By Dave Ongie, News Editor
A new year always brings with it a renewed sense of hope, and Jan. 1, 2020 was no different.
Fresh off Johnson City’s yearlong sesquicentennial celebration, the city’s Board of Commissioners gathered in City Hall along with local members of Tennessee’s General Assembly on Jan. 2. City Commissioners and City Manager Pete Peterson briefed the lawmakers on the city’s capital needs along with issues the legislators might be able to help address during their upcoming legislative session.
At the time, a new decade was dawning, and there was a lot of talk about the second coming of the Roaring 20s. The economy was firing on all cylinders with no end in sight, and the only major concern addressed during the two-hour meetings was how massive growth in middle Tennessee might affect the flow of state dollars to East Tennessee.
As the meeting was winding down, State Senator Rusty Crowe’s cell phone rang. He checked it and quickly excused himself to take the call out in the hallway. It isn’t clear what was said during Crowe’s brief conversation with Representative Phil Roe, but it’s hard to imagine Roe didn’t give him a heads-up on a major decision he had made. By the next morning, news broke that Roe intended to retire at the end of the 116th Congress and would not seek re-election.
Locally, that was the first sign the winds of change were blowing. By the end of the year, Micah Van Huss and Matthew Hill – who were both in attendance at that Jan. 2 meeting – had lost their seats to a pair of political newcomers and Diana Harshbarger was elected to Roe’s seat in the U.S. House or Representatives.
In most years, this would qualify as big news. But little did anyone know back on Jan. 2 that a novel coronavirus already circulating in China would soon turn the world upside down.
Weeks after his retirement announcement, Roe was on the VA campus at Mountain Home on Jan. 30 with U.S. Surgeon General Jerome M. Adams for a roundtable on opioid addiction. Healthcare leaders from around the region were on hand to talk about ways to curb the public health crisis that has negatively impacted nearly every aspect of society.
Near the end of a media briefing following that roundtable, Roe abruptly changed the subject.
“I’m going to change the news conference for just a second,” Roe said as he began to discuss a briefing he attended the day before with the CDC and other governmental entities on the coronavirus outbreak in China. “I think we should at least bring that up.”
At that point, there were reports of 6,000 COVID-19 cases in China resulting in 132 deaths. In the United States, just five patients were known to have been infected with the novel coronavirus, and Adams noted all five of those patients had traveled to the Wuhan Province in China.
“There is no evidence so far of human-to-human transmission within the United States,” Adams said. “The Administration and HHS takes this very seriously, but we do want people in the United States to know that the CDC feels the risk to the average American is low.”
Even at that early date, work was being done on the vaccine that is presently arriving and being administered in our region. Those present at the press conference that day heard a name for the first time that has since become a household name in our country and around the world – Dr. Anthony Fauci.
During the briefing Roe had attended, it was Fauci who outlined how the viral load had already been taken from the five U.S. patients, and RNA analysis allowed work to begin on a vaccine.
“In 90 days, they’ll begin Phase 1 trials on a vaccine for this,” Roe said. “That will take about a year, and that’s unheard of to do it that quickly. They’ve been able to identify this virus, unwind it and begin to find a treatment for it.”
Life went on as normal in our region over the next month or so. The annual Kingsport Chamber Dinner on Feb. 7 was a sellout. Meanwhile, the ETSU men’s basketball team was putting together a season for the ages.
On Feb. 28, a packed house nearly blew the roof off Freedom Hall as hometown hero Patrick Good nailed a game-winning 3-pointer to lift the Bucs to the Southern Conference regular-season championship. On March 9, the Bucs capped off a 30-4 season by winning the SoCon Tournament and securing a bid in the upcoming NCAA Tournament. Again, the roar of the large continent of ETSU fans on hand in Asheville was almost deafening.
But before the Bucs made it to the Big Dance, the music came to an abrupt stop. The dominoes started falling on March 11 when the NBA paused its season, and by the next afternoon, the NCAA Tournament had been canceled along with just about every other major sporting event on the horizon.
