In the midst of the unprecedented novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, many politicians and political commentators alike have connected this moment to the Great Depression, turning to FDR’s famous maxim “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” 

But on the ground in Middletown, Mayor Ben Florsheim ’14 just isn’t buying it. 

“It’s a nice idea that makes people feel good, but we’re dealing with a different kind of beast here,” Florsheim said. “Let’s be honest, there actually are real things to fear and we shouldn’t delude ourselves about this situation. You’re not going to just think positively you’re way out of this one. We’re used to the feeling of having an enemy but not an enemy that’s disembodied in this way.” 

In Florsheim’s eyes, there’s no direct historical precedent or strategic playbook to turn to for this crisis as a roadmap or path forward. And attempts to do so are largely wishful thinking. 

It might sound blunt, but as political leaders across the country have underplayed the potential consequences of an outbreak, Florsheim believes the medicine the people of Middletown need is a dose of cold, hard reality. 

“This is serious, millions of people could die around the world if our political leadership doesn’t handle this properly,” he said. “There’s no feeling of comfort in these situations where normal life is being upended so rapidly, but the best you can do is make people feel reassured that political leadership is doing the best they can.”

As daily life in Middletown has ground to a halt over the course of the past two weeks, the city government has transformed into something resembling more of a crisis management firm, on the city level, and a communications liaison for the Governor on the state level. With each incremental stage in the development of the crisis, the city government’s role has pivoted.

First it was Lamont’s order to limit social gatherings to fifty or less people a week ago, then Florsheim on March 16 announced the closing of non-essential businesses in Middletown, until finally Gov. Lamont brought down the hammer with his Stay Home Stay Safe executive order on March 22 officially bringing the state to a complete shutdown. 

With City Hall closing to the public on March 16 to try and curb the spread of COVID-19, city government has downsized to its bare essentials. Just a handful of essential employees frequent its corridors now, with the rest of the staff working remotely; only the Police department, Fire department, trash collection, and other branches of municipal agencies deemed necessary for the working of normal life have continued without interruption. 

Inside the remaining government offices, it’s pandemonium. City officials have been inundated with calls from concerned residents. Paperwork has piled up from the skyrocketing number of unemployment insurance claims as layoffs continue to ravage Middletown’s workforce. This is not to mention the constant back and forth coordination between the city, health department officials, and local hospitals to ensure that the Middlesex health system is prepared for the wave of cases that they expect to see in the coming weeks. 

“Everyone in city government is doing their best and cooperating, but with the sheer volume of information and changes that are coming our way it’s definitely putting a stress on the system even though we are known for having a really developed health system and fire department,” Vincent Loffredo, deputy Mayor and councilmember, said. “Thankfully, our system hasn’t been overwhelmed yet with virus cases.” 

For the Mayor’s office, the workload has accelerated at a dizzying pace. With a daily routine that is already jam packed with phone calls and meetings, the demands of being the chief representative for the town have reached new levels, as Florsheim oscillates between upkeep with local working groups and conference calls with Governor Lamont and other municipal leaders statewide. 

“The typical day of being mayor in normal times is there is no typical day because there are a dozen different topics that you’re dealing with before lunch time,” Florsheim said. “Now a typical day is coronavirus; this is all that we’re focusing on and we’re just receiving so much new information from the state level as this evolves that all we can do is disseminate that knowledge to the necessary departments and agencies.”

Among the groups that the Mayor has been keeping in constant contact with are local medical providers and social service providers, as they deal directly with the demographic populations that will be hit the hardest by a COVID-19 outbreak. 

“Governor Lamont has been doing briefing calls with chief elected officials in their towns to update them on a regular basis and then I have daily calls with our local agencies and providers to streamline the information I’m getting so we can work out the best solutions for our town,” Florsheim said. “I also then try to do as many facebook live videos to communicate with the public.” 

However, with dysfunction in Washington, Florsheim noted the lack of direction and leadership that state and local officials have been given, leaving them to essentially figure it out on their own. 

“The tenor to all of these calls is that nobody knows what is going to happen next,” Florsheim said. “There’s no leadership coming down from our highest government offices, there’s no centralized message about what any of us should be doing, so we’re all just figuring it out as we go.” 

Yet, while the past two weeks for the town have been marred with real struggles for residents, the Mayor has also seen acts of resilience and kindness from the community that remind him what drew him to the town in the first place. Among the efforts that the Mayor highlighted were the food drive initiatives by local restaurants and nonprofits as well as the opening up of the Green street building as a warming site for Middletown’s homeless population during the nights

“We’ve gotten all these calls and emails from people saying what can I do to be helpful and it’s then just our job as the city to coordinate that,” Florsheim said. “People want to help each other, it’s an impulse that exists and is cultivated in Middletown and that’s the only impulse that can save us from a really bad outcome here to drive to help one another so that gives me some optimism.” 

