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Pandemic's negative economic impact: A vexing Catch-22
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ALBANY — It’s the ultimate Catch-22.

Business owners are told they must meet specific guidelines in order to stay open for business, yet those guidelines hinder or all but put a dead stop to commerce. The businesses pay the lion’s share of tax money it takes to operate a city, but with restrictions curtailing business transactions, there’s less and less income to tax.

“People have said that pushing to have live events, to keep businesses operating, is putting money ahead of people’s health,” Albany Convention & Visitors Bureau Executive Director Rashelle Beasley said recently. “That’s just not it. The bottom line is that businesses are the lifeblood of a community. If businesses can’t operate, people can’t work. If people can’t work, they can’t spend.

“If people aren’t spending, there’s no tax money to collect. It’s the ‘trickle-up’ theory of economics.”

Beasely knows all too what she’s talking about. All she has to do is point out some of the events in Albany that have been canceled because of concerns — or government dictates — surrounding the coronavirus pandemic to make her point. The top nine or so of those events have led to economic losses amounting to around $6.5 million.

“It’s amazing, but we haven’t heard of a lot of businesses that have said they’re hanging it up, closing their doors,” Beasley said while discussing the economic downturn wrought by the pandemic. “But a lot of them have said they are really struggling. The reality is that, if things don’t turn around soon, a lot of them won’t survive.”

Beasley notes that the cancelation of signature events in a community does more than harm the economies of businesses and entities that are directly involved in the events.

“The impact (of losing these events) is huge,” she said. “It’s not just, say, the losses of income associated with the homecoming football game at Albany State. It’s restaurants, hotels, gas stations, facility rentals, vendors, food trucks ... It’s also the loss of vital fundraisers like the downtown ChalkFest that’s the No. 1 fundraiser for the Albany Museum of Art ... the Native American Festival at Chehaw ... Habitat for Humanity’s Hammer Jam.”

According to information supplied by the CVB, these local events’ cancelations have led to significant losses in economic impact, losses of more than $6.5 million:

1. ASU Homecoming: (10/17-10-20) $3,501,493

2. Exchange Club Fair: (October-November) $798,506

3. GA First Robotics: (3/14-3/16) $482,850

4. SIAC Baseball Tournament: (5/2-5/5) $381,800

5. USaveIt Basketball Tournament: (12/20-12/22) $274,500

6. SIAC Volleyball Crossover Tournament: (9/27-9/29) $130,950

7. Habitat for Humanity Hammer Jam: (8/18-8/19) $60,000

8. Chehaw Challenge: (1/25-1/26) $12,560

9. Southern Discomfort Run: (7/28-7/29) $5,460

Other events like ChalkFest, the Native American Festival, the Flint RiverQuarium Wild Affair, the annual Jehovah’s Witness Convention and a large number of family reunions also were canceled due to the virus.

“Those numbers are actual economic impact losses,” Beasley said. “But there are other intangibles like tailgating at ASU football games, hotel and restaurant losses. And there are the nonprofits’ fundraisers that leave them with a big hit.Those things spread throughout the community.”

Beasley noted that the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference baseball and softball tournaments will be played in Albany in April, that a number of family reunions have been booked for spring and summer, and one of the largest events in the city, the annual Snickers Marathon, will be held this year.

“We’re hoping things will be a lot better with the virus by the time these events are scheduled,” she said. “Even if there are still restrictions, unless things take a turn for the worse, we will still move forward. We have to. We’re going to make safety a priority; we’re going to take every precaution. I just pray we can move forward.”

To which just about every business owner in Albany will add a hearty “Amen.”

Thanksgiving COVID spike in Dougherty County points to need for smart holiday gatherings
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ALBANY — Health and elected officials are encouraging residents to have a merry little Christmas, with the emphasis on “little,” as a post-Thanksgiving surge in new novel coronavirus cases have hit the region.

That includes limiting the size of gatherings and protecting those who are the most vulnerable including the elderly and those with underlying health conditions.

Meanwhile, paramedics are seeing patients in many instances displaying a different set of symptoms than they showed earlier in the pandemic.

In the most recent 14-day period, the number of positive tests per 100,000 was 452 in Dougherty County. That was up 20 percent from the 371 recorded in the previous 14-day period, Southwest Health District Health Director Dr. Charles Ruis said during a press conference held Friday.

“I agree with the mayor, cases are going up,” he said. “Four hundred fifty-two is not a good number, but believe it or not in other places, especially in north Georgia, the numbers are 600, 900, 1,200 cases per 100,000.”

Ruis used those figures to underscore the point that local residents could find themselves in areas with a higher level of infection than is the case at home.

The United States set a record number of hospitalizations on Friday for the 13th day in a row and nearly every state in the country currently is rated as a hot zone for COVID-19, with hospitals overwhelmed in many locations.

“If you travel, you may be traveling to a location that is a lot sicker than where you are,” Ruis said.

Ruis did not know when the first shipment of vaccines would arrive in southwest Georgia. Once a vaccine arrives, the health district, which covers 14 counties, will focus on vaccinating residents in nursing homes, assisted living facilities and other congregant-living housing including jails, he said.

On Friday the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved for emergency use the Moderna vaccine for emergency use for individuals 18 and older, a week after the approval of Pfizer’s vaccine.

Because the vaccine will not be widely available any time soon, Ruis urged residents to continue practices meant to slow the spread of the disease. Those include wearing face covering, social distancing and frequent and thorough hand-washing in addition to the sanitizing of surfaces. Also, the vaccine does not prevent a person who has had the shot from being a spreader of the coronavirus.

