My wife and I were in Knoxville on Saturday, and I was hardly in the Christmas spirit.
“Stop glaring at that driver; are you trying to get us killed?” she admonished.
“Just be patient, the light will change in a moment.”
“You can’t make a U-turn here!”
“DON’T YOU DARE RUN ANOTHER RED LIGHT!”
“You just sit in the car and cool off and I’ll go in the store by myself.”
It wasn’t anything unusual; just the typical pre-holiday rush from one end of Knoxville’s Kingston Pike to the other, with tens of thousands of shoppers pouring into the heart of the city’s retail district to find sweaters for pop and air fryers for mom and whatever this year’s must-have toys are for little Jimmy and Sally.
I guess I just expected different, given the coronavirus pandemic. Ballgame crowds are down substantially, restaurant crowds are down, no one is flying.
The narrative was that everyone is shopping online this holiday season. You wouldn’t have known it by being in Knoxville on Saturday (or the Saturday before). Getting from the Cedar Bluff exit to nearby Academy Sports caused me to break at least three commandments. “Thou shalt not kill” was not one of them, but I won’t say I didn’t ponder it in my heart.
The only time I actually got out of the car was to venture into Academy for a new Old Man Chair (at least, that’s what I’ve taken to calling them, because you never see 20-somethings carrying a stadium seat into a basketball game). I found one I liked, but the check-out line backed through the front of the store, down the Under Armour display rack and to the Carhartt section in the middle of the men’s apparel was enough for me to go put it back, break another commandment, and head to the car to sulk.
My point is this: there are about a blue million people in Knoxville on any given weekend day this holiday season. They’re literally congregating in retail establishments all over the city — not to mention in restaurants and bars.
And, somehow, there’s far less prevalence of coronavirus — relative to population — in Knoxville than in several of the rural communities that neighbor it … especially Scott County.
Don’t get me wrong: new cases of Covid-19 are popping up in Knoxville at a rate that has officials there alarmed. Knox County went from 3,400 active cases of the virus to 3,900 active cases almost overnight this past weekend.
Yet, person for person and pound for pound, you’re nearly twice as likely to be infected with coronavirus right now if you live in Scott County than you are if you live in Knox County.
As of Monday, according to the latest data presented by the TN Dept. of Health, there were eight active cases of Covid-19 per 1,000 people in Knox County. And there were 15 active cases of Covid-19 per 1,000 people in Scott County.
These are numbers that almost defy logic. Scott County is rural. There are only 22,000 of us spread out across 533 square miles. (Compare that to Knox County, where there are 470,000 people packed into 526 square miles.) Social distancing is supposed to be what we do.
Rural communities like ours don’t have the same night life that urban communities like Knoxville have. There are no theaters open here like there are in Knoxville. Eating out isn’t nearly as big a deal here as it is in Knoxville. Primarily, we congregate in two places: Walmart and church.
Early in this pandemic, Tennessee’s urban population centers like Nashville and Memphis were recording more than 100 new cases of Covid-19 on a daily basis, while rural communities like ours were alarmed when there was a single new case reported. There were stories all over America of people fleeing the cities — like New York — to get away from the virus.
So how have we reached a place where you’re twice as likely to have coronavirus if you live in Scott County than if you live in Knoxville?
I can offer you a few differences.
When I was in Academy Sports on Saturday, grousing about how long the checkout line was, I saw one family not wearing masks. One. Out of hundreds of people in the store. When I go into the Oneida Walmart, I see far fewer than half the people wearing masks.
When I was at Knox Catholic a couple of hours later for a basketball game, I noticed that in excess of 80% of the people inside were wearing masks — even though attendance was limited enough that pretty much every family had their own space. When I was at a ballgame at Wartburg two weeks ago, I counted the people sitting on the opposite side of the gym, and 11 out of 89 were wearing masks.
A week ago Saturday, I was at Turkey Creek, and I hardly saw a single soul not wearing a mask in the Walmart there. At Target, the same. Back home, you can still get looked at like you just plopped down from outer space (or Ohio, which is pretty much the same thing) if you’re seen wearing a mask.
Some would argue that all those people in Knoxville are out-of-towners traveling to the city to shop — that they’re carrying the virus back to their own communities, thus why Knox County’s numbers are increasing at a lower rate. That’s not an unfair argument. But all of the clerks at those shops, the servers at those restaurants, and all of the other folks who are serving the thousands of shoppers who pour into town on any given day — all of those people are Knox Countians, working in crowded conditions. Theoretically, they should still be contracting (and spreading) the virus at a higher rate.
