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There’s been a slow-moving, surreal, multi-politician train wreck in Georgia, and the carnage is strewn across the Peach State’s landscape. Aside from the COVID-19 virus that has infected 33,833 and killed 1,405 as of May 11, this train wreck started, oddly enough, as though Georgia had escaped the fate of so many southern states led by Republican governors. Governor Brian Kemp, leader of the largest state east of the Mississippi, appeared to be rational in his approach to COVID-19.
On March 12, Kemp held a press conference in the state Capitol. At his side were the lieutenant governor, the state speaker of the house, the Mayor of Atlanta, the state public health commissioner, the governor’s Coronavirus Task Force members, and others. Kemp cut nonessential travel and told state workers to telework. While he didn’t close schools, leaving that decision to local districts, he did cut visitation to the state’s prisons. Kemp also announced four new coronavirus committees for emergency preparedness, economic impact, physicians, and homelessness. Kemp was widely hailed for his efforts.
PREVIOUSLY: How the pandemic is playing in rural Virginia
In the days following, Kemp came before the media to give detailed reports of how many confirmed cases of the virus and deaths there were in the state, and whether victims had underlying health issues. On March 14, he declared a public health emergency and called upon the Georgia National Guard. On March 16, he ordered all public schools and colleges to close; on April 1, he extended that order for the rest of the school year. But he faced criticism for not issuing a shelter-in-place order. That order would come on April 2—fifteen days after Keisha Lance Bottoms, Atlanta’s mayor, proposed a “stay-at-home” order but delayed it on Kemp’s request.
Kemp finally shut down every bar, restaurant, nightclub, gym, barber shop, beauty salon, massage parlor, live performance and amusement park. Alabama Governor Kay Ivey and Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves would follow Kemp’s lead and issue statewide shelter-in-place orders the next day. Kemp continued to be at the top of his game. On April 5, he appointed Bernice King, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s daughter, as co-chair of the new Coronavirus Community Outreach Committee.
TRAIN STARTS TO DERAIL
During a press conference on April 8, Kemp was asked why he finally declared a shelter in place order. Kemp said, “What we’ve been telling people from directives from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) for weeks now is that if you start feeling bad, stay home. Those individuals could have been infecting people before they ever felt bad. But we didn’t know that until the last 24 hours.”
The press corps was flabbergasted. Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the CDC, had said in mid-February that asymptomatic transmission of coronavirus was possible. That was just the beginning of Kemp’s derailing.
Then April 20, Kemp announced, “Given the favorable data, enhanced testing, and approval of our healthcare professionals, we will allow gyms, fitness centers, bowling alleys, body art studios, barbers, cosmetologists, hair designers, nail care artists, estheticians, their respective schools, and massage therapists to reopen their doors this Friday, April 24.” Kemp also stated, “This measure will apply statewide and will be the operational standard in all jurisdictions. This means local action cannot be taken that is more or less restrictive.” He delayed opening restaurants and other facilities until April 27.
All over the state, elected officials were flummoxed.
Members of Kemp’s coronavirus committees were caught flatfooted because he had not consulted them. Bernice King took to Facebook to say, “I’m not sure that we are understanding the importance of balancing the economy with a commitment to humanity.” Bottoms told CNN, “We really are at a loss, and I am concerned as a mother and as the mayor of our capital city.” Hardie Davis, Jr., the Mayor of Augusta, the state’s second largest city, told CNN, “If we move as swiftly as the governor’s proposing right now, we could find ourselves mashing the gas on the economy when in fact we need to be putting the brake on where we are right now.”
Bo Dorough, the mayor of Albany––an area the virus hit so hard that, for a time, it was second in transmission rates to New York––said, “We’re simply not ready to reopen. I mean, we have sixty-two people on ventilators. I think it’s rather imprudent to set dates as opposed to goals. I mean, even the White House says we’re going to do this in phases. And if you look at the four criteria for phase one, we haven’t met but one of those criteria.” Savannah mayor Van Johnson said, of learning of Kemp’s announcement, “To be absolutely clear, I was just as surprised as the rest of the world.”
