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Ask The Mayor: Columbus Lienhoop On COVID-19 Vaccinations, Urban Grocer

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Unknown Speaker
Well, hello, and welcome to the first ask the mayor program of 2021. And to kick it off, we have Columbus Mayor Jim let up. Hello, welcome. Happy New Year.

Unknown Speaker
I am so happy 2021 is here. I didn't really want to have an extra hour of 2020. We talked about not moving our clocks forward back in in the fall, but not my back, I guess. But. But yeah, we're happy 2020 is in the rearview mirror. We're happy 2021 is here. Hopefully, it'll be a little bit better for a better year. More fun.

Unknown Speaker
Yeah. Well, we start the year of course, as we ended, COVID doesn't know about holidays or years. It's just still here. You know, after the holidays, about a month ago, officials were worried about Thanksgiving, infections. Now it's Christmas and New Year's. Just curious what the situation is like they're in Columbus, especially ICU units at Columbus Regional because I know last month we talked they were high. But you were more worried about the toll it was taking on emergency workers.

Unknown Speaker
Right. It's not just the emergency workers, but all the frontline responders, particularly those in the in the ICU units. You know, we had seen a little bit of a decline, right before New Year's Day. But it's the report I got today indicated that, you know, the hospitalizations and the positive cases are starting to tick up just a tad. We'll see where it goes. But, you know, what we've learned down through the last several months has been that following any kind of a holiday, we get a bit of a surge. And so we saw that at you know, Labor Day, Fourth of July and Memorial Day last year. And so we saw some, you know, a little bit of a surge after Thanksgiving. And now we're concerned about Christmas and New Year. So, you know, we'll, we'll just ride it as best we can over the next week to 10 days. And hopefully it doesn't surge on top of our search. But But yeah, we're, we're concerned about that, you know, we got a meeting coming up Friday, where we're going to talk with the healthcare folks about the excuse me, not this Friday, wait for Friday, vaccine distribution, we've got some vaccines here in Columbus, we've we've made them available to the frontline responders again, we'll see how those are received and distributed. But that's, it's still gonna take several months, for us to get to the point where sufficient numbers of our community have had have had access to the vaccine, I mean, to get to herd immunity, they're talking 70 to 85% of the population needs to be vaccinated. You know, 85% of 80,000 people just so you know, he Bartholomew county is about 80,000 you're talking quite 65 68,000 people, something like that. So it's, it's, it's going to take a long time for us to do that. I mean, several months. And my fear is that, you know, we've already got a fair amount of folks out there with cabin fever, a lot of fatigue related to the virus and, and and it's now on top of winter, you know, coming in, you know, it's normally a depressing time of the year is it is it does make me a little concerned about where where it will become the end of March.

Unknown Speaker
What's the capacity right now or the situation at the hospital? Because I know, it's not just we're talking about Columbus, but I know Brown County, neighboring county to you has the highest positivity rate in the state right now and has has for a few days, so I'm sure that the it's not just Columbus and surrounding areas that also tax area hospitals.

Unknown Speaker
Yeah, in the you know, the current nomenclature with the color counting color coded counties, Bartholomew county has been a sea of orange or a little bit orange surrounded by sea red for for several weeks. And, and we do serve our hospital does serve as a receiver for overload cases from from neighboring communities. And so, you know, we're happy to be able to provide that, but it does provide a little bit of extra work for our for our people and adds a little bit to the strain that they find themselves under. I think that, you know, again, we're, we're the capacity flexes, I mean, they have the ability to add to what they've got. But when they do, it really is very disruptive. I mean, that disrupts the normal procedures that they have out there. The normal activity in the emergency room and whatnot, and so on. Were they're able to meet the demand about only at a significant cost. Excuse me. And so, so again, we're just praying that we get to the end of March, a little bit warmer weather in pretty good shape.

Unknown Speaker
You brought up the vaccinations, of course, wanted to talk a little bit more about that. Do you have any indication? And you talked a little bit, but any indication about how that process is going? In Bartholomew County?

