A political squabble has broken out within the Jackson County Republican Party over a resolution approved by the county's board of elections calling on the state to have a mail-in only election this spring due to the Coronavirus.
The resolution itself may now be moot since the election slated for May 19 was subsequently moved to June 9 by the state.
But the issue of voting by mail represents a huge flashpoint around the country as Republicans have generally opposed mail-in voting, fearing it could bring out a higher turnout among Democratic voters. President Trump weighed in on the issue in recent days, saying voting by mail is "horrible" and "corrupt." (Trump voted by mail in the Florida primary this year, however.)
But all that controversy didn't stop the Jackson County elections board from adopting a resolution on April 8 in a 4-1 vote calling on the state to go exclusively to mail voting this spring due to the impact the virus is having on the elections process and to help slow the spread of the virus in the community.
The resolution has no legal authority, but was rather a statement by the board about its concern over the potential danger of in-person voting amid the virus outbreak.
Only Larry Ewing, who was appointed to the board of elections by the Jackson County GOP, voted against the resolution.
But the election board's other GOP representative, Erma Denney, strongly pushed for the ballot-by-mail resolution during the board's conference call meeting on April 8.
That led to a backlash from local GOP leaders following the call. Local GOP chairman T. J. Dearman was one of the listeners on the call. Dearman reportedly told former county GOP chairman, and former election board chairman, Ron Johnson about the board's action.
Johnson then posted a comment to social media that said: "Just found out Jackson County Election Board led by former Mayor Erma Denney voted 4-1 to have ONLY MAIL IN BALLOTS."
That led to a heated response by Denney who called out both Dearman and Johnson for having misstated what was done at the meeting.
"This is serious business Ron/TJ," Denney said in an email. "Correct your falsehood immediately, don't do it again, and I will gladly forget you exist. Your choice. But we don't have time for this nonsense."
Dearman reportedly called on Denney to resign following her support of the vote-by-mail resolution. Denney refused.
"TJ, as I told you, in no uncertain terms in my two responses to your grossly inappropriate request for my resignation yesterday — 'History will not forget our actions during this pandemic'. Ron, it seems like you need to see these words as well. You both went over the line when we do not have time for damn petty nonsense. Get your head out of your arse and be the leaders we need right now, for God sakes."
Johnson appointed Denney to the elections board during his stint as GOP chairman last year.
In response to Denny, Johnson said "You are a seriously Mental Person Cease and Desist NOW."
The resolution supporting a vote-by-mail election came during the board's discussion about the upcoming election and some of the problems the virus has caused.
The board was asked by elections director Jennifer Logan to approve a plan to have only one early voting location in the county this spring.
Logan told the board that due to the virus, a number of poll workers had resigned since many are older citizens who fit the demographic most in danger from the virus. She said she generally has 70 poll workers, but was down to 40 and some of those may also resign.
She also said that by consolidating early voting in Jefferson, her office could keep better control over social distancing and providing protection for poll workers. She said she'd ordered face masks, gloves and sanitizer for poll workers and had researched making face shields from a 3-D printer for workers.
The board approved Logan's request for a consolidated early voting location at Jefferson 5-0.
But the question of protecting voters in addition to poll workers with in-person voting was also discussed, including how to sanitize the computer equipment and touchscreens used by voters in the elections process.
Denney said voters shouldn't have to have so many touch-points "to do their duty and vote."
"I fear what this could do to our community," she said.
Denney made a motion for the board to adopt a resolution calling on the state to have only voting-by-mail this spring due to the virus.
Board chairman Eric Crawford said that while the county couldn't legally put the motion into effect, the board could express its opinion to the state. Crawford said he would draft the resolution and send it to state officials. The motion passed 4-1 with Ewing opposed.
Although the voting-by-mail issue is controversial, many local voters apparently like the idea.
Logan said she'd gotten an "overwhelming" number of absentee ballot requests due to the virus. The state sent every voter an absentee request form due to the virus.
"Voters really want to vote by mail," she said of the response.
But she said the absentee voting process had put pressure on her office staff to enter the absentee responses into the system, verify signatures and handle other details associated with the process.
Some county employees from other departments had been reassigned to her office to help with the paperwork, she said. But that help also has limitations since there are only a limited number of computers in her office dedicated to processing ballot information.
