In hard-hit Gainesville, not everyone takes COVID seriously

For frontline workers at Gainesville's Northeast Georgia Medical Center, the last two weeks have been the most deadly in the COVID-19 battle. Yet in the city beyond, an estimated 30% of residents still aren't wearing face coverings in public. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
For frontline workers at Gainesville's Northeast Georgia Medical Center, the last two weeks have been the most deadly in the COVID-19 battle. Yet in the city beyond, an estimated 30% of residents still aren't wearing face coverings in public. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

Credit: Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

Death is all around, but some still consider the pandemic too politically charged to talk about

Just a few miles from where Gainesville’s hospital workers struggle against death and disease, a woman strolls past a sign that reads, “Walmart requires face coverings.” She enters the store wearing nothing above her neck but a snow cap with “Trump” printed on the front.

She spent the next hour filling her shopping cart, navigating among dozens of customers who were following the Walmart Neighborhood Market’s mask rule. Loading her trunk later, she told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that she isn’t participating in the pandemic, that she believes COVID-19 has been overblown for political purposes, and everyone she knows who’s been infected has recovered.

“I think it’s the flu,” she said. “It’s COVID-19. Have we not had COVID-1, 2, 3, 4, 5 …?”

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As the devastation mounts in one of the state’s worst hot spots, her attitude is becoming more the exception than the rule. A recent tour of Gainesville found that, for the most part, residents seem to be heeding pleas to take the virus seriously.

But there are holdouts. At lunchtime in the downtown square on Wednesday, mask wearing was at about 70%. Many of those without masks were outdoors, but plenty of people sat in restaurants with faces exposed. About half of the patrons at a coffee shop wore masks. A lunch café was busy feeding several tables with little spacing between them, even though an executive order by Gov. Brian Kemp requires six feet.

A block down though, The Collegiate Grill only took carry-out orders. Owner Jeff Worley said he closed the dining room earlier this month after a landslide of horrible news hit him.

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His wife tested positive for coronavirus, he said, just as the local newspaper reported that roughly 25% of the Gainesville hospital’s COVID-related deaths had happened within the past month. He said he also found out the disease had killed one of his friends, a construction contractor whom he’d seen eating at the diner a week earlier.

“When I see somebody that’s healthy as an ox one week and dead the next from coronavirus, that’s a serious issue,” Worley said. “We’ve got to take care of each other. I don’t want anybody ever to be exposed to a virus that could be deadly just because I wanted to make money.”

There are other signs that COVID-19 has shaken the city. The downtown Hall County Library has been closed to the public since Jan. 6, allowing only curbside book pick-ups and other services by appointment. At the Pilgrim’s Pride poultry plant, workers wearing surgical masks enter and exit past signs in several languages imploring them to socially distance and wear masks.

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On Wednesday, the Lanier Urgent Care clinic had a half dozen cars parked outside with people waiting for COVID-19 test results. One man said he was there because a co-worker at a landscaping company had family members test positive. His test came back negative, though.

Since the dark winter of the pandemic began, the man said, Gainesville residents have gotten better about wearing masks, distancing and avoiding large groups. But he still sees deniers inside gas stations and in Walmart. He’s asked people why they won’t heed the warnings and has found them to be a combination of misguided Libertarians, who say the safety measures infringe on their freedoms, or ultra-religious types who say that if God wants them to get sick, they’ll get sick, the man said.

He asked the AJC not to publish his name, saying his co-workers and customers fall on all parts of the political spectrum, and he didn’t want to offend any of them.

“You talk to people, and it feels like they’re tired of (the pandemic) and they want to take it seriously,” he said. “But on the other hand, it seems like they want to be lazy. I don’t know why it’s so hard to take two seconds to put on a mask and two seconds to take it off.”

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