Unknown Speaker
so far? It's it's going slow. But But well, I mean, the we've not had the great long lines that, you know, you've seen on the on the TV or on the media, in other other states, the reservation process that they've gone through, and the just the physical inoculation process seems to be working pretty well. So so that's good. It just, we wish it could go a little faster.

Unknown Speaker
You know, we're getting and I'm sure you are, too, as a ton of questions daily into our newsroom, from those over 65 with certain conditions asking, Are they going to be contacted? Do they have to contact the the local hospital? Can you give any guidance to those who are older? What should they do right now?

Unknown Speaker
Do what I'm doing. I mean, I I'm older. I set the I fit the bill for for somebody over 65. And, you know, with a couple of what I guess you could call pre existing conditions or what have you, and, and so at this point, we're waiting for the state of Indiana to tell us, you know, what kind of distribution process they want to follow. And whether that's going to be whether we need to look through the to the pharmacies, Walgreens and CVS, for example, or whether we'll find, you know, distributions through the health department or through the hospital. And we just don't know yet, you know, we're waiting for them to give us some guidance.

Unknown Speaker
We've reported on wastewater testing for COVID in Bloomington and near Indy, maybe it was Carmel. And I know Columbus is doing the same. And the procedure kind of makes sense overall, right? You test a water for COVID. And it can kind of act as a tracing mechanism. But then I guess my follow up question would be, then what happens?

Unknown Speaker
Right, you know, the thought was that we would do this and see what kind of data we could collect, and see if we can get any kind of correlation between the what we would what what the FMO was telling us with respect to say other kinds of tests that we might do. And the whole point would be that it would either justify some kind of more stringent restriction on activity, or it might justify less strict risk, just, excuse me, a restriction on activity. And we today, we really haven't been able to establish any kind of relationship, causal or otherwise, between what we see in the in the wastewater and what we sort of see through the other testing, you know, one of the things that I remember talking to Mayor Brainerd from Carmel, and they'll have the ability to test individual buildings, you know, so that they might be able to find a place where there is a higher than expected amount of virus in the in the effluent. And, and we're not to that point, and I don't know that we will be excuse me that it makes a lot of sense. If you've got apartment buildings or dormitories. I mean, you know, what they're doing, they're in Bloomington would make a lot of sense in terms of being able to find where the, where the symptomatic or asymptomatic people are. But, but we're not quite there yet. You know, we're just going to continue to gather some data and, and see if we can figure out some kind of relationship between that and the, the experience with the healthcare systems having

Unknown Speaker
what where do you feel you're at in terms of restrictions? Because earlier you talked about the surge upon a surge? Are you thinking about changing that at all?

Unknown Speaker
Not right now. I think that the issue that we're that I'm being told is that, as best health care professionals can tell most of the infections come from what they call private gatherings. And, and those are, again, back to the holidays, Thanksgiving, New Year's, Christmas family meetings, weddings, funerals, those kinds of activities. And those are ones that are incredibly difficult for us to try to, to monitor, number one, and then number two, to try to enforce any kind of, you know, compliance with either mask wearing worse or physical distancing. You know, if you've got a bunch of people over to your home, you know, it's as a private activity and we're not going to get in the middle of that. We have had a pretty good response from the faith community here in Columbus. We met shortly before Thanksgiving, with moss. About 30 ministers, and received a pretty warm response to our request that, you know, in person worship be curtailed, severely limited, you know, 50% of capacity or 50 people, whichever you got to first. And in general, the response that we received, as I said, was pretty favorable. We think that that helped with respect to the numbers that we were, we've seen in the healthcare system since then. But, but we know that there's a limit to that amount of patients, right. I mean, over time, those folks are going to get to a place where they want to resume somewhat normal activities. And it's, it's that continued vigilance, it's going to be going to be tough for all of us. But no, we don't have any current plans to do anything different than, you know, stay where we are right now.

