COVID-19 FAQ: Public Sector

May 2020

The global pandemic is having unprecedented impact on federal, state, local, tribal and territory governments. Our COVID-19 resource center helps organizations stay abreast of the latest developments and mitigate risk during this time of uncertainty. For government organizations, the stakes are high as agencies and elected officials work overtime to flatten the curve, save lives, and ensure the safety of the American people.

While the circumstances are changing daily, here are some of the most frequently asked questions by government organizations, along with resources to help them respond to and plan around each.

A. For federal, state and local governments, continuity is non-negotiable. Governments across the country are not set up for remote operations and even require lawmakers to convene face-to-face, threatening the physical safety of leaders and continuity of government as public servants fall ill with COVID-19.

Federal, state and local governments should assess the specific risks that the pandemic poses to continuity and identify a core response team to lead crisis management efforts. Communicating consistently with both constituents and government employees helps stakeholders stay up to date about the response.

Reviewing current and potential disruptions to operations can help governments scenario plan for a range of circumstances in the short and medium terms. Assessing supply chain problems and options for diversifying also helps mitigate disruption as state governments take on the critical task of equipping their communities with the personal protective equipment, ventilators and testing required to reopen the economy. Reviewing current workforce needs and capabilities can inform governments’ options for transitioning temporarily to remote work by using secure cloud computing and collaboration platforms. Likewise, when it comes to workforce reintegration planning, prioritization and staging for a slow return to work is essential. Evaluating possible ways to move to remote election processes, if necessary, can ensure government continuity.

While a crisis management team should be formed, it will be a part of every official’s job to continuously help scenario plan and apply lessons learned to operations.

Many governments are facing liquidity issues as they increase spending to purchase medical equipment on behalf of hospitals, help schools transition to remote learning and create aid programs for constituents in need during this critical time. Yet fewer funds are coming in due to the tax deadline extensions, as well as decreased revenue from commercial and sales taxes.

Some municipalities are finding relief through interstate compacts to alleviate cost pressures which: a.) share ventilators across borders as virus hotspots of infection shift, and b.) reduce the price of testing and medical equipment by collaborating instead of driving up prices through bidding wars.

The largest source of relief is the CARES Act, which allocated $150 billion to the Coronavirus Relief Fund through the U.S. Treasury, which state, tribal, territory and local governments can apply for to cover costs related to the virus. The CARES Act, however, did not contain funding to offset the drastic state and local revenue shortfalls that state and local governments are experiencing across the country. Unlike the federal government, states cannot borrow to fund operations; they need direct federal aid that will allow for replacement of lost revenues.

The CARES Act also provides the Department of Education over $31B in total to distribute across state and local governments (including their educational agencies) and institutions of higher education. Funds have been split and will be distributed through formula-based grants within three of the Department of Education grant programs: The Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund, the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, and the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund.

The Federal Transit Authority (FTA) is providing $25B in grants funded through the CARES Act for recipients of FTA’s typical urbanized area and rural area formula funds. Funds are intended to help support the transit industry during the public health emergency, providing replacement revenue to account for sharp declines in ridership across the standard lines of public transit.

States will also receive a variety of allocations from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as part of the CARES Act relief programs, including a share of $5B to the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program; $4B for homeless assistance grants; $1.25B for tenant-based rental assistance, providing additional funds for public housing agencies for Housing Choice Vouchers; $685M for public housing; and $65M for the Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS (HOPWA) program.

The USDA is developing a $19B relief program to provide funding to support American farmers and ranchers, maintain the integrity of food supply, and “ensure every American continues to receive and have access to the food they need.” As a part of this program, the USDA introduced expanded flexibilities and waivers for states in administering SNAP and other programs to enable children and families to get needed food during the national emergency. Nationally, $15.5B in additional funding is available for the SNAP program and $8.8B is provided for child nutrition programs.

Finally, as a last resort for source of funding for state, local, tribal and territory governments, the FEMA Public Assistance grants for emergency and protective measures are available, which can cover 75% of eligible work and associated costs starting from Jan. 20, 2020 onwards. Governments must meet eligibility criteria to receive these funds, as well as federal compliance criteria for grants management such as 2 CFR 200 and the Stafford Act.

A. While federal agencies are working to scale with agility or adjust operations—from increasing USPS package delivery capacity, to adjusting IRS filing deadlines and channels—state and local governments are especially focused on ensuring adequate testing and medical infrastructure at the peak of the pandemic hitting their communities.

