Spotlight on Lancaster: Communicating through Crisis

Lancaster, Pennsylvania, is home to nearly 60,000 residents, many of whom are particularly vulnerable to the novel coronavirus. One out of four residents live in poverty, 39% are latinx, and 10% are aged 65 years and older. Unfortunately, the loss of life due to COVID-19 in the city has been correspondingly high. According to a recent analysis from The New York Times, Lancaster County’s two-week, per capita death rate was 24 per 100,000 residents, ranking it 15th among metro areas in the nation. 

Against these odds, the City of Lancaster is using all available resources to respond to this crisis, including the network of community-level relationships established through the Department of Neighborhood Engagement. In 2018, Milzy Carrasco was appointed as Lancaster’s first Director of Neighborhood Engagement. Over the past 18 months, Milzy has led the city’s efforts to increase neighborhood capacity and build relationships between city leaders and citizens as part of Cities of Service Love Your Block program. Since March, she has been an integral part of the city’s coronavirus response team, with an expanded portfolio that includes COVID-related communications. 

Here are some of the ways Milzy and the City of Lancaster are communicating through the crisis to reach residents and save lives.  

Every day, Mayor Danene Sorace presents “Live at Five” on Facebook to share information about the city’s coronavirus response, including updates on meal pick-up sites and health and safety reminders. Recent items included a new Lancaster Cares COVID-19 Response Fund to support Lancaster residents with food, housing, and rapid response dollars to address emerging issues. Mayor Sorace is often joined remotely by guests and community partners like the leadership team from the Lancaster Community Foundation, who helped announce the Response Fund. Milzy Carrasco, the Director of Neighborhood Engagement, goes “Live at Six” to share a translation of the mayor’s update in Spanish.

The Office of Public Art selected ten local artists to create murals with a message. On 8×8 pieces of plywood, the artists convey positive messages to strengthen community solidarity and share critical information related to COVID-19. PSA mural locations were selected using a “vulnerability index” that considered median income, age, and pre-existing conditions in an effort to reach at-risk community members and address gaps in information distribution. See all of the artwork here.

Three weeks after the city’s stay-at-home order went into effect, an informational mailer was sent to every household in Lancaster. With approval from their funding partner, this 20,000-piece mailing was produced using grant funding originally intended for census outreach efforts. The bilingual mailer included information on the 2020 Census, as well as information about the virus, how to stop the spread, and how to seek help with food, shelter, and mental health.

Lancaster’s Office of Neighborhood Engagement modified their Love Your Block program to award $500 mini-grants to amplify and expand resident-led projects that build a sense of community during this time of distancing. The first recipients included Kay Hinton, who established a neighborhood food pantry and delivery service for groceries and prescriptions for high-risk residents, and Carmen Morales, who assembles and delivers care packages, including masks and gloves for homebound seniors. Mirroring the programmatic changes in Lancaster, the Love Your Block logo was modified to reflect best practices in physical distancing.

The Office of Neighborhood Engagement invited residents to submit short clips of themselves answering the question: “Why do you stay home?” and created a citizen-sourced PSA from the submissions. “Stay Home, Stay Safe, Safe Lives” includes sentiments like, “I stay home so that fewer families have to mourn the loss of loved ones” and “I stay home because I know there are hundreds, if not thousands of community members who have loved ones and neighbors who are also essential workers.” The intention was to let residents hear directly from their peers and neighbors about the positive impacts of staying home.

The City of Lancaster has distributed 7,000 masks and COVID-19 informational flyers to food banks in an effort to reach some of their most at-risk residents. A second distribution of 5,000 more units will go out shortly. The same bilingual informational flyers are also given in bulk to gas stations, corner stores, and markets. Particularly in communities with limited or no internet access, these familiar neighborhood businesses help reach residents in the places they frequent to get critical safety tips, 211 resources, and directions on how to make a no-sew facemask.

Every week, Milzy Carrasco, the Director of Neighborhood Engagement, hosts five virtual meetings for different stakeholder groups, including neighborhood leaders, the faith community, and teens from the Neighborhood Leaders Academy. These meetings provide for robust two-way communication—participants take information and updates from the city back to their communities and provide valuable feedback on areas of concern for residents. These meetings are also an opportunity for members to coordinate and collaborate with the city. After the need was raised on a call, a neighborhood group leader contributed their technical expertise and set up an automated phone number that residents can call or text to request a check-in call from a volunteer in their area.

In partnership with the United Way, the Office of Neighborhood Engagement distributed door hangers to neighborhood group leaders who disseminated them to residences in their areas. The door hangers can alert emergency responders to potential exposure risk and direct residents to contact 211 with non-emergency issues. They also include an automated phone line that isolated residents can use to request a check-in call from a neighbor. One thousand door hangers have already been distributed in select communities, and the project is expanding across Lancaster.