Coronavirus (COVID-19): Press Conference with Eric McNulty, 06/11/20

You are listening to a press conference from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health with Eric McNulty, associate director of the Program for Health Care Negotiation and Conflict Resolution. This call was recorded at 11:30 a.m. Eastern Time on Thursday, June 11.


MODERATOR: Eric, do you have any opening remarks?

ERIC MCNULTY: Hi, everyone. Pleasure to be with you. Thank you for joining the call. Just in addition to that, I’m also associate director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative. And so I’m involved with lots of leaders in high-stakes situations and happy to comment. And I think we’re in rather turbulent times, which, for better or worse, keeps us very busy. My colleagues and I are very busy because so much is going on. So I’m interested in your questions and happy to respond. Thank you.

MODERATOR: Thank you, Eric. All right. Looks like first question?

Q: Thanks for doing this. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about leadership during this crisis. What has your impression been of leadership at different levels? And I have a follow up to that but I wanted to get your impression from this first.

ERIC MCNULTY: It’s really interesting to observe it, because I think you have a situation which most people would have expected strong leadership at the federal level with states and localities then following that guidance. And here we have one where there was a decision for a less assertive federal leadership role and leaving a lot of things to the states and to cities as well as to private organizations to make their way forward. I think we’ve seen a number of states do a really good job. I think Governor DeWine in Ohio is an obvious choice. I think Charlie Baker here in Massachusetts also did a reasonably good job of being clear, of letting people understand what the problem is, where you’re going, how you’re going to get there, and being reliable, consistent sources of information. I think, again, locally, I don’t have quite as much visibility. But I think we’ve seen a number of cities step up and do things.

It is all complicated, of course, by the protests we have seen over the last couple of weeks where you have people both wanting to let protesters express their First Amendment rights while still worrying about coronavirus spread. And that’s been a really difficult dance, I think, for folks to work their way through. But I think we’ve seen a number of mayors, and the mayor in D.C. I think has done a very good job as well of saying, here’s what I’ve got to worry about. No matter what I’m told from above, here’s how I’m going to lead my people and my constituents through this.

Q: Do you see any permanent changes in the power dynamic that might stem from this? I mean, President Trump clearly seems to favor a strong federal government, at least in his public stance. But by sort of devolving responsibility to the states, do you see that in any way being part of a longer term shift affecting this and possibly other areas?

ERIC MCNULTY: Well, I think, again, if you pull back from government and look more broadly, you’re seeing more distributed models of leadership taking hold in lots of situations, more collaborative leadership. That is not what we’re seeing now coming out of Washington, certainly. And I think you have this very interesting dynamic with the current administration of, yes, as you say, on the one hand, they favor a very strong federal government, a very strong role for the president, yet also a desire to not be stuck with consequences from some of the fallout from what’s happening right now, be it COVID or the protests.

I think a lot will happen. And I think a lot’s going to depend on who is in the next administration, whether this becomes a longer term trend or not. I think you are going to see, if states and cities make it through this without a strong federal role. They are going to remain more assertive. But again, you see this shift, so much issue-to-issue. There are issues around which a Republican administration loves to give the States lots of leeway and other ones where they don’t. And Democrats are the same way. It’s different issues, but there are times they want to let the States do what they want to do that’s going to advance their policy agenda. And other times they want to mandate what they’re going to do because it advances their policy agenda. But I do think you’re gonna see some states and and cities remain more assertive because they’ll see that they’ve been able to do it. They’ll build those muscles and feel confident in doing it.

Q: Very good. Thank you.

MODERATOR: Eric, I had a question, too. So one of the things that we were talking about is States and the Federal Government and how they have very different roles in this emergency situation as opposed to in previous times because more leadership has been given to the states. Are there different groups of states working together that you’ve seen before? One of the concerns has been that if Massachusetts has very strict social distancing rules and then our neighbors do not, then that could affect the spread of the disease throughout our State. Are you seeing different groups or leadership coming together differently at the state level than in previous?

ERIC MCNULTY: I think you definitely are seeing some regional initiatives emerge. We certainly have one here in New England, there is one of the Midwest. I think governors are used to having to get stuff done and they would tend to be a little bit more practical than some other officials. And so, yes, they realize that if they do one thing and the neighboring State is doing something else. People travel across those borders all the time. And it’s going to be hard for any of the States involved to be effective unless they work together.

We saw the beginning of this in some response to climate change, where you as a regional pacts around things like power, power grid, power production and emissions of those kind of things. And so I think there’s a real hunger for consistency and clarity. And it comes from the general public, I think it comes from mayors and governors and where they’re not getting it from above, I think they’re moving to create it themselves. And again, that’s probably a good thing for us long term, in that, you see when these regional pacts come together, they involve Republicans and Democrats. So people are working across the aisle figuring out how do we solve the problem, not just how do I score political points?

MODERATOR: Thank you. Another question.

