A2 COVID-19: Derek Delacourt

May 4, 2020 | A2 COVID-19

Derek Delacourt is the Community Services Administrator for the City of Ann Arbor, overseeing numerous departments and functions: building permits, planning, parks, rentals and inspections, etc. Derek has held this position since 2016. In our conversation, he shares his own appreciation for this time at home with his family but also acknowledges how others are experiencing a great deal of anxiety and economic insecurity. At the end, we clarified: Derek’s current appearance is not his usual.

This is part of a series of interviews with Ann Arbor residents, talking about personal experiences adjusting to (and adapting during) the COVID-19 crisis. This interview was conducted remotely via the ZOOM application. I appear in this video as “Mrs. Nelson” – we talked over the ZOOM account that I use primarily with my preschool class. Interviewed May 3, 2020

I’m talking to Derek Delacourt who is our City Community Services Administrator overseeing a whole bunch of departments that he just rattled off to me but that’s less important than the more general questions I’m going to ask you, that I’ve asked everybody: so what adjustments have you had to make in your lifestyle since the pandemic?

Oh wow. I think like everybody else — or at least a lot of people we’ve spoken to — the biggest thing I’ve had to get used to is not having that one-on-one interaction both with family and friends and with my staff. i don’t know if I’m a people person but I miss the daily interaction and the abruptness with which it was cut off — for which we were cut off from everybody — has been a difficult transition. 

I’m blessed to be home and safe and warm with my with my wife and I have a nine-year-old son so we’ve looked at this as an opportunity to grow as a family. So that’s been fantastic but at the same time, the abruptness… I think I left City Hall (and work) on (I think it was) the 16th of March, without any real understanding of how long it would be until I see people I care about (and have worked with for a long time) face to face, and share those interactions. So it’s been an adjustment. 

That and just the social distancing, getting used to being concerned about being close to other humans whether it’s out for a walk or in a park or things like that. I think the long answer is the hardest adjustment for me, at least individually, has been the abruptness in which the change and the distancing for both family and friends and just people you see in the neighborhood, and having to teach our son the same thing, so quickly. At nine years old, it’s difficult to understand why his buddies and his friends in the neighborhood now they all have to stay 10 feet apart when they play.

But I’ve also been impressed with how quickly people make the transition both from a work standpoint and at a home life, how easily people have made the transition and how easily we adapt to things like ZOOM and TEAM meetings, how easily children adapt and figure out different ways to play and have fun, even in this environment. 

The abruptness has been the biggest thing, the thing that struck me the most in the change. 

So how is your household managing those situations that we can’t avoid: getting groceries, going out in public places to do the things that are sort of unavoidable? A lot of people have described various routines or strategies. How are you managing that, how is your family managing that?

Well, I think? We didn’t hoard when this all started but we did… I had a police officer as a father and he was constantly beating into my brother and my head to be prepared for things. That certainly doesn’t mean hoarding, but several weeks beforehand, if we would buy one of something we started buying two of it and filling the pantry and the shelves downstairs with things, in anticipation in case something like this did come to fruition and for once it did come to fruition. So we stocked up pretty well. 

Then the thing I think I’ve enjoyed the most is watching our local retailers and our local facilities adapt to this. We have taken full advantage of the calling ahead to places like Knights Market and Sparrow and some of the local farms that surround Ann Arbor and do the call and curbside pick up. Tell you the truth, we’ve found a wider range of purveyors and suppliers of things than we even knew what was out there. We live right around the corner from a Busch’s and we maybe made 99 percent of our trips to the same place to get the same stuff (you know, Costco and Busch’s) and finding creative ways to order things and having them delivered— there’s companies that will bring dairy and things right to your front door.

Then I think that the most fun has been finding a wider range of folks within the community who provide either service and/or goods and taking advantage of those. Hopefully we won’t fall back into the same patterns we did before. Whether it’s curbside pickup or the ability to actually go out and shop some of these farms or smaller markets, we’ve been very impressed and we’re lucky to be able to to do that and have the time to be able to do that. It’s been one of the nicer parts of this – if you can say there’s a nicer part.

Because so much of our lives have changed and we’ve lost a lot of the outlets that we used to have, some people have talked about how isolated they feel – how cooped up in their house they feel – and I’ve been asking everybody: how do you overcome those feelings?

I certainly have some of that. I will be honest, I’m a bit of a house cat. If I’m not at work, I like being home. I’m lucky in that I enjoy the time with my family. I’m trying not to… I’m feeling a little guilty about enjoying spending this time with my son, I keep going back to the fact, I feel I have a little bit of – I don’t know whether it’s survivor’s guilt or not – but… My wife is fantastically lucky in that the company she works for, she’s able to put in her time from home. My job and the ability to work from home is pretty seamless. So the ability to spend the time with my son and be home with my family, we’re trying to make the most of it.

