Olson assesses impact of coronavirus outbreak on economic development

County administrator discusses financial toll of COVID-19

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In late January, Bartow County Administrator Peter Olson spoke at a public hearing on the fiscal year 2020 budget. 

At that time, he said the County’s economic outlook was, in a word, optimistic. The local government, in terms of general operations, was on pace to become debt-free by March. Per Bartow County Commissioner Steve Taylor, the County tax digest increased by $400 million over the previous year. Since 2012, an estimated 10,000 new jobs had come to the community, with recent investments from multi-billion-dollar brands like Chick-fil-A and expansions from local employers like Shaw, Anheuser-Busch and voestalpine expected to bring hundreds more to Bartow.

Despite the obvious financial upswing, Olson noted that the then-thriving markets could take a dive at any moment. Indeed, there was one international situation in particular that gave him great concern. 

“We’re starting to watch this thing in China,” Olson said in front of a nominal “public” audience consisting of only local media.

In hindsight, Olson’s comments cannot be seen as anything other than eerily prescient.

“If their market goes south because everybody’s getting sick and hunkered down and not spending, that hits the American economy, too,” he remarked. “Is this going to be some kind of big pandemic?” 

Less than two months later, Olson’s rhetorical question was answered. The same soaring Dow Jones Industrial Average that closed at 28,859 on Jan. 31 dropped to 19,898 on March 18 — the first time the market closed below the 20,000-point threshold since early 2017. After months of posting historically low unemployment numbers, what just weeks ago was unthinkable has become reality: a sudden, seismic uptick in layoffs, hiring freezes and business closures.

And on the local level, the unimaginable has become the new normal. Instead of the coronavirus outbreak impacting Bartow County indirectly through global commerce, the community has become one of the biggest hotspots for COVID-19 in the entire state, with Cartersville Medical Center (CMC) alone confirming 32 positive coronavirus cases since March 9 on Thursday afternoon.

By Friday evening, that number had increased to 35.

“It’s amazing how fast the world changed since last week,” Olson told The Daily Tribune News. “It’s been amazing how fast things have shut down in response to those demands.”

Olson said County leadership first began discussing a COVID-19 response plan several weeks ago. At that time, he said the discussions felt more like hypotheticals than anything the local government would actually have to implement. 

Little did he know that those “what-if?” scenarios would become real life — not just in a matter of days, but a matter of hours.

“It seemed very distant, then by Friday, the world had turned upside down, and we’re making decisions to shut most of our non-essential departments down,” Olson recalled. “Last Thursday, I think they recommended no gatherings over 250 people, then by Saturday it was 50 people and then by [Monday,] it was 10. So that’s just striking how fast in the week the country has implemented these very aggressive measures.”

Since the local outbreak, Olson said the County has opted to shut down most of its “optional services,” such as recreational activities. 

“We’re trying to limit any large gatherings, any group exposures to the public — obviously, the seniors are a higher risk group,” he said. “We’ve got certain essential services that we have to provide. I was glad that [Georgia] Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold Melton issued the order restricting most court activities or extending deadlines and so forth.

In addition to reducing traffic at the Frank Moore Administration and Judicial Center, Olson said the County is striving to limit face-to-face exposure as much as possible when it comes to dealing with public services and utilities. 

“I know the Department of Driver Services automatically issued 120-day extensions on any licenses coming due,” he said. “I wish the Department of Revenue would do the same with tag renewals, because the biggest bulk of people still coming to the courthouse are coming in to deal with the tag office … I would hope the State would think about just granting some kind of automatic extension there.”

Olson didn't quite get his wish. Rather, the County announced Friday that walk-in traffic for property tax and mobile home payments, as well as tag renewals, would be prohibited at the local courthouse beginning Monday. Until further notice, residents will have to make such payments at a dropbox located near the building entrance.

At this juncture, Olson said there are no immediate plans for employee layoffs or furloughs as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.

“Some of the part-timers, if there’s nothing for them to do because their program is shut down, they’re being sent home,” he said. “We’re trying to see if there’s other stuff people can do in the interim — deep cleaning or back inventory, whatever it might be.”

