Back in early March of 2020, local residents and organizations were trying to figure out how seriously to take this “novel coronavirus” that had come to Georgia. Meanwhile, major multinational corporations in the area were ahead of the game, already setting up policies of sheltering in place and social distancing that would soon become everyone’s reality.

A public hint came March 9, when the Georgia Chamber of Commerce quietly canceled a major Perimeter Center conference partly because many companies were barring employees from gathering and traveling. (That conference was to feature U.S. Sen. David Perdue, who went on to be accused of, and to deny, insider stock trading based on COVID-19 briefings.) The eye-opening March 11 cancelation of Atlanta’s annual “State of the City” address came at the order, not of keynote speaker Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, but of the event’s multinational-corporate sponsor, the Coca-Cola Company.

Several local leaders in politics and business agree that big corporations were ahead of the curve, though they disagree on whether an advantage that was sometimes a matter of weeks or days could have better influenced public safety policy. But some say that corporations remain a bellwether for where pandemic business and society are headed on big issues like reopenings and teleworking.

Chris Clark, president and CEO of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce.

Chris Clark, the Georgia Chamber’s president and CEO, says that “we did see larger Georgia-based companies respond quicker and more aggressively in managing and protecting their employees. Some companies phased in work-from-home schedules in early March when the public still wasn’t fully focused. And now, we see many firms postponing travel and office return well into Q2 or Q3 for 2021.

“I believe this speaks to the built-in resiliency of large companies around the world to better plan and more quickly respond to crisis while maintaining their business models,” Clark said. “We need to help smaller companies better prepare for future risks as well.”

Johann Weber, program manager of  Perimeter Connects.

Johann Weber, who runs the Perimeter Connects alternative commuting program at the Perimeter Community Improvement Districts, says that locally based companies like Cox Enterprises and Mercedes-Benz USA acted faster than the state government on remote working and travel restrictions.

“They were at least a couple of weeks, probably, ahead …  of everybody else in recognizing that they needed to be ready and they took advantage of that time to test things out,” Weber said.

While many local organizations and governments were still planning on a relatively short pandemic shutdown, major Perimeter Center companies were quietly settling into office closures or occupancy caps into January. And now, Weber says, many of them already quietly extended those closures well into the New Year.

Jim Durrett, executive director of the Buckhead Community Improvement District and president of the Buckhead Coalition.

Jim Durrett is the executive director of the Buckhead Community Improvement District, a group of major businesses, and heads the nonprofit Buckhead Coalition, whose members include many corporate leaders. He doesn’t think the big-business edge on pandemic information mattered much, because broadly speaking, local companies pivoted quickly to new ways of doing things.

“Better information sharing between the private and public sector could be helpful, to the extent that businesses have a head start on rapidly developing situations, but that didn’t necessarily appear to be the case in 2020,” Durrett said.

Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul.

Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul said that rapidly changing information from the most important sources — public health experts — was a challenge to any decision-making in government. “It’s very hard to develop a policy path forward when even the best experts are unsure of how to react,” he said, adding that the cumulative knowledge and experience of the pandemic is what will make his city better prepared for a future challenge.

Paul noted that business reactions to the pandemic varied as well, though remote working emerged as a trend.

“Some companies acted immediately, while others initially tried a wait-and-see approach,” he said. “Yet, most came to an early conclusion that an employee work-from-home strategy was best until a better understanding of the situation evolved.”

It’s no surprise that multinational corporations had a bigger-picture view than a city like Brookhaven, which has a “budget that represents 1/744th of Coke,” says city spokesperson Burke Brennan. But the city government’s rapidly developed policies “worked reasonably well under the circumstances,” he said.

Better and clearer information from federal and state health authorities would have helped, Brennan added. “Remember the issue of, ‘wear a mask’/‘don’t wear a mask’/‘on second thought, wear a specific kind of mask’? That was a good one,” he said.

Sabriya Rice, the Knight Chair for Health and Medical Journalism at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.
(Sarah E. Freeman/Grady College)

Journalists had trouble getting quality information, too, says Sabriya Rice, the Knight Chair for Health and Medical Journalism at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. She noted a recent Association of Health Care Journalists survey that found reporters’ access to government public health experts was often blocked by officials, with pandemic information instead coming through speeches by non-expert politicians.

Rice said a broader, international perspective in reporting could have better clarified subjects like mask-wearing, a widely adopted public health measure that in the U.S. was initially spun by federal authorities as unnecessary as a way to prevent a run on supplies. That international perspective, she said, includes following the actions of multinational corporations. Specialty trade publications watched those businesses closely, she said, while general news reporting did not.

“I think there are lessons we all could learn,” said Rice. “I think you’re right to look at how those corporations are responding, because they may be a good indication of what is to come next.”

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.