Unknown Speaker
Okay. We've been covering Bloomington, Mayor Hamilton, limiting camping overnight, and city parks, which was targeting people experiencing homelessness, and I read a report a couple days ago, Indianapolis doing the same downtown and on the circle, is this a concern in Columbus,

Unknown Speaker
you know, we talk pretty regularly with the folks who run our homeless shelter, they have the closest contact to the homeless homeless population that we have here. And they're telling us that, you know, there's really not not been that much stress on that population. And, and And granted, it's a difficult thing to measure. I mean, these are this a population that can be difficult to to communicate with, and certainly to gauge, you know, their health, but we don't see, we've not had many reports of folks camping out in our in our parks. And we have room at the homeless shelter. And the folks who run it have a have a way to handle folks who are have tested positive or need to be quarantined in some other way. So, you know, right now, again, knock and cross your fingers, we we've, we think we have that area, as well managed as we can.

Unknown Speaker
And the pandemic getting worse, many people still not being able to work bills are due, is the city seeing an increase in of unpaid water bills? And what's been the response to those people? Well,

Unknown Speaker
you know, our response so far has been to to work with them, I mean, to give them the latitude that they need to, to work through this pandemic, I don't know what kind of latitude they received from other utilities, whether, you know, Duke or vectren, or any of the others are given any kind of relief. But as far as water and wastewater, you know, we're allowing those bills to accumulate, they'll have to be paid sooner or later. But, but we're not going to shut people's utilities off. For the time being.

Unknown Speaker
Has there been an increase? Do you know, have you heard anything?

Unknown Speaker
Yeah, we're up to I want to say it's a 400. Little over 400 pass to customers out of about 15,000.

Unknown Speaker
The General Assembly underway in Indianapolis, you know, many, many items on the agenda. Is there anything that you're going to follow there in Columbus? Well, well, we'll

Unknown Speaker
always pay attention to, to the TIF legislation that comes around, you know, it seems to always be directed to trying to curtail, you know, what we do in TIF and that's the the process by which we we grow the economy of our community. And so we're always nervous about, you know, what the legislature might do there. And I think to you know, there's there was an article in some of the media here recently about efforts to curtail the governor's emergency powers. I would be very concerned about that. I think that, you know, we we have, we've done a pretty decent job today in Indiana, and I really don't see that there's a whole lot that needs to be fixed with that. My sense would be that the legislature wants to, you know, exert a voice, you know, into all that decision making. That's to be expected. But you'd have to ask yourself, what better information they would have, you know, than what the governor would have? And, and would we get a scientific response or a political one? And, and so I will follow that discussion as well. And we'll see where it goes.

Unknown Speaker
You took the next question, right. From eighth grade. I love I love it when that happened. Some I know, I know. We're kind of coming at end time here. But I seen some other news. The Republic reported the city is close to getting that downtown grocery. You know, we've been talking about that back since this was part of the conference center development. So is there a site for that and what's been the progress since we last talked?

Unknown Speaker
Well, the the, if you may recall, if you go back a year, maybe a little further, we had one project to bring forward a mixed use development and a hotel Conference Center, the mixed use development would be about 200, Park apartments, a little bit of retail, and a urban grocery. The hotel conference center is just that it would be, I think we picked a Marriott brand. And there would be a conference center attached to it and a parking garage. And when the COVID hit, we decided to split those two pieces of that one project. And so we now have two, excuse me two projects. And the relevance of that is that the hotel conference center is going to have to wait for a while the lenders that would provide the financing for that kind of project are just skittish about investing in hospitality. And they will be until the business travel comes back to normal or whatever the new normal is, and that and that they understand it. We are able to, however, to go forward with the hotel conference center. And this is a project that will excuse me go forward with the mixed use development. This is a project that will be built South a second Street and east of the jail, about 200 apartments. We add that will also include in an urban grocer, that will be pretty well situated at the corner of second de la excuse Yeah, second in Lafayette. We will also as part of that project be building a new court Services Building for Bethel and new county that will be behind the jail directly south of the jail, south of First Street and west of Lafayette in anticipation that will someday in our move move on the hotel Conference Center site. So we should be able to see some some earthmoving equipment here within a couple of months, as we first move on the court Services Building, you know that they're tear down the existing structure at 555 First Street and begin work on a parking lot, you know, over on the road east of Lafayette Street. And then we we anticipate you'd be breaking ground in about a year on the apartment complex apartment complex and the grocery. So we'll it's moving forward. It's just it's too slow. And we talk about COVID mud, just as tended to slow everything down. And that's, it's frustrating. But that's that's just the way that's what it is. Yeah.