Macon-Bibb County mayor Robert Reichert said, “He didn’t allow any flexibility for local government to add to or take away from his order so we are without the authority to pass any order or legislation that would be in conflict with the governor’s order.” Macon-Bibb sheriff David Davis said, “I hate to think that Georgia is part of a grand experiment to see how reopening things will affect the virus. You might say we’re the guinea pigs. It’s sad that we’re getting so many conflicting notices and conflicting statements from the so-called experts.” Dr. Keren Landman, a specialist in infectious diseases, wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times titled, “Georgia Went First. And It Screwed Up.” She wrote, “For better or worse, the governor has made our state the nation’s canary in this particularly terrifying coal mine.”
WHY SHE WAS THERE
On April 22, the Macon-Bibb County Board of Health meeting passed a resolution asking Kemp to rescind his order. The Board had just heard on April 20 from Navicent Health, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Patrice Walker, “We expect our surge to be some time now in mid-May.” Board member Chris Tsavatewa said, “We are behind in this state. Our per capita testing is abysmal.” As of May 11, only 12.37 percent of the state’s population had been tested and the infrastructure for contact tracing was non-existent.
Liz Fabian, one of the most well-known and respected journalists in Middle Georgia, was the only reporter at that meeting. Fabian’s journalism career began in high school writing for the Georgia Military College newspaper. When she entered Georgia College and State University intending “to study theater and become a big star,” she did a morning news program on the campus radio station. She said the journalism bug hit the morning of November 5, 1980. When Georgians went to sleep the night before, Senator Herman Talmadge, a Georgia legend, was thought to be the winner over Republican Matt Mattingly, but they awakened to find Mattingly had won. Fabian, for the first time, heard the AP wire machine’s bell, a bell that only rings when there is a big story. “It was such an interesting feeling about having news you could share with someone right away, things they didn’t know.” The rest was history. The journalism bug had sunk its teeth into her and didn’t let go.
Fabian started her career in television and has done stints at all three local network affiliates. Her first, in 1982, WCWB, paid her $150 a week, but it was an important training ground where she learned to do weather. Those skills took her to the newly established Weather Channel, based in Atlanta. At each stop, budget cutbacks left her holding the short end of the stick. In 2003 she went to work at the daily newspaper, The Telegraph.
An excellent journalist and versatile writer, not common from someone making the transition from television to print, Fabian covered everything, from doing early weather podcasts for the paper to anchoring the news desk for a newspaper-sponsored morning talk show from 2007 to 2012 that aired on ABC and Fox affiliates and on the most powerful AM radio station in the market.
But once again, in February 2019, Fabian was caught in the budget vice. McClatchy, The Telegraph’s corporate owner, found itself squeezed after acquiring Knight Ridder newspapers in 2006. The paper had already jettisoned its sports reporters and editor, editorial page editor, senior news editor and executive editor, in 2017 and 2018. Now Fabian, along with 450 McClatchy employees 55 years of age or older with 10 years of service, were given the choice to voluntarily retire or stay. “They really weren’t interested in holding on to anybody with experience,” Fabian said. “And that was one of the things that stuck with me. ‘Do I really want to stay?’”
McClatchy CEO Craig Forman who, a year earlier, had received a $35,000 a month stipend for housing—up from $5,000 on top of his $1 million salary and $1 million bonus—said of this early retirement offer, “This will be a one-time opportunity. We do not anticipate another.’’ Famous last words. McClatchy filed for bankruptcy protection earlier this year.
