Year of Fear, Chapter 32: Macon-Bibb County, and the unrelenting shock of COVID-19

Welcome back to the Year of Fear. Each week until Election Day, CJR and the Delacorte Review will bring you another chapter from one of our four towns. Click here to subscribe to our weekly newsletter.

The Cotton Brothers were a fairly well-known gospel singing group in the late 1950s and ’60s, starting with “Remember Me” in 1961, “Be There Directly” in ’64, and “Life’s Too Short” in ’65. The brothers grew up in Marshallville, about thirty-five miles south of Macon. Their parents, Floyd and Helen, were sharecroppers. The family eventually called Macon home. There were several iterations of the Cotton Brothers, understandable since the family had ten brothers and six sisters. The Brothers’ a cappella style was compared to the Mighty Clouds of Joy. Bishop John Cotton, one of the lead vocalists for the group, also had a call to the ministry and was pastor at Greater Overcoming Church of God in Macon for forty-six years where the Brothers performed regularly, packing the sanctuary.

Bishop Cotton died at age seventy-five in 2014. Tommy Cotton, who also sang lead, passed away in 2017 at age seventy-nine. But this year has been particularly devastating for the Cotton family. Louis, passed on July 6, 2020, at sixty-eight; Alfred (AC) at seventy-five on July 27; Jessie on August 11 at seventy-two; and Eddie Lee, only sixty-three, entered the gates of Heaven on August 17. AC, Jessie, and Eddie Lee, were victims of COVID-19, according to a deputy coroner, and the three brothers may have contracted the virus at Louis’ graveside service on July 11. The back-to-back deaths of the Cotton Brothers were just three of the 157 COVID-19 deaths in Macon-Bibb County as of September 21. Such tragedies from the pandemic played out in hundreds of families, including more than 6,600 Georgians, and more than 200,000 Americans.

This election year wasn’t supposed to be this way. At the dawn of 2020, the race for president was top of mind. Who would get the Democratic nomination? And then there was President Donald J. Trump’s impeachment trial, which began on January 16 and concluded with his acquittal by the Senate on February 5. That all seems so long ago and far away now. 

 

The whole truth and nothing but the truth?

On January 21, the CDC announced the first case of COVID-19 in the United States in Washington state. The next day in Davos, Switzerland, Trump, commenting on COVID-19, told CNBC, “We have it totally under control.” The president was informed of the virus’s danger on January 28, according to Bob Woodward’s book, Rage. Yet at his State of the Union address on February 4, he barely mentioned the virus. At a rally in New Hampshire on February 10, he told supporters, “By April, you know, in theory, when it gets a little warmer, [the coronavirus] miraculously goes away.” He didn’t know then that COVID-19 had already claimed the life of fifty-seven-year-old Patricia Dowd of California, and neither did anyone else. Dowd’s autopsy wasn’t performed until April.

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On March 17, the death toll hit one hundred. A month later, COVID-19 deaths exceeded the number of US military lost in the Korean War. By the end of April, the virus had claimed 65,832 lives––more lives than were lost in Vietnam. 

 

The first COVID-19 wave hits Georgia

On February 29, Andrew Jerome Mitchell, sixty-four, a retired janitor, was laid to rest in Albany, Georgia, about 105 miles southwest of Macon. A couple hundred mourners attended his funeral held at the Martin Luther King Funeral Home. It was the first super-spreader event of COVID in the state, an unlikely distinction for a county of only 88,000 people. The night of the funeral, one of the attendees was admitted to Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital and would become the state’s first victim to die of COVID-19. A week after Mitchell’s homegoing, Johnny Carter’s service was held at Gethsemane Worship Center. He was seventy.

The first twenty-three patients admitted to Phoebe Putney had attended at least one of the funerals, according to the New York Times. The eulogist at Mitchell’s funeral, Chief Apostle Izell Williams, Jr., pastor of New Direction Christian Church Ministries, died of COVID-19 on March 22, at the age of fifty-eight. That same day, local Dougherty County authorities issued a stay-at-home order and Governor Brian Kemp did the same on April 2, after ordering the closure of schools the previous day. It soon became apparent to everyone that COVID-19 was a real and present danger. As of September 22, Dougherty County had lost 182 residents to COVID-19

