Testing Escalates

By Reginald Stuart

Signs abound across Nashville, Tennessee, across the nation and around the world that Spring 2020 has been derailed and life disrupted in myriad ways by the deadly Coronavirus COVID-19) plague sweeping the planet. Keeping one’s “social distance”, (approximately six feet away from the person’s closest to you, as public health officials call it, is now the world’s operating language of the day. 

The demand for universal exercise of social distance distancing stems from the rapid spread of the disease around the world, regardless of race, creed, income, color, ethnic origin, religious beliefs or sexual orientation. 

More than 200,000 people world-wide have caught the deadly airborne disease, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). More than 2,000 people in the United States have died of it so far this year, according to the Atlanta-based federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Health research agencies have also learned as more people are tested for the virus, that it is striking younger people—adults and children—more than originally thought. Word on the rapid rise of COVID-19 was initially thought to focus on older people.

As in Michigan, Ohio, California and New York, public and private schools at all levels—from pre-k to colleges, universities, law, nursing and medical schools—have shut their doors for the spring in an effort to contain the virus.

To continue education, most institutions have quickly shifted to online Internet education techniques in place of traditional classrooms for much of the remainder of their school year. Many colleges and universities –including Vanderbilt, Tennessee State and Fisk—have sent their on-campus student’s home, shutting dorms and residence halls. Students in study abroad programs have been called back to the states.

The city’s hotel and hospitality industry has seen business dry up as major entertainment events and spring season athletic events, including the NCAA’s basketball playoff and Final Four games are scrubbed and thousands of people cancel their bus, plane, rental car and hotel reservations. Long planned high school and college graduation event have been postponed or cancelled.  Houses of worship have cancelled services, some quickly trying to connect television streaming systems to deliver services. 

The Nashville Convention and Visitors Corporation, commonly known as the city’s tourist bureau, has been keeping track of the virus’s impact on the city’s hospitality industry.  Early this week, the agency said it “is aware of 484 meeting/convention cancellations representing 311,035 room nights and 243,233 attendees. 

“These meetings were expected to generate $160.03 million in direct spending, $12.98 million in state taxes, and $13.99 million in local taxes,” the agency said, a loss that means lower income for workers. 

“A few of these groups have rescheduled for later this year or next year,” said agency spokesperson Donna Delacruz Johnson.  “Several more are trying to reschedule but our venues and hotel properties have limited availability,” she said.

For now, the virus has people hoping to keep their jobs and services.

“We’re scrambling, just to keep it together,” said veteran cab driver David Carter, a Nashville Yellow Cab dispatcher, echoing vendors large and small throughout Nashville and around the globe.  In a recent phone interview, Carter said there were no cabs in line at Nashville’s Metropolitan airport that day, echoing others who cited numerous examples of signs Nashville is engulfed in the uncertain COVID-19 disease headwinds.

Where lines are growing and getting busier and longer is the state’s labor department offices. Like agencies around the nation, the state is seeing unemployment assistance claims grow as the virus turns the labor market on its head.

 Concern about the health effects of the virus have seen high school and college graduations cancelled or postponed, as have been weddings and birthdays parties. The coronavirus (known in the health world as COVID-19) has even forced families to rethink farewell’s to loved ones who have passed, says veteran Nashville mortician Richard Lewis, operator of historic Lewis & Smith Funeral Home, one of 22 serving the Nashville area.

 “It (COVID-19) has caused us to operate more cautiously than before,” said Lewis whose family has been handling funerals since 1946. Lewis and his peers continue their practice, as appropriate, of handling proceedings with gloves and masks. Following appeals for public health and political leaders to minimize crowds, Lewis, echoing peers, said he is asking survivors to have no more than 15 people attend a visitation. 

In addition, he said more families are opting for cremation instead of funerals. For military veterans, Lewis said the Middle Tennessee Veterans Association will now only allow grave site services. “We are trying to help,” Lewis said.

On the education front, the Nashville Public Schools System, which shut earlier this month for two days due to COVID-19 concerns then followed by closing school buildings until April 3, is among institutions shifting their instruction programs to online instruction as much as possible and as quickly as possible amid widespread uncertainty.

 “We are all being tested by the COVID-19 public health crisis and the impact of the tornadoes,” said Dr. Adrienne Battle, appointed March 13 as the permanent director of the 85,000 student Nashville Public Schools system. 

 “Our focus should be giving students and teachers time to heal from what have been two back-to-back traumatic experiences in Nashville, and the state should give districts the flexibility to address their needs,” she said in a statement, alluding to the devastation tornado that struck Nashville and neighboring Middle Tennessee communities just a few weeks ago.

