Welcome back to the Year of Fear. Each week until Election Day, the Delacorte Review and Columbia Journalism Review will bring you another chapter from one of our four towns. Click here to subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
ON MARCH 20, PASTOR RONALD EUGENE TERRY, SR., the shepherd of New Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church, one of largest congregations in Macon, died. Rev. Terry led the church since its founding in 1978 and was one of the most respected and beloved ministers in the area, honored for his work as a Chaplin, as well as with the Cherry Blossom Festival and the National Baptist Convention, USA, where he was president of the music auxiliary.
Under normal conditions, Terry’s large sanctuary in East Macon would not be able to hold his funeral. Services would probably be moved to the Macon City Auditorium, site of Otis Redding’s funeral on Dec. 18, 1967, after a plane carrying Redding and members of the Bar-Kays band plunged into Lake Monona outside Madison, Wisconsin. While Redding’s homegoing was attended by music industry legends James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave, WLAC disc jockey John R., and 4,500 others, Terry’s services would have attracted an equally stellar cast from the gospel music realm, fellow clergy members, and local, state and national political figures. But these conditions are anything but normal.
In an executive order on the same day as Rev. Terry’s death, Macon Mayor Robert Reichert “strongly encouraged” all funeral directors to “avoid conducting any indoor funeral service, whether in the mortuary chapel or any place of worship unless no more than 10 people…” are in attendance.
His edict went further. Funeral directors were told not to provide limousine services, rather, “guests should ride in personal vehicles.” And finally, Reichert’s order advised, “Any customers wishing to have a large memorial service to do so after the current public health emergency has resolved.”
PREVIOUSLY: Imagine this—the ghost of a weekly covers the pandemic
While Rev. Terry’s family was faced with this dilemma, it was no different for families all over Macon-Bibb County—or, for that matter, all over the country. This was personal for Mayor Reichert; not only had the community lost a leader and friend, but two days prior to Rev. Terry’s passing, Macon-Bibb County Deputy Kenterrous De’Wayne Taylor was killed responding to a burglary call when his cruiser overturned. Normally when a law enforcement officer dies in the line of duty, hundreds of his colleagues from around the state gather in full dress uniforms, bagpipes sound, and the processional can be miles long. Not this time. The graveside services were restricted to family only.
Ultimately, Rev. Terry’s services included a viewing at his church the day before his burial, but only two people at a time could enter the sanctuary. His burial was limited to family, but only two at a time could approach his casket.
“It’s not just you. It has changed everything.”—New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, March 19, 2020
Earthquakes are a tricky phenomenon. Most depictions feature large cracks in the Earth’s surface, but most quakes don’t cause buildings to fall into crevices or roads to buckle, rather it is an unsettling sudden motion that creates instability in body and mind as the ground—thought solid—shifts. COVID-19 is such an earthquake and the aftershocks—day-by-day-by-day—have put every aspect of normal life in the United States in doubt.
Now in addition to deaths without funerals, there are elections without campaigns, schools without students, religions without services, and newspapers with few reporters.
In Middle Georgia the ripple from the first shockwave started innocently enough, in fact, it was thought the COVID-19 earthquake wasn’t all that bad. On Thursday, March 12, all University System of Georgia college presidents received an encouraging message about COVID-19 from the Board of Regents advising all twenty-six USG institutions to remain open because the risk was low.
Only hours later, the board reversed course and ordered its institutions to halt face-to-face classes. The system’s 163,754 employees and 328,712 students were tossed into limbo. “Students who are currently on spring break are strongly encouraged not to return to campus,” said Teresa MacCartney, executive vice chancellor for USG. By March 16, the university system closed all residence halls, cancelled all face-to-face classes, and cancelled or postponed graduation ceremonies.
There are two University System of Georgia institutions in Middle Georgia, Middle Georgia State University with its five campuses in Macon, Warner Robins, Cochran, Eastman and Dublin, and Fort Valley State University in Fort Valley. The state also closed the Technical College System of Georgia with eight campuses in the area, and private Mercer University and Wesleyan College also closed down and moved to online instruction.
A FRIGHTFUL FRIDAY THE 13TH
On Friday, March 13, the 2020 Masters Golf Tournament was postponed. Fred Ridley, chairman of Augusta National Golf Club that hosts the legendary tournament, explained, “Unfortunately, the ever-increasing risks associated with the widespread coronavirus COVID-19, have led us to a decision that undoubtedly will be disappointing to many.” The tournament has a $120 million economic impact on the Augusta, Georgia area. While a golf tournament can be rescheduled, other events were not as fortunate.
Earlier that same day, Macon’s Cherry Blossom Festival, which draws thousands of visitors from around the world, was cancelled. “This is a rapidly changing situation,” said Cherry Blossom Board Chair Alex Habersham. “After meeting with public health officials … We recognize that even with the plans being made for additional hand washing stations, table and ride cleaning, and regular reminders, there would still be a risk by having a large number of people in close proximity.” This was to be the ten-day festival’s thirty-ninth year. The festival’s economic impact, according to a University of Georgia study, was between $10 – $12 million — money now gone.
Later that day, the Bibb County School System decided the entire system would shut down and transition to digital platforms for teaching.
