How Savannah Has Remained Resilient in Trying Times

If COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter have been the dominant stories of 2020 in America so far, then cities have been the main stages on which those dramas have played out. From New York to Los Angeles, Miami to Portland, American cities have confronted the challenges of coronavirus and the passion of BLM with differing results. How have civic leaders fought to save lives while preserving their economies? Why were some cities able to embrace the cause of racial justice while avoiding some of the conflict that still surrounds those protests? To discuss these pressing questions, Worth hosted Savannah Strong: A Story of Resilience, a live online event, on July 21.

In a state where divisions over how to handle the virus are still making headlines, Savannah, Ga., has charted its own distinctive course, shutting down for quarantine in early March and, on July 1, becoming the first city in Georgia to impose a mandatory mask ordinance. In June, Savannah experienced a day of demonstration around Black Lives Matter, which was facilitated and embraced by city government, leading to peaceful protest and constructive conversation. And on July 20, Savannah announced a partnership with the state of New York, in which New York would help the city establish coronavirus testing facilities, as well as donate personal protective equipment. As Savannah mayor Van Johnson put it, New York governor Andrew Cuomo “reached out his hand to Savannah, and we most graciously accepted.”

To talk about how Savannah has responded to the challenges of 2020, Worth was joined by three special guests from Savannah: Mayor Johnson, the city’s 67th mayor; Mashama Bailey, executive chef at and partner in the award-winning restaurant, The Grey; and Pritpal Singh, general manager at Perry Lane, one of the country’s finest hotels. All have played significant roles in the rise of that beautiful city to becoming one of the country’s most appealing places to visit.

“This series is really intended to help those affected by this crisis, and to shine a light on how leaders and entrepreneurs can help tackle the issues that this pandemic and the social justice movement have revealed about social inequality,” said Worth CEO Juliet Scott Croxford, who introduced the conversation.  Moderator Richard Bradley, Worth editor-at-large, added that “no city has been perfect [over] the past few months, but some, such as Savannah, have done better than others.” The question is, why?

One key was Johnson’s decision in early March to cancel the city’s annual St. Patrick’s Day parade and related festivities. Because that event, one of the largest St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in the country, generates tens of millions of dollars of revenue for local businesses, Johnson’s decision was controversial. “It was not a popular decision,” Johnson said. “But that was one of the things that stopped our city from being as bad off,” as cities such as New Orleans, which did not cancel its Mardi Gras celebration and was hit hard by the virus. In retrospect, Bailey added, “It was one of the boldest and most thoughtful leadership moves that he could have done. It just immediately set the tone for what we were going to need to do in order to weather this storm.”

For Singh, the mayor’s choice meant that guests who’d made reservations at Perry Lane months, even years, in advance would cancel them. But SIngh made a commitment to both his employees and to the hotel’s clients to involve them in discussions about what would happen next. As the city shut down, Singh said, “we took that time as an opportunity to connect with some of the guests who were in-house and had a weekly call with our team members to seek their feedback.”

In a city of about 150,000, that spirit of transparency, communication and community was ubiquitous. At The Grey, customers donated money to underwrite food boxes for restaurant staffers, which also meant helping support local farms. Johnson helped serve food with America’s Second Harvest, a local food bank. That sense of everyone pitching in helped rally the city. “It showed that Savannah was bigger than a city with 150,000 people,” Johnson said. “It was a city with a spirit that was not going to die.” That in-it-together mentality showed itself in early June, during the national demonstrations following the death of George Floyd in Minnesota. “There were people going from city to city, wrecking stuff, burning stuff,” Johnson said. “We wanted to make it absolutely clear that…we would support any demonstrations, but we were not going to allow anybody to come to our city and wreck up our city. We can demonstrate, we can disagree, we can protest. We can be mad. But in the end, you don’t express that through wrecking up places where you live.”

All three Savannahians noted, as Singh put it, “adversity creates opportunity”—and inspires solutions. So, Singh refitted Perry Lane’s popular rooftop bar, Peregrin, to offer socially distanced sit-down dining. The Grey is rethinking how it can elevate services, such as take-out and delivery; Mayor Johnson is partnering with the governor of New York. “We will emerge from this,” Johnson said. “And we’ll be better than we were before.”

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