Michael Thurmond picked up my phone call Monday night and spoke in a tone of disbelief and bewilderment: “Didja ever believe that this would really happen?”
Earlier that day, Thurmond, DeKalb County’s CEO, declared a state of emergency that limited public gatherings, put restrictions on local restaurants and even enacted a 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew — although the latter was largely a stern suggestion.
“What am I going to do, lock them up and have a jail full of nonviolent offenders?” he asked, summing up the strange, but serious, absurdity that life has suddenly become in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
It was fitting that he asked if I had ever really thought this would happen. Minutes before our discussion, I had looked to see when The Atlanta Journal-Constitution first ran a story about the novel coronavirus outbreak in China. It was Jan. 21, a story headlined, “Human-to-human transmission confirmed. Viral pneumonia outbreak could signal global crisis.”
We ran it on page A8.
“Global crisis” seemed as fleeting as all the other worries from the past — swine flu, MERS, Ebola, etc. At the time, China only had 200 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. South Korea had its first case.
Thurmond watched video of empty streets in the Chinese city of Wuhan. But, he said, “It was China. It was not here. It was still a distant threat.”
As he made his emergency declaration at noon on Monday, just two months after most of us had heard, vaguely, of COVID-19, Georgia had 772 confirmed cases and 25 reported deaths. DeKalb had 75 cases. (By Tuesday, the state had more than 1,000 cases and 38 deaths.)
I called Thurmond because he’s a frank politician and a jack-of-all-trades government wonk with a résumé that includes legislator, director of the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services, state labor commissioner, DeKalb school district superintendent, and now the county’s elected chief executive officer. Also, he is a published historian, so he tends to take a long look at things.
He said the reality of all this sank in two weeks ago when NBA player Rudy Gobert was diagnosed and the league shut down.
“It seems like it’s been three months, but it’s just been a couple of weeks,” he said.
Yes, every day seems like a week. Not only is the world suddenly wrapping its mind around an unfolding pandemic, it must also absorb the prospect of a deep, global recession. And we’re watching it while confined to our living rooms.
“This feels like 2008 when I was labor commissioner,” he said. “I can see when you are getting ready to have thousands of people out of work and the bottom dropping out of the economy. But this is worse. Much worse.”
Thurmond has been consulting with health experts, saying, “You can’t politicize health decisions.” Yet, the old labor commissioner in him was evident as he wrestled with the competing disasters while trying to craft an emergency order.
“The conundrum is this, the most effective way to address a pandemic — to shelter in place and close businesses — increases the economic pain,” he said. “What is most effective to slow the spread is devastating to the economy. Every time I close a business, I take food off the table of low-income workers.”
His order says DeKalb residents are to “shelter in place as much as possible.” Non-essential businesses must close between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m., dining-in is prohibited at bars and restaurants, and funerals must be limited to 10 people or less, all distancing themselves.
The mandate wasn’t as encompassing as one later issued by Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who issued a 14-day stay-at-home order that allows for buying groceries, getting gasoline, going to the pharmacy, walking for exercise, etc.
But DeKalb’s order went beyond Gov. Brian Kemp’s, which also came Monday. That one essentially banned gatherings of more than 10 people and ordered “medically fragile” people to stay home, as if they didn’t know to do that already.
The AJC quickly issued an editorial saying, “Kemp can — and must — do more.” On Tuesday, the Georgia Municipal Association urged its 538 cities to go beyond Governor Shotgun’s edict. Unfortunately, there’s a patchwork of orders and guidelines, but the virus doesn’t know county lines.
Kemp later pushed back at the characterization that he was falling short, telling AJC reporter Greg Bluestein that he still has some shells in his shotgun. (Or was that “arrows left in the quiver”?)
Before Kemp’s announcement, Carlos del Rio, chair of the Department of Global Health Studies at Emory University, texted, “To prevent a catastrophe in the health care system due to Covid-19, we need for him to shut down Georgia now.”
On Monday, del Rio urged a 14-day to 30-day “shelter at home order” to “buy time for the hospitals” and to get widespread testing up and running.
“I’d say erase April from the calender,” said del Rio, a statement that no doubt sends shivers down the spines of parents with cooped-up kids and folks who must try to meet a rent check.
It’s a calculus that politicians everywhere are trying to determine: Health vs. wealth, or the increasing lack of it.
Thurmond said the governor is on the right track in increasing the allotment of food stamps. Increased and quicker unemployment checks are also a must, he added, as well as sending cash assistance to some.
At its root, however, a local government must perform the basics.
Thurmond said he’s providing hazard pay to emergency workers, including sanitation crews. “Because if you’re dealing with a pandemic, the last thing you want is garbage piling up.”
And ultimately, what is the most basic service? he asked. “Water,” he said, answering his own question.
Now, the terms “water” and “DeKalb” haven’t been exactly synonymous with being, ahem, fluid, what with crazy billing,huge water main breaks and sewer spills. But there have been improvements in the department.
And now it’s more important than ever that water workers remain healthy and show up.
“We have heightened protocol,” he said. “Workers can’t associate with one another. They have to distance themselves. There’s no interaction coming or going” from work.
“Remember,” he added. “You can’t wash your hands if there’s no water. We have to deliver. We must deliver. There’s no other options.”
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