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County educators, staff receive first vaccination shots
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New Manchester High Assistant Principal/Athletic Director Chris Long arrived at the county’s mass vaccination site around 8:30 a.m. Friday as teachers and staff were scheduled to get their vaccination shot.

To his surprise, he was first in line at the old Sears parking lot location at Arbor Place Mall.

“I guess I was the guinea pig,” Long joked about being the first to receive his COVID-19 vaccine. “I always like being first, but sometimes you are a little nervous about things. All jokes aside, I thought everything went well.”

The Douglas County School System vaccinated 810 employees Friday with another 800 scheduled for Saturday for the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine.

Under Gov. Brian Kemp’s orders, educators began getting vaccinated on Monday.

DCSS scheduled a two-day event at the mass vaccination site with help from the Cobb & Douglas Public Health Department. In January, the school system vaccinated about 200 employees that were at least 65 years old.

School Superintendent Trent North said the county had about 58% of its employees to register for the vaccine. Those vaccinated this week will return in mid-April for the required second dose.

There were 55 volunteers between CDPH and the school system working the all-day event. School system nurses administered the vaccine.

“This is a big step forward in getting schools fully reopened,” CDPH Director Dr. Janet Memark said. “We still have things to take care of because no child can get the vaccine. Right now, it is a race against the vaccine.”

North went to each individual car to thank the staff members for getting the vaccine. He said that school systems state-wide had abut 63% of educators and staff getting vaccinated.

When the first survey asking educators if they would be willing to take the vaccine went out, North said DCSS was at 40%. He said seeing the number climb has been encouraging.

“Of course we would have liked to have every employee get it,” North said. “This has been very encouraging. I hoping that colleague pressure will persuade others to get it.”

‘Loyal’ customers help Sam & Rosco's survive during pandemic
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Editor’s Note: This story is part of a series appearing in the Sentinel this week on COVID-19 one year into the pandemic.

During the current coronavirus pandemic, Sam & Rosco’s Restaurant is doing enough business to survive.

The long-time Douglasville establishment had to streamline its operation as shelter-in-place orders and capacity restrictions were put into place.

For awhile, the restaurant was surviving off take-out orders only and its catering component was completely shutdown as the world battled the deadly virus.

“We were doing good enough to survive and keep our staff on,” said part-owner Rosco Sayyar.

It was the same with many other locally-owned restaurants and businesses during the height of the pandemic.

The pandemic has had a significant impact on the nation’s restaurant industry from mom-and-pop diners to the large chains. Restaurants have been forced to change operation procedures and reduce services and staff just to survive.

President Joe Biden’s new $1.9 trillion relief package could help the smaller, locally owned business stay afloat as vaccine production is increasing.

While to-go orders have surged during the pandemic, the eat-in component has taken a hit.

Sayyar said that long-time customers have stuck with them, and that’s a big reason they are still able to operate.

“The reason we are here is that we have some great support from our loyal customers,” Sayyar said. “We have been here for 34 years, and they have stuck with us. They are helping pull us through this.”

He said some customers have placed take-out orders two or three times a week.

According to the National Restaurant Association, an estimate of roughly 110,000 restaurants nationwide are expected to close permanently.

Last March, orders at full-service restaurants dropped 71% according to the organization.

“Any pundit who thinks that they’re going to use a recent history — and by recent history, I mean the last 100 years, including the Depression — as a template for what is going to go on here? They’re kidding themselves,” restaurant industry analyst Roger Lipton told Business Insider last March.

Sayyar said they are operating at about 65% with the combination of eat-in and take-out orders. This is up from about 30% when stricter guidelines were in place.

“We have put in place some safety features,” Sayyar said. “Our volume is increasing, and our numbers are getting better.”

During a Thursday evening address to the nation, Biden said an increase in vaccinations could have the country back on good economic footing by early July. He encouraged everyone to get vaccinated and said by May 1 all Americans should be eligible for vaccination.

The largest part of revenue lost by Sam & Rosco’s was through its catering business.

Before the pandemic hit, they had about 45-50 catering jobs lined up.

They eventually did only two to three of those jobs as large gatherings were banned through governmental executive orders.

“Some people still had weddings, but they were very small in the number of guests,” Sayyar said. “You had events that were scheduled for 300 guests cut to 50 guests. COVID had an impact to our revenue stream.”

