As the number of coronavirus cases begins to grow in McMinn County, local officials held a press conference Monday to provide guidance and answer questions about the pandemic.
Among the state and county officials present for the press conference were McMinn County Mayor John Gentry, McMinn County Sheriff Joe Guy and Athens City Manager C. Seth Sumner.
“I’m extremely proud of the actions I’ve seen taken by the wonderful people of our community during this time of both known and unknown,” Gentry said. “Not since the days of World War II have our citizens’ lives faced this level of interruption. We pray the interruption doesn’t lead to great sacrifice, however we must be prepared and willing if that is the necessary course.”
Gentry praised the various businesses and churches that have taken measures to limit the spread of the virus and the volunteers who have reached out to those who needed assistance as well.
“I have great optimism that the overwhelming majority of our citizens will enter into a social contract with their own conscience to do the right thing at the right time,” he said. “The right thing to do right now is to significantly limit our exposure to the virus.”
Gentry said he is aware that comes with some level of adjustment from everyone.
“I know the cure can sometimes be worse than the disease,” he noted, adding that how much action should be taken is a difficult question to answer. “Opinions will vary and that is OK — these are uncharted waters.”
Sumner added that the timeline on combating the virus is still up in the air at this point.
“It will only be in the days ahead that we will truly know what this looks likes as more tests are conducted and those results are provided back to us,” he said.
Sumner also talked about some of the executive orders announced by Gov. Bill Lee in regard to the coronavirus, including Monday’s announcement of a COVID-19 Unified Command, which is intended “to streamline coordination across the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA), Tennessee Department of Health and Tennessee Department of Military,” according to a news release about the new group.
“This new team will address health, economic and supply issues across the State of Tennessee,” Sumner said. “These orders are strongly encouraging citizens to act in the best interest of others, act in your own self preservation and to take common sense steps to save lives now.”
Among the executive orders that Sumner referenced are that all non-emergency dental procedures and all non-essential surgeries and outpatient procedures have been ordered to halt.
Guy also spoke, noting that while it’s not ideal, there is a straightforward way to deal with the virus.
“Just stay at home,” he said. “That’s the simplest thing you can do. The most effective thing you can do is just simply stay home. Anything you can put off, you should be putting it off.”
He added that deputies are still on the road and doing their job during this time.
“We’re saturating areas with law enforcement to let you know, as citizens, we’re out there to protect you,” he said. “We’re seeing a decrease in 911 calls and we perceive that to be a good thing.”
Closures across the county were also announced during the press conference. They include:
• Etowah — library and community center are closed; city hall is closed to in-person activity, but is still open to phone and online business; police and fire are active
• Englewood — city hall has a drive-through and is open to phone business, but the lobby and library are both closed; the park is open to no more than 10 people at a time
• Calhoun — the library and city hall lobby are both closed; city hall business can still be conducted by phone and online
• Niota — city hall lobby is closed, but still open for business via phone
• County Clerk office — the lobby is closed, but phone, online and kiosk remain open
• Veterans Service Office — by appointment only and the lobby is closed
• McMinn County Courthouse — the only entrance open is the lower floor handicap entrance, visitors must call ahead and get approval from the respective department
• Parks — county parks will remain open, but that is dependent on how they are used. “We monitor those daily. If we see larger crowds congregating, we will be forced to close those down,” Gentry said.
• Salon and barbershops — “If you do not have to go, do not go,” Gentry said.
• City of Athens playgrounds — closed
On Friday, Gentry declared a state of emergency in McMinn County after the first confirmed case of coronavirus here.
“It was not to cause panic, it’s simply a legal designation that allows some leniency and clears some barriers for the county government to be able to give the necessary resources needed,” he said, adding that it will be “revisited next Friday.”
Sumner also added that people should be careful about where their information on the virus comes from.
“Folks are still spreading rumors, lies and hoaxes and these are very mean-spirited things that are going on right now,” he said. “If your information is not directly from McMinn County, the City of Athens, our state government, the CDC or the White House, then you should not be copying and pasting.”