Logan said one problem with voting by mail is to convince people that their vote will count and that the process is secure. She said explaining the overall process to people needed to be done so that the public has confidence in the system.
Jackson County has recorded its first death from the COVID-19 virus.
The death was reported last week in the state's daily update for April 8.
The victim was a 53-year-old female. No other details have been released by the state or local authorities.
As of noon Tuesday, April 14, Jackson County had 32 confirmed virus cases.
Statewide, there have been 14,223 confirmed cases with 2,769 hospitalizations and 501 deaths.
Nearby, Gwinnett County has reported 26 deaths; Barrow County three deaths; Madison County one death; and Clarke County 12 deaths.
Although it has had a large number of confirmed cases with 339 reported, Hall County has had no deaths.
Meanwhile, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp has extended the state's sheltering-in-place order until April 30 and the healthcare emergency until May 13.
The shelter-in-place order allows people to shop for food and medical supplies and to exercise outside if that is done at least six feet away from others. It also allows some people to go to work in essential businesses.
Business owners and operators are allowed to do basic work of minimum basic operations with closed businesses. Those doing business outside and are not in close contact with others are allowed to perform their duties. That includes agricultural and landscaping work.
Businesses are also supposed to screen employees for signs of sickness; provide enhanced sanitation; staggered shifts and work-from-home when possible; curbside service if possible; and enforce social distancing at the place of work.
Those sheltering in place are not supposed to receive visitors except in very limited circumstances.
All dine-in restaurants, bars, social clubs and other such businesses are prohibited under the order.
The date health officials expect the virus crisis to peak in Georgia has shifted in recent days. The new peak date is now May 1, a week later than the original projected date of April 23.
The calculations are done by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.
Nationwide, the peak date was supposed to be last Saturday, April 10. The virus seems to be peaking in some states, but the slow-moving wave is just now hitting more rural areas of the nation.
Calculating the peak date is important for policymakers to determine how quickly to reopen businesses and to begin the process of society getting back to some normal operations.
A research report done by the University of Georgia College of Health for Athens hospitals estimates that in a worst-case scenario of the virus, Athens' two hospitals capacity could be overwhelmed with patients by April 28.
Collectively, Piedmont Athens Regional and St. Mary's Hospital have around 556 beds. In a worst-case analysis from the 17-county area served by the hospitals, there could be up to a peak of 639 simultaneous admissions with total admissions at 757.
That model assumes people don't shelter in place and that the virus spreads widely in the community.
A more optimistic model assumes sheltering at home drives down the number of projected cases and involves only 175 total hospital inpatient admissions.
The report states that as of April 2, there had been 154 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the Athens medical service area.
Jackson County soccer player Montgomery Garland had set reminders on her phone for important dates this spring during her senior year.
Now, those alerts are no longer needed.
“When my phone popped up with a notification saying ‘senior night,’ my eyes filled with tears,” she said.
High school athletics have been part of the collateral damage of the COVID-19 outbreak with spring sports — in Georgia and throughout the nation — being called off in response to the global pandemic.
Spring-sport athletes have been coming to grips with that reality since Gov. Brian Kemp closed schools for the remainder of the year on April 1 and the GHSA followed suit on April 2 with the cancellation of the rest of the sports calendar.
For senior athletes like Garland, the season was to be filled with times to savor. Now, the class of 2020 will move on without many of those cherished moments.
“This season was what I looked forward to since middle school,” Garland said. “I wanted a senior night. I wanted to get to play my last high school soccer game. I wanted my last goal and last touch on the ball.
“I feel like these things were ripped from my hands, but everything happens for a reason.”
Garland certainly is not alone in feeling that way. The Jackson Herald recently contacted multiple senior spring-sport athletes and asked them about coping with the loss of their final season as a result of the coronavirus crisis.
Here are some of the thoughts they shared:
Commerce baseball standout Colby Rogers said waiting to hear if spring sports would resume after their suspension in mid-March was “a rocky road.”
“It was like you were worrying whether or not you were going to be able to step back on the field and whether or not your season is over,’ he said.
But that answer came with Gov. Kemp’s April 1 announcement and the GHSA’s response.
Rogers admitted that hearing school was cancelled for the rest of the year “was awesome.” The other part, not as much.
“Hearing that baseball was cancelled, I kind of took it as it is what it is,” he said. “Maybe it wasn’t meant for me to finish out my senior year.”