Q: Going along the same line. I think it’s very interesting that sort of the power dynamic we have here in the country. And, you know, it’s so complex and sort of untangling it, do you see the potential for additional challenges? Should a new administration come in, in the fall, be elected in the fall, and then, you know, they prefer a different power dynamic with the States, where the States may say, “Hey, you know, we got this, you know, we’ve been doing it on our own. You know, you guys keep your hands off.”

ERIC MCNULTY: Yeah, I think you may, although, again, it will be very interesting to see what transpires in the fall in terms of the disease, the virus itself, and is the second wave the same, worse, better than we saw on the first wave. I think you will see, if it’s a Biden administration, you’ll see a rapid shift to try and coordinate federally and support states. And I think if states are getting what they want, they’ll be happy with that. And I think the States that have been crying out most for some guidance here want that stronger federal hand. The States that want to stay open, they will resist it. And that’s somewhat a predictable surprise right now.

I think what’s going to be really interesting is the transition period. You always watch administration transitions because if it’s a second Trump administration, you’re still going to have the departure of a lot of people, that just happens after four years. And so you’re going to have a lot of new people being brought into the system, you have to get some confirmed by the Senate. And so you always have a bit of a slow down and a bit of paralysis. If it’s a Biden administration, it’ll be very interesting to see what happens in the period between November and January.

You may recall the well-documented incoming Trump administration was not that interested in a transition plan or or being able to take a handoff in a very systematic way from the Obama administration. My guess is they’re not going be willing to give one to a Biden administration either. And so I think you’re going to see, it’s an opportunity anyway to see more confusion and more requirement that States and Cities step up and take the lead because they won’t be getting it from the federal government.

Q: Interesting. And from what epidemiologists are saying, that has the potential to be occurring right at a time where a second surge might be happening.

ERIC MCNULTY: Exactly. Which is why it’s really fraught. And this is where, you know, as someone who studies conflict resolution and negotiation, there is, you know, one of the instruments we use, I won’t go into detail it would be too much, but there is five basic styles of conflict. There is competing, which is what we see when people go head to head. There’s avoiding when people want to make it go away, which we’ve also seen as part of the devolving things to the States. Accommodating, compromising and collaborating, which is where you’re trying to grow that pie or really solve the problem, come up with new solutions.

Where we need to be right now is in that collaborative space because we are trying to both dial down a public health threat and dial up the economy. And that takes a lot of really careful calibration, requires consistency from officials, cooperation from citizens and businesses. And so doing that kind of very fine-tuned maneuver of trying to control both of these these incidents, where they’re happening simultaneously, and doing it during an election season and a transition of some sort in Washington, it really calls for that collaboration.

And I think that the current administration tends to, their natural comfort zone tends to be competing. They want to win, which certainly is emphasized during election season. And then avoiding, I think the President, when he doesn’t think he can win, he waves a big stick and then doesn’t do anything with it. So it’ll be really interesting to see how that plays out, because if we don’t get to that collaborative space, I think we’re gonna have a really hard time managing the different dynamics of this crisis.

MODERATOR: Eric, I want to ask a question that has come up a couple of times, and if this is outside of your area, feel free to let me know. So one of the things that’s coming up, a very large event at the national level and also at the state and local levels are the elections and voting. And I have heard some requests that come into my inbox about how this could go forward during a pandemic. And do you have any insights into how we could have voting during a time of possible physical distancing? And also if there would be any way to make the process easier.

ERIC MCNULTY: Yes, it’s a bit outside of my area. But I’ll venture in anyway.

MODERATOR: Thank you!

ERIC MCNULTY: I think I know enough to cause trouble and I think that, again this is more of a place we really need to be in that collaborative space because you would think that people on both sides would say the more civic engagement, the better. We want a safe, fair, free election with as few problems as possible. You would think we could agree upon that. There is not agreement on that, apparently, because some people think that if you do more mail voting or absentee ballots, that you’re going to have greater fraud. And if there’s no evidence for that necessarily but that’s the position they’re taking that. They’re afraid more votes means the greater chance the other side will win.

But I think this is a reckoning moment. I mean our election system has been stuck in an old model for a long time. Our initial foray into greater technology, I don’t think was particularly well thought through and we’ve seen lots of problems with it. But now is an opportunity, we’re running out of time very quickly, to recalibrate and say, “How do we do this in ways that allow us to take advantage of all the things we know how to do.” We are able to move trillions of dollars every hour around the globe electronically. Somehow we can’t move votes using some version of that with passwords and encryption and fingerprint technology and all of that that we have in our smartphones. And then the basic old fashioned ones. They have mail-in voting, which is very expensive for the localities to have to administer it, it’s much more complex.

But again, I think there are ways to do that. And what we need to come to the fore, athough I’m not sure going to see it, is people from both sides saying this is a shared problem. Let’s solve it so we all can say no matter what happens, it’s safe and secure. And, gee, wouldn’t everybody feel better if we had 80 percent of the eligible voters voting instead of 49 percent? Wouldn’t that be a clear indication of what the people actually are looking for moving forward? And the corollary to that story, which I don’t I have not seen covered very much, is the President’s apparent desire to move the Republican convention from Charlotte to somewhere else. Jacksonville seems to be the primary candidate right now.

