The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A small town takes a big hit after coronavirus is confirmed in its midst

Cynthiana, Ky., recorded the state’s first coronavirus case, much to its surprise. Little has been the same since. (Christian Hauser/WKRC)

CYNTHIANA, Ky. — On a typical weekday, the restaurants that are just a quick walk from the white-columned county courthouse at the center of town would be serving a lively lunch crowd.

But the booths are empty this week, the bar stools vacant. The culprit is the novel coronavirus — a single case on Friday, followed quickly by four more. Almost overnight, they wiped out business here and made Harrison County an unlikely epicenter for the outbreak in Kentucky.

“This virus came to town and scared everyone,” lamented Josh Jenkins, who owns JJ’s on Main Street. On Sunday, he told most of his 20-person staff to stay home for lack of customers. He has no idea when he’ll call them back to work.

Even more than in urban centers where the outbreak has hit, there’s an eerie emptiness to Cynthiana, population 6,300. Several churches have canceled services for the foreseeable future. Schools are shuttered.

What has especially put people on edge is hearing that the first case was confirmed in a 27-year-old woman who works as a cake decorator at the Walmart Supercenter on the edge of town. She was initially treated at a nearby hospital but then airlifted because of her deteriorating condition to a hospital in Lexington. Rumors and fears have swirled, with some people speculating that she became infected through baking supplies shipped from China. Officials keep trying to end such talk, stressing that there is no evidence that the virus can survive on surfaces for such long travel periods.

The huge store has remained open, though on Tuesday the cake counter and deli were dark, and workers were scrubbing down surfaces. Display cases were empty. Elsewhere, it seemed business as usual. Customers continued to shop the aisles.

“You can’t let fear keep you inside,” Teresa Happ said as she loaded purchases into her car in the parking lot, though she acknowledged wiping down her cart before heading into the store.

According to a Walmart spokesman, closure decisions are made on an individual basis. “Everything was cleared with public health officials and their guidance,” said the spokesman, who commented on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. “We are going to do what is best for our customers, associates and the communities we serve.”

All around Cynthiana, residents are adapting to their new normal. The school system is offering lunches for children, to be picked up by parents or delivered to homes if needed. A local Italian restaurant is providing meals to people who are quarantined. (Four of the confirmed cases have ties to one another, with at least two attending church together.)

Jackie Collins, manager of Hope’s Helping Hands Food Bank, said it is no longer giving away donated bakery goods from Walmart. Prepackaged cookies from other suppliers are going in patrons’ boxes instead, and volunteers are handing those out curbside instead of letting people come into the organization’s storefront location to make their own selections.

Even so, the food bank’s traffic is down 50 percent, Collins said.

Lisa Abney and her daughter stopped by Hope’s this week and got two boxes and one bag of nonperishable pantry items. Abney wasn’t overly concerned by the outbreak, saying, “You still have to live your life.”

That’s the message Mayor James Smith is trying to emphasize. “A small portion of the community is on the verge of panic, and there’s a fairly large segment of the population concerned, but they are adapting and pulling together,” he said.

Smith has received praise for how he has disseminated information about the coronavirus cases via Facebook and local radio. The Cynthiana Democrat, a weekly newspaper with a circulation of 5,700, published a four-page extra that was distributed free throughout the county on Sunday and Monday.

The mayor took a walk around downtown Tuesday and greeted an economic development official with a brisk elbow bump. At that point, Smith intended for upcoming events to stay on track, including a pub crawl. By Thursday evening, that had been canceled — and another local coronavirus case identified.

“We are the most disinfected town in Kentucky,” he said with a laugh. Indeed, the faint bleachy scent of sanitizer lingers in many doorways of downtown stores.

Harrison Memorial Hospital is busy answering calls and screening residents who are concerned they might be infected. The facility is “cleaning on every surface in both clinic and public spaces each day . . . cleaning everything downwards to the floor,” spokeswoman Mollie Smith said.

The 61-bed facility had recently gone through a practice drill for a coronavirus patient, CEO Sheila Currans told the local paper. In the wake of the real deal, several staff members were told to self-quarantine. None has yet shown any symptoms of infection, according to the hospital’s website.

“We had to differentiate between who had close proximity exposure to the patient and who had a less close proximity to the patient,” Currans explained to the paper. “We had to determine the hallways the patient was in, the elevators that the patient used . . . every step along the way that the patient followed.”

Across the state, 11 coronavirus cases had been confirmed as of late Thursday. Gov. Andy Beshear (D) has urged residents to avoid large-group settings and specifically recommended that churches suspend their services.

“I don’t believe whether you go to church during this period of time is a test of faith,” Beshear said Wednesday. “I believe God gives us wisdom to protect each other, and we should do that.”

Harrison County officials are bracing for the outbreak to widen. “I am concerned we will have more cases,” said Alex Barnett, Harrison County judge-executive. Barnett took his family out to lunch after church on Sunday, but they found themselves the only customers in JJ’s.

Yet the coronavirus outbreak hasn’t hurt everyone’s business.

Ten miles outside Cynthiana, among the rolling hills of central Kentucky, a Mennonite-owned market has been doing brisk business in recent days. Allen Yoder said most of his customers were talking about the coronavirus and speculated that the closure of Walmart’s deli was helping his.

“Our businesses has been booming,” he said. “Especially at the deli counter.”

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