Local author Barry Blair was down in Florida working on the annual Spring Training story he is kind enough to write for the News & Neighbor. Blair spent Thursday, March 12 watching the Atlanta Braves beat the Detroit Tigers 5-3 before MLB announced the cancellation of the remainder of Spring Training.
In his report, Blair noted that a press conference that was to be held on Friday, March 13 for reporters covering the Atlanta Braves had been changed to a virtual format. It was a sign of things to come for all of us.
As the entire sports world was in the process of shutting down, John Whisenant with Hospitality Tennessee was meeting with Johnson City leaders at City Hall on the morning of March 12 to discuss strategic planning he did on behalf of the Johnson City Convention and Visitors Bureau. Large dispensers of hand sanitizer were placed conspicuously at the door to the conference room where the meeting was being held. There was writing on the screen at the front of the room in the form of a PowerPoint presentation, but the writing was also on the wall for everyone in the hospitality industry. While nobody spoke of it, the weight of the impending devastation that would be caused by the COVID-19 pandemic was almost palpable in the room as the meeting unfolded.
On Friday, March 13, local restaurants and other public venues in our region were still hopping. Many will look back at that weekend as the last taste of normalcy before the pandemic took hold of our region in earnest.
Earlier that day, Roe held a conference call with reporters to offer an update on the federal government’s reaction to COVID-19. The World Health Organization had officially classified the novel coronavirus as a pandemic on March 11, and Roe stressed the importance of taking steps to flatten the curve.
“There was this huge spike in Italy, and it overwhelmed their system,” Roe said. “As we do more testing, that’s going to pick up. There’s no question we’re going to see more cases where we are, but if you can limit the speed of the rise of those cases, that doesn’t put pressure on your healthcare system.
“We can handle five or 10 people that come in. It’s when 500 people come into a place that you have a very difficult problem.”
On the afternoon of Friday, March 13, President Donald Trump declared a national emergency, which set the wheels in motion for a shutdown of the economy in an effort to slow the spread of the virus.
By the morning of Monday, March 16, schools across the state had been closed and ultimately would remain shut down through the end of the school year. Students finished the year learning virtually from home. In-person events were cancelled en masse, ushering in the era of social distancing we still find ourselves in.
You know the story from there. Bathroom tissue became a hot commodity, as did disinfecting wipes and many other items. The folks at Food City took extraordinary steps to keep shelves stocked in their stores, as chronicled in an excellent piece by Business Journal managing editor Scott Robertson that also appeared in the News & Neighbor.
We are all creatures of habit, so it should come as no surprise that we were thrown for a collective loop when those habits were upended by a series of Executive Orders by Gov. Bill Lee. But out of the chaos that followed Monday, March 16 came a new routine, or the “New Normal” as some called it.
Homes became schools and offices overnight. Living rooms suddenly became classrooms and boardrooms went virtual thanks to Zoom. With most everything closed, folks started taking walks again. Business owners showed a great deal of adaptability by building curbside service and delivery options on the fly. Masks became part of everyday life, as did hand sanitizer.
In 2020, we had to find ways to be together apart. That was especially hard during the holiday season as cases of COVID-19 surged and large family gatherings were discouraged.
But hope springs eternal in every new year, and that was no different on Jan. 1, 2021. The vaccine Roe was hoping would be ready around March of 2021 is already being dispensed in our region, bringing fresh hope that we’re nearing the end of the proverbial tunnel.
So we enter this year elated about the prospect of experiencing a multitude of simple things we took for granted just one year ago. We yearn for the roar of a capacity crowd in Freedom Hall, the hustle and bustle of a full restaurant, the warm embrace or hearty handshake of a friend and the sight of the unmasked faces of our neighbors.
Just as day follows night and spring emerges from even the coldest winter, better days lie ahead.