That’s interesting to us, in part because it’s what’s known as a National Special Security Event, an NSSE, which means the Secret Service is in charge of safety and security. The Secret Service is not large enough to do that job so they rely a lot on collaboration and coordination with state and local officials wherever they happen to go. And the planning for those starts pretty much as soon as a city is picked. It’s a really long process to make sure the event comes off well. And so when you shift it and now move it and give the organizers only a few months to do what has previously taken more than a year? It’s really, really difficult.

And again, the chances of something going not quite right, be that from a protest point of view, be it from any other kind of security threat, the risk is much, much higher. And I think it’s going to give a lot of discomfort to the people who work hard in a nonpartisan way to try and make sure that both conventions come off as well as they can.

MODERATOR: Do you have any other thoughts about how the conventions could be run during a pandemic? Or should they just be done electronically, all on Zoom? Do you have any other thoughts about how they could go forward? Or if they should?

ERIC MCNULTY: Yeah. You know, again, I’m not sure they should and, you know I’m a bit of a political junkie, so I watch the conventions and I enjoy seeing that, on both sides. I think the party business that happens could easily happen elsewhere. You could find other ways to get that done. You do want to give your candidate a rousing send off and fire up the base. But so much of this now is produced for television anyway. I think you could do it, and I think for the most part, we all would understand why there was no live audience or wasn’t much of a live audience because of the times we’re in. Look at how many television programs used to be in front of a live audience are not anymore. So there’s not quite the rah-rah excitement.

But then again, the things that get watched, the big speeches, those kind of things are already produced primarily for television. They ought to just go on and say that’s the kind of production it’s going to be, in my view. And make the best of that shift. Don’t try and do it halfway and try and, you know, kind of create a hybrid model here. I would sort of say, let’s get the party business done electronically. Let’s produce a great show, probably a shorter show, for television that highlights our party leader as our candidate, our platform, and produce it in a way, and you’re probably do a lot more distribution over social media and other channels like that and think of ways that you’re creating little showlettes, as it were. That just needs to make a lot more sense because I think that the conventions are a holdover from a very different political era. And I think the folks who go have a lot of fun. But I don’t think people are going to have as much fun now if they have to be six feet apart and they can’t go to parties and all the rest of that.

MODERATOR: OK. Thank you. Did you have any other thoughts? Anything else that’s been coming into your inbox that you think people should know about? Any questions that have been coming up frequently?

ERIC MCNULTY: Yes, and somewhat of a totally different vein than what we’ve been talking about right here, having a number of conversations around how we manage this transition to the next normal and we were looking at and through these have arcs of time model that we use. It shows not a single smooth path from the beginning of this virus till we got it under control, but actually a fairly bumpy path. It can go better or worse depending on the policy choices people make.

I’ve been getting questions from the private sector saying, what do we do when we’re not getting clear guidance from government? That, again, you think of it’s great the governors and mayors do a decent job. But if you are an organization like one of the big tech companies that has offices in six or seven states, or more and multiple countries. And now you’re trying to find, you know, this is where the decentralized model of guidance really breaks down. It’s how do you be compliant with all of that? Because you’re trying to do different things in different places.

We had a conversation with people in the aviation industry recently, and they’re worried about what if the standards are different in a state where a plane takes off from where they land. Could you have passengers who actually are not allowed off a plane once it lands or who are unexpectedly required to quarantine? This is where you really need that consistency and clarity nationwide and ideally across the major nations where business happens, where people travel. And so it’s a real conundrum right now of how do you do this in a way that actually makes sense and helps people solve the problems they’re facing.

And so, you know, I think what you’re going to see emerging out of that are more industries and cross-industry sectors that work in complementary spaces, convening and finding pre-competitive places where they can talk and try and create that consistency because they’re not getting the guidance from the government. And that’s a very different model. We have seen bits of that around some environmental compliance and labor requirements where companies have found it’s a pre-competitive space to create common standards. You can see much more of that now.

And it could become an alternative regulatory framework, which will be very, very interesting to see how well that goes, how much the public trusts it, what government reaction to that is. But you have, again, people and organizations trying to move forward right now and saying we can’t wait. You guys aren’t going to tell us what you want us to do. We’re going to try and make it up and figure it out.

MODERATOR: Eric, do you have any other final words before we end the call?

ERIC MCNULTY: Just the last thing is the transition to full online learning is can be really interesting. We’ve been seeing it now and conducting executive courses online. And it’s really an interesting dynamic. It’ll be interesting to see how the matriculating students adapt to that. But a really interesting environment, an interesting way to teach. And again, that’s a bit off our topic today. But I think it’s really, really interesting. And as we’ve started to do it, I found a lot of really engaging aspects of being able to do things this way versus having to be in a classroom, even though there are drawbacks to it. So with that, thank you all.

This concludes the June 11 press conference.

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