Mike Buffington

Mike Buffington

editor

The Jackson Herald

Saturday was a beautiful spring day. The rain was gone, at least for a while, and it was hot, near 80-degrees.

Buds on spring-flowering trees and shrubs were open in their annual display of color. Our cars were coated in yellow pollen, a sure sign that spring had arrived.

People were outside on Saturday — mowers were dragged out of their winter sheds and set to mowing our weedy lawns. The hum of leaf-blowers and weed-wackers echoed up and down streets. Trees were trimmed, limbs stacked in yards to be hauled off later.

Dozens and dozens of people were out in the sun walking, pushing kids in strollers, walking dogs, riding bicycles and cruising neighborhoods in golf carts. Garden centers were busy Saturday as people bought plants and mulch and other springtime needs.

It was a spring day like many other North Georgia spring days that give us a brief and wonderful time between the cold of winter and the blazing heat and humidity of summer.

•••

Except that it wasn't just another spring day.

In the background of all of the normalcy was the growing realization that life as we know it has changed. For how long, none of us know. We live in a "new normal" today.

There are the obvious signs around the community: Many businesses are closed, notes taped to their doors telling customers of their circumstances. Restaurants are either closed, or offering alternative services, such as takeout and curbside pickup.

Most churches didn't meet in person on Sunday, but some did hold online streaming services. Many upcoming Easter Egg hunts and outings have been canceled. Little girls will have grown out of their new, pretty Easter dresses by this time next year.

Schools are closed and with that, traffic dwindled to a trickle on our roads and streets early this week. It feels odd.

There are no sporting events to watch; local school and rec programs are closed and pro sports has been canceled, leaving television sporting networks to fill airtime with talking-heads instead of slam-dunks and home-runs.

Most people are home, their kids sitting at computers doing their schoolwork remotely. Adults who can are working from home; others have been laid off as businesses shutter their doors. Humorous social media memes are exploring the funny side of families suddenly being forced to stay home together. A lot of long-abandoned "honey-do" lists are actually getting done.

A nation of movers and goers, of long days at work; of running kids back and forth to school and rec ball; of filling up restaurants and bars at night; of office betting pools for March Madness; of concerts and spring festivals; of birthday parties — all of that has ceased to exist, our culture changed as we become a nation that cocoons at home, waiting, waiting, waiting — for what? We really don't know.

•••

That unknown is perhaps more troubling than the known. If this were a snowstorm shutdown, we'd know that in a few days, the snow would melt, kids would go back to school and our lives would resume as normal.

But a pandemic is an invisible enemy that we can't see — and we don't know when it end.

There is the fear that we, or someone close to us, may get the virus and become very sick. We see what's happening in Italy and other countries and wonder, will that be us in a few weeks? Will our medical system be able to cope with this?

We have doubts. Virus testing lags in the U.S. Our basic medical supplies, especially masks, appear to be in short supply. Our nation was not ready for this despite decades of warnings from public health officials who told us it was just a matter of time. How did that happen? Why are we not ready?

There's also the fear of what the pandemic is doing to our worldwide economy. Production is slowing. Stock markets have jumped off a cliff. Our supply chains may be more fragile than we think.

If the virus is sustained, the world could find itself in a depression. Some economists say in a worst-case view, unemployment could jump to 20 percent or higher.

The virus has made our economy sick — is there a doctor for that?

•••

All of this could hit Jackson County hard. While some businesses are hiring — pizza delivery drivers, people to stock grocery store shelves, Amazon workers to deliver packages, medical people needed at hospitals — the overall negative economic impact could last a long time.

Jackson County runs on growth, especially housing growth. An economic slowdown could kill that overnight. We saw that happen in 2008. It took a decade to recover from that downturn.

And local governments could be looking into a financial abyss. Plans for school expansions, county projects and municipal projects could all go down the drain if a slowing economy hits sales tax revenues and property values. Most local governments depend on sales taxes to make up what property taxes can't pay for alone.

Luckily, most local governments have built up strong reserves since the recession of 2008, but government is often slow to respond to a crisis. They seldom make cuts until they have to, never getting ahead of a financial downturn. One hopes they're paying attention and preparing a Plan B today.

•••

All is not doom and gloom, of course. Amidst the crisis, people are stepping up to help one another. Private groups are feeding people who need help. Schools have continued to offer food for students by using buses to transport lunches to a number of distribution points across the county. One local business set up a storefront for students who need access to internet services to do their schoolwork.

This is a defining moment for our nation and our community. We can cower in fear and do nothing, or we can focus our energy into helping those who are the most vulnerable in our society. We can adapt. We can be more selfless. We can do good.

Last Saturday was a glorious spring day. But in addition to the flowers and sunshine, spring also brings thunderstorms.

We can't control the virus, but we can control how we respond to the storm it has created around us.

Live strong.

Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers. He can be reached at mike@mainstreetnews.com.

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