nature of everything and plans are this, this week and next, the next week and the week following, they’re onto something different. So the, the level of transparency around the information has been really helpful.

I wonder if you can talk just a little bit about the logistics of what that means in terms of, well, okay, we’re gonna do all those things. We gotta share this information. You and the team at the at the county have agreed this. We’re gonna do this. Transparency is gonna be our watch for it, if you will. Information flow is gonna be out Someone’s gotta build the website. Someone’s gotta get the data together. Somebody’s gotta make sure, I mean, to be a bit silly about it, are there typos describing what the program is? Somebody’s gotta proofread data if we’re gonna put it out there, what is, yeah. 

Liam Dempsey: Yeah.

Typos we all make them, right? It’s most embarrassing when we spell our own name wrong in our own website, and I’ve certainly been there, but talk about that. What does that look like as a, You know, again, as an office project, there’s a cost to that. There’s a time to that. And what does that mean for you and your team?

Josh Maxwell: it’s in incredibly impressive. And I’ll say as a new employee of the county and one of the newest employees in the county, there’s 2,400 employees in the county government, fourth largest employer in the county, and I’m probably one of the newest. We declared an emer… a declaration of emergency in I believe, March. what happened was the health department essentially took over what’s called an emergency operation center.

So they came down from, I think the third floor, 150,000 health employees and took over what would, what you would picture like a county version of situation room except much bigger, there’s maps on the wall, there’s graphics, there’s count, there’s fatality rate, there’s hospital beds, ICUs,  all this data that you could just look up and see from any part of this large room. The employees took over where you’d have emergency services personnel typically sitting, and now the room’s being run by health, Public Health Experts, answering the phones, directing masks to hospitals to hospital to long-term care. Facility, calling the head of all 70 long-term care facilities was really, really important back in March and April. How many people, how many masks do you need? We’ll drop them off. People getting in cars and driving right to,  there’s a whole data team building that dashboard. You talked about updating it constantly and double checking the math because as soon as you have math that it’s incorrect, I realized people aren’t gonna trust the next number you post, even if it was a [Inaudible  15:34.5]. You have to triple check it. If you’re a government right now, make sure what you’re posting is correct. otherwise people are gonna say that’s not true, I don’t believe you. 

So, we had numbers [Inaudible 15:44.0] right now. Say, Chester County Hospital has 10 positive cases today that gets uploaded to a state dashboard. That information database gets downloaded by the Chester County Health Department based on who those 10 people live here. Now, those 10 at Hospital nine might live in Chester County. One might be a Delaware County or Montgomery County resident. So that has to be filtered out. They check the addresses, they call the folks to make sure it is them. There’s   {Inaudible 16:11.1] right? so they go through, check all that, and they contact whole team of people. Who have you been in contact with? And since we’ve gone from  long-term care facilities. If seniors having a huge rise in cases and fatalities and the rush to get those help. Now, we’re into the younger folks, the 15 to to 30 age range which are allowed to spread. And a lot those folks don’t like being known as the person at the party who maybe had Covid to 19 and found out about two days later, and then calling their friends and saying, Hey, you know, everyone’s quarantined for 14 days.

The work that this health department has done to come down into a situation where they really haven’t been in before. A pandemic, a worldwide pandemic, coming to Chester County and just owning that physical space, putting up those charts, calling health executives,  like at Penn Minutes and saying, this is what we’re gonna do today has been incredibly,  just, just remarkable. They really, they called it like, it was like being, finding out against all odds, and you just like rocky Bau, there’s like, we’re not prepared. They just, there’s no way to expect this to happen in my life but we’re prepared to run with it, and just so proud of the work they’ve done and setting up that dashboard, and checking the data which is a huge,, I would say is more work, and important work before it goes up every day between noon and 1:00 PM. It’s just amazing.We’re all very lucky. And they’re all underpaid. They’re all over worked. Remarkable.

Liam Dempsey: Yeah. I diddn’t realize that the data checking was that granular. I thought it was relatively automated. You know, the hospital’s output the data. Maybe it feeds into Johns Hopkins and it circulates out and it’s just API to API to API. I didn’t realize for the data to go onto the site. I mean, I get the follow up and the type, the track and traces, but that’s a lot of work. So please do take a moment to stop by that room when you get a chance and thank them for us. I appreciate it, Josh. 