“I worried about the things we reported about and cared about,” Fabian said about mulling over her decision, but she got some good advice: “They are paying you to leave, not paying you to try to stay.” After putting out a few feelers, she was interviewed by one of her former television employers to take the place of an anchor while out on maternity leave. Everything sounded good, so she signed her retirement papers. The budget gods would strike again. The station didn’t replace the anchor, laid off its sports staff, and reassigned other personnel.
A NEW LIFE
The Telegraph shares a building on Mercer University’s campus with the Center for Collaborative Journalism (CCJ), established as a journalism incubator for Mercer’s journalism program. The Telegraph newsroom of forty people moved to campus in 2012 (the business office remained at another location downtown) but McClatchy started chasing click bait emphasizing stories with shock appeal — crime, auto accidents and mayhem — while county commission, school board and other important meetings went uncovered. After the 2019 purge, only five journalists remained, unable to help much in the preparation of journalism students.
After Fabian “retired”, she was brought in by the university as the civic reporting senior fellow for the CCJ. “It was nice to dig in and cover some of the civic journalism that had been ignored,” Fabian said. And that’s why she was at the Macon-Bibb County Board of Health when they heard news that Macon-Bibb County had not reached its COVID-19 peak for infections. No other media outlet covered the meeting.
So why the sudden burst of speed by Kemp in the midst of the COVID-19 storm? President Donald Trump had already talked about opening the economy by April 12, Easter Sunday, before walking back his statements. Conservative-sponsored protests had occurred around various state capitols, snarling traffic and creating more fear as protesters didn’t worry about social distancing or masks. Protesters scheduled a similar demonstration for Atlanta.
Two days before Kemp’s announcement on Wednesday, Trump promoted an insurrection in Minnesota, Michigan, and Virginia—all of which have Democratic governors—telling people they should “liberate” themselves from state ordered restrictions. But suddenly, Trump flipped the script. On April 22, two days after Kemp’s announcement to reopen, Trump said he “disagreed strongly” with Kemp’s move to re-open business. “It’s just too soon. I think it’s too soon; they can wait just a little bit longer. Safety has to predominate.” Trump would name Kemp and repeat his criticism the next day.
Kemp was left looking for the number of that Norfolk Southern locomotive that had run him over. Jim Galloway, of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, one of the few remaining “dead tree” journalists living in a digital word, wrote in the newspaper’s daily digital political newsletter The Jolt:
“One of the more remarkable aspects of President Trump’s remarks late Wednesday was that he and the governor had had a one-on-one conversation only the day before: the two men spoke late Tuesday in what aides to Kemp described as a productive conversation about Kemp’s approach, and top Georgia Republicans said they had no indication that Trump would undercut his strategy.”
Galloway went on to explain that Senator Kelly Loeffler––appointed by Kemp in January over Trump’s objections and now facing a primary challenge from Trump ally, Representative Doug Collins––got the worse end of the deal. “In a quirk of timing,” Galloway wrote, “she joined the governor on a tele-town hall shortly before Trump’s press briefing (Wednesday) where she spoke of Kemp’s approach as a needed step to help revive Georgia’s flagging economy.” Collins’ spokesman, Dan McLagan, responded, “Poor Kelly did this to herself. She asked Brian to help her across the political street and they both got hit by a bus, which then got backed over them. And caught fire.”
Tim Bryant of WGAU in Athens tweeted, “I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but if I were, I’d look at the developments of last evening and see President Trump putting his thumb on the scale for Doug Collins.”
And in late April, voting rights advocates filed an eighty-five page one last note, an eighty-five-page federal suit was filed asking the US District Court for the Northern District of Georgia to scrap the state’s new touchscreens in favor of all-paper ballots, citing the possibility the machines could be a conduit for COVID-19 transmission. And the suit asks the court to delay the June 9 primary for a second time, leaving nonpartisan elections that were supposed to take place May 19, in limbo—again. In the meantime, more than one million voters have requested absentee ballots. Only 483,000 absentee ballots were cast in 2018.
Next week, Chapter 15: Life and Death in McKeesport
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.