On Friday, there were 81 patients hospitalized for treatment at Phoebe Putney Health system facilities in Albany, Americus and Sylvester, up from 23 four weeks earlier.

That increase is attributed mostly to a spike that began around the Thanksgiving holiday, said Dr. James Black, director of emergency at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany.

“We are certainly apprehensive as we approach the Christmas holiday that this will continue and get worse,” said Black, who was the first person in the region to receive the Pfizer vaccine earlier this week as the hospital began vaccinating employees.

While some people have misgivings at the quick pace of the development of the vaccine, Black said that new technology developed over the past decade have allowed for the faster turnaround time in developing new vaccines. The vaccines approved do not contain a “live” version of the virus.

“You are not getting a vaccination that contains COVID-19,” he said. “This is the first time researchers from around the world are working toward one purpose. I think we have the benefit of the collaborative effort.”

Noting that 83 percent of COVID deaths have been among those 60 and older, Albany Mayor Bo Dorough said that people participating in holiday gatherings should keep that in mind in planning to protect the most vulnerable.

The number of flu cases are much lower than in a normal year, which he said is due to the protective measures that have been put in place to prevent transmission of the coronavirus.

“We are tired of the safety precautions, what (is) called COVID fatigue,” Dorough said. “What we have seen from Thanksgiving, the same thing we saw from July 4, is we have these gatherings and the numbers spike. People are going to gather, and infections are going to go up.”

In recent weeks, as medical calls have increased, paramedics have noticed a trend of patients who are transported to hospitals and test positive for the coronavirus are displaying different symptoms This shift includes more patients displaying symptoms such as diarrhea and other more “flu-like” symptoms, said Dougherty County Commission Chairman Chris Cohilas.

Some residents are waiting several days before calling for an ambulance when they get violently ill, and Cohilas urged that people be aware of the various symptoms of the disease and seek testing and treatment early.

Where in early November the number of transfers by EMS personnel was at less than seven per week, that has increased to 18 this week.

“Those are people who are very sick,” Cohilas said. “It’s important we keep the number of people who fall into that category as low as possible.

With hospitalizations rising, it is important to limit the spread so that local facilities are not overwhelmed, the chairman said.

“One key is making sure we have enough hospital beds, making sure we have enough hospital staff, enough respirators,” Cohilas said. “It’s important that we don’t have large gatherings. Make smart decisions as many of us have.

“Let’s continue to embrace and continue to lead as a community to show how we can manage this better than other communities. We have defined ourselves as a community by how we respond to adversity. Remember, it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon.”

New grocery store expected to bring boost to south Albany
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ALBANY — A new grocery store in south Albany will offer convenience and new food choices for residents in an underserved area of the city.

The Food For Less Inc. store, an affiliate of Piggly Wiggly, also will bring some 75 new jobs to the area.

The grocer, which will move into the former Harvey’s location at South Slappey Boulevard and West Gordon Avenue, was assisted by a $150,000 grant from the city of Albany, which also has arranged other financing. The Harvey’s store closed in early 2019.

“We’ve been looking for the right grocery store to come in” for more than a year, said Albany City Commissioner B.J. Fletcher, whose Ward III is where the store is located. “It looks like it’s going to be a public-private partnership. It was a win-win for the residents of Albany.”

A Georgia Tech-Albany State University study into food disparities conducted last year identified food deserts in the community. Some residents in the city are five miles or more away from a grocery store where fresh fruits and vegetables are available.

Residents who lack transportation often depend on dollar stores where food selections are heavy in processed food, and the long-term health implications of poor diets have been cited as a factor in the underlying conditions such as diabetes that made COVID-19 so deadly among residents in those underserved areas.

One product not lacking in the area, which is in close proximity to where Wards III, IV and VI come together, is alcohol, said Ward VI Commissioner Demetrius Young, who has made a top issue of limiting the spread of establishments that sell beer, wine and liquor.

“You have three convenience stores and a liquor store in a one-block area near that intersection,” he said. “You can walk across the street to get alcohol, but you have to take three buses to get a tomato.

“It’s also a health issue when you don’t have a grocery store in an area.”

Renovations are expected to be completed within nine months of the grant award, and the development is expected to provide more than 70 jobs, of which 50 to 80 percent are expected to go to residents of Albany and Dougherty County. The jobs are expected to bring an average hourly wage of $10.65 to $16.61, with benefits for those working 30 hours or more per week.

The $150,000 in city funding comes through a healthy food financing initiative target small grant award. City staff plan to bring a proposal to close a $350,000 funding grant for the $2.8 million project to the commission early in January.

The jobs also will offer a boost, Fletcher said. The company has committed to paying at least $10 per hour, and some jobs such as meat-cutting will pay significantly more, she said. Along with a recent announcement of the opening of a facility at the former MacGregor building the entire area will get a new look and opportunities.

“You’re talking about 150 jobs a quarter of a mile from Albany Tech,” Fletcher said. “That’s been a huge eyesore. I hope they will target Albany Tech students for jobs. That will help them out.”

With the facelift, Fletcher is hoping another nearby eyesore — the former National Linens building — can be razed. The building attracts a criminal element and has become a “dope house with walls,” she said. “To get that eyesore torn down would be huge in that part of the community.”

The need in the area is great, as there is no grocery store closer than three or four miles to the location, Young said. An outing to a grocery store that far away brings a number of challenges for those without personal transportation, particularly those with children.

In addition to potential health benefits for residents, Young said it will benefit residents in other ways, including other nearby businesses that will see more traffic in the area.

“Having a grocery store in that part of the city will make it a more viable neighborhood,” he said. “Things like grocery stores, churches, schools are what help make a viable neighborhood.”

Fleming G., Deerfield-Windsor School