Commerce was ranked No. 6 in Class-A Public when the season was discontinued. The Tigers were also coming off an Elite Eight appearance last year. Commerce could have been in store for a deeper run this season. Now, they’ll never know.
“This could have been the year we won the state championship or it could have been like last the couple of years that I played where we didn’t,” Rogers said. “You’ll never know.”
Rogers, who was batting over .400, had also generated interest from multiple junior college and Division II schools. This was setting up to be an important spring for him.
“I had some colleges wanting to come watch me later on in the season, and that will never happen now … but it is what it is,” he said.
Rogers has since decided to move on from baseball. He’s been accepted to the University of North Georgia, where he’ll pursue an associate’s degree in agricultural. He plans to own a chicken farm one day.
“I want to get out there, get a job, earn some money and start my life up,” Rogers said, “and, yeah, I pretty much settled on that ever since the season ended.”
Meanwhile, he’s handling the COVID-19 outbreak in his own way.
“I’m a big country person, so I go fishing,” Rogers said. “That’s how I handle it. I just stay away and keep my distance from everybody.”
After the Jackson County baseball team picked up a 3-2 win over Franklin County on March 13, Panther senior Jonathan Steeb hoped that he hadn’t played his last game. But he knew there was a strong chance that he had.
“I was hoping with every ounce in my body that we would come back … but I think, even before that game, we knew that things were kind of not looking so good,” he said.
The game was the second of a Panther doubleheader that night with the Lions (having lost Game 1 15-1). Steeb called that game “a must-win” given the circumstances of the COVID-19 outbreak and what it meant for the future of the season.
“That second game was pretty much a must-win because we were all pretty much fearing the worst,” he said.
Those fears proved correct with the spring season being postponed and ultimately cancelled.
Steeb said he was looking forward to his senior season more than any other of his career. He felt the Panthers had a chance to be good and losing out on that opportunity was tough to come to terms with. But he also chalks it up to a life lesson.
“This is really what sports taught me, was to overcome adversity,” Steeb said. “Right now, this is definitely one of those times I’m grateful that I played sports because it really taught me how to handle it.”
Steeb certainly hasn’t been idle since the season ended.
“Right now, I’m doing a whole lot of yard work, and a couple of my other hobbies, like fishing,” Steeb said. “I’ve done whole bunch of fishing. I’ve just done a bunch of odd-ball projects, really exercising, trying to keep myself busy.”
Steeb said he was paying attention to coverage of coronavirus even before it reached the U.S. But now that it’s here and spreading rapidly, Steeb said he’s trying his best to limit his news intake about COVID-19.
“It just really puts a damper on things to watch the news, so I try not to,” he said. “Every now and then I’ll watch a press conference or something.”
As for his future plans, Steeb had hoped to attract the attention of college baseball programs this season, “because I hadn’t really put myself out there.” But without that opportunity now, he’s set to attend the University of North Georgia-Oconee with plans to eventually transfer to the University of Georgia. He’s interested in majoring in sports medicine to become an athletic trainer.
As he moves on from high school, Steeb said his senior baseball season taught him this:
“Don’t take the little things for granted,” Steeb said. “It’s very easy to overlook those little things, but in a blink of an eye, they can be gone.”
Jefferson soccer player Ally-Kate Navas could live with missing out on her senior prom and graduation. But the No. 3-ranked Dragons not completing their season? That was much harder to accept.
“That was one of the most difficult pills to swallow, just because we’d all worked so hard,” Navas said.
Jefferson advanced to the Final Four last year and were likely primed for another special year before the season reached an abrupt end in mid-March.
“All of us were kind of looking forward to this season just because of our pool of talent, literally from our freshmen to our senior group,” Navas said. “If there was any year for us to go really far in the state playoffs, it was going to be this year.”
The Truett-McConnell signee said if the team couldn’t finish out its season, then it went out on top with a 3-0 win March 13 over Hilton Head High School, a perennial powerhouse in South Carolina.
“That was the best game I’ve ever seen us play out of my four years at Jefferson High School,” Navas said.
Navas spends most of this current shelter-in-place time training and getting as many touches on the ball as possible. After all, she has a college scholarship awaiting her.
“Now, it’s more important than ever to keep my touches up,” said Navas, who said she feels “blessed” to have more soccer ahead of her.
