As he often does, Crist found a meme online that amplified his feelings and posted it to his Facebook page.
“Does anyone know anyone who has the coronavirus? Not just heard about them but actually know them,” the meme said in bold white letters on a blue background. “Statistically none of us are sick . . . yet concerts are canceled, tournaments are canceled and entire school districts shut down. Out of total irrational fear. If you have not previously feared the power of the media you should be terrified of them now. They are exerting their power to shut down America.”
The post struck a chord with Crist’s friends here in Wellsville and beyond, many of whom are similarly frustrated with the pandemic-induced havoc in their daily lives. “Amen!” said one commenter. “I’m not changing anything I do. This is BS,” said another. A captain from a nearby fire department, Dustin Donovan, liked the message, then added a hoax meme of his own.
Even as President Trump has asked Americans to stay at home and has called on the nation to come together to fight the “invisible enemy” known as the illness covid-19, virus doubters like Donovan and Crist persist. They call reports of more than 200,000 sickened and 9,000 dead worldwide a sham. Republican legislators have continued to brag about their dinners out, some beaches remain packed with spring breakers and Hollywood starlet Vanessa Hudgens was forced to apologize for complaining on Instagram that “people are going to die, which is terrible, but like, inevitable?”
Virus deniers vow to continue on with their daily activities with little adjustment, convinced that the unprecedented reaction to the virus is nothing more than a plot by the media or liberals out to get Trump. The Pew Research Center released a poll Wednesday that found that 62 percent of adults say the media is exaggerating the risk of the virus.
“I don’t feel the need to panic,” said Crist, 47. “If you don’t have a fever, you’re going to be fine. If you’ve got a fever, just get it checked. If you’re not sick, we don’t need everybody to stay at home.”
He was not worried about his family or his older relatives — “we’re all in good health” — and has gone ahead with plans to take a vacation in Arizona, where he plans to visit family and go out to restaurants as usual. The only bummer, he said, is that some parts of the Grand Canyon are closed.
Wellsville, pop. 1,809
Sunday unfolded with relative normalcy in tiny Wellsville, pop. 1,809, even as Franklin County officials declared a “state of local disaster” and shut the schools until March 30. Restaurants were open and the hardware parking lot was full. A nearby Dollar General had steady business, with one lone toilet paper roll left on the shelves.
Services went on as scheduled at Wellsville Baptist Church, though Pastor Bill Hendricks is trying to move the gatherings online. Hand sanitizer was placed on tables in the back, and residents jokingly tried to bump elbows rather than greet each other with hugs.
In his sermon, Hendricks said he had but one message for his flock this day — turn off the television.
“What’s being played over and over again,” he said, “is stoking fear.”
Some church members said their health is in God’s hands.
“We just need to trust the Lord to solve this,” said Ted Buckley, 73, a retired salesman. “I don’t know anybody personally with coronavirus. We shouldn’t be thrown into a state of panic because of what we hear, rather than what we see and witness.”
He was passing out little cards that read “C.O.V.I.D. 19” with the acronym “Christ over viruses & infectious diseases” and a comforting Bible verse.
Another churchgoer, Robert Cramer, 84, a retired chemistry teacher, said he would like to know how the virus “got out of China,” because from what he saw from a “Chinese expert on YouTube” it originated from a biological warfare laboratory into the meat market. Experts have discounted this rumor as another hoax.
“I think we have overreacted to this thing about the threat,” he said. “I’m an old person and I would be a prime candidate to get this and suffer from it. I just wonder how much of this is being done because they want to besmirch our president. We’ve had three years of constant criticism. If somebody shot a goose in Greenland out of season they’d blame Trump.”
Others with ties to the area felt the same way, including one Wellsville native, a product manager and married mother of one son who now lives in another state. She spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear her family would be targeted for retribution.
“It’s mass hysteria caused by the liberal media,” she said. “They want to take Trump and our economy down.”
She went with her family to the movie “Onward” this weekend and had plans for a date night with her husband Thursday — presuming the tapas restaurant in her community was still open.
“I’m not going to be a shut-in,” she vowed.
A gregarious business development officer from the next town over, George McCrary, 53, said that the media was playing down any positive news during the crisis because that’s not “what sells,” he said.
McCrary went about his usual business this weekend, with shopping stops at Aldi and Target and Big Biscuit, where he got a big plate of bacon and eggs. He said he has a degree in exercise science and would not be doing anything differently from health precautions such has hand-washing — which he had embraced for years living with an immune-compromised daughter and a mother with multiple sclerosis.
He said that covid-19 was “just a virus” and wondered why there is not more panic around seasonal flu, which killed 34,200 people in the United States during last year’s flu season, and more than 60,000 during the 2017-2018 flu season, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We don’t go this crazy over the normal flu,” he said.
His daughter, Kaylin, 27, a cancer survivor who suffers from four autoimmune diseases, went on a planned excursion to shop for a wedding dress on Saturday but since then has hunkered down, not going out for anything but work. She said her father is just being “stubborn in his ways.”
“The anxiety of it has been the worst for me,” she said. “It’s hard not to be afraid. But I’m just having faith I’m going to get through this.”
Presumptive positive case
Last week, a man in his 60s who hails from surrounding Franklin County became ill with flu-like symptoms and his case was reported to county health officials.
At that same time, Dustin Donovan, a captain in one of the local fire departments, was playing around on Facebook and saw Crist’s coronavirus media hoax post. He pushed the “like” button and added another hoax meme in the comments — a widely disseminated (and debunked) photo of a scribbled list on a whiteboard that attempts to link pandemic outbreaks with election-year politics.
Donovan, a resident of Wellsville whose Facebook page says he is studying for a master’s degree in “organizational leadership,” did not return text messages, calls or emails requesting comment. His boss, Ottawa Fire Department Chief Tim Matthias, said that he had reviewed Donovan’s posts and that the matter was being handled internally.
Friday, Franklin County health officials said they made their determination: the man with flu-like symptoms was a presumptive positive for coronavirus, their first case in a state that now has at least 21, including one elderly resident of a nursing home in the Kansas City area who died last week.
Alice Crites, Shane Harris, Andrew Ba Tran, and Hannah Jewell contributed to this report from Washington.