Cars travel up and down Main Street in Starkville Wednesday afternoon, as seen from Mayor Lynn Spruill's office in City Hall. Spruill said it was "surreal" to watch activity in the city slow down for two months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Municipal officials in all three Golden Triangle cities had to find ways to balance the interests of economic stability and public safety in their cities. Photo by: Tess Vrbin/Dispatch Staff
May 21, 2020 9:55:38 AM
Starkville Mayor Lynn Spruill's "idea of something wonderful" is seeing the city hustle and bustle, she said, a view she usually has from the window behind her desk in her City Hall office.
So watching the city slow down to points of near-inactivity over the past two months due to the COVID-19 pandemic has been "surreal, to say the least," Spruill said.
"The pain that comes with the virus is like a gut blow to me because we were on a trajectory that I thought was just phenomenal," she told the Starkville Rotary Club at its virtual meeting Monday.
City officials in West Point and Columbus are reflecting on their experiences leading their cities through the pandemic as well. All three municipalities were faced with the challenge of passing ordinances to keep citizens as safe as possible without completely shutting down the local economy as the state put forth its own regulations for businesses and the public.
As of 6 p.m. Tuesday, Oktibbeha County has had 110 confirmed COVID-19 cases and eight deaths, Lowndes County 135 cases and six deaths and Clay County 86 cases and three deaths, according to Mississippi State Department of Health's website.
Spruill told The Dispatch she fielded a variety of comments on Twitter and Facebook when the city required both employees and customers of businesses that could reopen to wear protective face masks for about two weeks. Commenters on one end of the spectrum claimed the virus was a hoax or that being required to wear a mask was a violation of constitutional rights, and those on the other end said they thought everyone should wear a mask at all times until a vaccine is developed.
West Point Mayor Robbie Robinson said dealing with the pandemic has been "very difficult and stressful," but he and selectmen approached their decisions "thoughtfully and expeditiously," such as the mask requirement for employees and customers at retail stores until Monday.
"You have people who disagree and people who agree," he said. "There are both sides, but you just have to do what you think is right and move forward."
A balancing act
Columbus City Councilman Bill Gavin of Ward 6 said he felt under "a lot of pressure" from constituents who want businesses to fully reopen and from those who believe activity should continue to be restricted, and said he understands and respects both sides of the debate.
"It's a very delicate balancing act, to balance the health and safety of the citizens as well as their economic concerns," Gavin said. "It's a hard call to make, and you get caught in the middle."
Some citizens have pointed out to Ward 4 Councilman Pierre Beard that the coronavirus "is still out after 10 p.m." in reference to the 10 p.m.-6 a.m. curfew the city implemented March 20, but Beard said it was the right call in the interest of public safety. Gavin praised Columbus Mayor Robert Smith for making Columbus the first local government entity to pass a curfew ordinance.
Starkville, Oktibbeha County and Lowndes County later implemented their own curfews. All three were lifted within the past week. Columbus' curfew is still in effect.
Both Gavin and Beard said they have watched Columbus adjust to the difficulties of the pandemic without a blueprint for how to do so.
"We don't have a crystal ball," Gavin said. "It would be wonderful if we had a precedent to go by, but nobody does."
Robinson said he hopes West Point's economy rebounds soon, especially for local retail businesses.
"Hopefully we're on the road to opening back up, and I'm hoping and praying that we don't have a relapse," said Robinson, who used to own a clothing store. "That's my prayer."
Cities brace for financial impact
Both Columbus and Starkville implemented hiring freezes and pay cuts for city employees to save money in the face of an expected sales tax revenue shortfall. Starkville furloughed 47 employees, a decision Spruill told the Rotary Club was "the most difficult thing for us to have to do."
Starkville aldermen voted 6-1 Tuesday to restore seven Parks and Recreation employees to a 40-hour work week after they had been working a partial furlough of 32 hours per week for almost a month. Ward 6 Alderman and Vice Mayor Roy A. Perkins was the dissenting vote, and he said he did not want to give anyone special treatment and would have preferred the board vote to restore all 47 furloughed employees at once.
Starkville's 2-percent hotel-motel and restaurant sales tax revenue dropped 33.38 percent in March thanks to the pandemic, Spruill said, and Robinson said West Point saw its own roughly 30 percent drop. The revenue numbers for all three cities will be even lower for April, since motels and restaurants severely scaled back their services that month, Spruill, Robinson and Smith all said. The numbers will shape how all three cities formulate their fiscal year 2020-2021 budgets.
Leading the city for the past two months challenging and stressful, Smith said.
"Overall, I'd say it's been a learning process," he said.
Some Columbus restaurants and other businesses have not yet returned to full service out of concern for public safety, and Smith said he appreciates their decisions. He asked church leaders in Columbus on Monday to consider not fully reopening churches until June, though he emphasized they had the freedom to reopen when they choose.
Starkville still has several projects in progress, such as the construction of a tournament ready sports complex at Cornerstone Park and work on replacing aging utility infrastructure. It's important that the city keep up what operations it can, Spruill said, even during an unprecedented global crisis.
"There are still times when I think this is some sort of movie I'm witnessing," she said.
Beard said it has been heartening to see Columbus citizens provide resources to their neighbors in need.
"Columbus is the Friendly City for a reason," Beard said. "A lot of people have been sticking together, coming together and helping people as much as we can."
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