Coronavirus rise in Georgia doesn’t halt massive public events

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.

UPDATES: Since this article published, both NASCAR and organizers of Savannah's St. Patrick's Day event have announced changes. The race will happen without spectators and the St. Patrick's Day festivities are off for this year.

Here's a list, being updated regularly, of event cancelations caused by coronavirus concerns.

The updated story:

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 despite growing counts of infected residents and warnings from health experts.

NEW: Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms postpones state of the city address 

"We will see more cases and things will get worse than they are right now," Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said during a Wednesday hearing of the House Oversight and Reform Committee. "If we're complacent and don't do really aggressive containment and mitigation, the number could go way up and be involved in many many millions."

The World Health Organization has just declared the situation to be a global pandemic, but the response from local and state officials has been uneven.

The NCAA men’s Final Four basketball tournament, scheduled for early April at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, will still go on with attendees, at least as of Tuesday. A DeKalb County town hall scheduled for tonight to discuss the coronavirus, on the other hand, has become a virtual meeting. The CNN Center has suspended studio tours, and the Georgia Chamber of Commerce has postponed two upcoming conferences.

As for Savannah's famous St. Patrick's Day event, which draws 500,000 revelers to the coastal city, "This is the proverbial rock and a hard place," Savannah Mayor Van Johnson told the Atlanta Journal Constitution in an interview Tuesday. Wednesday evening, the mayor and his council decided to cancel this weekend's festival and next week's parade, which would be the first cancellation of the signature event since World War II.

“People are really feeling this is a significant health challenge. Savannah is OK right now. We just want to make sure Savannah remains OK. Savannah is open for business. People are here. We are going to treat them well, but we just could not have the huge public gatherings. We could not have the large festivities. We could not have a large parade. We just could not do it,” Mayor Johnson said.

As of Tuesday evening, six Georgians in or near metro Atlanta had tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new virus, while others were awaiting diagnoses.

“It’s a difficult decision. It’s a very difficult decision,” said Dr. Carlos Del Rio, chairman of the global health department at Emory University.


Del Rio has advised some organizers on holding events. He said he has not advised Savannah. But he doesn’t fault organizers for going on with the parade.

For one thing, he said, it’s an open-air event. For another, Savannah has no cases yet; the nearest diagnoses were still 200 miles away as of Tuesday.

“If you want to be absolutely airtight don’t have the event,” he said. “I think while I have the best interest of public health at hand, you also have to think of economic consequences, and you have to not discard those.”

Instead, Del Rio, advises, people should be careful if they have risk factors for COVID-19, such as underlying health conditions, or are older than 60.

His guidance for parade attendees who pour into bars and restaurants in close quarters: Be careful. Don’t go if you have risk factors. If you do go, follow good hygiene.

Other epidemiologists have come down hard calling for caution.

“Early intervention spares the health system from intense stress,” Marc Lipsitch, director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said in a Twitter post.

“Early intervention means before it feels bad. Guangzho” — an area in China which he views as a success story so far — “intervened when they had 7 confirmed cases (and zero) deaths. Wuhan’s came when they had 495 confirmed cases, 23 dead,” Lipsitch said. “We need measures that while painful for all will slow social contact - cancelling public gatherings, paid sick leave, working from home, and the like.”

Massachusetts, where Lipsitch works and the St. Patrick’s Day parade has been canceled, has more coronavirus cases than Georgia. But both warn that there’s not enough data and testing is behind, so the numbers now are the tip of an iceberg.

“Taking our chances”

U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams last week told reporters at an Atlanta press conference that “Schools, businesses, churches, should all be thinking about and doing tabletop exercises to say, ‘What will be our triggers when we close a school? Or when we pull down an event?’”

Many of those decision makers won’t have public health expertise, but even with public health expertise, such decisions aren’t always easy. Regular folks who attend? They are leaving the big decisions up to the event organizers.

NASCAR fan Brad Craven, 58, lives 15 minutes from Atlanta Motor Speedway, which hosts the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 on Saturday. Craven has family coming from as far as north Georgia, but they don’t plan on taking any extraordinary precautions.

“We probably should,” Craven said. “But we’re taking our chances.”

Craven added that people should wash their hands.

In other motorsports news:

The point of canceling events now isn’t necessarily to stop it spreading forever; it’s to slow the outbreak, experts say.

“If you look at hospital capacity right now, much of it is full, up to 95, 96, 97 percent,” Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said during a Congressional budget hearing on Tuesday. “We really don’t have a lot of resilience in the capacity of our health system.”

Mixed messages have come out of Washington, but a noncontroversial message is that everyone should practice good virus hygiene, washing with soap, not shaking hands or touching. That, and taking special care for vulnerable populations.

Health experts agree that the elderly and people with diabetes, cancer or other underlying conditions should not attend events.

“We are trying to get the elderly and vulnerable to kind of just step back and try to avoid being in crowded places, avoid travel,” Redfield said. “This virus clearly can live in the environmental surfaces for some period of time. Finding the virus doesn’t mean it’s infectious, but we can detect this virus for a prolonged period of time on surfaces.”

Del Rio is frustrated that mixed messages come out on that, too. Can you get the virus from touching a surface? Can you get it from a carrier who looks healthy? Data is changing those answers, as well as the case numbers.

Both Lipsitch and Del Rio stressed not to be fooled by low case numbers being reported now. They are “like the light coming out of a star — it is showing us the past,” Del Rio said.

“I think we’re all struggling,” Del Rio said. “I think we’re trying to make decisions the right way.”