Local cities leaders reflect on first year of pandemic
PARKERSBURG, W.Va. (WTAP) - The Wood County Courthouse last summer briefly shut down-after reopening in May-when an outbreak of COVID-19 was reported among some employees.
But Parkersburg’s city building-at first closed except for online and telephone business-generally stayed open after its reopening.
“The department heads took it seriously,” Mayor Tom Joyce recalls, “and took steps to keep our employees as safe as possible, for the last 12 months.”
But Vienna’s city building mostly remains closed. Its city council meetings were livestreamed even before the pandemic.
“If you need to meet with someone, we typically meet you in the council chambers where there’s a lot of space,” says Mayor Randy Rapp. “Our senior center is still down, a lot of our youth activities are still not happening, so things aren’t back to normal by any means.”
When Paul Jordan came into office in Williamstown last July, his goal already was to improve the city building’s technology. While the city offices have been publicly accessible, the technology has helped Williamstown conduct business electronically and by e-mail.
“We’ve tried to prep people coming in for meetings to give us as much information as possible,” Mayor Jordan says, “so we can have things ready with the limited amount of people we’re allowed to do.”
The city of Belpre just last week installed a window for people to conduct city business. Its city hall is the only one still closed to the public since last March.
“I have people on the administrative side of the building that go home to either kids or grandkids every day,” says Mayor Mike Lorentz. “I have police officers with newborns; I have a police dispatcher expecting a child. And I don’t know if I should be jeopardizing their health for the inconvenience of a few.”
Williamstown and Belpre in the next few week plan to resume in-person city council meetings. Belpre’s, on Marcy 22, will be open to attendance online only, with the mayor and council members seated in the council chambers. Williamstown plans to hold its first in-person meeting in a year in April.
Examples of slowly returning to the way things were a little over a year ago.
“I think the public is more than ready to get back to walking down the street, say ‘hi’ to your neighbor and not be covered up in a mask,” Marietta Mayor Josh Schlicher reflects. “But we don’t want to prematurely do anything that would jeopardize anyone’s health.”
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Local mayors believe their cities have gone through the worst of the pandemic, and that there are better times ahead.
“(Governor Jim Justice) has raised the number of people for social gatherings and capacity in bars and restaurants,” noted Parkersburg Mayor Tom Joyce, “so it seems we’re on the right track.”
Not all of the local officials are optimistic. They point to the businesses that closed when shutdowns and stay at home orders were issued last spring.
“You see restaurants that are closed that won’t come back; stores that are closed that won’t come back,” says Blair Couch, President of the Wood County Commission. “Some are big retailers, some are small mom and pops.”
But others say there’s efforts-that are expected to be successful-being made to fill those empty buildings.
“Vienna’s always been blessed that, once we lose a business, we seem to get one back relatively quickly,” according to Mayor Randy Rapp. “We’ve got several things in the works right now.”
While not related directly to the pandemic, Grand Central Mall is celebrating this week the opening of several new stores, in the location of the former Sears store.
Some of the business rescues have come through eligible federal money that’s also helped to keep local governments afloat. But some businesses also got through the same way as did much of the cities in which they’re located.
“The top 10 employers didn’t have any major cuts, layoffs, downsizing or retirements,” says Marietta Mayor Josh Schlicher. “They’ve been pretty stable.”
The federal CARES act money kept nearly all of the budgets of the area’s cities and counties from going into the red.
Mayor Schlicher is concerned that, while West Virginia’s economy is largely reopened, there are still restrictions on Ohio’s businesses just across the river.
But while they have a positive outlook, most leaders are cautious that, while there’s still officilaly a pandemic, there’s a chance things could get worse again.
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