“PUBLIC TOURS CANCELED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE: Out of an abundance of caution, we are temporarily canceling public tours until further notice to ensure the health and safety of Georgia families.”
That announcement greets anyone who goes to the “Tour the Mansion” page on the state of Georgia website. Gov. Brian Kemp was happy to reopen everything from barber shops to tattoo parlors to movie theaters to bowling alleys.
But he was suddenly possessed with an abundance of caution at the prospect of admitting folks to the governor’s mansion.
Never mind that the free public tours every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday mornings are confined to the first floor of the three-story, 30-room structure. A red velvet rope is stretched across the foot of the circular staircase leading to the upper floors, where Kemp is ensconced with his wife and three daughters.
When the website cites the need to “ensure the health and safety of Georgia families,” it must be speaking primarily of Kemp's. He has no problem with other families risking their health and safety by going to the movies.
The first family comes first!
At the start of this month, one of the workers on the mansion’s 18-acre grounds tested positive for COVID-19. Kemp’s spokesman reported the worker had never entered the mansion or come in worrisome proximity with Kemp’s family or staff. All the other workers were tested, and the results were negative.
“Anyone who was directly exposed to the worker has been tested and quarantined out of an abundance of caution,” a spokesman said. “The premises are routinely disinfected and we have suspended the use of work crews at at the mansion to mitigate risk.”
So, the abundance of caution and a desire to mitigate risk barred even workers who had tested negative from the mansion grounds.
But as the COVID-19 death toll in Georgia reached 900 and the nation’s body count passed 50,000, Kemp went ahead with a reopening plan beyond the mansion grounds. Even President Trump, at least publicly, condemned it as too fast, too soon.
In rural Dougherty County, Coroner Michael Fowler had been hoping aloud that the body count there would not top 100. He reported on Sunday that it had reached 110.
“It’s moving on up,” he noted.
He refrained from expressing anything other than a huff of disbelief when he was asked about Kemp’s decision to keep the mansion closed while opening up businesses across the state.
“I heard that,” Fowler said.
Fowler was able to report that many people in Dougherty County perceived a dangerous dearth of caution in Kemp’s plan.
“They’re talking against it,” Fowler said.
They had learned firsthand how fast the virus can spread and how deadly it can be.
“They have seen the result,” he noted.
Fowler worked for 10 years in a local Firestone factory before it shut down and gave him a lesson in sudden economic hardship. He went on to study mortuary science, becoming a death investigation specialist with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and a member of the National Disaster Medical System Mortuary Team. He was at ground zero in New York the day after 9/11 and worked in the smoldering ruins for a total of nine weeks.
“Dealing with tires to dealing with death,” he told The Daily Beast. “It’s a big difference.”
Now, as a coroner in the midst of a disaster that dwarfs the September 11 terror attacks, Fowler was faced with a governor who does not seem to understand the full magnitude of the difference between tires and deaths, between the economy and human lives.
And these deaths in Dougherty County are all the more harrowing for Fowler than those at ground zero in 2001. He knows many of the people he zips into body bags. He has a cousin who is on a ventilator, fighting not to become another number in the count.
Fowler feared that even if the people of Dougherty County heed the continuing danger and stay home, too many people elsewhere in Georgia will not. He offered a weary coroner’s description of the unmitigated risk that comes with entering the places that Kemp is reopening to the public.
“It’s like playing Russian roulette,” he said. “If you want to put the bullet in the chamber and spin it…”
Kemp has decided on his plan from a mansion that by one measure is just 20 minutes by car from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention headquarters.
By another measure, he is in an entirely different reality: Planet Kemp. He places others at risk while keeping his mansion closed so as not to endanger him and the family to which he is giving first a new meaning.
Before the tours were shut down out of an abundance of caution, tour guides would point out to visitors a signed first edition of Gone With the Wind, which Margaret Mitchell wrote after her mother’s death in the last great pandemic caused her to return from Smith College to Atlanta.
Along with a romanticized depiction of slavery reflected in a movie that is one of President Trump’s favorites, the novel describes Sherman’s march through Georgia. The actual campaign is estimated to have caused 100 civilian deaths, about the number who have already died just in Fowler’s county in this new pandemic.
On Friday, a small group protesting Kemp’s plan may or may not have understood the irony as they drove around the closed mansion with signs reading “Too Soon to Open!” and “Stay Home, Say Safe.” A further measure of Kemp’s failure to grasp the magnitude of the danger came with the American flag flying out front as the nation’s COVID-19 toll passed 50,000 dead.
The Stars and Stripes were still at full staff.