On the Common Council side of the city government, councilmembers, who sit on various committees and city boards, have been serving in this time of crisis more as advisors to the mayor as well as to other city departments. As Vincent Loffredo, a veteran member of the council with years of experience of municipal level bureaucracy, explained, the mayor holds most of the power (as per the city charter) whereas the council operates more as the appropriations and oversight authority that is largely in charge of the purse, making sure the city’s funds are being distributed fairly. In a time of crisis like this, members of the council have, for example, been working closely with the Middlesex Chamber of Commerce and the Economic Development wing of the town’s Department of Planning, Conservation, and Development since the city’s expenditures will likely increase over the next few weeks to fund the institutions needed to combat the pandemic. 

“This is what’s so important about the council and local government more broadly,” Loffredo said. “When a crisis hits, we’re the ones that are going to be there for the community to pick up the phone and help the people in our local neighborhoods get through this. We have a very caring community and we have had organizations come forward to help those in need for many years. So when you build a community-oriented infrastructure like that to care for our own, it makes it a lot easier to respond to a crisis like this and help the people who are most vulnerable.” 

Before the crisis upended normal life, the council had been preparing to work on the mayor’s rollout of the city’s budget, set to be introduced on April 1. However, in light of recent events, they have agreed to push the deadline back thirty days so that they can fully invest their efforts on limiting the crisis. 

Even though Loffredo believes the city is well positioned to handle the outbreak, he has concerns about the wellbeing of the homeless populations in Middletown in the coming weeks as well as the strain that the spread of the virus might put on the health system, due to the town’s sizable elderly population. 

“It’s going to be tough for our senior citizens and our local homeless who don’t have anywhere to go during the day and we just need to all be there for each other and make sure that our government is working the best we can and that we all practice social distancing,” Loffredo said. 

Mayor Florsheim also expressed concern for the viability of the town’s small businesses and employees, many of whom have seen either pay reductions or pink slips. Due to the governor’s executive orders, sales for some Main Street restaurants, one of the biggest industries in the downtown area, have fallen dramatically. Establishments are even seeing their delivery numbers dwindle. 

“Our sales have been cut by seventy to eighty percent and in the past two weeks,” Chu Ngo, the owner of Lan Chi’s Vietnamese restaurant, said. “And we’re just doing delivery now but those orders just aren’t enough to keep us going for long.”

While there are vehicles to funnel funds to local restaurants and businesses, Florsheim explained that for a city with a budget of $200 million, it’s not a viable long term solution for the local government to fully bankroll downtown enterprise. Much of the economic planning and decision making will have to come from the state and federal level. 

“We’ve been working with the Middlesex Chamber of Commerce day in and day out to possibly use the Middlesex County Revitalization commission and the economic development fund to get some targeted relief,” Florsheim said, referring to local government programs that offer grants and loans to small businesses to stimulate local commerce. “But it’s all a question of what funds will be available and at the end of the day we just don’t have the funds to keep all these businesses afloat for a long period of time. The Department of Economic and Community Development on the state level are working on something and they are looking to the federal level to bring some relief to businesses.” 

As Middletown awaits further action from the state and federal level, Florsheim has embraced the limitations on his leadership by resorting to speaking to the psychological, more so than material, impact of the crisis. At the recent COVID-19 Summit, Florsheim started off the meeting by issuing a statement, which he has echoed in recent Facebook live videos, that targets the existential condition of this moment. 

“It’s like we live in a totally different world now and everything has changed so fast. Social distancing wasn’t even a term in our daily vocabulary two weeks ago,” Florsheim said. “There’s already a sense in our community of when are things going to go back to normal? It’s a very dramatic shift in how we live our lives and it’s such a massive economic disruption for so many of us, and I don’t think the toll of that has really set in for a lot of us.” 

For the young mayor, who came into office with ambitious policy proposals and reforms that his office had been working on in past months, the crisis has disrupted his governing strategy. Yet, seeing the crisis unfurl across the country and up close in Middletown, this experience has, if anything, reaffirmed Florsheim’s instincts and perceptions about the underlying issues Middletown faces that spoke to voters this past November and got him elected. 

“Seeing our country go through this crisis has fortified a lot of what I thought has been wrong with our politics and reminds me why I got into public service in the first place and stayed in it,” Florsheim said. “It’s showing how far we have to go in providing a decent standard of living for people in this country. It’s laid bare so many failings in our economic and health care system that need to be addressed and it takes political action to do that.” 


Luke Goldstein can be reached at 

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