Unknown Speaker
When when you say urban groceries, is there a specific brand in mind that had that that you're trying to go out to go get? Or is that just something that is open to a certain grocery chain to open? No, when

Unknown Speaker
we say urban we mean something you can walk to it with sell in volumes that you can carry, you know, by hand, there will be a parking lot because we realize that any grocery store in this part of the country or in this bar in this city is going to require a parking lot, you know, to get your car in and out. But But urban means that you'll be able to, to walk to it. And, and walk away without, you know, 20 pounds of groceries.

Unknown Speaker
Last question, you know, as we begin a new year, we know obviously COVID is still going to be making the headlines and vaccinations. But do you have maybe one or two other bigger goals or projects for the city of Columbus in 2021? Well,

Unknown Speaker
we do, we do want to make sure that we manage our way through the COVID process that's we spent several hours a day it seems, you know, trying to understand what we need to be doing or need to be doing now. And you know, we had a conversation a moment ago about the homeless population. And so the COVID seems to impact a lot of what we do personnel policies here at the city. I mean, if we have e learning days at schools that affects the parents, you know, many of whom work for us. And so we find ourselves having to adjust our personnel policies a little bit to accommodate more time at home and more time away from from from work worksite. And we've been able to work through all that stuff, but it just takes time. And it just takes a couple hours, like I say out of the day to devote to that. So we will continue, you know, to spend a lot of time thinking about COVID and how it how it affects what we do and how we respond to it. And then just to be able to pull the rest of the projects along, you know that we've talked about whether it's the riverfront or the apartment complexes that we mentioned a moment ago, or the urban grocer or what have you. You know, we just want to see that those things continue to move forward even though it said like I say sometimes the pace gets a little frustrating. We'll keep moving forward and get that done.

Unknown Speaker
Alright, that's all I had. Did you have any other announcements?

Unknown Speaker
No, no, it's You know, it's a gloomy day here in Columbus but the sun will shine and and we're looking forward to that when it happens. But in the meantime, you know, life goes on and and we're going to be okay. So thanks.

Unknown Speaker
Thank you very much. We'll see you next month.

Unknown Speaker
You're welcome. Take care.
Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop

Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop (Zoom)

First responders are getting the COVID vaccine, but not much information is coming from the state on next round scheduling. And Lienhoop says the state legislature shouldn't limit the Governor's emergency powers.

On this week’s installment of Ask The Mayor, Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop addresses these issues and more. Listen to the full conversation with Indiana Newsdesk anchor Joe Hren by clicking on the play button above, or read some of the questions and answers below. A portion of this segment airs 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. Wednesday on WFIU.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

Hren: Let's begin with what we ended the year with, COVID-19... now after two holidays, what's the latest?

Lienhoop: We had seen a little bit of a decline, right before New Year's Day. But the report I got today indicated that, the hospitalizations and the positive cases are starting to tick up just a tad. We'll see where it goes. But, what we've learned has been that following any kind of a holiday, we get a bit of a surge. And now we're concerned about Christmas and New Year. So, we'll just ride it as best we can over the next week to 10 days. And hopefully it doesn't surge on top of our surge.

We've got some vaccines here in Columbus, we've made them available to the frontline responders again, we'll see how those are received and distributed. But it's still gonna take several months for us to get to the point where sufficient numbers of our community have had access to the vaccine.

To get herd immunity, they're talking 70 to 85% of the population needs to be vaccinated. That's 85% of 80,000 people in Bartholomew county, you're talking 68,000 people, something like that. So it's, going to take a long time for us to do that. I mean, several months.

READ MORE: COVID-19 Vaccines Could Expand To More Hoosiers Next Week

Hren: We're getting and I'm sure you are, too, a lot of questions daily into our newsroom, from those over 65 with certain conditions asking, Are they going to be contacted? Do they have to contact the the local hospital? Can you give any guidance to those who are older?