While states like New York and Washington were forced to quickly meet capacity demand on a condensed runway, others can prepare now for the virus’ potential to create unprecedented demand in their communities. As governments respond in real-time, they should take a few immediate steps:

  • Collate projections for demand at the height of the crisis and how these projections would alter with policy measures in place to flatten the curve
  • Create a crisis command center and designate clear swim lanes for who is managing the crisis, ensuring both government continuity and that hospitals can remain open
  • Assess how to transform existing infrastructure to suit a crisis environment; for example, New York mandated that hospitals increase capacity by 50%
  • Consider job creation initiatives to recruit medical practitioners and workers from other geographies to help with capacity demand
  • Identify and centralize international supply chain expertise to help with sourcing necessary materials, and understand the contractual implications of changes to orders
  • Ensure the collection of clear, consistent data to inform allocation of resources across government agencies and hospitals
  • Plan for impact on the workforce and set up support systems for both the physical safety of workers and constituents, as well as to help public servants maintain mental health while working in a high-pressure environment
  • Leverage telehealth and telework whenever possible to protect the health of workers and manage hospital capacity
  • Call on other municipalities, states, and federal government to lend materials, talent, or resources to help meet demand
  • Track, record and support costs associated with COVID-19 in order to meet federal grant funding requirements
For government officials collaborating with local hospitals on a plan to manage patient surge, view our resources.
 

A. When the coronavirus initially hit the United States, pressure was applied on federal agencies to show that the government was open and “working at full capacity.” Yet as community spread has become a more pressing issue, many government agencies, states, and municipalities are shifting policies to allow employees to telework, especially in hard-hit regions.

The public sector must set up employees for success by providing the necessary tools and training to allow operational continuity. For government workers, cyber and national security concerns must be considered in any plan to rapidly transition workers from the office to home.

To enable the transition to remote work:

  • Conduct stress tests to ensure teleworking networks can handle an increase in volume
  • Consider cloud computing, which is another vital tool that provides secure access to the network and shared files; using a cloud VPN can ensure that data is encrypted when employees access the cloud, and two-factor authentication further strengthens that security
  • Require employees to exclusively use company-issued devices for work purposes, because personal devices may have unknown vulnerabilities
  • Ensure employees have access to the necessary hardware and that high-speed internet is available from their homes to conduct their jobs without interruptions
  • Train staff properly and provide continued technical support to use these technology solutions effectively and troubleshoot any issues; include security training on how to identify suspicious activity, especially phishing and ransomware emails, as well as the reporting process if an issue arises

For more, read our insight about how to address IT management challenges during COVID-19.

A. Cybersecurity is a vital concern in a largely digital economy. For this reason, safeguarding against cyber threats is of critical importance as government agencies move operations from secure government buildings to home offices.

As the public sector scrambles to respond to COVID-19 while ensuring the safety of those in public office, the rate of telecommuting has increased dramatically, potentially increasing the number of network entry points. Cyber-attackers have also become more aggressive, probing to exploit any vulnerability and leveraging new attack vectors. More than ever, it is imperative to take the necessary steps to monitor and protect against cyber threats.

Strong access controls ensure that only those who are authorized can access sensitive data, while audit controls track access to systems. Intrusion detection tools also monitor traffic across the network and raise alerts about any suspicious activity, making it possible to stop cyber threats as they arise.

A cloud VPN for government workers provides secure access to the network, shared files and encrypts all data. Two-factor authentication further strengthens these protections.

Internal threats are also a significant concern, but these can be mitigated by audit controls and intrusion detection. Staff should also be trained to identify any suspicious activities, such as phishing and ransomware emails, and promptly report these to the IT department.

Faced with a litany of potential threats and limited resources, public sector entities can benefit from threat-based cybersecurity. This approach identifies the most common attack vectors and focuses security efforts on protecting aspects of the network that are most likely to be targeted by bad actors. Lastly, government agencies must develop, review and update incident response and business continuity plans as necessary in order to remain responsive to emerging threats and vulnerabilities during a changing climate.

Learn more about effectively safeguarding against cyber risks.

A. As of May 8, the Governmental Accounting Standard Board (GASB) has postponed the effective dates in Statements and Implementation Guides due to be implemented by state and municipal governments for fiscal year 2019.

The goal of the guidance is stated to “provide temporary relief from certain new accounting and financial reporting requirements for governments in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.” The thought is that with sufficient time, governments will be able to ensure accurate and reliable financial statements. This is achieved by delaying the effective dates of a range of Statements and Implementation Guides. For a complete list of the impacted provisions, please see Statement 95.

On March 19, 2020, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) issued a memorandum, M-20-17, providing further guidance on areas of administrative relief for recipients and applicants of federal financial assistance directly impacted by COVID-19 due to loss of operations. The memorandum provides short-term relief for administrative, financial management, and audit requirements under 2 CFR Part 200, Uniform Administrative Requirements, Cost Principles and Audit Requirements for Federal Awards, without compromising federal assistance accountability requirements. The memorandum provides agencies with authorization to take certain actions, including flexibility with application deadlines, the ability to allow recipients to charge costs not normally chargeable to federal awards, the ability to waive certain procurement requirements, and the ability to grant extensions of financial performance and other reporting requirements. Among the administrative relief exceptions is a six-month extension for single audit submissions.