He said incorporating some of the enhanced safety features will remain once the pandemic is over.

“We have always been very strong on cleanliness in the workplace,” Sayyar said. “We had the culture instilled in our staff and everybody has gotten used to the other safety features. Hand sanitizers will remain throughout the restaurant. There were lessons to be learned that will forever stay with us.”

Economy 'gaining momentum' a year after COVID shutdown; UWG professor: Vaccine, containing virus variants are key to recovery
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Editor’s Note: This story is part of a series appearing in the Sentinel this week on COVID-19 one year into the pandemic.

A year ago, as the economy began to shut down due to COVID-19, it was hard to see a light at the end of the tunnel.

The service industry, which makes up nearly 71% of jobs in Douglas County, was hit particularly hard. Restaurants were forced to try to stay afloat with take-out and delivery.

By the end of March 2020, Burke’s Grill in Douglasville reported they were doing less than 25%% of their usual business. Burke’s was far from alone.

But 12 months later, things are starting to look up. More than 2 million Americans are getting vaccinated every day. And most Americans will be getting $1,400 checks in the next few weeks as part of the latest stimulus package passed by Congress.

“The light is there,” said University of West Georgia Economics Professor Dr. Hilde Patron Boenheim. “We simply have to remain focused on moving in the right direction by taking advantage of the vaccines when they become available to us and continuing with precautions to reduce the spread to avoid a new wave of outbreaks resulting from the new variants circulating right now.”

Boenheim, who serves as the director of UWG’s Center for Business and Economics Research, said Douglas County’s economy probably bottomed out sometime around last July or August.

She said unemployment rates peaked in April, “but the contraction likely lasted longer, since the labor force took two significant dips in April and August.”

However, Boenheim said by the end of 2020 unemployment rates had been cut in half again and the labor force was back to pre-coronavirus levels.

The service sector was hit the hardest, with employment in that sector down 14.8% from the second quarter of 2019 to the second quarter of 2020, she said.

“Full-service restaurants, hotel/motel establishments and retail were all hard-hit in the county,” Boenheim said. “However, the sub-sector that contains temporary employment also was hammered as well, shedding 1,551 jobs.”

Boenheim said people getting vaccinated and continuing to take precautions like wearing masks, social distancing and washing their hands has helped to reduce hospitalizations and death rates; those things, she said, give her optimism about the economy.

She said unemployment rates for 2021 aren’t available yet. But she points to new national-level employment numbers that show the U.S. economy added 379,000 jobs in February, which she said is almost twice the number expected by economists.

“This is an indication that the economy is gaining momentum, and is likely the result of public optimism from the successes in meeting national-level vaccination goals, along with the falling hospitalization rates,” Boenheim said. “Businesses are expecting to see new activity and they are actively preparing for it.”

Still, the Georgia Department of Labor reported 28,387 initial unemployment claims last week, up 2,940 from the previous week. The accommodation and food services sector accounted for the most initial unemployment claims last week with 5,336 claims.

On the positive side, the labor department also reported Thursday that unemployment in Georgia fell slightly in January to 5.1%, a drop of 7.4% since the coronavirus pandemic began a year ago and 1.2% below the national jobless rate for January.

Asked when she expects the economy to recover to pre-pandemic levels, Boenheim said she believes U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) “will likely take at least another 18 months or so to recover to 2019 levels.” But she added that individual regions could move faster.

“We have lost a lot of income from the shutdown and from the subsequent slowdown, and we have also lost many individuals from our community, and stimulus checks can’t vaccinate us against the damage the pandemic has already caused,” she said. “In some ways, the deficit-fueled pre-covid economy was running at a faster pace than was sustainable anyway with unemployment rates in the 2.5-3.5% range. Just getting back to an unemployment rate of 5% for all counties in the (west Georgia) region and getting our vaccination rate to 50% would be two significant steps in the right direction, and both appear to be within reach by summer 2021. This doesn’t represent recovery to 2019 levels, but it would put us on a quicker path in that direction.”

She said that assuming something like a new coronavirus variant doesn’t force the economy to slow again, “confidence will continue to rebound as vaccination rates rise, and consumer spending will follow soon afterwards.”

“However, it’s not going to happen all at once, because there are still significant obstacles to recovery out there, like overdue rent and mortgage payments, permanent business closures, human capital losses (as older and more experienced workers leave the workplace rather than risk infection), and all of these could put a drag on consumer spending,” she said.