Navas said she’s “not much of a news girl,” but does follow the COVID-19 story enough to stay safe.
“I keep up with the main facts and the rules of pretty much staying at home and seeing where we’re allowed to go … I’m just trying to keep myself busy,” she said.
When looking back on her senior year, Navas said she’ll focus more on the memories that she did have rather than lament ones she was unable to experience. She said she made a point to savor each step along the way — attending as many sporting events as she could and “went all out” in the student section.
“I’m really happy with the way I did my senior year and making sure I got out to stuff, and I’ll just be so grateful for the memories I have had,” Navas said.
Navas also said the ill-fated 2020 season has taught her to make the most of each moment.
“Because you don’t know what’s going to happen,” Navas said.
For a returning state long-jump champion like Commerce’s Shannon Segars, the loss of the spring season was particularly painful.
Segars won the Class A Public title last year and had his sights set on defending that crown as well as setting the Class A Public state record.
“So, you had really big goals that you wanted to accomplish, and it just got cut short,” Segars said. “So, it’s just really upsetting. But I’ll just try to do bigger things in college track.”
To that end, Segars recently signed a Division-I scholarship with Kennesaw State University, where he’ll continue his long-jump career. He’s used the down time to make sure he’s in top shape when he reports to KSU later this year.
“I make sure my legs are fresh, staying healthy, eating healthy, just continuing to put in work just to fill that void of not having a track season,” he said.
Still, there are high school moments that will be missed. In addition to not being able to defend his long-jump title, the Commerce boys track and field team will not have the chance to repeat as Class A-Public state champions.
“We won last year, but I would say that we had an even better shot this year of winning state than we did last year,” Segars said. “So, it was hard on all of the guys … It was just a really hard thing to swallow knowing that there could have been another ring and state medals.”
Segars, who said he’s trying to stay indoors and “keep myself healthy” during the COVID-19 crisis, said his senior year will stand as a memorable one to say the least.
“Not in terms of a good way, but very strange — definitely a story to tell in the next few years,” Segars said. “It’s kind of a reminiscing thing. Not getting to finish what I wanted to finish. But at the same time, (I’ve had) very memorable track seasons the last four years.”
The Jefferson baseball team was finally rounding into form — reeling off five straight wins — after an uncharacteristic 1-7 start.
On March 12, the Dragons throttled Class AAAA Stephens County 15-2 in what turned out to be the team’s final game this season — though they didn’t know it at the time.
For Jefferson senior pitcher Brycen Jewell, the premature end to his high school career led to some soul searching. He said the experience made him “take a step back” and appreciate the good fortune he has to play baseball.
“I think sometimes, it’s taken for granted,” he said. “I know on March 12 specifically, I know our team went out there and gave it all we got, unfortunately not knowing it would be our last time playing together.”
Jewell said the team’s goal was to reach the Elite Eight, and he felt the Dragons had the squad to do it, especially with how they had rebounded from a slow start. Now, they’re left wondering what could have been.
Jewell said the team remains in contact via text, calling the bond “a brotherhood that I think we’ll carry on for a while.”
“I think this is a moment, especially in our senior lives, I think that this is a moment that we’ll remember forever,” Jewell said. “But, again, it’s nothing that we dwell on.”
Jewell will pitch in college at Lee University, “but I feel that I’ve missed out on a lot of memories here” with the season’s sudden end.
The 2020 Dragons do plan to take the field again — kind of.
“We’ve already scheduled a whiffle ball game that we’re going to have as soon as this lockdown is over,” Jewell said.
Asked if he has any concerns over the COVID-19 crisis, Jewell said “some of the younger kids are not really listening.”
“I feel like a lot of us are hard-headed,” Jewell said.
Jewell expressed his appreciation for the work of the Center for Disease Control and medical professionals during this global outbreak.
“I think all of our nurses and doctors are trying their hardest, and I think we should give them more recognition than we have,” he said. “I think they’re really important to what’s going on here. I think with their help and hard work of President Trump and the CDC, I think we’ll get this under control, and hopefully everything will be back to normal in a couple of months.”
East Jackson senior pitcher-infielder Halton Hardy keeps himself busy as much as he can prepping for college baseball in these days of quarantine.
Hardy, who will play at Francis Marion University next year, hits and throws as much as possible, and sometimes calls a couple of friends over to join him in workouts. They, of course, practice social distance as much as possible.
