OPINION | The COVID-19 dilemma: Demanding freedom, even if it kills us

Ken Saunders III, DeKalb County community activist, died of complications of COVID-19. Not long before he got sick, he warned others of the insidious virus. (photo credit: Facebook)

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Ken Saunders III, DeKalb County community activist, died of complications of COVID-19. Not long before he got sick, he warned others of the insidious virus. (photo credit: Facebook)

On Friday at noon, a rally called “Reopen GA — Operation Gridlock” is scheduled to converge on the state Capitol to tell Gov. Brian Kemp to open things up. The angry activists are tired of being told to stay in their homes and having commerce hogtied.

The protest aims to mimic last week’s event in Michigan, where honking cars clogged the streets and some folks left their vehicles to wave Don’t Tread on Me flags while the requisite camouflage dudes with AR-15s stood around to own the Libs. It seems after six weeks of self-isolating, some people miss their time stewing in traffic.

Now, Governor Shotgun has beat the Reopen GA folks to the punch with his announcement on Monday to loosen things up, letting bowlers bowl, barbers barber, tattooists tattoo and hairstylists style. This goes into effect Friday, so folks coming to Atlanta can get a clip and a tat and roll on home, feeling like they got something accomplished.

They’ll have to wait until Monday to sit down in a restaurant or a movie theater, as the state figures out safety recommendations. Bars and nightclubs won’t yet reopen because drunks aren’t real good with reasoning or social distancing.

“By taking this measured action, we will get Georgians back to work safely without undermining the progress that we have all made in the battle against COVID-19,” Kemp said.

I get it. Coming from a household that saw half its income disappear in March, I feel the pain of those who are itching to set Georgia free. We all miss our former lives. Everyone feels the impact of this pandemic, whether it be social, mental, physical or financial.

But obviously, some are suffering more than others. Many to a tragic degree.

So not everyone is happy with Kemp’s decision.

Scott Gottlieb, Donald Trump’s first Food and Drug Administration chief, was incredulous, telling CNBC, “Gyms, nail salons, bowling alleys, hair salons, tattoo parlors — it feels like they collected … a list of the businesses that were most risky and decided to open those first.”

And as the crowds rally at the state Capitol on Friday, another event will be occurring, although it will be virtual, as the organizer doesn't want to create a hazard for anyone unnecessarily. This will be a Facebook Live memorial to a DeKalb County man named Ken Saunders III.

I spoke with Saunders in 2015 when he made an unsuccessful long-shot campaign to win a County Commission seat. Saunders was an optimistic and civic-minded fellow who was a leader in the South DeKalb Improvement Association, the Hidden Hills neighborhood and a member of the DeKalb County Zoning Board of Appeals.

He died Saturday of complications from COVID-19. He was 43, fit and in good health.

Saunders’ brother, Kole, told me he had been sick for a week, thinking it was allergies. But the Friday before Easter, he had a fever and was in bed all day. “It’s like a regular sickness, then it hits quick,” Kole said. They brought him to the hospital and his condition worsened.

“Then he was improving and he was taken off the ventilator,” said Kole. The family was able to Facetime with him in the hospital. But by Saturday, he was dead.

Saunders’ father, Kenneth Jr., also contracted the disease, was hospitalized, and is now on the mend but still weak.

What makes Ken III’s passing not only tragic but eerie was that his Facebook profile has a photo of him smiling ever so slightly, with the wording, “StayHome. It could save lives.”

He posted that photo on March 25. It was his last post.

Earlier, he had posted a day-by-day accounting of the growing number of coronavirus cases in the U.S. On March 1, there were 89. By March 25, there were 65,652. (There were 816,000 confirmed cases on Tuesday.)

“He was just trying to make people aware,” Kole Saunders said. “He was saying, ‘I want to let you know this is where it is going.’”

As is the case with such things, his postings brought debate.

A friend called Eye Getsmoney asked him how many had died. Saunders said 587. (Reports from March 25 noted that the nation’s death toll had just passed 1,000. It’s now 45,000-plus.)

Saunders’ friend said the death toll was not even 1 percent, adding that more people died from guns and the flu. And nobody makes people stay home because of those, he argued.

Debate on the subject has been intense, as have the political ramifications.

Gov. Kemp, in his loosening of the lockdown, must try to balance economics with health. It’s a decision that weighs heavily on any leader.

"I don't give a damn about politics right now," he said. "We're talking about somebody who has put their whole life into building a business, that has people that they love and work with every single day — working in many of these places."

ALSO FROM TORPY: When stubborn individualism clashes with a stubborner virus

Kemp was among the last in the nation to issue lockdown orders and the first one out with the loosening.

On April 1, Kemp and governors from Tennessee, Florida and Texas all came to the same conclusion regarding lockdown a couple of days after Trump said it was a "matter of life and death" and 100,000 Americans might die.

Now, Kemp’s easing up comes after Trump tweeted that citizens need to “Liberate” states that have arduous shutdowns. (States led by Democrats, that is.)

It’s all based on science, not politics, state officials say.

“We definitely have a plateauing and what appears to be a decline,” said Dr. Kathleen Toomey, the public health commissioner.

State figures show a peak of 816 new cases on April 14 and that figure has dropped since.

But on Tuesday, Emory infectious disease expert Dr. Carlos del Rio said the White House recommendations call for 14 days of sustained drops in cases. “Clearly, we are not there,” he said. “We haven’t met that requirement.”

Toomey said we should soon hit that mark. She added the state has adequate hospital capacity and is ramping up testing and contact tracing of those who have the virus.

AJC reporter Scott Trubey ran the numbers Sunday and found that Georgia ranked 42nd in the nation in tests per capita.

So, I’m glad they believe things are heading in the right direction — at least for now. But I’ll hold off on a haircut for a while.

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