On the subject of public safety, Olson said the impact of the pandemic on local services has been minimal.

“So far, so good there,” he said. “There’s only a couple of firefighters that are kind of under observation or awaiting test results.”

Nor does Olson have many concerns about equipment shortages — although questions still linger about the true scope of the outbreak in Bartow County.

“We’re in good shape in terms of supplies,” he said. “The biggest hold-up to getting a better sense of how big this thing is going to be is just the testing problem.”

EMERGENCY COMMUNICATIONS

The County, Olson said, is communicating with representatives of CMC and the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) on a daily basis. 

“We’re fortunate that Cartersville Medical Center is part of HCA,” he said. “They have a pretty deep bench of resources that they can call on to help them out. Obviously, they’re going to start getting strained everywhere, but it’s better than it just being a solo rural hospital that didn’t have any teammates to give it support.”

Still, Olson said it remains unknown how soon the county will see an increase in public testing for the coronavirus.

“They’re trying to ramp up testing as fast as they can,” he said. “Our Emergency Management Agency (EMA) has made requests to the national stockpile for additional supplies and equipment.”

The hold-up on testing, Olson said, appears to be due to a lack of capacity at labs. 

“The hospital’s told us they’re collecting plenty of samples, but it’s taking a while to get the test results back,” he said. “That’s something I hope the federal government is working on as hard as they can to break that bottleneck.”

While both federal and State emergencies have been declared concerning the COVID-19 outbreak, Olson said details are still scant on what sort of aid or assistance Bartow County may receive as part of any relief packages.

“The bailout side of this will be a big ugly Washington political battle, but so far we don’t need any help right now,” Olson said. “If they start lifting these restrictions in a couple of weeks, and they feel like they’ve bent the curve down … I don’t think we’ll have a huge economic impact. If it starts stretching on longer, we’re going to just have to see.”

On Tuesday, Olson told The Daily Tribune News the County had no immediate plans to issue an emergency ordinance to address COVID-19 on the local level. 

“For now, we’re getting everything done we need to get done,” he said. “We haven’t felt the need, per se, to declare an emergency because we can do what we need to do — I think we’re in good shape.”

By Friday, however, his stance had changed.

"We have been urging folks to follow the social distancing guidelines, but we're getting some reports that not everybody's playing ball with that," Olson said. "So we've gotten recommendations now from the hospital and from the district health ... I've spoken to the Commissioner and we're going to implement an emergency ordinance and mandate that we restrict these gatherings."

The catalyst for the emergency ordinance, he said, are certain bars and restaurants, although he did not specify any business by name.

"We've been reluctant to want to shut down all economic activity, I'm very concerned about the economic impact of these things," Olson continued. "But we've got to get a handle on the spread of this disease, so there's going to be some more economic pain for people to have to deal with until we can bend this curve down and slow the spread."

The edict came quickly. Shortly before 5 p.m. Friday, a joint declaration between the County and its "municipalities therein" was issued. Taking effect immediately in unincorporated parts of the community, the resolution orders all bars and restaurants within Bartow that sell food or beverages for consumption onsite to "be closed to in-person dining, consumption of alcohol or entertainment until the expiration of this resolution."

The emergency ordinance, as written, is set to expire on April 4, although the language of the resolution indicates the restrictions on gathering places can be extended "by further action of the respective jurisdiction."

Among other powers, Olson said local officials also have the ability to suspend certain laws “if we need to on purchasing or contracts" under the emergency resolution.

Whether or not the County issues curfews or orders further business closures in the wake of the public health crisis, Olson said, hinges on the guidance of Georgia’s higher-ups. 

“We’ll see if the State wants to go that far,” he said. “We can’t claim to be epidemiologists or experts on the spread of a pandemic, so if they tell us we need to order things shut, we’ll order things shut.”

From his observations, however, Olson said people in the local community — by and large — seem to be adhering to the advice from the DPH and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC.)

