A hush fell over the crowd as representatives from every background and walks of life stepped forward during the 2021 State of the County address on Tuesday, May 18, to talk about how the COVID-19 pandemic affected them.
“I’ll never forget March 3, 2020 at 9:59 a.m. I was notified of the first patient coming into our emergency department with symptoms of COVID-19,” said Dr. Carolyn Brooker from Northside Hospital Forsyth.
“I will never forget Wednesday, March 11, when my dad was hospitalized with COVID-19. Three weeks later, we said our goodbyes via FaceTime when he passed away on Saturday, April 4,” said Mandi Holcombe, Local Church NextGen pastor.
“I’ll never forget the day, March 13, 2020, when my senior year came to an unexpected end,” said Anna Grace Cheatham, Class of 2020.
“I’ll never forget the day when we drove through Cumming and Forsyth County and traffic was like it was 40 years ago,” said City of Cumming Mayor Troy Brumbalow.
“I will never forget the day when after weeks, even months, of very careful monitoring, the time had finally come for us to declare Forsyth County’s first-ever state of emergency,” said Laura Semanson, District 5 Commissioner and chairwoman of the board at the time.
Forsyth County Board of Commissioners Chairwoman Cindy Jones Mills said that when it came time for her to pick a theme for the event, she wanted to recognize the hardships that the county faced in 2020 and make the address a “time capsule that we can look back on to see the good that happened amongst the bad.”
She said that there could not have been a better theme than “collaboration,” because she personally saw people working together to bridge gaps in the community and provide for one another, some people “that had never even worked together before.”
Senior Services stepping up
Mills started the program by looking back at one of the populations that was affected the most by the worldwide pandemic — Forsyth County’s local senior citizens.
“They probably were the most alone, the most desperate, the most fearful,” Mills said. “And our Senior Services really stepped up to the plate.”
A video showcased different concerned voices from senior service staff members and volunteers that were worried about seniors being able to socialize with family and neighbors, being able to eat healthy meals each day and more.
“We say that we’re not just providing food, but we’re also providing friendship, and it’s a wellness check as well,” Ruthie Brew, director of Senior Services, said in the video. “And we were not able to provide the more lengthy friendly visits that we like to provide.”
Brew explained in the video that she and her staff had to work to “beef-up” some of their programs, one of which being drive-by or driveway visits.
“We would have the staff load up on the bus and go out and meet [seniors] in their yard, socially distance, bring them a goodie-bag, maybe bring them an activity packet,” Brew said. “And visit with them in their yard … let them know that we cared about them.”
Brew said that the pandemic was challenging to work around, but it did not stop the Senior Services department from caring for the seniors in Forsyth County. Services just had to be provided in “different ways.”
“To the older adults in Forsyth County, you’ve done great,” Brew said. “You have found new ways to connect with people and get the things that you need. And the county has been beyond generous in being there for you and allowing you to carry on your life in spite of a world-wide pandemic.”
Restaurant challenges and creative solutions
Owners of small businesses, especially restaurants, had to be creative. But not only did restaurants have support from Forsyth County and the Chamber, but from the community as well.
“COVID-19 changed us forever, personally and professionally,” Charel Palmer, owner of Popbar, said in a video. “And I think a lot of went through things last year — whether it was not seeing your family, grandparents reuniting with grandkids — and lots of small businesses didn’t make it.”
Palmer said that she had to close her doors in March 2020 after only being open for about six months, and that the decision to do so was difficult.
Karen Smith, owner of Marie’s Italian Deli, remarked how big the “outpouring of love” was from the community to locally-owned businesses.
“It’s just hard to imagine a community that’s better than this one. I feel really, really blessed,” Smith said.
Steven Hartsock, owner of Socks’ Love Barbecue, spoke about his personal experience helping out a north Forsyth restaurant, Lake Burrito. When restaurants began to reopen, he saw that Lake Burrito was struggling. Hartsock said he “jumped on [his] Facebook” to “make the community aware of what their struggles were.” He also donated all his proceeds on one Friday to the restaurant.
