Woodfin: Birmingham is a City that Leads by Responding to Needs

This is part of a continuing series of commentaries by Alabama business and community leaders about the coronavirus crisis.

Birmingham mayor Randall Woodfin // Photo by Cary Norton

Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood.

Those are the words of Marie Curie, the physicist and chemist who was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, as well as the first person to win the award twice. Though she died more than 80 years ago, Curie’s advice resonates powerfully with us today, as we — our city, our state, our nation — confront the outbreak of COVID-19, also known as the coronavirus.

One of the things we absolutely understand about this threat to public health is that, for the immediate future, it will remain a rapidly changing situation. As such, minimizing its effects to the greatest extent possible — in other words, keeping both the people of Birmingham and our city’s economy healthy — will require a high degree of communication, cooperation and coordination.

We also understand that, individually and collectively, this situation demands our recognition that we’re all in it together. Over the past several days, as the actual and potential implications of the coronavirus outbreak have become increasingly apparent, I have been inspired to witness the multitude of ways in which people are encouraging and supporting each other, checking on family, friends and neighbors, demonstrating the strength and resiliency that comes from putting compassion into action.

In that regard, Birmingham has always been at its very best when challenged by adversity. That was demonstrated by the local response to the most recent major natural disaster in our city, the tornado that struck Pratt City in April 2011, when people from Birmingham and the communities in our metropolitan area came together to help respond to the disaster and ensure that those affected received the assistance they needed to recover.

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That same spirit has also been evident in Birmingham’s response to adversity that strikes other cities. In the aftermath of the tornado that devastated parts of Nashville a few weeks ago, metro Birmingham has sent more than 60,000 pounds of goods and resources, valued at well over $200,000, along with hundreds of volunteers, to aid in recovery efforts. This collection and delivery were done even as we were coming to grips with what we need to do for Birmingham.

In short, Birmingham is a city that leads by responding to needs.

As we move through the coming weeks, I, my staff, and all of the employees of the City of Birmingham are committed to doing everything possible to protect the health and safety of all of our citizens. That starts with those who are most vulnerable to COVID-19: the elderly and those with serious chronic medical conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and lung disease. It also includes our homeless population, as we work with local shelters and health care providers to coordinate and deliver the services necessary to protect them.

Our commitment also includes the small businesses that serve our community in countless ways and account for more than half of Birmingham’s revenues from taxes and licenses. Recently, we announced programs to provide financial and other support for small businesses and their workers during the disruptions caused by the coronavirus. The city will invest $1.2 million in a public-private emergency loan fund to provide zero-interest, 180-day loans to small businesses (less than 50 employees) of no more than $25,000 to prevent staff reductions, offset losses related to the coronavirus, and help companies sponsor sick pay for workers.

You can assist our efforts in numerous ways. First and foremost, you can help by taking care of yourself and your family. Avoid large gatherings of any kind; limit the number of visitors in your house; and use caution when fulfilling essential needs, such as going to the grocery store and picking up medication. Engage in safe activities, like taking walks, doing yard work, housecleaning, cooking, listening to music and reading. Watch television, stream a movie or favorite show online, visit with friends via group video chats. Spend quality time with your family. Call and check on elderly neighbors and others who might be vulnerable. Patronize our locally owned businesses by ordering carry-out meals or other delivery services where available.

One other thing you can do: Pay attention to advice from medical experts. Birmingham is one of the leading medical and scientific centers in the world, and we are particularly fortunate to have such immediate access to the guidance that the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) has to offer in this time of need. UAB, coupled with the Jefferson County Department of Health, has been my primary source of credible and timely information and guidance.

We in city government are also committed to keeping our residents informed. Last week, we began using the hashtag “#BhamStrong” in conjunction with our communications from City Hall. That is intended as a declaration of our determination to come through this crisis together, and to emerge with our sense of community stronger than ever.

But it is more than that. BhamStrong is a call to action. We have formed a coalition with partners in the public, private and nonprofit sectors, including UAB, the Jefferson County Department of Health, United Way of Central Alabama, Birmingham City Schools, Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham, Birmingham Business Resource Center, Jones Valley Teaching Farm, and numerous technology and innovation start-ups.

The primary purpose of this coalition is to provide a one-stop source of information and guidance on the coronavirus and its effects on our community, and what we all can do to help to maintain the health of our neighborhoods and economy. To find out more about this effort and how you can get involved, visit bhamstrong.com.

This is a trying time for Birmingham, as it is for communities across Alabama, the United States and around the world. But I have faith and confidence in our ability to meet this challenge head-on, without fear, and with the knowledge that we will conquer it together. That is what Birmingham has always done, and that is what we must do now.

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