“We try to stay six feet apart, but sometimes we’ve got to break the rules a little bit,” Hardy said.
Hardy, part of a core group of eight East Jackson baseball seniors, said he was heartbroken when the season was called off not even halfway finished.
“Because this is something we’ve been looking forward to all of our lives, and for it to happen during our senior year, cut halfway short, it’s really a heartbreaking situation,” he said.
He said he hopes this obstacle “will make everybody a better person (because of) it.”
Hardy said he came to view his teammates as family, which made the abrupt end particularly tough. He still keeps in contact with them constantly.
“They’re my brothers,” Hardy said. “They’re not even really my friends at this point. I’ve been playing ball with some of them since I was four years old. They’re pretty much like my brothers to me.”
Hardy can take some comfort that his baseball career is not over, having secured a college scholarship at Francis Marion, a Division II school in Florence, S.C. He calls that opportunity “a blessing.”
Like most, Hardy has concerns about coronavirus, which is fast-spreading in the state and expected to hit its peak later this month. But he also takes a long view of the situation.
“I feel like it’s just one of those situations that, over time, we’ll overcome it,” Hardy said. “But I just think everybody needs to do their part, and just stay at home and stay safe for a little while so everybody can get back to living a normal life here soon.”
As for his reflecting on his senior year, Hardy said he’ll remember it as one that started out with memorable experiences and then took an unprecedented turn.
“It just took a huge turn really quickly,” he said. “It’s going to be something that everybody is going to be talking about 50 years from now.”
It’s also an experience that has changed his perspective.
“It just really helps you to learn not to take things for granted, because any second of your life, something can be taken away from you,” Hardy said.
Garland, the Jackson County soccer player, said she fills her days with exercise in place of soccer, usually going on a morning run and then completing a strength-based workout after finishing her online school work assignments.
“I started doing this because I thought we may get to play a few games going back to school,” she explained. “Now, we don’t get that opportunity, but it’s become a routine.”
Garland called it “heartbreaking” for her and her fellow seniors to lose a chance to extend the program’s streak of three-straight region titles and make a playoff run. Jackson County, ranked No. 4 in Class AAA, holds a 27-game winning streak in 8-AAA play.
Garland said the team could have accomplished “great things.”
“We had so much talent, and our team chemistry was starting to come together,” Garland said.
Garland is also very aware of the realities of coronavirus. Her mother works in a hospital in Gwinnett County. She said that “brings light to the whole situation.”
“I know I’m upset about my senior year being ruined, but there’s a bigger picture,” Garland said. “Our nation and whole world are battling this virus, and it would be selfish of us to only focus on ourselves.”
Garland will move on to the University of Georgia or Clemson University next year with plans to major in animal science with a pre-vet track. She plans to attend the University of Georgia for veterinary school.
Garland said she believes she’ll be upset when looking back on her senior year because it didn’t end the way she would have liked. But she said that could be said for any senior in the nation.
“I do know that the class of 2020 will be in the history books,” she said. “This is a historic moment that I can for sure tell my children about.”
Georgia's general primary/presidential preference primary election has been postponed to June 9.
The decision was made following Governor Brian Kemp's extension of the current public health state of emergency until May 13.
“Due to the governor’s extension of the state of emergency through a time period that includes almost every day of in-person voting for an election on May 19, and after careful consideration, I am now comfortable exercising the authority vested in me by Georgia law to postpone the primary election until June 9,” said Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. “This decision allows our office and county election officials to continue to put in place contingency plans to ensure that voting can be safe and secure when in-person voting begins and prioritizes the health and safety of voters, county election officials and poll workers.”
The voter registration deadline for the June 9 election will be May 11. Early voting will begin on May 18.
The primary runoff date has been moved to Aug. 11.
Absentee ballot applications for the upcoming primary election will continue to be accepted and processed by counties even if the application said May 19. Once county election officials properly verify the signature on the application, the voter will be sent an absentee ballot for the primary election now to be held on June 9.
The Jackson County government is setting up two wifi hotspots for the public to use.
One of the locations will be in the parking lot of the county recreation office on Gordon Street in Jefferson.
The other wifi location will be the parking lot of the county's courthouse.
Both locations will be available from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. each day, said county manager Kevin Poe.