As county officials throughout southeast Texas continue to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, the Greater Houston Partnership recently gathered five regional leaders to discuss their approaches to the pandemic and hopes for future relief.

County judges Tim Lapham of Austin County, Matt Sebesta of Brazoria County, KP George of Fort Bend County, Trey Duhon of Waller County, and Phillip Spenrath of Wharton County joined Bob Harvey, the GHP's president and chief executive, for the virtual discussion Sept. 25. The GHP is a Houston-based economic development group with hundreds of members from dozens of industries in 12 regional counties.

Harvey first stressed the effect the pandemic has had on the region's economy from the start, after an estimated 365,000 Greater Houston jobs were lost in March and April alone. Around 70% of all jobs lost to the pandemic had yet to be recouped as of August, Harvey said, and as new COVID-19 cases continue to be identified throughout the region he said the path to regaining those jobs could prove to be a lengthy.

“The virus hasn’t gone away. Therefore, the recovery will be slow but not impossible," Harvey said.

Lapham noted the effects of small business and job losses on Austin County's own operations, a trend several regional leaders said was shared throughout their counties.

"Budget-wise, we’re having to account for some of the small businesses that we’ve lost, the extra revenue income that we’ve seen diminished," he said. "It’s kind of a two-pronged attack, that it's costing us more money to respond but it’s also diminished our revenue.”

Road to recovery

While all five counties have received some level of federal funding related to the pandemic in recent months, all were hopeful that more will be done in the coming months to address economic development and infrastructure concerns within their jurisdictions. Duhan and Lapham both said increased attention for their counties' small businesses and nonprofits is needed, especially given the lack of traditional fundraising and community events that were possible in 2020, as well as internet connectivity for residents and businesses in more rural parts of the region.

"I would love to see some of that money earmarked to assist us with broadband in rural counties. It’s kind of a given: If you live in an urban area, you probably have high-speed internet, you probably have multiple options," Duhan said. "We’ve got to everything we can in our power to try to get broadband out into the rural areas, and it’s a huge challenge because of the economics that are involved."

Sebesta said he hopes more federal dollars can also be provided for rental and utility assistance programs in Brazoria County to support workers and businesses there. According to a GHP analysis, more than 20,000 Brazoria County jobs have already been saved through federal initiatives such as the Paycheck Protection Program that had sustained more than 700,000 jobs regionally through August.

“Our small businesses continue to need support, not only from our residents to support them but we need to get those federal dollars, CARES Act dollars," Sebesta said. "We need to get more federal dollars involved to help keep our folks afloat, trying to keep those small businesses afloat, until we can get back to a normal situation.”

George said Fort Bend County has worked on new services to empower its small businesses, including well-attended coaching and mentoring programs. Spenrath said the region has a need for continued growth in the business community's foundation, and echoed his fellow judges' calls to promote improved internet infrastructure throughout Greater Houston counties.

“Priority number one is job creation and job diversity, and then another priority that’s mentioned is providing broadband connectivity to our rural areas," he said. "That's going to be essential to taking just about any business, any prospect, farther to where they want to become.”

Despite the calls for more economic support as certain economic and public health measures related to COVID-19 remain in place, the judges each said they were also confident about an eventual return to normal operations in the months and years ahead. George also cited the lessons learned through managing the crisis as a positive his county can carry on into the future.

“I believe we are better people because of this pandemic," he said. "When it started, we were talking about maybe four weeks, six weeks, maybe eight weeks we will get out of it and move forward with it. But this is seven months now. So we are in it, we are trying to adapt."

Duhan also shared an optimistic outlook about returning to a reopened economy, especially as possible COVID-19 vaccine candidates move forward in their development.

"There’s a lot of indicators that show that this economy can be strong again and can do so in a short period of time given the opportunity," he said. "We’ve got a lot of companies that have streamlined, they’ve looked at how to do things more efficiently, so once we get out of the way and we have a vaccine and this virus is behind us or in the rear-view mirror, I think it’s possible that we could have an even stronger economy."