Hartsock’s generosity “created a viral wave” that led to both eateries being featured on the Kelly Clarkson Show. Hartsock said that they shot the episode via Skype and did a segment where he and a member of the Lake Burrito staff made a brisket burrito.
“It was just a positive win for all of us in the community,” Hartsock said.
The Forsyth County Chamber also stepped up to help local restaurants and launched a project called FOCO Takeout Bingo. People were given cards with different restaurant names and could scratch off the businesses they helped support.
“I think it was a super cool time for people to not only small businesses, but minority-owned businesses as well,” Palmer said.
Bookmobile takes off
The Bookmobile was launched in late 2020 as an extension of the Forsyth County Public Library.
“When our library system began putting together plans for a bookmobile, they knew they would be meeting a need in the community — a need to reach those that may have limited transportation options or other barriers to access,” Mills said. “But no one could have foreseen the challenges that 2020 would bring and just how exceptional this concept would be for our community.”
Sarah Reynolds, outreach manager with the library and driver of the Bookmobile, explained in a video just what the van has brought to people this past year.
“People see us coming and are happy that we’re there,” Reynolds said.
The Bookmobile has something for everyone — books for easy-readers, teens, adults, magazines and more.
“[People] know that we’re there for them, and I think that’s one of the biggest things, especially for people who aren’t used to library services. We’re building trust, we’re establishing relationships and it’s incredible,” Reynolds said. “We just get love everywhere we go.”
Reynolds also mentioned that stopping at senior residential buildings helped to make connections with the people living there.
“I think that [the Bookmobile] definitely met a need during COVID-19 that we did not any anticipate that it would meet,” Mills said. “And I’m just so grateful for all the efforts [Forsyth Public Library is] putting into it.”
Diversity and inclusion in Forsyth County
Mills continued by talking about the efforts Forsyth County and the chamber have been doing to promote diversity in the county.
“For many months, the chamber has facilitated a group focused on uniting, celebrating and promoting diversity and inclusion in our community,” Mills said. “Despite meeting for less than a year, the group sprang into action when a need arose.”
Kristen Cook, a member of the Forsyth Chamber Diversity and Inclusion initiative, said in a video that she started with the program last year in the midst of the pandemic.
“This [program] allowed for so many unique voices to be able to come together and work towards and unified goal of celebrating diversity inside of Forsyth County,” Cook said.
One of the biggest efforts that Cook was proud of was the translation program, which saw many different members helping to translate a voter flyer and vaccination flyer in over 10 different languages to make the information more accessible. Cook said that she and others were excited to participate and speak to new segments of the population in Forsyth County.
Cook said that she was excited about the prospects of the upcoming year and expects that the program will “continue to lay the foundation of this great work.”
CARES Act and rent relief
Parish Patel, owner of a Holiday Inn Express in Forsyth County, said that he just finished renovating hotel rooms before March 13, 2020. He said that his business immediately saw the effects of the pandemic and “by the end of the day, [every reservation] was off our books.”
The Forsyth County CARES Act was able to award 319 grants to small businesses in the county to help fund payrolls and keep up with expenses. The county also worked with local nonprofits to provide rent and utility relief.
“It has been a huge relief to so many of our families here,” Ruth Goode, executive director of United Way of Forsyth County, said in the video. “It’s important for our community, but it’s critically important for the families … here.”
Goode said that with the relief, many families were able to catch up on rent, pay for utilities and “go forward … to a time where they lived before the pandemic.”
Cristy Ferencie, director of client assistance at The Place of Forsyth County, said that it felt “natural” for the nonprofit to help distribute the relief funds.
“United Way and The Place [did everything] out of their goodwill,” Mills said. “It’s taken a lot of hours of work, and we appreciate all you’ve done to help the community.”
Mental health awareness and crisis intervention
As Mills announced this topic, she said that mental health was “near and dear to her heart.”
In a video, Terry Hawkins, a member of the FCSO Crisis Intervention Response Team, said that the sheriff’s office responds to over seven calls a day involving mental health.