MORE ECONOMIC FISSURES OPEN
On March 19, Atlanta based Delta Airlines, the world’s largest airline by revenue, cut 70 percent of its flights and 10,000 employees took voluntary unpaid leave. Delta accounts for 79 percent of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport’s traffic and the busiest airport in the nation has an $82 billion economic impact on the region. Many would-be travelers’ canceled plans impacting the hospitality and tourism industries. Atlanta was to host the Final Four before the NCAA ditched March Madness due to the virus, costing the city an estimated $106 million.
The same day as Delta’s announcement, Atlanta Mayor Kiesha Lance Bottoms, by executive order, closed all restaurants (limited to delivery or take out), bars, nightclubs, private social clubs, fitness centers, gyms, movie theaters, bowling alleys and arcades in the city’s limits. Atlanta averages fifty-six million tourists annually and according to the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau’s President and CEO William Pate, tourism supports 223,000 jobs, and brings the city $16 billion. “Tourism,” Pate said, “is the gasoline that drives the city’s economic engine.” In 2019, tourism brought the Peach State $66.2 billion.
POLITICAL FEAR TAKES A BACKSEAT
The palatable fear brought by national, state and local politics has been surpassed by the alarm wrought by COVID-19, and that’s saying something. There are forty-six candidates fighting over eighteen local elected offices in Macon-Bibb County that include the mayor, county commission, school board, sheriff, district attorney, state senate and water authority, plus two US Senate seats, but the public focus has shifted away from politics. Elbow bumps have replaced handshakes, and houses of worship were streaming services online and telling parishioners to stay home even before a statewide ban began.
The building enthusiasm for the Democratic ticket—whether Bernie or Joe—had vanished from seismographs before Biden took decisive victories in Arizona, Florida and Illinois on March 17. President Donald Trump is the only name on the Republican ballot, but everyone will have to wait because the state’s presidential primary was moved from March 24 to May 19, even though 279,000 Georgians had already cast early voting ballots. And now there is serious talk of delaying the primary until mid-June. Not that it really matters – the state’s influence on the national tickets won’t register a blip on the Richter scale whenever it’s held.
Gov. Brian Kemp, who had thus far had handled the crisis well, came under fire last week as he ordered a stay-at-home decree on April 2—but only partially and much later than other governors. His order superseded communities that had taken a tougher stance, notably the beach communities of Tybee Island and St. Simons Island. Those communities had closed their beaches, but Kemp’s order opened them up again and the mayors of those communities publicly expressed their dismay. When asked why he waited so long, Kemp replied, “Finding out that this virus is now transmitting before people see signs.” However, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the lead member of the White House coronavirus task force, had been talking about asymptomatic transmission as far back as Jan. 31.
The virus has exposed usually hidden strategies to suppress voter turnout in the state. Fearing increased participation, Republicans are seething at fellow Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger for deciding to send every active voter, 6.9 million of them, absentee ballot request forms. State Speaker of the House David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, said, “This will be extremely devastating to Republicans and conservatives in Georgia… Could it jeopardize Republican control [of] the House and Senate in the state? Could it jeopardize, you know, other races up and down the ballot in 2020?” Ralston would later say his concern was over voter fraud.
With the ban of gatherings of no more than 10 people, municipal candidates are basically treading water. The normal glad-handing, Sunday morning church visits and campaign rallies, are now relegated to virtual spaces and those with war chests that can afford television ads. Two mayoral forums, one sponsored by the Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce and the other by the League of Women Voters, were postponed indefinitely.
On April 5, The Telegraph posted its first stories featuring local races since March 6. Craig Forman, president and chief executive officer of McClatchy, owner of the local newspaper, said in an op-ed printed in the March 22 edition, “Our 30 newsrooms are uniquely equipped to go deep into the communities they cover with boots-on-the-ground journalists. This is what we do. This is what we’ve always done.” Really? McClatchy has filed for bankruptcy protection. Staff positions at its papers—those “boots-on-the-ground journalists”—have been decimated by layoffs and buyouts.
But The Telegraph is far from the only newspaper in the state having COVID-19 financial hardships. The Marietta Daily Journal, a newspaper staple for a county just north of Atlanta, announced the reduction of its seven-day-a-week print schedule to Tuesday through Saturday. The Rome News-Tribune, an hour northwest of Atlanta, will do the same. And the Gainesville Times, along with the Forsyth News, both about an hour northeast of Atlanta and 20 miles apart, have gone to a Wednesday and Saturday only schedule. All of these newspapers have an online presence, but will that help readers wedded to their print editions in the heat of this political season in the midst of a frightening pandemic?
By April 1, Governor Brian Kemp closed all public schools and issued a shelter-in-place order for the entire state.
The Georgia Municipal Association asked the leaders of all 538 cities in the state to declare public health emergencies and shutdown non-essential businesses within their boundaries. The Georgia Department of Public Health updates the number of COVID-19 cases daily at noon. Those statistics of the number of cases, those hospitalized and deaths, are accelerating at an alarming rate. There were 82 confirmed cases of the virus originating in Macon-Bibb and surrounding counties as of April 1. By April 6, that number was 154 with 11 deaths
Such is the new normal. The COVID-19 earthquake has shaken our very core, and like any earthquake, recovery will take time because the aftershocks—possibly the strongest—have yet to come.
This project is supported by a gift from the Delacorte Center for Magazine Journalism Fund at The New York Community Trust.
Charles Richardson has lived in Macon, Georgia, since 1982. His journalism experience spans newspapers, radio and television. He is the recipient of Knight-Ridder fellowships at Duke University and the University of Maryland, College Park. He was the editorial page editor at The Macon Telegraph, from which he retired in 2018.