The city school’s system will be partnering with Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee to provide food boxes to families in need throughout the county this week, said Dr. Battle. Starting next week, Nutrition Services will be offering grab-and-go lunches for students who need meals during the extended closure of the school system now going through April 24. Meals will be offered through the Seamless Summer Option (SSO) program and will be free to children who need them, she said. Under the rules of the program, students must be present to claim the meals.  

“Closing schools for an extended period of time is a difficult decision, because so many students and families rely on our services in their daily lives,” said Dr. Battle. “We’re working as a district to continue to identify ways to reduce the impact of school closures on families most in need during this difficult time in our society. We’ll be sending out regular updates with information including instructional resources that will provide educational opportunities for students while out of class.”

The move by school systems to respond to the safe distance calls has not fallen on deaf ears in the religious community either, a cornerstone for gathering in groups. Religious leaders and congregations large and small hake taken heed, reworking worship times, making increased efforts to take care of the sick, shut in and lonely.

In the nationwide Christian Methodist (CME) Church, which has more than a dozen congregations in Tennessee, the Rev. Lawrence L. Reddick, III, senior Bishop of the (CME) Church, issued a special ‘missive’ to his pastors called “Creative Thinking for Crisis Times.” He says he hopes his message helps pastors adopt practices that limit all church gatherings to no more than 10 people at a time until the virus subsides. 

The Bishop shared some of the responses which he says illustrate how the new challenge of establishing a person-to-person distance for health reasons can be bridged in creative ways to maintain the spiritual ties religion seeks to sustain. 

The Rev. Gary Chalk, pastor of St Paul CME Church in Orange, Texas, shared his plan for his congregation:

“In lieu of the mandate to have no more than ten people in a setting, we have chosen this schedule to have a Centering Moment with six different groups. We will begin at 10 AM and conclude at 12 PM. Each Moment will consist of a song, prayer, a scripture reading and a succinct message from the pastor. Prior, and in between each Moment, the musicians, along with the pastor, will sanitize the areas of use. We had a teleconference meeting on Wednesday night with the leaders of St. Paul, and all seem excited about our incremental moments. An offering opportunity will be extended at the conclusion of each session… We also plan to live stream at least one Centering Moment so if someone chooses not to attend, they will have the ability to participate via face book, Rev. Chalk wrote.

As political leaders and public health officials strongly urge everyone—from little children to the oldest of adults who are able — to stay at home, not gather in groups and, regardless, keep their distance,  to keep their distance, public concern persists over what their public health and political leaders plan to do to help fight the deadly virus and offset the economic disruption it is causing.

With schools, hospitality and entertainment industries enduring a mandatory pause due to the widespread impact of the virus, concern grows among the millions of people who are feeling the health scare financially.

Unemployment claims in Tennessee and across the nation are skyrocketing, based on scattered reports on federal and state employment agencies. The continuous slide of the nation’s stock markets during the past week has further undermined confidence in the nation’s economic health.

The anxiety has been enhanced by the bickering in recent days on Capitol Hill in Washington over how the federal government can best assist people.

On the once-congested, now abandoned retail business streets of Nashville, local merchants are candid about their concerns.

 “Tough, tough, tough,” said Darren Morgan, owner of the popular Seafood Sensation drive-by seafood deli on 28th Avenue North and Scovel Street. Morgan, who has run his fresh fish market for eight years, ticked off a list of challenges he has endured since opening. It’s piled on lately, he said, listing growing competition, the tornado in his neighborhood, and most recently the Tennessee State University shutdown last weekend due to virus concerns. 

Morgan said he can make it for a while, hastening to ad if the virus sparks a quarantine, as other big cities such as San Francisco and parts New York have imposed, that would raise more issues. “I can’t pay rent, taxes, bills,” he said.

In the heart of downtown Nashville, Myrna Vlahose, owner of the popular praline maker Leon’s Candy on 2nd Avenue North, described the usually busy Lower Broadway area with congested street crowds battling for space with the pedal taverns and horse and buggy rigs, as a ghost town. 

“Everything closed downtown,” said Vlahose including the walk-in pedestrian traffic she might get from visitors to ‘the destinations’ nearby. 

Before the virus, Vlahose and others recalled, Nashville has increasingly gained a national reputation as a `must see’ destination. The airport at Berry Field is abuzz almost 24-hours a day. Taxi, limousine services and the public bus lines more-than-often filled with waiting lines, as are the hotels, rental cars and restaurants. Nashville housing was on many ‘A’ lists on television. Its colleges and universities were considered top of the line. The persistence of the COVID-19 disease has caused the glow on all those ornaments to dim.

For sure, the strut in Nashville’s stride has hit an indefinite pause button with its impact being felt throughout in homes, on jobs, in communities, in pocketbooks, at schools and houses of worship. The virus has given new meaning to the expression keep your distance.