Oxford Mayor Robyn Tannehill

Mississippi Today met with Robyn Tannehill, Oxford’s mayor, at a women’s leadership summit at Ole Miss earlier this year. Little did we know at the time she’d be thrust into the national spotlight and our own coverage for leading Oxford through COVID-19 preparations. We reached her by phone this week for our Inform[H]er newsletter, which looks at social issues through a gender lens.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: What moment did you realize that you’d have to lead Oxford through this pandemic?

A: We made our infectious disease response plan in February. There are so many different twists and turns that we couldn’t see coming that early, but at least we had a plan for each of our departments before we started seeing cases here.

So that was my first, “Now wait a minute, we’re going to have a pandemic, what?” We are giving it all we’ve got and just praying that’s enough – we are trying to use common sense and compassion in every decision that we make, and trying to arm ourselves with as much info as we can. Obviously we’re listening to folks on the national level and our state leaders and state health department, but each community is different – this is not a one-size-fits all problem that has a one-size-fits all solution.

The way our community is combined with a large number of students and young people, and we’re also a retiree community – it presents some different challenges here that some communities across the state are certainly not dealing with the same kinds of issues.

Q: So that was well before your first case, what changed as time progressed?

A: March 18 was our first case – that’s when it really struck us – but also the day that we realized that businesses would be closed. We have these small businesses who are the backbone of our community who desperately need customers and we’re balancing that with this very diverse makeup of community and age groups, and just a community that desperately needs to distance itself from others. Both of those things you weigh equally and it is just impossible to find the perfect balance there, in protecting your economy and the public health and safety of your community – just finding a balance there, I have found, is impossible.

The data changes and there is no guidebook for this. So, we give it all we got and hope that that’s enough. We have had to be very willing to change at a moment’s notice because all of our plans are so fluid.

We had to furlough 135 employees, which was for sure the most difficult decision that we’ve had to make. We’re a small town with big city problems. College towns are a different bag. We have the most dedicated employees and they’re family – that was for sure the hardest day. We know that we’ll be down close to $3 million before the end of this fiscal year and those were dollars that we’d already budgeted.

Q:  At the women’s summit you were on a panel about leadership with Starkville Mayor Lynn Spruill, who said, “You can get a lot done when you don’t care about who gets credit.” How has this challenged, refined or reiterated your own leadership style?

A:  Lynn is one of my dear friends and she says that often. I have that written down on my notebook – “The less credit you need, the more you get done.” That is dead-on. This has been a learning experience. It has certainly made me even more thoughtful about listening. It has made me realize how little I know about things like pandemics. I’m not a virologist or an epidemiologist. It has made me keenly aware of how much we need to seek input.

We are making decisions everyday that literally affect peoples lives and their livelihood. That is just such a heavy weight – but also, you’ve got to make decisions and move forward. Sometimes I think as women we are so analytical, and we think through all the different sides. You can get paralyzed by there not being a clear path. This has certainly been one of those circumstances where you have to use compassion, common sense and the best information you have – and you’ve got to make hard decisions and move through them. That’s difficult when everything is so gray. I don’t shy away from tough decisions, whether they’re popular or not. But this has been so difficult because there aren’t any clear cut paths. Every decision you’re making is what you think is best, but you can’t reflect on the last time this happened … we’ve had to learn to be very adaptable and you can’t be too rigid on what you think your plan is. You’ve got to be able to react and reconfigure daily

Q: How do you balance economic and health well-being best for Oxford, when at times there is conflicting information coming from state orders?

A: I try to remind myself that our state leaders haven’t done this before either – it is not just those at the local level that are learning as they go. So I really hope that people give me the benefit of the doubt as I move through this and I try to do the same for state leaders – it is just tough. It’s not a one-size-fits-all. The governor and state leaders have to give a basic bottom line, but each community needs to have the ability to do what’s best for their citizen makeup, for their business community, for the health care issues that that particular community is dealing with.

Where do you go to talk about that? I went straight to the governor and just said, “Hey, I need you to know where the rubber meets the road whats going on here, and here are the unique challenges that we have. I’m not expecting the state to give me an answer to these local problems that are specific to my community, but I need to have the authority to make those decisions.” And he agreed – immediately the next day, he issued (clarity) that municipalities could be more strict but not more lenient … that’s all we could ask for is to have the authority to make the right decisions for our community.

Our rules have to look different here and we have to be very deliberate and diligent in both setting parameters and then enforcing them. People don’t like being told what do. People don’t want to be told to wear a mask, people don’t want to be told that they can’t dine in a restaurant even if they feel safe doing so. But we have speed limits and we have laws about seat belts. There have always been necessary laws in place to protect people, and this is not different than that.

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Erica Hensley, a native of Atlanta, has been working as an investigative reporter focusing on public health for Mississippi Today since May 2018. She is a Knight Foundation fellow for our newsroom’s collaboration with local TV station WLBT and curates The Inform[H]er, our monthly women and girls’ newsletter. She is the 2019 recipient of the Doris O'Donnell Innovations in Investigative Journalism Fellowship. Erica received a bachelor’s in print journalism and political science from the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and a master’s in health and medical journalism from the University of Georgia Grady College for Journalism and Mass Communication.