No one was prepared for the COVID-19 pandemic. Not individuals, cities, states or even the federal government. It was an unexpected, unprecedented, cataclysmic event.
But as seen in the aftermath of 9/11 and other catastrophes, people tend to help one another in times of crisis. And nowhere has that been more evident than with Georgia’s cities. There are a lot of ways COVID-19 has affected communities, but one of the most sudden and drastic was its economic impact.
In April alone, more than 20.5 million jobs were lost in the U.S. Unfortunately, Georgia residents were some of the hardest hit, as almost overnight entire industries were shut down. And many of the stores that remained open have dealt with a dramatically reduced customer presence.
Thomasville's G.I.S. map.
To help local businesses, the city of Thomasville’s Geographic Information Systems (G.I.S.) and Main Street departments collaborated with the Thomas County Chamber of Commerce to create an innovative, interactive map that allows citizens to see which businesses are open, their hours of operation and more.
Residents can search for businesses by name, type of services offered (grocery store, retail, restaurant, etc.) address or general location. The tool is available on Thomasville’s website and on the city’s app.
Duane Treadon, director of Thomasville’s G.I.S. department and creator of the map, says it was designed to be used as a lifeline for struggling store owners.
“We understand the environment has changed, but we want to do everything we can to help ensure these businesses don’t lose customers and remain viable now and in the future,” he said. “Their hours or procedures may not be the same as before the pandemic, but we want people to know those businesses are still open and there for them.”
However, the G.I.S map isn’t the only way in which Thomasville is aiding the community.
“It’s difficult for so many people right now, and we’re committed to helping make sure residents’ services remain connected,” said Chris White, Thomasville’s Director of Public Utilities. “We’ll cut past due bills into four or five monthly payments if we need to. We’ll do whatever we can to help people.”
In East Point, city employees are taking a more hands-on approach by physically packing meals for families in need. (All while practicing social distancing, of course!) Mayor Deana Holiday Ingraham and other city employees personally help prepare and distribute more than 20,000 pounds of food to East Point residents every week. The city has also started distributing “bucket gardens,” which contain vegetables such as bell peppers, tomatoes and parsley.
“It’s important that the people we help are treated with dignity and respect,” Ingraham said, “and at the same time they also have access to tools that will help them meet their own needs. These gardens do that.”
East Point city employees prepare food for distribution.
But East Point isn’t stopping there. The city has partnered with MAJL Diagnostic Laboratories to offer free COVID-19 tests to uninsured residents and those on Medicaid/Medicare.
“We want everyone in our community to have the opportunity to get tested,” Ingraham said. “When combined with the testing locations Fulton County has set up in East Point, everyone in our community now has the ability to get tested at no charge, regardless if they’re insured or not.”
UNITING TO SERVE
Unfortunately, even with help getting the word out about businesses’ hours and operations, more people are staying home, which means many companies have been forced to make hard choices. Municipalities across the state are looking for innovative ideas to help local small businesses stay afloat and keep people employed in these uncertain times. Some are even joining forces, like Athens-Clarke County and the city of Winterville, who have recently created a Joint Development Authority to grant interest-free loans to local small businesses.
“Small business loans aren’t the vehicle for everybody’s success,” Athens-Clarke County Mayor Kelly Girtz said, “but to the extent that it can be a buffer, we want that tool to be available for the businesses in our communities that can use it.”
Of course, not every business has been able to stay open, leaving countless employees out of work and in difficult financial situations. To help ease the burden for so many struggling families, some municipalities, including Thomasville, have placed a moratorium on disconnections for city-run utilities, from basic water to broadband service. Many have also waived late charges and penalties and set up flexible repayment plans, like those mentioned above, to help make sure service continues and people who are already in a tough situation aren’t expected to pay everything all at once or make the decision between purchasing essential goods or keeping their lights on.
In addition, leaders in Athens-Clarke County implemented a new program called Athens Community Corps. The Community Corps program directly addresses the effects of the pandemic on the community by providing work and lifting the most economically vulnerable citizens, who in many ways have been hit the hardest by the pandemic.
“COVID-19 has had a profoundly negative impact on young and already underemployed people in our community,” said Girtz. “And we realized we always have public lands that need kudzu removed. We have a huge backlog of sidewalks that need to be constructed. So, the Athens Community Corps program puts the most economically fragile members of our community to work, and it’s designed to help them not just during this pandemic, but hopefully long afterwards, as well.”
Girtz explained that the goal of the Community Corps program is to help residents climb out of poverty.
“It’s great that members of our community now have the opportunity to make $12 or $13 an hour clearing kudzu, but what are their long-term goals?” he said. “Maybe that’s working emergency medicine, becoming a welder or a diesel mechanic or a CDL driver. By working with the Hope Grant Program, which is focused on technical education, we can help people get the coursework they need to achieve these long-term goals.
Eventually, we’d like to see the Athens Community Corps program help us become a less economically fragile community.”
An expanded version of this article appears in the May/June 2020 edition of Georgia’s Cities Magazine.