“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” -Fred Rogers
By Alex Buffington
The community is experiencing a monumental event, one that will forever be ingrained in memories.
Over the past couple of weeks, the spreading Coronavirus has changed people’s daily lives across the country. Schools are closed throughout the state; residents are encouraged to stay home as much as possible; local governments have scaled back; and shoppers have flocked to supermarkets to stock up on necessities.
The uncertain situation has created fear across the country — from concerns over the economic impact to overstretching the nation’s healthcare resources.
But the virus crisis has also brought out something else: The helpers.
The community has stepped up over the past couple of weeks to help those in need during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some are simply checking on their elderly neighbors or family members, running errands for them so they don't have to go out. Others have given blood or volunteered to sew masks for area hospitals.
Local school staff are delivering hundreds of meals to students across the area.
And area nonprofits are spending countless hours working to get food into the hands of community members in need.
One of those groups, iServe Ministries, has been distributing thousands of pounds of food each week through its mobile food pantries in Commerce, Pendergrass and Athens.
iServe’s mobile food pantry is open on the second Saturday of the month in the parking lot of the Lanier Technical College in Commerce and on the third Tuesday of the month in the parking lot at Pendergrass Flea Market.
Jeff and Sherry Grant started the 501(c)3 in 2011 and implemented the mobile food bank in 2013.
“We just really felt like we needed to be in our community, helping more,” said S. Grant.
The group gives away roughly 30,000 pounds of food during its distribution days and can feed up to 500 families, providing 10-12 days-worth of food. iServe gave away over 1.2 million pounds of food in Northeast Georgia in 2019.
Need grows during COVID-19 spread
Given the increasing concern over the spread of Coronavirus, the group is taking some extra precautions, implementing a drive-thru model, to help prevent unnecessary close contact during the mobile food bank.
“There were approximately 75 volunteers who helped (during the March 17 food distribution) load vehicles in a drive-thru arrangement where recipients were not allowed out of their car to maintain distance between individuals wherever possible,” said Sam Wilson, president of the Rotary Club of Braselton. The Rotary Club sent several volunteers to help distribute food during the Pendergrass event on March 17.
iServe normally serves around 250-300 families during its weekly distribution events in Pendergrass and Commerce. But during the most recent mobile food pantry events, they served 400 families in need.
J. Grant expects that number to continue to increase as more people lose their jobs due to the pandemic.
“The demand is growing super-fast,” he said.
Helping local students
iServe has also partnered with the Jackson County School System and Jackson County Family Connection to get a plan in place for area students. For years, iServe has held a Bags of Love program within the schools, providing a backpack filled with food to feed a family over the weekend.
But with schools now closed, iServe wanted to help make sure those families also had meals available Mondays-Fridays. iServe volunteers and JCSS staff members partnered up on March 18 to deliver food to 200 families in need across Jackson County to make sure they have breakfast, lunch and some extra food for the week.
“With school being closed for a month and these children not receiving free breakfast and lunch every day this food will really help,” said J. Grant.
Community support ‘awesome’
J. Grant said the community support and outpouring have been substantial.
“The community support is big. The outpouring has been awesome,” said J. Grant, noting the support the group has received from area churches and businesses. “…It’s neat to see the community rally together to help their neighbors.”
With the increasing need expected in the community due to the spread of COVID-19, iServe’s costs are “going to go up drastically,” said J. Grant.
If you’d like to help iServe’s mission, you can donate online at iserveministries.org.
There are various other groups and individuals in the area who are trying to help the community.
Northeast Georgia Health System recently noted the "generous offers" from the community to sew masks for its patients and staff.
"We are overjoyed by the community’s generous offers to sew masks to protect our patients and healthcare workers," NGHS wrote on Facebook. "Teams are currently working with a select group to produce a test run of masks. Once the quality/safety of this test run is complete, we hope to share more details about how you can help."
That post has received numerous comments from area residents indicating their willingness to donate a sewing machine or their time to help the effort.
Meanwhile, Celebration Church has started an initiative to help local small businesses. The program, Celebration Cares, highlights local small businesses and their special offerings. Those videos can be found on the church’s Facebook page.
One Jefferson businessman is taking action to help students have access to the internet so they can participate in area distance learning activities while local schools are closed for the virus.
Amin Maghani, owner of Tabo’s Foodmart in Jefferson, opened an empty building next to his Lee St. location so that students who don’t have internet at home could have a place to go and study.