Lienhoop: Do what I'm doing. I mean, I'm older. I fit the bill for somebody over 65. And, you know, with a couple of what I guess you could call pre existing conditions or what have you, and so at this point, we're waiting for the state of Indiana to tell us what kind of distribution process they want to follow. And whether that's going to be whether we need to look through to the pharmacies, Walgreens and CVS, for example, or whether we'll find, distributions through the health department or through the hospital. And we just don't know yet, we're waiting for them to give us some guidance.

Hren: Where do you feel you're at in terms of restrictions? Because earlier you talked about the surge upon a surge? Are you thinking about changing that at all?

Lienhoop: Not right now. I think that the issue that I'm being told is that, as best health care professionals can tell most of the infections come from what they call private gatherings. And, those are, again, back to the holidays, Thanksgiving, New Year's, Christmas family meetings, weddings, funerals, those kinds of activities. And those are ones that are incredibly difficult for us to try to monitor, number one, and then number two, to try to enforce any kind of compliance with either mask wearing worse or physical distancing. If you've got a bunch of people over to your home, it's as a private activity and we're not going to get in the middle of that.

We have had a pretty good response from the faith community here in Columbus. We met shortly before Thanksgiving, with about 30 ministers, and received a pretty warm response to our request that in person worship be curtailed, severely limited, 50% of capacity or 50 people, whichever you got to first. And in general, the response that we received, as I said, was pretty favorable.

Hren: We've been covering Bloomington Mayor Hamilton limiting camping overnight in city parks, which was targeting people experiencing homelessness, and I read a report a couple days ago, Indianapolis doing the same downtown and on the circle, is this a concern in Columbus?

Lienhoop: We talk pretty regularly with the folks who run our homeless shelter, they have the closest contact to the homeless population that we have here. And they're telling us that, there's really not been that much stress on that population. And, granted, it's a difficult thing to measure. I mean, this a population that can be difficult to communicate with, and certainly to gauge their health, but we've not had many reports of folks camping out in our parks. And we have room at the homeless shelter. And the folks who run it have a way to handle folks who have tested positive or need to be quarantined in some other way.

Hren: The General Assembly is underway in Indianapolis, many items on the agenda. Anything in particular you're following for Columbus?

Lienhoop: Always pay attention to the TIF legislation that comes around, it seems to always be directed to trying to curtail what we do in TIF and that's the process by which we grow the economy of our community. And I think you know, there was an article in some of the media here recently about efforts to curtail the governor's emergency powers. I would be very concerned about that. I think that we've done a pretty decent job today in Indiana, and I really don't see that there's a whole lot that needs to be fixed with that. My sense would be that the legislature wants to exert a voice into all that decision making. That's to be expected. But you'd have to ask yourself, what better information they would have than what the governor would have? And, would we get a scientific response or a political one?

Hren: The Republic reported the city is close to getting a downtown grocery development. We've been talking about that since this was part of the conference center development. So is there a site for that and what's been the progress?

Lienhoop: If you go back a year, maybe a little further, we had one project to bring forward a mixed use development and a hotel Conference Center, the mixed use development would be about 200 apartments, a little bit of retail, and a urban grocery. When COVID hit, we decided to split those two pieces of that one project. And the relevance of that is that the hotel conference center is going to have to wait for a while - the lenders that would provide the financing for that kind of project are just skittish about investing in hospitality.

We are able to, however, to go forward with the mixed use development. This is a project that will be built south of Second Street and east of the jail, about 200 apartments. That will also include an urban grocer that will be pretty well situated at the corner of Second and Lafayette.

We will also as part of that project be building a new Court Services Building that will be behind the jail directly south of the jail, south of First Street and west of Lafayette in anticipation that we'll someday move on the hotel Conference Center site. So we should be able to see some earthmoving equipment here within a couple of months, as we first move on the Court Services Building, that they'll tear down the existing structure at 555 First Street and begin work on a parking lot over on the road east of Lafayette Street. And then we anticipate you'd be breaking ground in about a year on the apartment complex and the grocery. So it's moving forward. It's just too slow. And that's frustrating. But that's just the way it is.

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