Denise Fair, top Detroit health official, on makin...

Denise Fair, top Detroit health official, on making tough calls for a city in crisis

"In city government, there's never a day off. Right? It’s 24/7."

Denise Fair

This story comes to you from The Blend, a digital magazine from the Detroit Women’s Leadership Network and Detour Detroit, for Detroit women to find inspiration, advice and resources. Sign up here.

If Denise Fair could wave a magic wand and hop on a plane tomorrow, she knows exactly where she’d go. “Somewhere tropical,” she said without hesitation. Montego Bay, Jamaica to be more specific. Iberostar Grand Rose Hall, to be exact — this daydream vacation is totally planned, down to the resort. 

Imaginary itinerary aside, Fair isn’t planning on jet setting anytime soon. As the director of the Detroit Health Department, she spends most of her waking hours thinking about Detroiters’ health, revisiting the latest data on the city’s COVID-19 dashboard and meeting with her team, city administration and community partners. These days, you’ll find her spreading the word about safety practices on social media and even suiting up with her health inspector badge to go out and make sure bars and restaurants are complying with masking and capacity regulations.

Fair took the helm at the health department — which has had a bit of a revolving door in the last decade — just under a year ago. Last fall, she was moving her new team into new offices and diving into new initiatives like getting rid of lead paint in old Detroit homes and starting neighborhood mobile clinics to offer pediatric services. She was dealing with criticism over the animal control division, coming aboard shortly after a young girl was fatally attacked by a dog. And she was crafting a communications plan — intended to roll out earlier this year — that would have reintroduced the health department to Detroiters, to let them know that it exists and what services it offers. 

“Public health is never in the spotlight unless it has to be,” Fair told The Blend. 

By March, it had to be. Those programs were all shelved — and it was next to impossible for the public to avoid hearing about the health department as Fair became a full-time crisis manager, working 16- to 18-hour days.

“It’s like we were heading down I-94 at 65 miles an hour and then suddenly had to go 75 North at 100 miles an hour,” Fair said. “We had to shift very quickly, we didn’t have time to plan, put together big protocols, because the role of the health department in the middle of the pandemic is to provide communication, education, surveillance and emergency preparedness. And so imagine you have 250 employees who were working on, you know, 40 different initiatives, but we had to pretty much place everything on pause and shift to COVID.” 

Fair, a natural introvert, also had to step into the spotlight, giving updates at daily press conferences and talking about handwashing and social distancing — and later, masks — on every platform available, whether a rapper’s Instagram Live video or a conversation with members of the clergy. 

“I had to put my nerves aside in order to focus on providing education to the community,” she said. “I think the decision that I had to make was just to be the strong woman that I know that I am, and to speak a powerful message to the city of Detroit.”

One of Fair’s big focuses in the early months of the pandemic was pulling together a large-scale testing operation from scratch at the State Fairgrounds, which came together through a massive coordinated group effort of city administration, regional partnerships, health workers and the business community. The drive thru testing site is free and open to anyone with an appointment in the tri-county area, and Fair credits testing access as one of the reasons Detroit has maintained a low caseload after the heights of the crisis — the city’s current 2.6% positivity rate is the stat giving her the most hope right now. 

“We’re headed in the right direction. 2.6% really speaks collectively to the work we have done in the city,” she said.

When she makes decisions, Fair’s number one tool is her leadership team. 

“We make decisions together as one unit. And so we meet on a regular basis, especially during COVID,” she said. “I trust my team, I hope that they trust me as well. But it was really important that we have open dialogue.”

She also prays about big decisions, a part of her daily routine. She doesn’t jump to conclusions, and prefers not to make decisions hastily, though that hasn’t always been possible during a public health emergency. Still, she makes an effort to be calculated and rely on verified data, following a quotation from Stephen Covey, author of “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”: “Begin with the end in mind.” For Fair, the “end” is protecting Detroiters, making testing accessible and limiting deaths. 

“I had to focus on the end and work my way backwards,” she said. “And I asked how this decision will impact a resident. We’re offering drive thru testing, which is great, but it’s not going to help anyone if they don’t have access to get there. Mayor Duggan taught me, ‘make sure you’re putting yourself in the shoes of a Detroit resident,’ and that kind of humanized this whole experience.”

In her personal life, Fair was simultaneously grappling with another big decision as COVID-19 hit — whether to finish her last semester at Wayne State University’s business school (she started the program before taking the director position in Detroit). She debated dropping out, but ultimately decided it was better to take on even more work for a few months to learn the material and get it done. With a few hours of work on the weekend “here and there,” she graduated with an MBA in finance in May. 

“It’s more important for me to protect the city of Detroit, rather than be selfish and try to get the A,” she recalled thinking. “It’s amazing where the energy comes from if you’re focused and committed.”

Marshalling energy to face an emergency can only sustain you for so long, however. 

“I was very much stressed. Lots of high anxiety because I just, you know, I was literally working, sleeping a few hours, working again, sleeping a few hours,” she said. But, of course, that was my job. And my goal was to make sure that I protected the city of Detroit.”

Fair recalls a moment when she realized how much stress she was under. Her family came over for her birthday — all wearing masks — in late May, but it didn’t really feel like a birthday. 

“My mind was somewhere else…  focused on the city of Detroit, focused on the next meeting I had to do, the next media statement I had to prepare. I remember feeling really overwhelmed and saying, ‘I need to take a moment to just shut my brain off, take a moment and just reflect.’”

Fair recently began journaling again, a practice she’s kept up since she was 10 but put on hold in the spring. She’s made more of an effort to keep up with loved ones, FaceTiming with her 8-month-old niece, calling her parents nightly and hanging with friends near and far on the Houseparty app. After realizing she only exercised once in the month of March, she’s back to her regular routine of three to four workouts a week, running on the Riverfront or putting in 10 to 15 miles on her stationary bike before the workday. She unwinds with chocolate — a small luxury to go along with healthful dinners of salmon and Brussels sprouts or chicken and broccoli, prepped for the week on Sunday night — and a glass of wine from a bottle bought at House of Vin or Cost Plus. Rieslings are her mainstay, but she’s trying to develop more of a palette for reds. 

“I’m still trying to think about when am I going to take a vacation,” she said. “You have to take time out for yourself. You have to reduce your stress.

“That is the plan at some point, but you know, in city government, there’s never a day off. Right? It’s 24/7. This is my life. And it’s an honor. It’s an honor and a privilege.”

Correction: Fair’s niece is 8-months-old, not 18-months-old.

Kate Abbey-Lambertz is the co-founder and editorial director for Detour Media. She leads editorial strategy for the signature Detour Detroit newsletter, The Blend and special projects, while shaping Detour’s membership program, audience development initiatives and design. Kate was previously a national reporter at HuffPost, where she covered equitable cities and urban issues. She launched HuffPost’s Detroit vertical, serving as reporter and editor, and has reported on Detroit for a decade. Follow her on Twitter: @kabbeyl