Now, one thing that deserves to be pointed out is that Knoxville’s coronavirus case count is growing, in spite of this relative adherence to mask recommendations. Masks are just one defense in a series of measures that we should take to keep this virus in check as much as possible while we wait out the end of the pandemic.
But wearing a mask is by far the easiest and least inconvenient of all the recommendations made by the CDC. And, proportionate to population size, Knoxville’s coronavirus case county is growing at a much slower rate than our own.
So why aren’t we taking this simple, relatively easy step here in our community? That’s anyone’s guess. Some have blamed politics. After all, 88% of Scott Countians voted for Donald Trump, and conservatives don’t like being told what to do. But I’m not so sure that argument holds as much water as I might have once believed. After all, 59% of Knox Countians voted for Trump; it’s hardly a bastion of liberalism when it comes to presidential politics.
Some have criticized Scott County Mayor Jeff Tibbals for not using the authority granted him by Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee to mandate mask-wearing in public places. In fact, local calls for a mask mandate seem to be amplified with each passing day.
A mask mandate wouldn’t hurt anything, but in fairness to the mayor, it probably wouldn’t solve anything, either. Under the executive order signed by Lee to give county mayors the authority to implement mask mandates, those mandates are essentially toothless. They’re unenforceable. (And, even if they weren’t, local law enforcement doesn’t have the resources nor likely the resolve to start issuing mass citations to the maskless.) A mask mandate wouldn’t increase the percentage of people who wear them; it would only strengthen the resolve of those who don’t.
No, if we are to beat this, it isn’t going to be because the mayor decrees that we all wear masks. It’s going to be because, in our hearts, we decide that wearing masks and looking out for each other is something we want to do. Something we need to do.
That’s the thing about masks: the old argument of “if your mask works, it doesn’t matter if I wear one,” no longer applies because we know better. This isn’t an issue like seatbelts, where adding a layer of protection is only about our own personal safety. This is about protecting each other. Sure, masks provide a bit of protection for the wearer. But masks are more about protecting everyone else from the wearer.
You see, coronavirus is a unique beast. Unlike the flu, which causes its hosts to generally only be contagious if they’re showing symptoms, there is a window of at least a couple of days where coronavirus carriers are contagious but aren’t yet showing symptoms. In other words, they don’t even know they’re sick, and they’re spreading the virus to everyone they come into contact with. Health experts also tell us that coronavirus is only aerosolized in unique situations — meaning it is primarily spread through tiny droplets that we expel every time we cough, sneeze, talk or even breathe. Those droplets can carry three to six feet … unless the person expelling them is wearing a mask, in which case they’ll spread much less.
So, therefore, masks are a unique defense mechanism. They’re only as effective as the willingness of the masses to wear them uniformly. If a person at an increased risk for Covid-19 complications is wearing a mask and everyone else in the room is not wearing a mask, the decision by the mask-wearer to don a face covering is close to moot. The at-risk person is protecting everyone else, but they aren’t protecting her. That’s why we hear so many stories of, “I know a person who religiously wears a mask everywhere she goes and she still got sick.” She didn’t get sick because she did or didn’t wear a mask. She got sick because someone she came into contact with who was contagious wasn’t wearing a mask.
So here we are. Scott County is known as a rural community where people go the extra mile to help each other out — because of kindness, because of charity, because it’s a tight-knit community. It’s a reputation that dates back to when our Relay For Life in Scott County raised more money for cancer research, per capita, than any other county in East Tennessee. It’s a reputation that has been honed over the years by our willingness to reach out through our churches, through our non-profits, and lift up those among us who are less fortunate. Collectively, we make sure that nobody among us has to go hungry, that nobody among us has to go cold, that nobody among us has to go homeless.
How is it that this caring, rural community, with more per-capita charitable giving than just about any other place in East Tennessee, has adopted mask recommendations to protect the vulnerable among us at a lower rate than just about any other place in East Tennessee?
I’m a firm believer that life shouldn’t stop because of coronavirus. We should still be able to go places we enjoy going, our kids should still be able to go to school, and we should still be able to watch our kids play ball. That’s freedom. That’s liberty. But with freedom comes personal responsibility. And there are certain precautions we could easily take that we aren’t taking. Because we’re failing, we risk losing it all: going places, school, ballgames … and our vulnerable loved ones.
Under no circumstance should the prevalence of coronavirus be nearly twice as great in this rural community as in Knoxville. What we’re doing isn’t working. Maybe it’s time we tried something new.