Pandemic participation: Online government both enables and stifles access to public meetings in Allegheny County

When Allegheny County Council introduced legislation in June to ban police from using “less lethal” weapons like tear gas and rubber bullets, 288 community members submitted public comments. But by the intended day of the vote, the councilors had only received about 50. Pre-coronavirus, members of the public had three minutes each to share their thoughts in-person with the 15-member council at its meetings. Now, they must submit comments to councilors via an online form or email. That’s one of many ways that public processes across the Pittsburgh area have transitioned online during the pandemic, with in-person public comments becoming digital messages and legislative meetings becoming livestreams. Though virtual meetings have increased accessibility by eliminating the need for transportation and in-person attendance, many residents and elected officials say the coronavirus has posed new obstacles for public access and government participation. 

Comments submitted to county council are usually read aloud by staff during the meeting and forwarded to councilors in advance.

Arnie Newsome, 67, stands at his shoeshine station in the Grant Building. He is one of the few shoeshiners remaining Downtown. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

My neighbor’s sole business is ‘closed until further notice’

I remember the day in late May when my neighbor Arnie went Downtown for the first time since the pandemic hit the U.S. in March. “It’s a ghost town,” he said. For the past 27 years, Arnie has operated a shoeshine station in the Grant Building in Downtown Pittsburgh. “All of my customers are working from home. The shops where I get my supplies are closed,” he said. “ I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

pittsburgh skyline

This study hopes to follow Pittsburgh-area children for two decades. How has COVID-19 changed the plan?

When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in the United States in March, the widespread shutdowns that followed brought research on seemingly everything but a vaccine to a grinding halt. Limitations on in-person interactions meant that interventions, group meetings, and other basic methods for assessing psychological and behavioral research were no longer possible. So the Pittsburgh Study, which was set to officially launch in 2020, had to change plans. In this community-partnered intervention study, researchers plan to follow children in the region from birth to adulthood, putting a microscope on the relationships and resources that influence social outcomes. The study will involve over 20,000 children in a two-decade-long look at factors that contribute to childrens’ physical and mental health and educational outcomes. The several different initiatives will focus on infant mortality, childhood obesity, youth violence, and asthma prevalence, among others.

Lessons learned during the pandemic. Community leaders weigh in

We have now endured more than six months of this (your favorite adjective here) pandemic which upended our lives in sudden and startling ways. So what lessons have we learned during this dark, tumultuous, uncertain time? We asked some influential Pittsburghers to share their lessons in the hopes of inspiring us all because we need all the inspiration we can get.

Justin Strong stands beside a new steam cleaner he purchased with a loan from Honeycomb Credit.

Things were looking good, then the pandemic hit. How four Pittsburgh-area businesses are weathering the COVID era.

COVID-19 has brought hard times to small business owners across the nation.. The online review website Yelp estimated that before July 10, 73,000 small businesses in the United States had closed permanently. Times have been difficult for businesses in the Pittsburgh region, and while the outlook is uncertain, PublicSource spoke to the owners of four resilient businesses that have stayed afloat by obtaining credit, going online, developing new streams of revenue, and in one case, simply breaking the rules.

Ebony Lunsford-Evans, owner of FarmerGirlEB, picks tomatoes at her home garden. (Photo by Brian Cook)

Pittsburgh’s Black farmers work to grow a new future

Those working in agriculture, a fragile business to start with, typically handle so many variables each year that are out of business owners’ hands. But 2020 has been a season full of more than the usual mix of uncertainty, one shaped by the economic and cultural impact of a pandemic few could have planned for.

PWSA Executive Director Will Pickering photographed near the Highland 1 reservoir in Highland Park. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

As PWSA looks past the lead crisis, its new leader faces $1 billion in upgrades and rising water bills

PWSA is committed to replacing aging infrastructure, including lead service lines, to the tune of more than $1 billion over five years, a rapid increase in spending. This also means it’s begun raising rates and has proposed even more increases, even as the COVID-19 pandemic has left significant economic uncertainty in the region and required the authority to suspend water-shutoffs.