“Far too often and for far too long, the jails in America have been used as mental health hospitals,” Forsyth County Sheriff Ron Freeman said. “Sometimes people have committed criminal offenses and they need to be held accountable for those … but sometimes, some of those minor crimes are based on severe and persistent mental health issues. That is not somebody who needs to be in the jail; that’s somebody that needs help and treatment.”
Freeman spoke about the importance of “decriminalizing mental health” and mentioned that the new crisis response unit at the sheriff’s office has “literally saved human lives.”
“No matter where you go, there’s always going to be mental health needs, there’s always going to be substance abuse challenges,” Joshua Bell, a crisis intervention response team member, said. “It doesn’t discriminate between the rich and the poor, the successful or the unsuccessful. There’s always going to be those needs.”
Julie Zemke, a crisis intervention response team member, said people have had a hard time with the pandemic, so they’re glad they’re able to help people in times of need and will be able to continue to provide those services in the future.
Before showing the video, Mills said how hard the Forsyth County Emergency Management Agency worked over the last year.
“Our EMA department just stepped up,” Mills said. “When I walked into Browns Bridge Church and saw what was happening [with the vaccine distribution], I just knew it was something special.”
“We’ve had some of the folks that have gotten the shot scream for joy, they’ve cried happy tears,” Chris Grimes, EMA director, said in a video. “I’ve talked to somebody … [who said], ‘I’ve been home … this is the third time I’ve left my home in almost a year.’”
Grimes said that the vaccine has given many people a “ray of hope” that they had otherwise not seen in the last year.
Grimes also spoke about the partnerships that made everything possible, thanking the public health workers, public safety, Northside Hospital Forsyth, local churches and the countless volunteers that spent their days checking patients in, providing directions and more.
After the video, Mills announced that volunteers have logged in more than 3,500 hours and that 33,803 vaccines have been given by the county in total.
Looking to the future with transportation
“We’ve got a lot of work going forward,” Mills said. “Because it’s not over. We’ve got a lot of plans to go forward and a lot of needs still left in the community.”
County Manager Kevin Tanner spoke about transportation and infrastructure needs in the county, touching on the fact that roads need to be widened, sidewalks need to be made and connecting roads still needed to be built.
Because the residents of Forsyth County’s biggest complaint is traffic and congestion, Tanner spoke with representatives from the Georgia Department of Transportation, including Commissioner Russell McMurry.
“I can report that GDOT stands ready to partner with Forsyth County in a much larger way than ever before,” Tanner said. “With the support of GDOT and a Forsyth County passed T-SPLOST, our residents would see a total transportation investment of more than $700,000,000 over the next decade.”
Tanner believed that with the partnership between the county and residents, Forsyth County could continue to be a role model for other counties in the state of Georgia.
Advancements at University of North Georgia
Sen. Greg Dolezal gave a special presentation alongside other members of the state delegation and Forsyth County commissioners.
“In order for us to progress well, we have to invest in the next generation,” Dolezal said.
Dolezal spoke about the University of North Georgia’s progress and successes since it opened a local campus in 2012. He said that 500 of Forsyth County high school students participate in dual enrollment at UNG and that the Cumming campus has over 1,400 students in attendance.
However, Dolezal said the university needs more space to provide the progress that they want. He said through the taxpayers of Georgia, a down payment of $1,000,000 was raised to pay for an upcoming renovation and expansion project for the campus.
“[The expansion] is going to include foreign language labs, chemistry labs, physics labs, state of the art technology and computer labs, and it is going to be a great opportunity for many of our children to have a place right here at home where they can pursue higher education,” Dolezal said.
UNG’s president Bonita Jacobs thanked the community and the representatives that helped with funding the expansion.
To conclude the event, Mills thanked everyone for supporting the community the past year. She said she was looking forward to what the future for Forsyth County holds and how the community will continue to grow and evolve.
“I just want to thank you all for the collaboration for the way you worked together,” Mills said. “Hopefully, we’ll never have to face another pandemic, but if we do, we know now and we have the assurance that we can get through it together.”