Vaughan Rising Blog: COVID-19 Leadership Lessons from the City of Vaughan’s Mayor

Three Simple, Innovative Ways to Help Your Business Rise

Business leaders and entrepreneurs are getting creative through the ever-evolving COVID-19 business restrictions, making pivots to ensure their businesses make it through. The new Vaughan Rising blog series will feature case studies of businesses at the forefront and practical guidance on operating under the ‘new normal.’ Each business has different challenges and a different way to tackle them. Hopefully, these insights will provide inspiration for your own business pivot.

To kick off the series, we are sharing lessons from the City of Vaughan’s own adaptation story. This municipal government, under the leadership of Mayor Maurizio Bevilacqua, moved quickly and nimbly, like a business would. By pivoting and innovating, the City is doing what it takes to continue the important task of city-building while delivering high quality public services. Collectively, Vaughan staff developed 125 innovations and process improvements in the first three months of the pandemic.

These strategies will work for businesses of any size, across a variety of industries. Try integrating them into your business plans to help your business rise too.

The Mayor’s formula to ensure Vaughan continues to rise 

1. Create strong foundations and action plans

COVID-19 did not catch Vaughan’s municipal team off guard. Since January, when COVID-19 took hold in China and the first case landed in Canada, Vaughan was aware and kept informed of the situation surrounding the virus, and quickly created a plan.

“We were ready,” says Mayor Bevilacqua. “We invest a lot of time in the City of Vaughan for emergency preparedness and I think that work really paid off.”

On March 17, taking strong, decisive action, Mayor Bevilacqua made a bold move and Vaughan became the first city in Ontario to declare a state of emergency. The Mayor’s declaration was based on intensive research and analysis combined with the desire to impress upon his citizens the seriousness of the situation. In hindsight, given how the pandemic has unfolded, the Mayor stands by his decision, affirming that, “it was the right call, at the right time, for the right reasons. As the world watched during those initial weeks of uncertainty, the City of Vaughan acted with a great deal of certainty.”

The City created a well-thought-out action plan, executed in rapid succession over the next few weeks, including:

  • suspending by-laws to allow for 24-hour delivery to stores in Vaughan with no restrictions on loading or unloading commercial vehicles, transport trucks and other vehicles.
  • waiving late penalty charges on property tax bills.
  • expanding waste collection services.
  • closing City Hall, playgrounds and other city facilities to the public.

2. Find a way to continue delivering services and communications without interruption

While many of the City’s facilities shut down, the work of running the city certainly did not slow down. Vaughan needed to find a new way to do almost everything. Mayor Bevilacqua was not daunted by the task. He explains, “we always lead with innovation. This is at the heart of our city-building efforts and COVID-19 provided an opportunity for our team to get creative in thinking of different ways to deliver services, programs and communications during a global pandemic.”

Mayor Bevilacqua chairs the Ready, Resilient and Resourceful Committee of Council, which he created to deal with COVID-19 and the city’s economic recovery. At the committee’s inaugural meeting on June 23, staff reported on all the measures taken so far and the impact. “What you find is a lot of creativity and innovation did take place,” notes Mayor Bevilacqua.

Vaughan has adapted many of the City’s functions, such as:

  • the launch of an online building permits portal.
  • the switch to virtual electronic-participation committee and council meetings.
  • the complete automation of procurement services.
  • working with industry leaders to identify and prioritize capital projects that comply with provincial directives and essential workplaces.

City-building also continues. During the first quarter of 2020, Vaughan issued 656 permits valued at over $125 million. More than 12,300 inspections took place from January to March, well exceeding the same period for the last three years. The $1.8 billion Cortellucci Vaughan Hospital – Canada’s first smart technology hospital – continues to be built and is slated to open in the first quarter of 2021.

Keeping mental health, entertainment and self-care in mind, Vaughan Public Libraries was the first library service in Ontario to offer curbside pickup for residents – with more than 47,000 items taken out already. The number of people registering for a library card online is up by a remarkable 130 per cent, notes the Mayor. The first-ever virtual Canada Day celebration was a success.

Vaughan’s Economic and Cultural Development department also pivoted, shifting its resources to support the hardest-hit segments of the business community by:

  • advising on the Vaughan Business Action Plan.
  • launching a website to support Vaughan businesses ( with a dedicated COVID-19 resources page.
  • expanding email communications.
  • putting all hands on deck to respond to a flood of inquiries from businesses.

Mayor Bevilacqua notes, “because we are really the front-line government, people knock on our door before anybody else’s door and so we found that we were helping people not only with our own municipal programs, but also with provincial and federal programs.”

In his 30-plus years of public service, Mayor Bevilacqua has rarely seen a time where such a high number of government programs were rolled out in such short order. He explains, “this creates some benefits, but also some challenges as well, as people try to figure out if they qualify. A thousand businesses approached the Vaughan Economic and Cultural Development department, and they were all helped. This means that we relieved a little bit of the stress that they were going through both financially and emotionally during this time.”

3. Take a long-term approach

What insights does the Mayor have for other business leaders? He listed several strategies he believes made the difference for Vaughan.

  • Make sure the health of your customers (in Vaughan’s case: citizens) is first and foremost.
  • Mitigate some of the risks.
  • Be very clear about what you want to achieve.
  • Take a long-term approach.

Mayor Bevilacqua recommends exercising a decision-making process that is informed by creating a variety of scenarios with different situations, circumstances and outcomes that may emerge. He adds, “I think one of the reasons we have been successful is because ours is a long-term approach. When psychologically you ready the team in that way, positive results occur. I am very proud of the way our team here at the City of Vaughan has responded and I see a light at the end of the tunnel. We were first in many areas of COVID-19 because we actually were prepared, and preparation is key in dealing with an emergency like COVID-19.”

Rising toward the future

The faith of Vaughan’s residents in the well-being of the community and economy, and the City’s comprehensive and holistic approach, have contributed greatly toward Vaughan’s success.

Mayor Bevilacqua is proud of the city: “It is amazing to see all the great things that we’ve been able to achieve, and how strong our economy has remained throughout this crisis. There’s no question about the fact that some businesses and individuals have been adversely affected by the crisis, but it could have been a lot worse. I think the fact that we have a very strong foundation here in the city gave us the strength to overcome.”

Learn more about how the City of Vaughan supports business resilience during COVID-19.

For help with your business, book a consultation with the Economic and Cultural Development (ECD) team.