OPINION: When stubborn individualism clashes with a stubborner virus

Rebecca Kenyon and Roger Mendoza both wear masks while making their way home on the Atlanta Beltline trail on March 29, 2020. (CURTIS COMPTON / ccompton@ajc.com)
Rebecca Kenyon and Roger Mendoza both wear masks while making their way home on the Atlanta Beltline trail on March 29, 2020. (CURTIS COMPTON / ccompton@ajc.com)

There’s a truism circulating the internet that aptly sums up the patchy state of self-isolation orders. It says, “Having some states lock down and some states not lock down is like having a peeing section in a swimming pool.”

As a nation, our pool has many such sections, even within the regions that are supposedly locked down. The problem, of course, is the coronavirus knows no boundaries, whether they be national, state, county or city lines. And until recently, there's been a hodgepodge of such directives.

I get it. For a long while it was someone else’s problem, whether it be China’s or Italy’s or Washington state’s or even Atlanta’s. Now it’s pretty much everywhere and folks are, largely, coming aboard.

Last week, Gov. Brian Kemp finally decided to toughen up the state's shelter-in-place guidelines. This came about as governors in Tennessee, Florida and Texas all similarly came to the same conclusion. Their simultaneous conversions came about after President Donald Trump finally conceded publicly that this mess is indeed extremely serious and 100,000 Americans will most likely die. That is, if we're lucky.

The president gave conservative governors of the South cover and they took it.

Of course, Governor Shotgun last week decided to jack the Cluelessness Scale to 11 by uttering his instantly infamous explanation that he put his order into action because asymptomatic people with the illness "could have been infecting people before they ever felt bad. We didn't know that until the last 24 hours."

Now, it’s almost certain the governor already knew that. He’s not a stupid fellow, and he would have to have been living in a tent in the mountains for the past month not to know. I’m hearing that he somehow misspoke with that statement, but politicians increasingly don’t ever want to admit a gaff.

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Kemp's reluctance to issue the order was due to the fact that lots of counties in the state, places that overwhelmingly supported him, had largely escaped the virus. He was trying to balance public health efforts while not hurting people's livelihoods. It's a wrenching decision that leaders throughout the country have grappled with.

"Because if you overreach, people are going to rebel on you, basically, and not heed the warnings you're giving to them," he said a couple of weeks ago when the virus in Georgia was on low boil.

Back then, in mid-March — which seems like five years ago — Americans were much more divided on the reality of COVID-19. On March 13, the data-crunching website fivethirtyeight.com compiled a series of six polls asking how Americans viewed the looming threat of the novel coronavirus. About 65 percent of Dems were concerned. Only 37 percent of Republicans were.

But by the end of last week, that same site noted that Republicans and Democrats were equally washing their hands more frequently — about 95 percent. And identical portions of each party — 72 percent — are satisfied with their state and local governments' responses to the coronavirus. So, it takes a deadly pandemic to bring populations together.

Athens Mayor Kelly Girtz films one of his public service video addresses by the North Oconee River in Dudley Park to encourage and inform Athens residents on April 2, 2020. Athens, Georgia, had a mandatory shelter-in-place order in effect long before many metro Atlanta towns took similar steps. (CURTIS COMPTON / ccompton@ajc.com)
Athens Mayor Kelly Girtz films one of his public service video addresses by the North Oconee River in Dudley Park to encourage and inform Athens residents on April 2, 2020. Athens, Georgia, had a mandatory shelter-in-place order in effect long before many metro Atlanta towns took similar steps. (CURTIS COMPTON / ccompton@ajc.com)

However, getting people, or more specifically, getting individuals to act in a consistent manner is something else altogether. There have been complaints about people not social distancing on the Beltline, along the Chattahoochee River trails, at parks, at bars and so on.

Atlanta City Councilwoman Natalyn Archibong last week said she got a complaint in her East Atlanta district about residents holding a birthday party for a 95-year-old grandfather. Earlier, she got calls about two churches holding services. She said she called the police zone commander to ask the churches to be careful. She heard no complaints the following week.

In announcing his order, Kemp said, “If you do not comply, you are violating the law and will be facing stiff penalties.”

However, police have largely arrived at gatherings and simply tried to shoo people away. At one large outdoor gathering, four Atlanta squads drove up and then sat there, blaring their sirens. That certainly creates a buzz-kill for any bash.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Greg Bluestein unpacks the new stay-at-home order set in place by Governor Brian Kemp. (Video by Ryon Horne, Photos by AJC Staff)

Americans are an independent lot and don’t like being told to do something. That’s why “Don’t Tread on Me” stickers are such popular additions to so many vehicles.

Even Dr. Carlos del Rio, the Emory infectious disease expert who’d been trying to coax Kemp to get tough, backed off a bit last week during a conference call. He has also been urging a widespread shutdown, calling it “erase April,” so that health care providers can get a handle on the explosion of cases.

“We’re a very individualistic country,” he said. “If we all do what’s best, we don’t need a national order. We don’t need somebody to tell us what to do.”

Actually, the good doctor forgets that there are a lot of know-nothings waddling about.

I called longtime state Rep. Alan Powell, who’s about as conservative as they come. He called those not abiding by stay-at-home orders “dumb a—es” and “non-believers.”

State Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, wears a protective mask during a special session at the Georgia State Capitol Building in downtown Atlanta on March 16, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com)
State Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, wears a protective mask during a special session at the Georgia State Capitol Building in downtown Atlanta on March 16, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com)

“It’s just a persona of our society,” said Powell, who wore a face mask to a recent legislative session and is now hunkering down in his home by Lake Hartwell in North Georgia with a freezer full of food and a shelf full of liquor.

Tough orders right now make sense, he said. “We do have an obligation to correct behavior that affects other people.”

Sandy Springs City Councilman Andy Bauman, who had been critical of Kemp for not acting sooner, said, “It’s silly, even dangerous, to not have the same rules of the road.”

“We’re not going to martial law; we’re not going to round people up,” he said. “Things had become so ideological. There’s been such an assault on the truth and on institutions, and then when you need them, it’s hard.”

Bauman said that watching the president’s change in tone last week may help push the country in a more unified manner. “Trump had a moment of clarity the other night,” he said. “Something spooked him.”

I guess he saw it’s all one pool.