By Patrick Yost
For 24 years Ed Hogan and Molly Lesnikowski have served sandwiches and crushed ice from The Caboose Restaurant in downtown Rutledge. “Our business is weather driven,” Hogan says.
Last Thursday, the same week that news spread that Hard Labor Creek was being used to establish a a small COVID-19 quarantine center (14 spaces available, officials say, in seven pull-behind campers) the phone rings inside the iconic restaurant. Hogan answers.
“Well, look at it,” he says, “somebody cancelled a job.” That somebody was the Morgan County Conservancy and they had cancelled their annual meeting. It’s a catering job The Caboose relied on to help sales during the lean, wet winter months.
But that’s OK, Lesnikowski says, “We’ll all survive. If this is the worst thing that happens to us we’re all OK.”
Since the news broke that the quarantine center was placed approximately two miles from the center of Rutledge and broke in a way that angered many residents who have expressed on social media feeling disenfranchised from the decision, life continues in Morgan County’s second largest city.
Down the block from The Caboose, past Chris Bray’s Yesterday Cafe, Paul Jones stands outside the Rutledge Hardware Store looking skyward. Jones doesn’t want to talk about the center, about how it may be affecting his business. He has racks of live vegetable and herbs for sale on the sidewalk It’s been the rain that has slowed his sales, he says. The virus? “I hope it goes away as fast as it got here.”
At Yesterday Cafe owner Chris Bray is reflective. “I’m going to keep a good attitude and hope it ends soon,” she says. Business, she says, is “slow this time of year.”
“We’re not having mass hysteria yet,” she says, “but I am concerned.” Bray says she worries about her elderly customers and any patients that end up at the center. “I am concerned about that. God bless them. I pray for them every day.”
“There’s just so much we don’t know.”
Rutledge Mayor Bruce Altznauer agrees. Altznauer was in Raleigh, N.C. dealing with family business when he first got the news the center was being erected. He immediately, he says, turned around and came back to Rutledge, all the while trying to communicate with state leaders regarding details. Nobody, he says, knew much. For a day, Altznauer says he had no information to communicate to his constituents. “At first I was pretty upset about the way it was done and I had no notice.”
Last Thursday Mayor Altznauer was given a tour of the center. In an email to the Morgan County Citizen Altznauer wrote “I just got back from a private tour of the accommodations at Hard Labor Creek. I met with Sgt. Justin Howard, Post 8 in Madison and Capt. Doug Wilson, Troop E Commander.
Both were very courteous and informative.
They drove me on a tour of the area where they are protecting the infected patient. I feel great about their efforts to secure the area and feel comforted to see the planning that went into this.
After this ‘behind the scenes tour,’ I will tell anyone who will listen how well this is being executed. Quite frankly, I have no concerns for my families’ safety and the safety of my citizens.
I am not a trained professional in this area, but as a civilian, I have no concerns. These professionals, Georgia State Patrol, though have never been in this exact circumstances, have been deployed to secure other scenes, such as natural disaster areas.
I feel that we are all safe because the Georgia State Patrol is on duty and watching over us.”
Since that time Altznauer also says the parsed information given to citizens from Gov. Brian Kemp regarding the center my have been by design. “It’s my humble opinion that the governor did it the way he did it so nobody could be mad at the local elected officials.”
Karl Goss has been the golf course manager at The Creek at Hard Labor for eight years. The golf course, less than two miles from the center is open and ready for business, he says. “We’re getting a lot of inquiries. Are we open, is it safe?”
He says a Canadian college team who typically blocks off early spring tee times at the golf course for competitive rounds have cancelled. Not, he says, for fear of contracting the virus but for fear of getting back into Canada. A girls high school tournament scheduled at the golf course this past Saturday that typically has 80 contestants is now down to 30.
Goss is also worried with the news that Augusta National has decided to postpone The Master’s golf tournament. “That’s typically our busiest time of the year.”
But overall, he says, these things are outside the golf course’s control and life, at least at the golf course, will go forward. “Overall, once people understand we are open and safe, it’s okay.”
“You can’t quantify what’s going to happen.”
For Stephen Davis, assistant park manager, workers at the park were preparing the park’s 20 cottages and 51 campsites as normal. “We have check-ins today,” he says. Last Thursday, he says, the park was still taking future reservations on the phone. “People are still coming to work. I live in the park and I feel safe,” he says.
The quarantine center is less than 200 yards from some residents on Lake Rutledge Road. Last week a single patient was sequestered at the center. On Sunday, that patient was cleared by state officials, released from the center and transported from Morgan County. According to a press release issued by the Morgan County Board of Commissioners, no new patients are at the center.
As the quarantine center was being constructed, Atlanta television media descended on the area. One broadcaster said the center in Hard Labor Creek State Park was ‘no man’s land.”
That doesn’t sit well with Rutledge resident Jeanette Cook. “It’s BS,” she says, “they said it i s in no-man’s land, in the middle of a state park. It’s not isolated at all, but the state thinks it is.”
And, says Lesnikowski, the lack of transparency for Rutledge residents from state leaders has left a sore spot. “That reinforces the idea we are expendable. They could have been more transparent. It’s dismissive. I know Bruce would have done a good job helping people understand.”
There is one thing, she says, that she wants everyone, from Gov. Kemp to the Center for Disease Control, to national leaders to understand.
“In most of the state it might be the middle of nowhere, but it’s home to us.”