“People are basically staying away from restaurants without being ordered to shut them,” he said. “It’s a hardship on the restaurants, I hope people are ordering takeout or whatever, because we don’t need all these businesses to go under from this crisis.”

The potentially devastating financial consequences of the outbreak, Olson said, do loom large in his mind.

“We don’t want to have a cure that’s worse than the disease if the whole country goes into a huge economic disaster because of this,” he said. 

Still, Olson said he does see at least one silver lining in the economic piece of the outbreak response. 

“But if people aren’t traveling, they’ve still got that money in their pocket, if they’re not going out to the restaurants, they’ve still got that money in their pocket, right?” he said. “So that money’s going to be available to flow back into the economy as soon as people get the appetite for spending.”

LONG-TERM CONSEQUENCES

Olson said new protocols and policies have been implemented in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak pertaining to the Bartow County Sheriff’s Office.

He said that includes tighter monitoring at the Bartow County Jail.

“They already are kind of the same as fire and EMS, they have a heightened infectious disease awareness all the time because they’ve got so many people in such close quarters,” he said. “They’re screening people with symptoms and all of that sort of thing — I think they’re as prepared as they can be, trying to keep it out of that environment.”

Olson said the County has no concerns about potential jail overcrowding amidst the COVID-19 pandemic — even with the possibility of prolonged court closures.

“The Sheriff is mindful of that, too,” he said. “The emergency powers may give him the ability to accelerate some time-served credits, so I think he’s going to think about whether he can get some people released who are near the end of their time sentences.”

The County, Olson said, won’t get an indication of how much the COVID-19 outbreak may affects its coffers until sales tax revenue numbers come in at the end of next month.

“This just kind of hit strongly in the middle of March,” he said. “Most people are kind of taking it one to two weeks at a time, so we’ll have to see if everything stays shut down on through April or they start to loosen things up.”

How the pandemic will impact some of the County’s long-term infrastructure projects, he said, remains an unknown.

“We didn’t borrow any debt against this SPLOST, we were just planning on paying as we go,” he said. “We’ll only give the green light to projects when we know we’ve got the funds for it, so it may just take longer to accumulate the money.”

Still, Olson said County-level department heads have already been asked to begin thinking “defensively” about spending moving forward.

“Food and accommodations are going to get hit some, gas is dropping, so that’s probably going to get hit when they readjust the wholesale price,” he said. “So we’ll just have to see how big the wallop is and just adjust accordingly.”

Nor could Olson predict how the outbreak may ultimately impact businesses countywide. 

“I know it’s going to be a blow on restaurants, you can already see that their business is drying up,” he said. “But most businesses around town, their parking lots are full and people are still making carpet and other things — unless the virus gets widespread and a lot of people have to go home, I think most businesses that can keep producing are going to keep producing.”

The possibility of rampant unemployment, Olson said, is something the federal government is better suited to address at this juncture.

“Obviously, Washington’s looking hard at that and they’re already talking about stimuluses and relief for folks whose jobs have dried up,” he said. “There’s a lot of moving pieces here.”

Olson said he does not believe the COVID-19 outbreak jeopardizes any major economic developments planned or already in progress throughout Bartow. In fact, Olson said the coronavirus outbreak — in the long haul — may actually result in more onshoring throughout the country.

“Strategically over the next few years, I would think more and more companies would say ‘Hey, we might need to diversify our supply chain and not just rely on Chinese goods,’" Olson predicted. “That, if anything, will probably bring more manufacturing back to America.”

At this point, Olson said it’s impossible to tell how some of the proposed federal and State relief packages may impact local finances. Nor could he estimate when such measures may take effect, just how beneficial they might be and when such policies may be loosened up. 

As for the County’s long-term approach to the coronavirus outbreak, Olson said the local government would certainly be forced to “tighten up” spending in the face of declining revenue.

“We’re a good ways away from that, but if it extends for months and months and if it knocks 20%-30% out of sales tax numbers, obviously we’re going to have to really pull in our expenditures to keep our budget in line,” he said. “If it gets bad, we may have to go back to kind of tough measures that the County had to do in the recession, the furloughs and things like that.”