The pandemic impacted all 11 topic areas covered by the Community Focus Report. But our community developed innovative, creative ways to overcome challenges and obstacles created by the historic disruption to our lives.
In March 2020, Greene County and the City of Springfield issued orders temporarily halting the operations of many businesses and organizations; those orders were lifted in May. This section highlights solutions and effects in 10 areas. Community Health, the focal point of this report, is reviewed in Health Care Access and Quality, and greater detail about the pandemic's effect on each topic area can be found in the 2021 white papers on the Topic pages at springfieldcommunityfocus.org.
BUSINESS & ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT
The pandemic affected the area economy in significant ways. Unemployment rates temporarily skyrocketed in the first few months after mandated lockdowns began, reaching 9.2% in Springfield in April 2020, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. While those rates have dropped to pre-pandemic levels, it's likely that many individuals have dropped out of the workforce in the interim due to issues such as safety concerns or lack of child-care options.
These reductions in workforce also are sure to exacerbate the existing skilled workforce shortage. Government relief efforts such as the Paycheck Protection Program, the CARES Act, the American Rescue Plan and other programs also have helped to soften the immediate blow. (See Federal support, nonprofits buoy residents)
Despite the pandemic's enormous impact, area businesses demonstrated an ability to innovate. Many stayed open by adapting and changing operations. Restaurants switched to carryout or delivery service; retail providers provided contactless and delivery-based options; manufacturers quickly picked up the ability to make personal protective equipment for community use.
During the early months of the pandemic, 54.7% of child care programs in Greene County were temporarily or permanently closed. By January 2021, Greene County had lost 715 licensed spots from pre-pandemic numbers. The number has rebounded slightly; however, more than 400 slots were permanently lost due to closures and staffing issues.
The burden of caring for children weighs heavily on the backs of economically vulnerable women and women of color. Early childhood educators were some of the most vulnerable members of our society, particularly in the first days of the pandemic. They were on the front lines without benefit of health insurance, adequate protective gear or sick leave.
Developmental screenings of young children were down 75% from previous years, which translated to an inability to make referrals for delays. On the bright side, the child care community quickly determined how to continue serving and supporting families safely.
Like its counterparts across the country, Springfield Public Schools experienced dramatic changes. For the remainder of the 2019–20 school year, students continued to learn at home through the SPS At Home online learning platform. To facilitate virtual learning, SPS ensured that every student had a device and adequate internet service.
Early in the pandemic, SPS staff completed wellness checks, connected families with support services, offered grab-and-go meals and provided child care for health care professionals and first responders. At the beginning of the 2020–21 school year, SPS offered families a choice between modified in-person or fully virtual learning options.
Enrollment for the 2020–21 school year was affected by the pandemic. The September 2020 total student enrollment count was 23,139 total students, down from 24,677 total students in September 2019—a decrease of 1,538 students.
PUBLIC ORDER & SAFETY
During the pandemic, the Office of Emergency Management's Emergency Operations Center was activated both physically and virtually for a record 384 days. The EOC facilitated coordination for multiple agencies, departments, and organizations to respond to the historic circumstances. These efforts included regular media briefings, weekly informational calls with community partners and coordinating the acquisition and distribution of personal protective equipment throughout Greene County.
During the pandemic, Springfield-Greene County 911 Emergency Communications saw a significant uptick in medical emergency calls, likely due to the desire to avoid hospitals for fear of the virus. While taking 911 calls, telecommunicators adjusted their questions to gather more information about the caller's health and keep first responders safe.
During the City of Springfield's stay-at-home order (April 6–May 4, 2020), officers were responsible for enforcing ordinance restrictions. Those duties continued through the year, as officers responded to more than 1,500 calls for masking ordinance violations.
In March 2020, "home" became a different place. Those who had adequate housing were suddenly isolated and forced to decide whom to allow inside, affecting those who depended on caregivers. Others had to figure out how to work from home, and many had to create online learning environments for their children. The pandemic also created a real estate seller's market with demands for larger homes.
When news first came out about the dangers of COVID-19, those without homes became a priority. From April 2020 to April 2021, Community Partnership of the Ozarks helped place more than 1,075 vulnerable individuals in area motels to reduce potential exposure. Housing programs, emergency shelters and supportive services started taking extra safety precautions to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak.
An eviction moratorium, created to protect renters and tenants, depended on landlords and managers to be understanding while they were faced with their own expenses. These short-term solutions helped people maintain housing, but the long-term effects once federal assistance ends are yet to be seen.
After the stay-at-home order, Springfield's traffic volumes decreased more than 40% and did not return to "normal" until July of that year. Despite the reduced traffic, the Missouri Department of Transportation and the Highway Patrol reported increases in speeding and crashes.
City Utilities Transit was affected by COVID-19 with bus ridership at only 21% of the previous year's average. The CU transit division maintained operation of the farebox and use of the front door on its buses by adding temporary barriers in the bus's operator (driver) area.
During the early months of the pandemic, city and health leaders held thrice-weekly health news briefings, along with virtual town halls, to provide detailed information from local trusted sources. More people started watching and participating through multiple virtual channels, helping guide decisions. The City estimated that virtual channels increased citizen engagement by nearly 30% between 2019 and 2020.
United Way of the Ozarks, along with the City of Springfield, Greene County, the Community Foundation of the Ozarks and the Community Partnership of the Ozarks, also started the Have Faith Initiative. This effort brought together a broad array of faith leaders in Springfield and Greene County to coordinate their response to the pandemic.
The pandemic did affect overall volunteer levels, which were lower than previous years, as were donations when many fundraising activities were postponed or turned into virtual events. Many corporate budgets tightened during the pandemic, too, making donations a challenge. There's optimism, however, that volunteering in person is returning with safety measures in place.
ARTS & CULTURE
Fundraising for arts organizations shifted greatly during the pandemic. While the decline of corporate sponsorships continued, several organizations reported increases in individual donations. To date, donations are down just 1% compared to pre-pandemic giving. Organizations were making smaller asks and receiving smaller gifts, but patrons were deeply engaged in restarting the arts.
The decrease in sponsorships remains a concern. Just like uncertainty facing the arts and culture community, for-profit partners also are dealing with dramatic shifts in business. As emergency relief ceases, it is not assured that previous funding models are sustainable.
While virtual program shifts are highlighted as a Blue Ribbon, the technological infrastructure for many was so outdated that it required a major effort to make the change.
PARKS, RECREATION & LEISURE
During the most isolating parts of the pandemic, local residents sought solace outdoors, and our area's park system proved an invaluable Blue Ribbon. The Springfield-Greene County Park Board worked closely with the Health Department to ensure visitor safety and eventually restore services and amenities. Parks throughout the system saw increases in usage.
Parks continued to partner with the Health Department to safely reopen family centers and sports programs by encouraging face coverings, screening for symptoms, checking temperatures and limiting capacity to prevent spread of COVID-19. After the city's emergency orders were lifted, a new normal remained in place as popular classes accommodate greater personal space, and frequent cleaning continues on common touch surfaces.
Efforts of a number of local grassroots organizations integral to the preservation of the area's natural environment were hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Watershed Committee of the Ozarks, Ozark Greenways Inc. and others have traditionally incorporated hands-on learning, service projects, advocacy and activism in their work. But similar to other nonprofits, they canceled fundraising, education and promotional efforts, and face-to-face meetings, which foster member involvement.