Wish with local schools still delivering virtual learning, childcare is a challenge for many parents and families in Chester County. We’re hearing that in Downingtown area school district and other school districts in the area We’re looking at reopening on a some kind of staggered basis in the next month or two. Numbers allowing, but we’re getting a lot more communication from the leadership of the school district about it. What is the county doing to help parents and families deal with the many, many challenges of both children at home who are normally in school and then getting them to school in ways that maybe, you know, the bus system isn’t gonna be able to handle or who knows where all, how it’s all gonna fold. How’s Chester County preparing for all of this?

Josh Maxwell: Well,  it’s difficult in a place like Chester County, we have the population of Wyoming for the size of Rhode Island. We have diversity in academic opportunities, private schools, public schools, charter schools, online charter, online public.  And it’s tough to create a policy that applies to a private school with a hundred students and a place like downtown, which has 13,000 busing. And we also don’t know how parents are gonna react to schools opening up. Are not 80, 50% of parents gonna drive students to school instead of thes bus. If they do, busing might be okay. You could have one kid per seat or 80% put their kids on buses. If so, we might help out. 

So officers are feeling there way out and trying not to put themself on disregard if anyone get sick or we have to go backwards to check for them. And So what the Health Department decided to do off the bat was we’re going to realize a spike in July, not recommend schools opening up until October. Recommend not required knowing full well of many schools are trying to do what they wanted. And parents have a right to make decision for their children as far as I’m concerned. 

So, we waited and watched to see what happened, kept track of outbreaks every day. We get a list of outbreaks in Chester County. So far so good regarding school, and kind of wait and see. And then Murphy schools start realizing their capacity. You know, how are the hallways, how many rooms are there? Can they do a hybrid situation, a kind of just give them everything they need, and be there to support them along the way and just keep moving slow steps forward and not get too far ahead of ourselves. Realizing this is a push on families and appreciative and there to help. 

The county is right now considering two things: support for schools and support for childcare. [Inaudible 20:53.0] very clear to me that people weren’t gonna be able to work if their kids were virtual learning at home. The YMCA and others have programs where the kids can go there and put up computers and they’ll be there to support them, but there really isn’t that opportunity not available for enough parents in Chester County.

So I can’t tip my hat too much on that, but by the end of the day, we should have some programs for childcare and to support schools that have chosen to reopen higher. And you know, when you look at county, you have schools that have just tremendous capacity to be supportive of their kids. Just a really good tax base, you know, just already have the computers to give the kids who need them. And then we have other schools that might need some more support where they don’t have the tax base, where the kids, you know, a larger percentage of the kids might have computers in school that buy them. So we’re looking at the way, we’re looking at right now, the way that counties possibly fill those gaps and create some as best you can in any situation, especially pandemic, creates some equity in education, which is difficult to do in any day. But maybe this is an opportunity to get that ball in that direction.

And I’ll just add, you know, regardingh going back to previous point, a previous question, something occurred to me, and that [Inaudible 22:07.0] short-term in May and June and July, getting people just to  stay in their businesses, stay in their things. But now we’re putting together a task force, a restore task force for the next  year and a half. You know, what industries gonna need support? And we have, I think 22 leaders throughout Chester County from businesses as Chamber of Commerce, Economic Development Experts, education, and those of us in government, and we’re working hand in hand [Inaudible 22:33.8] two tier, phase 1 will be short-term strategy for 21 sectors,  sector creating actionable steps that the county can take to help get us up going. 

The second phase is a larger, broader, long-term recovery plan that addresses overall recovery from economic impacts of covid-19, and how we can strengthen our economic viability moving forward, making sure Chester County stays that economic powers in Pennsylvania. And I think that’s been a  need to do that from a status perspective, from a government perspective. For Pennsylvania to get back home, the Chester County needs to do that chart. we’re getting the ball rolling on that, and we should have some  announcements coming over the next few months of recommendations from our task force. 

Joe Casabona: That’s really fantastic and I appreciate you walking through both kind of the logistics of getting all of the information available for transparency’s sake and the considerations that you’re making for schools and childcare and things like that. And as you said, nothing’s public as we record this, but It will be soon. If people want to learn more, where can they find you and where can they find this information? 

Josh Maxwell: You can find me on any social media account. Dm’s are open.  Restore Chester County is a great resource for the business community, email, phone number responses right away. It’s designed to be that. Just restore chester county and the website is [restorechestercounty.org].

Joe Casabona: Fantastic, and I will link all of those resources over on [start local.co] in the show notes for this episode.  

Josh, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us today. We really appreciate it. 

Josh Maxwell: Thank you guys. It’s a pleasure to be with you. 

Liam Dempsey: Thanks Josh. Take care. 

Joe Casabona:  All right, and thanks to everybody out there listening. Until next time, stay safe out there. 

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