Societal responses to crises require coordination at multiple levels of organization. Exploring early efforts to contain COVID-19 in the U.S., we argue that local governments can act to ensure systemic resilience and recovery when higher-level governments fail to do so. Event history analyses show that large, more urban areas experience COVID-19 more intensely due to high population density and denser socioeconomic networks. But metropolitan counties were also among the first to adopt shelter-in-place orders. Analyzing the statistical predictors of when counties moved before their states, we find that the hierarchy of counties by size and economic integration matters for the timing of orders, where both factors predict earlier shelter-in-place orders. In line with sociological theories of urban governance, we also find evidence of an important governance dimension to the timing of orders. Liberal counties in conservative states were more than twice as likely to adopt a policy and implement one earlier in the pandemic, suggesting that tensions about how to resolve collective governance problems are important in the socio-temporal dynamic of responses to COVID-19. We explain this behavior as a substitution effect in which more urban local governments, driven by risk and necessity, step up into the action vacuum left by higher levels of government and become national policy leaders and innovators.