On March 19, 2020, the city of Savannah, Georgia, followed much of the rest of the state in issuing a “stay-at-home” order to its residents in response to the rapidly spreading novel coronavirus COVID-19. The mayor of Savannah, Van R. Johnson, first issued a declaration of local emergency, then followed it with a shelter-at-home order lasting until April 8, 2020. Johnson later extended his order to match Georgia governor Brian Kemp’s order that currently extends until April 30, 2020.
While Johnson and Kemp, between them, have effectively suspended most non-essential businesses including bars, restaurants, social clubs, and many businesses at least through the end of April, Savannah’s unique economy has a built-in firewall against the economic collapse that many around the country currently fear. Although the city is known for its southern hospitality and thriving tourism industry, it also is home to something that could play a key role in the eventual economic recovery of the entire southeast: Georgia Port Authority.
The authority, Georgia Ports, as it refers to itself in much of its literature, governs Georgia’s aquatic gateways, with deepwater ports in Savannah and Brunswick and inland terminals in Chatsworth, Bainbridge, and Columbus. Georgia Ports is one of the state’s largest public employers and plays a key role in national imports and exports. In 2019, Georgia Ports was partially or wholly responsible for more than 440,000 jobs statewide, $106 billion in revenue, and income exceeding $25 billion each year. In Savannah alone, the city’s two deepwater terminals are the fourth-busiest container handling facilities in the United States. The Port of Savannah is home to the largest single-terminal container facility of its kind in North America.
So what does this have to do with the coronavirus recovery?
Well, while Georgia Ports, like many other “essential” operations at this time, is working hard to keep employees socially distanced and safe and free from infection, the ports are all open and operating as usual. Of course, this is with one exception: no cruise ships! But the shipping industry is probably one of the most essential industries today and, as such, it continues to support economies, create and sustain employment, and receive public and private financial support from multiple sectors.
As a result, Savannah, as the point of entry and exit for much of the eastern U.S. imports and exports, has a layer of built-in economic insulation from an economy that, in many areas, appears on the verge of meltdown. While the city is certainly struggling along with the rest of the country, neither public nor private enterprise can afford to let this market founder one second longer than absolutely necessary and, furthermore, the area will have a “leg up” on its recovery in all likelihood because unemployment, while staggering, is likely to remain slightly lower in Savannah than in other areas of the country.