Additionally, she said some of the changes forced by the pandemic will likely stick around for the long haul.

“Many people have grown more accustomed to shopping online, taking classes online, and working remotely,” Boenheim said. “These behavioral changes, which are the result of the pandemic, have sped the process of shifting many more activities into the online environment, and these changes are likely to stay with us well beyond the end of the pandemic.”

Big events in Douglas will be ‘closer to normal’ this year; Virtual shoebox parade, fireworks planned for 4th of July; Taste of Douglasville moving to CAC
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President Joe Biden said Thursday in a primetime address to the nation that his goal is for the U.S. to be “closer to normal” by the Fourth of July.

Biden said the hope is for “small gatherings” on Independence Day with the prospect of backyard barbecues “when we not only mark our independence as a nation, but we begin to mark our independence from this virus.”

After last year when things were far from normal, some upcoming events in Douglas County that typically have large gatherings will indeed be closer to normal, but not entirely back to the way they were before 2020.

The city of Douglasville announced Friday it is planning a 4th of July Virtual Shoebox Parade rather than having its Independence Day Parade along Church Street.

However, the city is still planning its annual fireworks display on the evening of July 4, according to Jason Post, Douglasville’s community relations director. Citizens are encouraged to find safe and socially distanced locations for viewing the fireworks which will be launched from the West Pines Golf Club, Post said.

Both the parade and fireworks were canceled last year.

“The Fourth of July holiday is such a wonderful time for communities to come together and celebrate,” Post said. “While it still isn’t feasible to have an in-person parade with large crowds, we wanted to make sure we still have options for our community to connect and celebrate together.”

Also, the Cultural Arts Council Douglasville/Douglas County recently announced that the annual Taste of Douglasville — which was postponed and eventually canceled last year — is moving from Church Street to a more scaled-back event at the CAC on Campbellton Street on May 15 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The CAC’s lawn area will be filled with handmade arts and crafts and better living vendors as well as a few food trucks for Taste of Douglasville, the CAC said in a recent release. A special Kids Korner activity bag will keep the smallest citizens entertained and active.

The CAC will be selling “Restaurant Tasting Booklets” for $40 each. Each booklet will have a wide variety of food tickets offering free food items from local restaurants, valued at over $100. Tasting Booklets will be on sale April 9 through May 21 at the CAC.

The booklets will also be sold on May 15 between 11 a.m. through 5 p.m. at the CAC.

Tasting Booklets can be purchased at http://artsdouglas.org/taste-of-douglasville/, in-person at the CAC or by calling 770-949-2787 during normal operating hours. Admission to Taste of Douglasville is free.

The Douglasville shoebox parade on July 4 is being billed by the city as a “big celebration on a small scale.”

The parade will feature shoebox floats created by residents, families, students, businesses, churches and organizations. Shoeboxes must be decorated in a family-oriented manner capturing the spirit of the community and what the holiday, or this year’s theme, “Parade of Stars,” means to the shoebox decorator.

Those interested can submit their entry by completing the online registration form on the city of Douglasville’s website at DouglasvilleGA.gov/ShoeboxParade. Submissions are being accepted now through April 2. Completed shoebox floats can be dropped off at Douglasville City Hall — 6695 Church St. Douglasville, GA 30134. The hours of operation are Monday to Friday between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.

The virtual shoebox parade will be live-streamed on July 4, at 1:30 p.m. on The City of Douglasville’s Facebook page.

Prizes for best float will be awarded in the following categories:

Red, White & You: Awarded to the entry which best depicts the parade theme.

A+: Awarded to one Douglas County, GA student currently in grade K-12, including public, private, home, and charter schools.

Class Act: Awarded to a classroom in the community, including private and charter schools.

Best Family: Awarded to a family in the community.

Best Individual: Awarded to an individual in the community

Best Business: Awarded to a business in the community.

Best Organization/Non-Profit: Awarded to a Douglas County nonprofit organization/church.

Fan Favorite: Following the virtual parade, viewers can vote for their favorite float on the City of Douglasville’s Facebook page. The photo with the most likes will be recognized as the Fan Favorite. The winner of the Fan Favorite award will receive a grand prize award.

For full details on the parade and to find out how you can be a part of the big celebration, visit the City’s website at www.douglasvillega.gov/shoeboxparade.