The week started with many in Athens scoffing at the seriousness of the coronavirus and COVID-19, the disease it spreads. As late as Thursday afternoon, the University of Georgia was insisting it would not close. Hours later, it reversed course and announced classes are suspended until at least Mar. 29. The Clarke County School District followed suit, and soon it seemed every public event this spring was canceled as well.
Friday, the Athens-Clarke County government announced measures to slow the spread of the virus. Most court proceedings except bond hearings are canceled through mid-April, and Leisure Services programs are canceled through Mar. 29. Mayor Kelly Girtz said he was pondering a ban on large gatherings, which may be in effect by the time you read this.
Saturday, Girtz and members of Athens’ legislative delegation met with hospital officials and released a rare, if not unprecedented, joint statement: “As testing becomes more widespread and available, we anticipate positive cases in our community. We want to assure the public that your Athens community healthcare providers, including Piedmont Athens Regional and St. Mary’s, are in constant communication and coordination with each other as well as the state and federal government, the Mayor and the local state legislative delegation. The Athens community is prepared, and we are actively taking steps for continued response—including working to increase testing access locally.
“If you are experiencing symptoms, please call your health care provider before coming to a facility to determine the appropriate next steps. Use common sense—hand washing, avoiding close contact, stay home if you are sick, cover coughs and sneezes—and for-real time information, please visit cdc.org and dph.georgia.gov.”
Sure enough, by Saturday night, reports were circulating online about Athens’ first two positive coronavirus tests. Commissioner Russell Edwards raised the alarm, saying that a public health official had told him the news. The next day, the Department of Public Health confirmed the report.
In between, Gov. Brian Kemp declared a state of emergency, which should help expedite testing. And Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger pushed back the presidential primary out of concern that voters and poll workers—who average 70 years of age—could be exposed to the virus. Originally scheduled for Mar. 24, it will now be held on May 19, the same date as nonpartisan local elections and partisan primaries for other offices besides president. Early voting has been suspended.
What lies ahead is anyone’s guess. Other countries are shutting down restaurants, bars and cafés, confining people to their homes except to go grocery shopping or to the hospital. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. But as late as last Saturday night, life in Athens went on as usual, except that some of us were better stocked with toilet paper than others. We know now that won’t and can’t continue. Some restaurants are already closing, and others are adding takeout and delivery options. See the Grub Notes blog on flagpole.com for more.
Resources are available for those who couldn’t afford a Kroger run last weekend. CCSD is preparing free meals for students from 8–10 a.m. at Oglethorpe Avenue Elementary School and Hilsman Middle School and delivering them to certain neighborhoods; see the district website at clarke.k12.ga.us for more information. Our Daily Bread is distributing brown-bag lunches at noon every day at First Baptist Church on Pulaski Street downtown. UGA’s Campus Kitchen is continuing to deliver meals, and the Athens Community Council on Aging is expanding its Meals on Wheels capacity. The Food Bank of Northeast Georgia is open for business. Charter Spectrum is temporarily offering free internet access for students taking online classes. For other needs, call the United Way’s 211 helpline by dialing 211. And for more information on coronavirus, flip to p. 7.