New Year, Same Challenges

At the dawn of a new year, Savannah Mayor Van Johnson takes a glance back and looks ahead

click to enlarge Savannah Mayor Van Johnson signs an April 30 emergency order in response to 2020's COVID-19 outbreak. - COURTESY OF MAYOR VAN JOHNSON
Courtesy of Mayor Van Johnson
Savannah Mayor Van Johnson signs an April 30 emergency order in response to 2020's COVID-19 outbreak.
There is something refreshing, even hopeful, about the start of a new year. Although it is realistically just the day after yesterday, the thought of a new year provides relief and even promise that life will get better and things will improve.

We thought as much at the beginning of 2020 − a new year, a new decade, a new City Council, and the wind at our backs... then COVID-19, then emergency orders, then Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, then demonstrations, then mask mandates, Presidential elections and recounts and runoffs. New words entered our general vernacular and new habits transformed our lives.

Many of us lost − big time. From loved ones near and far, to the opportunities we wanted (and needed) to worship, to celebrate, and to mourn. Well-established businesses closed their doors while others held on for dear life. Our juggernaut tourism industry was brought to its knees, as our community finally recognized the value and the jobs that exist because of our reputation as exceptional hosts. The Class of 2020 missed out on that once-in-a-lifetime moment − that simply could not be replicated, as hard as we tried.

The City of Savannah responded as best as we could − promoting telework, securing PPE and distributing it across the City, working with our businesses to create the Savannah Safe Pledge that over 700 businesses signed. Parklets were created to allow for outdoor dining, and through a partnership with the State of New York, we were able to provide COVID testing in the highest infection areas in town.

We have a Savannah CARES task force that has worked with our Police Department to address use-of-force issues by recommending substantial policy changes. Our Proud Savannah Task Force has worked with the City to increase our Municipality Equality Index from 30 to 78 in just six months. Our Housing Task Force is actively working on Savannah’s first Housing Affordability Plan, which will keep housing affordable for Savannahians.

Our Savannah Faith task force created a reopening safety checklist for houses of faith that wanted to reopen, although most of them remain closed. Our ARCS taskforce is addressing ways that returning citizens have the best chance possible to succeed, HOLA Savannah is building partnerships with our Hispanic community, and REAL Savannah has taken a deep dive into the issues of race, class, and equity in our City.

The City used 80% of its first CARES allocation to assist citizens and local businesses to prevent evictions, foreclosures, cutoffs and layoffs. We were expecting to do more, until Governor Brian Kemp decided to use the federal funds for other purposes, but I digress...

We have also seen the very best of Savannah as good people of all races, creeds and identities pitched in to give and to help with their time, talent and treasure for their neighbors. Gracious monetary, food, clothing and shelter donations from Savannahians fed, clothed, and housed Savannahians. That is the Savannah spirit. That is Savannah love. That is Savannah Strong.

So as we look forward to the new year, admittedly, many of our old challenges remain. The American Dream and the Promise of Savannah must be available and accessible to everyone, regardless of your race, sex, age, orientation, neighborhood, educational attainment, or ability.

Our economy must become more diversified, people need reliable and consistent food and shelter, the gunshots must stop, our children have to safely return to school, and our beloved educators and school personnel must feel safe going. Vaccines must be rolled out quickly, paralyzing partisanship must stop. We have to continue to wear our masks, watch our distance and wash our hands. We must continue to be good neighbors and engaged citizens because the only way we get through these dark days to our bright tomorrows is together.

At the end of the day, regardless of our demographic categories or political affiliations, we are all Savannahians and #SavannahStrong!

May God’s blessings be upon you, and the best to you and to 2021!

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