City leaders discuss economic impact of COVID-19

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CW / Carly Farmer

Rebecca Griesbach | @rebach97 and Andrew Littlejohn | @Andrewlittlej19

In response to an unprecedented outbreak, the city’s top business and healthcare leaders announced COVID-19 updates and resources to help buffer economic losses. 

While Alabama feels the effects of closures, cancelled events and limited resources, Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox said the rest of the state is “looking toward Tuscaloosa” and its efforts to support local businesses and provide accessible screenings amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

SCREENING UPDATES

In a conference call hosted by the Tuscaloosa Chamber of Commerce, Paul Betz, chief operating officer for DCH Regional Medical Center, gave updates on the screening efforts that began Monday at 8 a.m. and will continue until the need dissipates. Due to nationwide shortages of nasal swabs, DCH has been reserving most swabs to screen children and will instead use a Sputum Collection Test, which Betz said was no less effective than swabs and has been recommended by the CDC and the Alabama Department of Public Health. 

As of 1:30 p.m. on Tuesday, March 17, 267 out of 307 screened individuals met the current criteria for testing, which are flu-like symptoms such as fever, cough and shortness of breath. Betz said that overall things went fairly smoothly, but the team will be refining the process to ensure more effective screening.

Betz has heard several people say they have been told they can’t return to work until they test negative. If they meet criteria but feel well, they should call their doctor. If they have a cough, dry or wet, and have a fever over 102 degrees, they need to do a screening or test. 

DCH cannot provide work excuses and will not call businesses unless a patient tests positive. It will take 3-5 days to produce results with travel and test time. 

The hospital has already been promoting limited visitation, and starting Wednesday, March 18 at noon, they will further elevate that policy to limit entrances to four. Healthy visitors will be screened and monitored at the door, and visitation will be limited to end-of-life situations and the cancer ward. Additionally, two healthy visitors will be allowed in neonatal units. 

To check results from the drive-thru screenings, patients can go to the online DCH portal

LOCAL BUSINESSES

Following a 12:30 p.m. announcement of bar and restaurant closures, as well as a three-week ban on public gatherings of 25 or more, Maddox updated businesses on the economic impact COVID-19 will have on the city. 

With the extension of spring break and a move to online-only classes, the city will see a significant decrease in student consumers, which make up about 40% of the Tuscaloosa population. 

Maddox said the city will lose a conservative estimate of between $500,000 and $600,000 every week in tax revenue, totaling about $2.6 million in losses per month. 

“The good news is that the city has $43 million in cash on hand,” Maddox said. “We have strong reserves. This is certainly something that we can weather for a short period.” 

To help businesses weather this storm, the Chamber of Commerce website has added a COVID-19 resource section, which includes a business toolkit and information on unemployment benefits for displaced workers, loan assistance and maintaining team morale in this time of crisis. 

Maddox assured that city business such as home inspections would continue. The biggest thing residents can do, he said, is to participate in the upcoming 2020 census, which will help bolster lost tax revenue. 

The Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama will also provide tools for those working remotely and is currently working on a community-based local assistance fund and web conference to educate the community on COVID-19. 

Jim Page, the Chamber’s chief executive officer, said businesses in need of employees should reach out to the Chamber and West AlabamaWorks!. 

“There are smart, responsible things that we can do at this time to keep our economy running and to keep our community afloat,” Page said. 

Tuscaloosa currently has three confirmed cases, but Maddox said those numbers are expected to rise over the course of the next few weeks. When it comes to supporting the most vulnerable, he said it “doesn’t get more urgent than this.”

“It is paramount that we solve this now,” Maddox said. “We cannot go into the fall with these issues still hanging over our head. It would be catastrophic for business in Tuscaloosa.”