So we’re trying to look at it from a positive standpoint. Certainly, I miss my family: my brother, my parents, my in-laws. You know, missing Easter was horrible, we usually have everybody over to our house. We’re trying to find the positives in it and, for us, I’ve been lucky to spend this time especially with my son. It’s been fantastic. 

So I think the question was more along the lines of the difficulties of isolation and, truthfully, we’re trying to find the best of it. What I really miss is the interaction with my staff and then my extended family. We spend a lot of time in the springtime out in others yards and our neighbors and and not being able to spend that time close to people has been difficult but we’re focused on trying to make the best of this as a family and do the best we can and learn from it, so that’s where our focus has been.

You mentioned that your son, you’ve advised him about keeping ten feet away from his friends when they’re outside playing. Do you have any other strategies for when you or your family are outside?

I mean, we certainly try to practice all of the best protocols. I think it’s important as a community for us to all take that seriously and us as elected officials and community leaders to set an example as well. We certainly try to wear our masks when we’re out in public. It’s difficult with the kids, I mean, especially the last couple days as the weather’s gotten better. I don’t think we’ve done too much more than what’s been the protocols, you know, advised by the state and the CDC as far as social distancing, as far as masks, trying just to wipe your way in and wipe your way out when you go places. We haven’t found any magic bullets yet or any additional measures but we try to.

It’s difficult at times. I mean, it’s hard to watch your kid sometimes. It’s really hard to see some of their childhood taken away. The difficult times are when you know the neighbor kid – his best buddy or one of the kids in the neighborhood – gets a trampoline.

Oh my gosh!

Yeah, your kid is standing at the curb watching the neighbor’s kids on a trampoline. And you know just a little bit inside… as an adult you’re like “well, yeah, he doesn’t get to go on a trampoline” but for a nine-year-old, that’s… I mean, the piece of him is dying inside not being able. So I think our entire neighborhood right now, I think there’s been six new trampolines because every parent feels so guilty about their kid not having one.


So things like that… and I joke about it but I try to remember that we’re lucky in that those are the ways that this is impacting us and that for a lot of other folks, that this is much more serious and that the impacts are far greater than they’ve had on my family so far.

So would you have anything to say to people, any advice for people who are feeling so over-restricted by how we’re living now that they are just sick of it and are ready for it to end? Like we’ve had these… now a couple of days of protest in Lansing, people who are just done, and are not accepting that there’s enough risk to justify what we’re doing now. What would you say to them?

That’s a really difficult question because some of my friends are in that position. I have a lot of friends [from] doing community and economic development over the last five or six years in this community and in others (not five or six, last fifteen!). I made a lot of friends with small business owners, entrepreneurs, and people who live on margins that are very very different. They run small businesses, they employ people, they have homes. When I talk about abruptness for my family, that’s one thing. Abruptness for them is they went from running a small business on a small margin to nothing, immediately, and having to lay people off who don’t have the same safety nets that others do or that I do.

Trying to remember that what their perspective is is vastly different than mine or others who are in positions to make decisions and recommendations in regards to when and how we open up, what’s allowed to operate as a business. Try to keep their perspective in mind… I have a lot of conversations with people who are in very different positions than I am. 

What would i say to them is that… a couple of things, I think – and I don’t want to get too deep into it because this just tends to be a very passionate issue – is it’s difficult to compare apples and oranges. I’ve had a lot of conversations with folks about other countries, other areas of this country and how they do things. Always remember when they compare things to make sure that they compare what the safety net systems from the government is, what the health care systems of other countries are. 

This pandemic in this country seems to be hitting those less fortunate at a greater volume than in other countries and we don’t have some of the safety systems, regardless of political affiliation or where you’re at. For this, we don’t have government-funded health care for folks, our hospitals were pushed to capacity. The recommendations that have come down, the stay-at-home orders and the closure orders are based on that and to protect those who are maybe less fortunate and don’t have the same protections that we do.

So I think the answer is: the best science and the best advice from the experts we have at this point is that is if we stay home and we’re absolute about it that that is the best chance for the economy, and everybody’s business and all of our lives to resume some type of normalcy not only sooner – maybe not as soon as everybody would like – but on a more permanent trajectory where we don’t have these fits and spasms of open and close and open and close, that the beating we take is up front and it’s more substantial. That, hopefully, will lead to a longer term steadier recovery than opening too soon and then having to shut everything back down again. 

I think the original question was what would I say to people who are more frustrated by this: the pain is more significant up front but the intent and the idea of it is is that once things start to open that that is more consistent and long-term than doing it too soon. I’ve bought into that line of thought based on the systems we have in place here (and hopefully) but I also recognize that that’s easier for me sitting at home with my family and not having to worry about a small business or some other things.

We certainly will have our issues, as I’m sure you’re aware, in revenue side of things with municipal government, but it’s not the same as the small business owner or the family who works in the gig economy or works at a restaurant and has their complete and total income shut off and trying to compete with, you know, 30 million unemployed (I think we’re at this point) in the country. I’m trying to balance my perspective of what I think should happen through my lens and make sure i take other folks’ into consideration. 