Amin set up several tables, six feet apart, in the building so that families could all sit at one table to work. He is also providing a cooler of drinks for the kids to have access to as they work.
If you have a story you'd like to share of efforts to help during the coronavirus pandemic, email email@example.com.
The Jefferson City Council, seeking to limit crowds and the spread of the Coronavirus, unanimously approved an emergency ordinance March 23 that prohibits dine-in service at restaurants, taprooms and food-service establishments for the next 30 days. It also prohibits gatherings of 10 or more people for the same length of time. Restaurants in the town can still provide take-out orders.
Jefferson's measures went into effect March 24 at noon.
The ordinance passed by the council provided tougher restrictions than some of the measures ordered by Gov. Brian Kemp on March 23. Kemp banned gatherings of 10 or more people unless individuals remain six feet apart. That ban lasts only until April 6. His executive order included the closure of nightclubs and bars and for the “medically fragile” to shelter in place, but it did not address dine-in service.
Some eating establishments in Jefferson had kept their dining rooms open despite Center of Disease Control recommendations against gatherings of 10 or more people and to maintain a distance of at least six feet between individuals to prevent the spread of the highly-contagious disease.
“We really wanted and depended on businesses to do the right thing, and a lot them have,” Mayor Steve Quinn said. “A lot of them are hurting because they did the right thing, and we appreciate what they’ve done. But there are some that are still allowing inside dining, which scares me a little bit. We may be overreacting, but what if we’re not?”
Amid safety concerns with the Coronavirus outbreak, Jefferson closed its meeting to the public Monday night, but made it available via live stream on the city fire department’s Facebook page.
The council probably won’t meet again until at least May as Quinn said the April meetings will probably be cancelled.
Jefferson’s actions come after some in the city have struggled to follow state and CDC recommendations. In addition to some restaurant dining rooms remaining open, Quinn pointed to other areas of concern.
The Pendergrass Flea Market closed its indoor market, but didn’t halt its outside operation. Quinn said he was disappointed in that.
“Because that’s a lot of people coming to the City of Jefferson that we don’t know where they’ve been or who they’ve been around,” Quinn said.
He also said he’s seen kids congregating in large groups on football and soccer fields while out of school.
“That worries me,” Quinn said.
Quinn added that some wedding venues are staying open despite the outbreak.
Several Jefferson council members said they wrestled with their decisions before voting.
Councilman Malcolm Gramley called it a “shame” to have to put small businesses in jeopardy because some didn’t follow guidelines.
“We’re penalizing the businesses because individuals refused to take responsibility for their actions,” Gramley said. “And I think that’s terrible, and I don’t know how you get around it. I don’t know that we can get around it.”
Gramley later added, “As much as I hate to, I have to vote for this. And this has given me some sleepless nights.”
Councilman Mark Mobley said he doesn’t take limiting the freedom of assembly or hurting businesses lightly. But when he learned of the volume of people from outside of Jefferson visiting the flea market, he made his decision.
“I don’t see that we have any choice but to do this at this moment,” Mobley said. “But I want us to understand the gravity of what we’re doing. By doing this, yes, we are saving lives in all hopefulness. But we’re also destroying some things, and we need to understand that.”
Councilman Jon Howell said he “reluctantly” felt the city needed to impose these restrictions, expressing a dislike for “onerous” red tape and regulations as well as having to limit individual choice. But he saw this as an exception.
“When the people have been given the opportunity to make the right choice for the betterment of our community and have chosen not to, I think it’s our elected responsibility to intervene,” he said.
Helping local businesses adjust to the impacts of the COVID crisis was the main topic of conversation during last week's Jackson County Area Chamber of Commerce's board of directors meeting. The meeting was held via video conference due to the virus.
Supporting local small businesses was highlighted in the discussion as many business had closed or adopted reduced hours in the last week.
"Small businesses need people to buy local right now," said board member Chad Bingham. "Small businesses are really in trouble."
The chamber is watching various legislative actions that could provide some relief to businesses impacted by the economic downturn that has come out of the virus crisis.
An online survey has also been launched for chamber members to record how the virus is affecting their businesses. The organization plans to use its social media platforms to share information with members during the crisis.
The chamber also hosted a conference call last week of around 30 large business and industry leaders across Jackson County to discuss the impact the virus was having on their operations and to share information, said chamber director of economic development John Scott.
"It's unchartered territory for everybody," he said.
