COVINGTON, Ga. — The novel coronavirus, brought to America’s doorstep in early 2020, has left its unmistakable mark on the nation, including the city of Covington.
When asked how he might describe 2020, Covington Mayor Steve Horton said it’s been a year filled with adversity thanks to COVID-19. But while there have been challenges, he was proud of what the city had been able to accomplish.
“There is nothing to compare 2020 to,” Horton told The Covington News. “Municipal government like any other business, or even a sports organization, relies on past experiences and procedures. 2020 has not allowed us to operate from the same playbook that we might have referenced in the past. When the pandemic started, there was no reference material to consult. Everyone, including the doctors dealing with the healthcare crisis were tasked with learning and creating new methods and processes for dealing with COVID-19.”
Horton said the pandemic as a whole, and the social distancing requirements handcuffed to it, had created “numerous workplace and workforce challenges” as it pertains to the city’s services while trying to look out for the safety of its community members.
“Our workers have not been immune from the virus either and as such, quarantine, and isolation requirements have created obstacles for us. It has been difficult at times maintaining service levels when contractors or even our own staff were personally impacted by the virus. We have had to remain flexible as everything in 2020 has been fluid.”
Horton said he was proud of the city for its accomplishments despite the virus’ impact on the community.
“From a business perspective, we have conducted third party efficiency, operations and salary studies to make sure we are adhering to regional best practices. We have also retooled operationally and made succession planning a top priority; we are now well situated from a staff perspective. We have continued to effectively deal with customer complaints and requests for services in a safe, timely, and effective manner. That says a lot when you consider the required work limitations, social distancing, separation of work groups, split shifts, and employees who can/are working from home.”
One of the biggest accomplishments Horton is most proud of was the grant program established to aid local businesses when initial COVID-19 restrictions were imposed, leading to several establishments struggling to stay afloat.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, elected officials and staff recognized that our customers and local businesses would be hit hard due to operational restrictions placed on businesses. Thus, we immediately put in place a grant program for local businesses whereby they could receive up to $2,000 each aimed at helping until larger resources were distributed through federal programs. We administered close to 200 local business grants.”
Horton said the city also authorized the creation of up to 50 part-time jobs (25 hours per week for 12 weeks) to assist those unemployed or underemployed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Another way the city helped struggling businesses was passing a local ordinance to allow restaurants closed for inside dining to sell unopened packages of alcoholic beverages with to-go orders to help them boost their revenues.
Other COVID-19 relief efforts included the city extending tax payment deadlines for businesses, extending expiration dates associated with building permits at no cost and holding utility cutoffs for three months. The city still offers assistance to anyone struggling due to COVID 19.
Unrelated to COVID-19, Horton said the city made “deliberate” efforts to increase quality of life initiatives for the community by creating additions at several parks, approving the paving for the city’s trail system, adding a seasonal ice rink, providing drive-in movies/concerts and adding to the festive feel of its holiday lighting in the downtown area.
One goal Horton hoped to accomplish in 2020 was to establish ways for Covington to operate with a “people first” mentality, but COVID-19 postponed those plans.
“(City Manager Scott Andrews) and I really wanted to build a bridge between the city of Covington and citizens based upon a ‘people first’ approach. This would include partnerships between citizens, city staff and elected officials to participate to a greater extent in neighborhood clean-ups and neighborhood revitalization efforts than has been accomplished to date. It would have also included reoccurring town hall meetings aimed at giving citizens an opportunity to speak and be heard, versus just being addressed by staff and elected officials regarding proposed or planned activities.
“We also wanted to create other ways for citizens to be engaged and be heard, such as the Citizen’s Academy, Youth Council, Diversity Task Force, the faith-based Spirit of Covington group and the start of a Volunteer Recognition banquet where we engage, inform and thank our top 100 community champions. All of these initiatives would operate in a more participative approach, to build stronger trust and forge new relationships between the citizens of Covington and those who serve them.”
Horton said the city hopes to put some of those ideas for better “citizen engagement” into action next year. With a COVID-19 vaccine now being distributed, Horton said working to create a happier and healthier city was also among top priorities in 2021.
“We seek to continue working on programs that make us more efficient and provide better communications and customer service for our citizens,” Horton said. “We want our public spaces to promote happiness, health and a sense of well-being, so our quality of life and placemaking efforts will remain a priority. The goal remains of making our community a more desirable location for residents to live, businesses to flourish, and visitors to recommend to others.”
Though it’s been a difficult year, Horton said he was gratified at Covington’s unwavering spirit.
“As we can all attest from the pandemic, life can certainly turn around on a dime and though we have never experienced anything like it, our staff, customers and citizens are resilient people. We are all a resilient people,” he said. “When times get tough, we lean on God and one another. That’s what has gotten us through so much in the past and it will serve us well now too.”