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What lessons local governments are learning in wake of pandemic
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Visitors to the Hall County administration building are reminded of the pandemic with signage on doorways and elevators Monday, March 15, 2021, reminding people to keep their distance from each other while visiting. - photo by Scott Rogers

The decisions made by local government officials during the COVID-19 pandemic were not only often without precedent but also ones that began a year-long new normal.

From the closure of city facilities and beloved hotspots to the transfer of municipal services to appointment or online-only basis, last spring, city and county governments were tasked with pressing decisions on how to keep their constituents safe during a global pandemic.

“The decisions of the past year, especially last spring, were some of the most difficult decisions I have ever had to make,” said Shelly Echols, Hall County District 3 Commissioner. “I don’t believe that COVID has changed my role as a county commissioner, but I think that we had to act in ways that county commissioners have never had to act before, and I pray that we never have to again.”

On March 28, Hall County commissioners, Gainesville City Council members and local health boards came together to ask county residents to stay home to curb the spread of the virus.

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Visitors to the Hall County administration building are reminded of the pandemic with signage to stop the spread of germs Monday, March 15, 2021, and reminding people to keep their distance from each other while visiting. - photo by Scott Rogers

Local government also had to adjust to a series of executive orders from Gov. Brian Kemp that included a shelter-in-place order in early April and amended guidelines for a gradual reopening of businesses and restaurants throughout the year.

The Hall County Commissioners, through a joint statement to The Times this week said the pandemic led to a series of decisions and challenges that had an immediate, everyday impact and consequences on the lives of their constituents.

“These are not decisions we anticipated having to make when we took office,” the board said. “However, we are honored to have been entrusted by our constituents with making these hard choices in order to stop the spread of this terrible virus.”

Hall County commissioners took the route of limiting public gatherings and potential high-spread events by restricting public gatherings at their board meetings, adopting a 14-day stay-at-home order and closing down various county facilities.

Echols said the hardest decision she had to make was issuing the stay-at-home order.

“Issuing a shelter order was absolutely the hardest decision; one that was necessary at the time to allow our health system to catch up, but not a decision easily made,” she said. “Our community has lost so much over this past year — leaders, members, businesses … and I am certainly looking for brighter days ahead.”

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Visitors to the Hall County administration building are reminded of the pandemic with signage on elevators Monday, March 15, 2021, reminding people to keep their distance from each other while visiting. - photo by Scott Rogers

Hall County officials’ decision to move to a virtual live streaming presentation has made it a consistent communication vehicle throughout the pandemic, and that is expected to continue following the pandemic, according to the board.

On March 1, Hall County ended appointment-only visits to its facilities, such as the Hall County Government Center.

However, the shift of services online, such as adoption through the county’s Animal Control Shelter, vehicle payments and tax transactions, are also expected to continue post-pandemic, according to the board.

Mayors of various municipalities also took center stage in their response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms issued a mask mandate for Georgia’s capital city that provoked legal action from Gov. Kemp. 

Georgia’s governor had been opposed to local mask mandates but in August, signed an executive order that allows local governments to enact mask requirements to help fight the coronavirus pandemic.

Last spring, governors such as embattled New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo or Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitner found themselves in a public dispute with then-President Donald Trump and his administration’s over their handling and narrative of the COVID-19

Gainesville Mayor Danny Dunagan said his duty as mayor during the COVID-19 pandemic was to unify his constituents and identify ways to maintain transparent communication with Gainesville residents.

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Visitors to the Hall County administration building are reminded of the pandemic with signage on bathrooms, doorways and elevators Monday, March 15, 2021, reminding people to keep their distance from each other while visiting. - photo by Scott Rogers

But Dunagan said that Gainesville leaders had to learn some tough lessons. 

“While it’s unfortunate COVID-19 is something we’ve had to endure, the silver lining is we’ve learned a lot from the experience,” said Dunagan, who is in his second term as Gainesville mayor. “I feel the city is a stronger community because of it.”

He added, “I can’t tell you how many different community groups have joined together toward one common goal, that being combating the coronavirus.”

In late March, Gainesville City Council found consensus on the decision to close and enforce the closing of restaurants’ dining rooms and fitness centers, movie theaters and other large gathering venues in city limits.

While they did not implement a mandatory mask mandate, the city promoted social distancing, mask-wearing and sanitization in its city messaging throughout the year. 

Those decisions, while they had a tremendous impact on the local economy, saw local governance make commitments to ensure public health.

In an April 2020 nationwide Economist poll, 55 percent of those surveyed experienced more confidence in local government than the federal government in coronavirus responses. 

Gainesville officials said many decisions came from trusting the advice of health officials and retaining trust with the constituency throughout the pandemic.

In March 2021, things are looking a little brighter in Gainesville than a year ago. 

Establishments previously closed during the pandemic, like bars and restaurants, are back to nearly normal in-person operations, and populations are steadily gaining access to the COVID-19 vaccine.

The city’s efforts have been focused on using resources — such as the vanpool service WeGo — to increase vaccination efforts in the county.

Dunagan said the city will continue to adhere to the directives given by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention online throughout the remainder of the pandemic.

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Clear plastic shields are placed on the visitors desk Monday, March 15, 2021, at the newly renovated Hall County administration building. - photo by Scott Rogers

Additionally, Dunagan said the increased communication channels between Gainesville city officials and residents via online outreach have increased. 

He hopes the trust and communication between city leaders and the public continues after the pandemic.

“The lines of communication have never been more open, and that’s something I hope continues.”

It’s hard to imagine navigating the COVID-19 pandemic without the infrastructure of the internet. Cities such as Oakwood relied on the speed and efficiency of their internet to handle city business such as online transactions and successfully disseminating information.

Oakwood took safety precautions, such as required face coverings and temperature checks for in-person visits to city facilities. Those policies, according to city officials, will change at the advice of health officials and as more residents receive vaccinations.

“As for pandemic-related changes, it sped up our IT processes so we can provide more online services,” said Sheri Clark Millwood, Oakwood City Council member and mayor pro tem. “We still check temperatures of visitors to City Hall and provide them with a mask if they arrive without one, and hopefully the need for this procedure will end soon.”

Local governments relied heavily on staff members who were working in and out of office during the pandemic. Millwood said that part of how Oakwood was able to proceed with “business as usual” was through the work of Oakwood City Manager B.R. White.

“Our city manager, BR White, was prepared for such a crisis because of specialized training, and he made sure that it has been ‘business as usual’ in Oakwood as much as possible,” she said. “Although things moved a little slower at times, they still moved forward because of his leadership.”

Millwood said that the pandemic has “devastated” not just Hall County, but the world. 

But city leaders are optimistic about the post-COVID-19 rebuilding period, however different it may be.

“In our corner of the world here in Oakwood, we have marched forward,” she said. “We saw days where City Hall was closed to the public, but our staff continues to work and service the needs of our citizens as well as those doing business and those wanting to do business in Oakwood.”