Although I now call New York City home, Athens, Georgia, has been a base to me since the late 1970s. It’s where I started REM, and it is a place that I have returned to again and again, even as I have travelled and lived in other places around the globe. Sadly, Athens – also home to the University of Georgia – is now a place that exemplifies the most dangerous aspects of public policy decision-making amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
Early this year, great friends in Italy, and later in NYC, witnessed suffering and community-wide devastation that should have presaged wise action around the globe, so others would not have to experience the same pattern of heartbreaking deaths. Unfortunately, cities here in Georgia were soon to face the burden of some of America’s worst tendencies toward magical thinking and ignorance of science, and the most basic of disease prevention tactics. Our leaders are largely to blame.
Georgia’s Republican governor, Brian Kemp, a Donald Trump acolyte, was slow to order safety measures and quick to lift them, even limiting individual cities’ abilities to create a stronger framework than his recommendations. Despite weak steps from state leadership, Athens was full of smart and careful residents, and the community remained much lower in case and death metrics than other population centers in Georgia throughout the spring and summer.
Hold tight. The return of tens of thousands of young university students to the University of Georgia here has upended this sense of relative safety. Athens-Clarke county – the smallest county in a very large state – now has the highest two-week total of new cases for any of Georgia’s 159 counties, and one of the highest per capita in the nation, and it has seen the number of deaths due to Covid-19 more than double in just the past six weeks. Other university communities in the state are facing the same dramatic uptick.
As has been widely noted, young people do not live in a bubble, and so they serve as a danger to their older and more vulnerable teachers, the custodians who clean their classrooms, kitchen workers who cook their meals – and that is just on campus. Their impact off campus, in the town of Athens, is alarming. In addition, the 14,000 primary and secondary schoolchildren in Athens will have to stay away from their needed academic and social supports because of the reckless environment that our state has enabled for the university community.
This needs to reverse, and now. Leaders in Georgia need to implement the same smart measures that have kept similar communities elsewhere at a much lower risk:
Bars and other close-quarters environments need to be limited to outdoor seating. Georgia is the only state in the south-eastern US that has not closed bars or significantly limited their service through the summer. They are now packed with students, few in masks and none practicing social distancing.
Everyday gatherings need to be further limited in size, as has just been done in the UK. Currently, Georgia allows gatherings of up to 50 people, far too many when the pandemic is reeling out of control.
If university football games happen throughout the region, they should be played without fans in the stadiums. The US south is so steeped in the culture of this sport that the governor and others have called it “sacred” – I know – but what is truly sacred is human life and health.
Testing capacity and turnaround time for results are both lagging far behind where they need to be, and they must be increased rapidly. The University of Georgia has just ramped up to providing 450 voluntary tests of asymptomatic students, faculty and staff each day, less than 1% of the campus population. This feels intentional. The fraternity and sorority houses seem purposely exempted from these tests. In contrast, other American universities tested all students before the start of the year, or test thousands per day. In Athens and across Georgia, community members continue to experience a wait of several days for test results, adding dysfunction to isolation and contact tracing efforts.
Few understand the thrill of being in a crowd more than I do. From REM’s modest start at the 40 Watt Club in Athens to the triumph of the main stage at Glastonbury, I have spent most evenings of my adult life in the company of thousands, or tens of thousands, reveling in a shared celebration of life. 2020 is the time, however, that we must find a different and more intimate source of warmth and revelry, rather than assembled masses. The safety we create this fall and winter will make all those gatherings and events in future years more meaningful when this pandemic is behind us, having been shared by our friends and loved ones emerging with their health and lives intact.
The Georgia I was born in and know and love is full of beautiful, soulful people, from the city streets of Athens to the neighboring counties, and beyond to the piedmont and coastal towns. Historically we have given much – from James Brown to the B-52’s, Jessye Norman to Childish Gambino, Martin Luther King Jr to Stacey Abrams, their home and legacy and my base deserve a stronger level of support than this state and its key institutions have provided thus far.
I am calling on the University of Georgia specifically, and Governor Kemp, to step up, and step up now. The measures I have mentioned are easily within our reach, and this week is the time to implement and embrace them before further disaster.