The first death in Macon-Bibb County was reported on April 1. Schools closed, everyone was ordered to shelter-in-place, church services were cancelled, and political campaigns, of which there were many, shut down. The thriving downtown hub filled with bars and restaurants became ghostlike. Everyday life, from spring sports to graduations to working-at-home to constant handwashing and social distancing, sent everyone reeling into an alternate universe. Hospital visitations were curtailed, particularly in the emergency room. COVID-19 wards were opened and temporary facilities built as the number of intensive care beds dwindled. When local hospitals couldn’t accept more patients, they diverted them hundreds of miles away to hospitals that had available beds. In mid-April, Pruitt Health, a local nursing home, became a hotspot and reported that sixty-eight patients and eight staff members had tested positive for COVID-19. 

Facing fall, the Bibb County School System—after vacillating about whether to reopen schools with face-to-face instruction—decided to postpone opening until September 8, hoping the virus would abate. It didn’t, and the system opted in mid-August to have virtual instruction only, at least until the end of October. Houston County Schools, south of Macon-Bibb, opened, but not without issues. One of the schools in the district, Perry High School, suspended its football season until the end of September because one of its players tested positive for COVID-19. Several other district schools also had at least one student or staff member test positive. 

In a note to parents on September 21, superintendent of the Bibb County School System, Dr. Curtis Jones, attempted to explain why the system was instructing virtually rather than face-to-face while surrounding counties had opened their schoolhouse doors. “When I look at the surrounding counties of Baldwin, Crawford, Hancock, Houston, Jasper, Jones, Monroe, Peach, Putnam, Twiggs, Washington and Wilkinson, it becomes clear that Bibb County is one of the counties most severely hit by COVID-19. Based on data from last week from the North Central Health District, those thirteen counties have experienced almost 16,000 cases of COVID-19. What may not be well known is that almost 6,000 of those…in fact, were all in Bibb. The closest county to us had 3,100. Another county had 2,000. But we are by far more affected. The same is true of the number of deaths that have occurred. In those same thirteen counties, [there have been] 465 total deaths; 158 of them were in Bibb County. No other county is in triple digits. In fact, the next highest number is 74. We are being affected more than others. So, when people ask me why we aren’t like others, the answer is because the numbers indicate that we have just been more severely hit.”

All the while, the local newspaper, The Telegraph, is in flux. Gone are the days where council and commission meetings were covered by the local paper. Same with school board meetings and coverage of Robins Air Force Base, the largest industrial complex in the state. To its credit, The Telegraph has presented the daily COVID-19 numbers; however, the local hospital still refuses to release hospitalization statistics concerning COVID-19, with little pushback from the newspaper and other media outlets.

The Telegraph is owned by McClatchy, based in Sacramento, California. The company owned twenty-nine other papers including the Charlotte Observer, Kansas City Star, Miami Herald and Sacramento Bee, when it filed for bankruptcy in January. Chatham Asset Management, a hedge fund, won the bid for the company when federal bankruptcy Judge Michael E. Wiles approved the $312 million sale. What a twist of ironic fate. When McClatchy bought Knight-Ridder Newspapers in 2006, it paid $4.5 billion. CEO Craig Forman, who was paid $2.87 million in 2018, including a $5,000 monthly housing stipend, is out, and for the first time in 163 years, the newspaper chain will not be headed by a member of the McClatchy family, as Kevin McClatchy, chairman of the board stepped aside along with his three cousins.

 

Local response

Macon-Bibb County is a high-poverty area. The concentrated poverty rate in Macon rose from 30.3 percent to 44.7 percent between 2010 and 2016, according to 24/7 Wall Street. The increase—14.4 percentage-points––was the largest of any metro area in Georgia, and the city’s concentrated poverty rate went from the eleventh highest in the nation to third highest. The area had an 8.1 percent unemployment rate at the end of July, while the state, according to the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics, had an unemployment rate of 7.1.

The Bibb County School System says its students are the most impoverished in the nation. All the district’s students receive free or reduced lunch, so when the district decided to open virtually, it was imperative that students receive meals. The district created two options: students or parents could pick up breakfast and lunch meals at twenty-five school locations or pick up meals from designated buses along the students’ bus routes. The district distributed over thirteen thousand tablets and laptops to students and deployed Wi-Fi enabled buses in areas with low internet connectivity.

