Opinion: A pandemic becomes personal for us all

The news came about 4:15 in the afternoon on Wednesday, and it felt like a slap in the face.

For weeks at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution we’d been covering the coronavirus. It was a big, and fast-developing story.

But when the National Collegiate Athletic Association announced that it would play its March Madness games without fans in attendance, the story became personal.

My alma mater’s basketball team was having their best season in at least 50 years. The University of Dayton Flyers are ranked as the No. 3 team in the country, ahead of many perennial basketball powers.

I had tickets for the early-round games. I’d bought tickets for the Final Four here in Atlanta.

At least, I thought when the news broke, the games would be on TV. Then Thursday, the NCAA canceled the entire tournament. The dream season came to an abrupt end.

In the end, that news demonstrates just one of many storylines brought on by this virus. Despite efforts to convince ourselves it couldn’t really affect us, this mystifying pandemic made clear that it would be a problem for all us.

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For some it’s absolutely life-threatening. For all of us, it’s exposed our vulnerability in an interconnected world.

The furious developments last week showed us all how seriously most authorities take the threat COVID-19 presents. In a 24-hour period, all the major sports leagues halted play. Schools closed. Events were canceled.

Our journalists, and their communities, were affected. When schools close, it presents a child-care crisis for many members of our staff. The pandemic was hitting home — and the magnitude of the story was clear.

As always, the AJC newsroom was energized and pursuing the story. But then we had to pause.

We were faced with a challenging situation: we were covering a major public health story, and our own employees — reporters, editors and photographers — might be exposed to the virus while doing so.

After some serious thought, we decided to empty our newsroom. We urged anyone who could work from home to do so. They still would go to scenes of stories and cover important meetings as appropriate, following all guidelines to avoid exposure.

Our logic? If somehow our newsroom was exposed to someone with the virus, guidelines would require each person to self-quarantine for 14 days — limiting our ability to respond to the news.

I haven’t been back to the office since. We’re doing all of our meetings by phone. And communicating a lot by email and a messaging system we use. Some will still need to visit the office occasionally, but there will not be large groups of AJC staff gathered in one place.

And our staff has turned to the work with urgency, committed to providing essential information in this time of crisis.

  • Our AJC.com created a landing page that organizes the news and added a special section on the homepage specifically for coronavirus. We're also providing a map of Georgia coronavirus cases with up to date developments .
  • Our education reporters tracked the decisions of local and state school leaders, especially as officials faced pressure to act.
  • We've been reporting on Gov. Brian Kemp and his decisions, including his request for $100 million to battle the virus; it comes at a time when he's demanded budget cuts. Kemp is a crucial figure in how the state handles this crisis; we've kept his decisions front and center for Georgians.
  • We took readers to Hard Labor Creek State Park, where the state set up an isolation site. We had an interview with the first patient isolated there.
  • We've tracked how this crisis has affected Delta, including the implications of the European travel ban. Late Wednesday, we helped the clarify the confusion caused by the President's initial announcement.
  • When the NCAA Tournament news hit, our sports reporters were on top of it after having previewed the pressure the NCAA was under. We immediately jumped into the ramifications of a fan-less Final Four, and the implications of the suspended season for the Atlanta Hawks.
  • In today's printed edition, you'll find a special section on coronavirus. It examines how the virus spreads and explain how it differs from the flu. It also answers many questions: As we limit social contact, is elbow-bumping even too intimate to ward off the virus?

In the long and ongoing list of stories, one stands out to me. It published on our front page on Wednesday of last week:

A parade drawing more than a half-million spectators who then enter taverns to drink and carouse. Election-season speeches, protests and town halls mingling impassioned crowds with government officials and social leaders. Some of the biggest sports gatherings on the calendar.

Even as Georgia’s coronavirus case count mounts, these events and more are scheduled here in the coming month. Local and state officials are trying to figure out what to do.

“This is the proverbial rock and a hard place,” Savannah Mayor Van Johnson told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in an interview.

Savannah holds what it calls the nation’s second-largest St. Patrick’s Day parade, and as of Tuesday, the March 17 event was still on, Johnson said. In contrast, Boston has canceled its parade. So has Ireland — all of them.

It demonstrated the dilemma so many decision-makers faced, and the pressure between choosing to keep life normal or give the pandemic its due. Savannah cancelled its parade after the story was published.

A big part of our job during these uncertain times is to provide you with useful and accurate information so that you can reduce your risk and protect others. We hope to arm you with fact-based information so that you can best protect yourselves and those around you.

We know you need a credible and reliable information source at a time like this. When the AJC arrives in your inbox or on your driveway, we hope to provide a crucial and comforting bit of normalcy during troubling times.

Because it looks like this could last a while.