I apologize for the very long soapbox rambling answer for that but… Very difficult it’s a very important question, it’s a very difficult one. We play a small role in that in local municipal government. We certainly don’t have the same considerations as the state or the federal government or some other folks but I think how we manage and lead in Ann Arbor is an example for the rest of the state in the region as well based on the type of community we are. 

So, I’ll shut up with that…!

I think it’s very true. It’s valid. There’s a lot to say about how different people are in different situations and acknowledging that is important.

I have a very good friend who, both him and his wife (younger than I am, probably early 40s) started a small business very out of the box, crazy idea (I never thought they’d last six months) in a community I worked in before. I got to be friends with him and they have children. Their business concept incorporates a lot of other vendors, artists and a lot of other folks that they have taken under their wing, given space and fostered through that. He’s in the middle of constructing a brand new home by himself – playing builder for himself – and they’ve managed to survive and grow their business and curate other businesses out of it and are a small retail economic engine for a small community in southeast Michigan.

An absolute fantastic creative force of a family and their children. I talk to him on a regular basis. They both have had COVID – both of them have gone through it and been ill, while having their business shut off and have to turn off the access to all of these other vendors that they work with on a regular basis. Having survived the disease and having their ability to build their home – in the middle of it themselves – shut off. They are not crazy, you know, conservative folks, but they need to get back to work and they need the people… they’re having their entire life ripped out from under them.

So their lens is very different than mine, although everything about us – our political affiliations, our backgrounds, our everything else – is incredibly similar. But I can tell you, his look at this and his desire to get back to work and his feelings about stay-at-home are probably vastly different than mine. He’s not some fear-mongering and, I’ll be frank, gun-toting crazy person like some of the folks that the media likes to focus on, but he probably has a very different perspective than I do. So I try to use him as a touch point for my perspective.

It’s real easy for me to sit here in the safety of my home and with the protections I have to say “well, we should just wait two more weeks, we should just wait two more weeks” (which I do believe is the right idea and I do think we’re doing the right thing) but having people like that to add perspective is important because it’s not all the wide spectrum we tend to think people are. There’s a lot of people who are just like us who just happen to have different layers of protections or incomes or safety nets that are struggling in this in a very very different way than we are and who look at the science of it through a different lens than we do. We can all look at the same science but look at it through a different lens and bring our own perspective to it. 

I try to remember that as much as possible: even when you’re making difficult decisions (and they have to be made), trying to remember how they impact everybody or generally have empathy for how they impact everybody and not get caught up in the craziness.

Is there anything else that you’d like to add, anything that I didn’t ask you about that you think is important to talk about?

I will tell you that the favorite thing I’ve learned from this – I don’t know who said it, it’s credited to a lot of people but – “never waste a good crisis.” I’m sure that’s said to redundancy or ad nauseam at this point but I am really impressed with the ability of all of us to adapt.

I’ve always been fascinated with it from our local municipal standpoint and our ability to quickly adjust and continue to do business and work with the public provide customer service, to my neighbors, to my family, to the resiliency of children in this country. It gives me a great… this country in my neighborhood…. for god’s sake, I’m watching my kids outside play just before we got started on this.

This is a terrible terrible thing and lots of people lost their lives and it’s far from over but I’m constantly amazed at our ability to adapt and find new ways to get things done. I wish we would figure this stuff out before there’s a crisis and not in the middle of it. I’m constantly amazed at our lack of ability to put these resources together ahead of time and be prepared for these things. But when they hit, the overwhelming desire of the majority of the people I run into to find new and creative ways to do positive things far far exceeds a lot of the negative and the craziness we see. 

That’s really reassuring to me and it’s unfortunate that it’s in these crises that we almost always find it. I think it gets underreported and it’s always kind of the last two seconds on a news report, the last part of a conversation. It always gives me a great amount of joy to watch people figure this stuff out and try to figure out a way to help others and do better. I hope we remember that as we go forward and continue to incorporate that. We say that at a lot of things so we’ll see this time.

I appreciate you talking to me and thank you for taking the time!

No problem, this is great. I haven’t seen the other ones yet, I didn’t want to watch them, I didn’t want to come in with any preconceived notions so I know you’ve done this with a few other staff people.

I think you should do a follow-up with everybody afterwards and when they’re all groomed you can put side to sides up and see what the hell people actually look like, what they’re supposed to. We’ll see what happens when everybody comes out of this. 

Thank you… Any little bit of this kind of stuff, like I said, this is exactly what I’m talking about. I don’t know how many people see this but if a few people get to see us as staff people and the people who work for the city – whether elected officials or not – in a different light, I think that’s very helpful as well. So I think this is great and I applaud you for taking the opportunity to do it. 

I appreciate that! Have a good day!

You as well. Talk to you soon