The Middle Georgia Food Bank partnered with several churches to distribute food throughout the area. Thousands of pounds of food were given to families. Many of the food giveaways were held in conjunction with COVID-19 testing. The United Way of Central Georgia and the Community Foundation of Central Georgia established the Central Georgia COVID-19 Response & Recovery Fund and dispensed almost $700,000 in funding to not-for-profit organizations to help them serve people during this time of crisis.

 

To mask or not to mask, why the question?

Even as the death toll mounted, and the state became a COVID-19 hotspot with Macon-Bibb and Houston counties near the eye of the flame, there were voices of doubt following the president’s lead, calling the pandemic a hoax or a crisis inspired by the media and Democrats. The Georgia mask controversy flared in July when Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms implemented more stringent restrictions than were allowed by Kemp’s executive order. Masks became a political statement across the nation, more so here in the South. A mandatory mask ordinance was instituted by the Macon-Bibb County Commission in July, but it was vetoed by Mayor Robert Reichert, because he said the law violated the governor’s order. Later, the governor allowed local officials to require masks only if the infection rate hit 100 cases per 100,000 people during the previous fourteen days. Only two of Georgia’s 159 counties were below that level of infection. Macon-Bibb, as of September 22, still had an infection rate of 262 cases per 100,000 people. 

Still, some residents become rather salty when asked to wear masks in grocery stores or other essential businesses. Some stores and restaurants display notices that state: “The operator of this location does NOT consent to enforcing face covering orders on this property.”

As the city slowly reawakens, what begins to feel normal is abnormal.  Even though some restaurants have opened their dining areas, fear lingers, because many patrons just won’t adhere to precautions. Drive-through, curbside, or home delivery, remains the choice of many people rather than dine-in service. Civic clubs, such as Rotary, Kiwanis and the Exchange Club are meeting virtually, others have hybrid meetings, a combination of in-person and Zoom. Some clubs aren’t meeting at all and there are worries that some clubs may not survive the pandemic. 

Aside from businesses that may not reopen, there are other closings that are out of sight and mind. Many houses of worship won’t survive the virus. While tithes and offerings have actually increased in some churches that had the ability to worship virtually, those that are not as technically savvy may be down for the count.

 

The sunset of 2020

As 2020 prepares to depart, the race for president, while still ever-present, has taken a backseat to the more pressing danger of COVID-19. Adding to the maelstrom are national protests in cities across the country after George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, the killings of Breonna Taylor in Lexington, Kentucky and, closer to Macon, Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia, and Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta. Demonstrations also morphed into efforts to remove Confederate memorials. In Macon-Bibb, demonstrations have been peaceful and the Macon-Bibb County Commission has approved plans to remove the statue of a Confederate soldier that sits in a prominent area of downtown and another memorial to “women of the South,” placed by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, that sits across the street from the Government Center.

Boat parades supporting President Trump were held in late August and early September, on three lakes: Lake Lanier, north of Atlanta; Lake Oconee, about an hour’s drive northeast of Macon; and Lake Thurmond, that sits on the Georgia-South Carolina border (named for Senator Strom Thurmond on the South Carolina side but called Clarks Hill Lake in Georgia). The Great American Boat Parade held on Lake Lanier alone drew an estimated 3,100 boats.

Mother Nature participated in this atmosphere of unrest. She unleashed repeated storms to batter the Gulf Coast with remnants affecting inland areas. The eye of Hurricane Sally passed directly over the Macon-Bibb after it made landfall on September 16. Fortunately, it was mostly rain, dropping seven to nine inches on the area.

Voters, many dealing with grief, fear, and unemployment––for themselves, friends or loved ones––were further shocked by the September 18 loss  of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  

Through it all, the virus surges on as Georgia is once again in the red zone, according to the White House Coronavirus Task Force. And yet the state turns its attention to November. Since the June primary debacle, the county that saw the longest lines has opened thirty additional precincts and one large precinct where the Atlanta Hawks play. In Bibb County, more ballot drop boxes have been distributed. Over one million voters in Georgia have requested absentee ballots.

There are a high number of political ads, mostly concerning the two Senate races. Some polls indicate neck-and-neck races for the presidential and both Senate races––raising predictions that Georgia could turn blue for the first time in thirty years.

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This project is supported by a gift from the Delacorte Center for Magazine Journalism Fund at The New York Community Trust.

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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.