Columbus Mayor reacts to change in CARES Act funding for Georgia

COLUMBUS, Ga. (WRBL) – Georgia mayors recently learned that CARES Act funding for local coronavirus response has will no longer be given to cities and counties across the state. Instead, the money will be put into the state’s unemployment insurance fund, presenting challenges for local Georgia communities.

The CARES Act funding was broken up into three phases of funding. While Columbus got a little over $10 million from Phase I, it was all reimbursement funds for money Columbus had already spent to fill COVID-related needs. With the Phase II and Phase III funding no longer on its way, Columbus could face some difficulties, at least according to Columbus Mayor Skip Henderson.

Henderson confirmed receiving a letter that came to Georgia’s mayors on Oct. 15.

“We received a notification on Thursday that the remainder of the Phase II and Phase III funding that we were anticipating and had been kind of preparing for was no longer available,” Henderson said. “I think it’s necessary to try to hold down cost of small business, but it created a lot of challenges for us, and I know it did for some other, particularly smaller cities and counties.”

While Henderson supports the change of target for the funding, he says Columbus isn’t alone in some challenges that could lie ahead.

If Columbus had been able to get the money from Phase II and Phase III, the mayor says it could have been used for any number of things. Still, Henderson says the city’s done a good job at preparing for the economic impacts of COVID-19, despite some capital needs being deferred.

“We have been very fortunate and we’ve done a really good job at sort of planning for the financial impact of the pandemic even though we really didn’t know what it was going to be. From an operational standpoint, we’re in pretty good shape,” Henderson said.

The effect of the funding going to the state has not affected local developments. Henderson says construction downtown has not slowed on two of the hotels being built on Broadway Avenue.

“I know at least two of them have continued to work on their buildings and that’s good because we’re keeping construction people employed and that money’s circulating through the economy as well,” Henderson said.

While the city is stable  for now and local case numbers are trending down, the Mayor says some are forecasting a second surge in the winter season. If that happens and cases do spike, those already affected by the pandemic may not have answers if the economic effects repeat.

The focus on the economy is important heading into the winter. Without the funding, a potential second surge of cases may be a struggle for the local community. This is particularly important for the hospitality industry in Columbus, which Henderson says is struggling.

While the economic impacts of COVID-19 remain a concern, the mayor says Columbus’s success in curbing the spread of the virus is due to the community’s response.

“I just urge everybody to take a peek at the websites and find some safe things to do, and just kind of bear with us as we continue to work our way through this pandemic, because it’s critical,” Henderson said. “The reason our numbers are good is not by accident, it’s because the people of this community have really made a concerted effort to follow CDC guidelines.”

As Columbus gets ready for Halloween, the city is preparing alternative options for trick or treating, such as the upcoming Spooktacular on Oct. 24. Henderson says that the mask ordinance is still in place, as are the Governors orders.

These orders place some requirements on businesses such as bars and restaurants, which will still be enforced. If the community continues to follow guidelines for curbing the spread of COVID-19, slowing down enforcement of the local ordinance could be in the near future.

“The mask ordinance is still in effect, our numbers are improving, we may get to a point where we leave it in place but cease enforcement, if we drop below the threshold of a certain number of cases per 100,000 residents. So we are really just kind of encouraging people to stay away from large gatherings,” Henderson said.