June 24, 2020 10:14:31 AM
Unemployment rates were down significantly in May in Columbus, Starkville and West Point as part of a statewide decrease, according to preliminary statistics released Tuesday by the Mississippi Department of Employment Security.
But local officials stressed that numbers aren't back to pre-pandemic terms just yet.
In Clay County, for example, unemployment dropped from 23.6 percent of the labor force in April to 14.6 percent in May.
"We're always grateful to see it headed in that direction," West Point Ward 4 Selectman Keith McBrayer told The Dispatch.
However, Clay County has the eighth highest unemployment rate among Mississippi's 82 counties, with an estimated 1,150 people out of a job. In May 2019, its unemployment rate was 7 percent.
"It's still nowhere near where we want it to be," McBrayer said.
West Point is uniquely positioned in the Golden Triangle area. In April and May, Clay County had significantly higher unemployment rates than did Lowndes, Oktibbeha or Noxubee counties, but sales tax revenue in West Point was up 27.8 percent in April -- seemingly a contradiction.
West Point Growth Alliance Director Lisa Klutts said high sales at the city's Walmart could explain the increase in sales tax revenue. Klutts said at the start of the pandemic, shelves went bare at the retailer as residents stocked up on essentials.
McBrayer also said Walmart sales had been strong but that he wasn't sure what else might have produced the disparity.
"There's so many unknowns," he said. "We're doing all we can to support our local industry and our local businesses."
Closure of plants, retail stores fueled spike
Starkville Mayor Lynn Spruill can list the city's businesses that have become "casualties" of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flexsteel, which employs 168, is fully shutting down at the end of the month. JCPenney declared bankruptcy and plans to close this summer. Gordman's, which also is closing, "basically never really got open," Spruill said. Plenty of restaurants may not be able to reopen or survive.
"We're still feeling the effects," Spruill said. "It's just a matter of how long it will go on and what will come in to take their place."
The closures were part of the reason Starkville reached a 14.5 percent unemployment rate in April -- Oktibbeha County as a whole had a 13.9 percent mark. As of May, it's back down to 9.6 percent in the city and 9.3 percent in the county.
Lowndes County's unemployment rate was 29th highest in the state at 10.5 percent in May, down from 15.7 percent in April and up from a mere 5.3 percent in May 2019. The Paccar plant in Columbus was temporarily closed from March 25 to April 6.
In West Point, the temporary closures of the Yokohama Tire and Peco Foods plants were a "huge problem," McBrayer said.
Klutts pointed out that neither factory is likely back to full operation yet due to decreased demand.
"The production level could be consistent with what their orders are, so if their suppliers are not ordering, their production may not be back," she said.
But both Klutts and McBrayer know how important the full return of the two major employers will be on local unemployment statistics.
"Peco, when it comes fully online, it's going to really help guide the number in the right direction," McBrayer said.
Klutts said being aware that the closures weren't permanent and that things continue to reopen has helped maintain local confidence.
"Knowing that it's temporary and not because it's due to an industry closing is always better," she said.
A waiting game
Spruill said she expected May's unemployment rate to come down to 10 or 11 percent, so she was happy to see the 4.6 percent decrease for Oktibbeha County.
"That's very comforting in the sense that it's going in the right direction," she said. "I just hope we're able to sustain that and people will be able to maintain that level of employment and improve."
With the state all but reopened, Spruill hopes to facilitate the return of business while encouraging mask-wearing and social distancing in the process. The city is planning a "streatery" downtown where patrons can be spaced out while dining outdoors at local restaurants.
"We're trying to see if we can be creative as we're working our way through this," Spruill said.
She also is remaining cognizant of the threat of a second wave. Ideally, she said, the city will have adapted to limit such an event.
"It is my hope that we've learned a good deal from the first occurrence and the first instance of this and how to deal with it, so the second wave won't be as dramatic -- and traumatic -- for us because we know that we can go without shutting everything down, which is what happened last time," Spruill said.
Klutts, who said she was happy to see the decrease in unemployment numbers in West Point and Clay County, expects to see fairly steady numbers (or possibly a small spike) in case of a second wave.
"I think what we see now is what we're going to see for a little while," she said.
Spruill, meanwhile, hopes for an incremental decrease that puts things back to normal -- the city had a 4.9 percent unemployment rate last May -- by this fall. That would likely mean the return of sports and associated activities, which in turn would increase hiring, Spruill said.
But due to the changeable nature of the virus, she said, nothing is for sure.
"We'll just have to see," Spruill said. "This is a waiting game in terms of knowing how people are going to get out."
Theo DeRosa reports on high school sports and Mississippi State softball for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.
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