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Mayor Kelly Girtz looks towards constituents after a special panel hosted by the Athens-Clark Unified Government on Sep. 10, 2019, in City Hall. Georgia House Reps. Houston Gaines, Spencer Frye and Marcus Wiedower were present along with Georgia Sen. Bill Cowsert. (Photo/Julian Alexander)

Mayor Kelly Girtz, County Manager Blaine Williams and David Bradley, president and CEO of Athens Area Chamber of Commerce, discussed ways to help keep the community financially stable and healthy in a conference call Tuesday.

The ACC Mayor and Commission approved a local state of emergency on Thursday requiring all non-essential businesses, such as gyms and barbershops, to only maintain “minimum basic operations” or be subject to fines or closure. Restaurants are limited to carry-out and delivery only.

This mandate currently extends to 11:59 p.m. on April 7, but the Commission plans to discuss whether to extend or shorten this period based on the state of the spread of the new virus.

One of the resources discussed in the conference is a $1,000 grant being offered to small businesses in downtown Athens by the Downtown Athens Development Authority. The application closes at 5 p.m. Friday. Availability of grants is dependent upon the ADDA budget. Small businesses can apply here.

The ACC Mayor and Commission also set aside $3 million to aid the Athens community, including nonprofits, small businesses and individuals, Girtz said in the conference call. The distribution of that money is still under discussion within the commission, but Girtz said one of the aspects they are looking at are vulnerable populations, including homeless people and those who have been unemployed.

Girtz also said that while rent relief is not coming in the form of stipends or public sector assistance, courts have agreed to not hold any eviction hearings from now through April 13. The purpose of this agreement is to allow residents to continue living where they are in this time of economic uncertainty.

Federal financial aid is available to small business owners in the form of the U.S. Small Business Administration loan now, but Bradley said he hopes there will be more immediate financial relief from federal legislation soon.

To ensure safety and communicate COVID-19-related information to the Spanish-speaking community, the ACC government has put posters up in Athens about social distancing in both English and Spanish and created digital flyers to put in workplaces, which Girtz said he recommends and has offered to share with Athens businesses.

The goal of the economic resources and legislation, Girtz said, is to have few COVID-19 infections and few deaths by maintaining the efficacy of the Athens healthcare system. Piedmont Athens Regional’s drive-thru testing site is an example of the measures taken in the Athens healthcare system to reduce infections. Girtz said he wants to use resources that provide future stability for Athens.

“There are some things that we can build or put into place now that are going to be foundational 10, 20 to 50 years from now … so that it’s not just a band-aid approach,” Girtz said. “Putting up some homeless service facilities that didn’t exist there always, or finding that our local populations, small business world [were] able to build capacity through this challenge … those are the kinds of things that I’m thinking about.”

The ACC government is considering ideas and resources intended to help during the COVID-19 pandemic that can also be foundations for growth in the future once the health crisis has declined. Girtz says he hopes to look back five years from now and say “we did it right.”

The ACC government will work to create an online referral portal and phone system for questions about COVID-19 in Athens, Girtz said.

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