Scott said the calls would probably be held weekly during the crisis.
Despite concerns about the virus, Scott reported that the county was following two large industrial projects.
One is a chicken rendering plant that would make dog food, he said. The unnamed company had hired a PR firm to help with that effort, anticipating some local push-back.
Details about the second project were not released.
The board also heard a report about if and how the chamber could host a candidate forum for the upcoming May elections. Given the restrictions on large gatherings, the board discussed hosting an online forum with the candidates instead.
In other news, the chamber has canceled some of its upcoming events, such as the April business breakfast and Jackson County Day at the Capitol, but no decision has been made yet on whether or not to reschedule the Jackson County Derby scheduled for April 23.
The cancellations of events could have an impact on the chamber's own finances, said Jim Shaw, president and CEO of the chamber. Shaw said the chamber is in good financial shape for now, but he was starting to watch the cash flow as the economy hits many of its members.
A flurry of state and local government actions this week is rapidly changing how most people live and interact.
As of March 24, there have been 32 COVID deaths in the state, including one in Gwinnett County. There have been 1,026 confirmed cases in the state with 45 in Gwinnett, 14 in Hall, 16 in Clarke, one in Madison and one in Barrow. No cases have been reported in Jackson County as of Tuesday night. (Check our website for daily updates.)
Here's a roundup of recent events related to the ongoing virus crisis:
• Jackson County EMA director Bryan Bullock said the county received a shipment of much-needed medical supplies on Monday. The county received nearly 2,000 M-95 medical masks. "We are in the process of getting these to our fire/rescue departments, sheriff's office and police departments," he said. "We also gave some to the Jackson County Correctional Institute facility." The county is expecting to get additional medical supplies from the national stockpile as well.
• The City of Jefferson issued an emergency declaration March 23 to close dine-in restaurants and bars and to ban gatherings of 10 or more people. The move goes further than a similar declaration made by Gov. Brian Kemp the same day. (See story inside this issue.) Jefferson also cancelled its Easter Egg hunt slated for April 11.
• The City of Commerce was set to consider an emergency declaration on March 24, past our print deadline (see our website for update.) The state municipal association is encouraging all Georgia towns to make an emergency declaration to limit public interactions.
• The City of Arcade has set a called meeting for its council for Wednesday, March 25, at 4 p.m. to consider an emergency declaration. The meeting will likely be by teleconference.
• The Jackson County Tax Commissioner's office will only process essential services in person; all other transactions are to be done online.
• Several local towns have scaled back in-person operations or closed their city halls. Arcade has closed its city hall and police department to the public. Those needing assistance can call 706-367-5500 at the city hall or 706-367-1821 for the police department.
• Local school systems continue with "distance learning" plans and are delivering food to students at a number of locations around the county. The Jackson County School System will continue distance learning through April 3, then stop for spring break. The system plans to reopen its schools April 13, but that is subject to change.
Three large Jefferson-Pendergrass area businesses closed for part of last week due to situations surrounding the Coronavirus.
• Kubota closed its Jefferson plant until March 23, after an employee left work sick last Monday and later went to Northeast Georgia Medical Center for treatment. The family notified Kubota that he had tested positive for COVID-19, according to a county report. The plant was subsequently closed in response.
• Home Goods distribution center in Jefferson has closed for two weeks, but there have not been any reported cases of COVID in the facility.
• TACG in Pendergrass was reportedly closed until March 23, after an employee showed signs of Cornonavirus. The closure was done as a precaution and to do cleaning, according to Jackson County EMA officials. An internal email from the company had circulated widely on social media.
Round-up of state actions related to COVID this week:
• Gov. Kemp ordered restaurants, bars and nightclubs to close (except for drive-thru or pick-up service) and to ban all gatherings of 10 or more people, unless those gatherings ensure people stay six feet apart. Some local communities have enacted stricter rules. Athens-Clarke and Winder have enacted curfews.
• The state has changed its procedures for getting tested for COVID at its 23 locations in the state. Option one is to have a referral from a doctor; option two is the call the Nurse Referral Line at 706-340-0996 and describe your symptoms and ask for a referral.
• The state will no longer renew drivers licenses in person. All valid GA driver’s licenses and ID cards with an expiration date between now and June 30, 2020, will receive an extension by a period of 60 days.
• Absentee ballot request forms will be mailed to every voter in the state for the May elections. The March elections have been moved and combined with the May voting.