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体育在线365ALBANY, Ga. — For Elaine Williams, coronavirus couldn’t be more personal.

She watched her son take his last breath April 3 over a cellphone screen, two days after he tested positive at a hospital two hours away from home. Five days later, she buried 38-year-old Kenya Williams at a memorial service with only six chairs allowed — one for herself and five for immediate family. 

体育在线365Every day her phone rings with news of another friend, another neighbor, another community pillar dying from COVID-19, the disease delivered by the virus. And late last month, Williams learned she too tested positive, though she had no major symptoms.

“It is all so disturbing to me," said Williams, 61. “Every time I look on TV and see those numbers, I'm like, 'My baby is in that number.'" 

体育在线365Williams' grief is mirrored by many in this small, mostly black rural town in southwest Georgia about three hours from Atlanta. Albany, about an hour and 45 minutes away from Tallahassee, became a virus epicenter in April, ranking along with New York City and New Orleans for most deaths per capita from coronavirus.

'I'm paying bills, and there's no income': As Georgia businesses remain divided over reopening, there's buzz at some hair salons, barbers

体育在线365Dougherty County, where Albany is the sole incorporated city, has consistently led the state in deaths, reporting 125 as of Monday night and 1,543 confirmed cases, according to the. The small county has recorded a staggering 1,716 cases per 100,000 people, compared to 278 cases per 100,000 in Fulton, the state's largest county.


FYI: To provide our community with important public safety information, the Tallahassee Democrat is making stories related to the coronavirus free to read. To support important local journalism like this, please consider .


Gov. Brian Kemp should have 'carved out an exception' for hard-hit Albany

With so much loss, the idea of resuming normal life in Albany and risking a deadly second spike in cases is unthinkable. Town officials, business owners and church pastors are collectively rejecting Gov. Brian Kemp’s decision to allow certain businesses to reopen and lift a shelter-in-place order..

体育在线365The people here say they will decide when their community can go out to dinner again, get a haircut at a local barbershop and worship together at church on Sunday. 

And they are not ready yet. 

"We are not going to listen to the federal and state people," said Glenn Singfield Sr., who owns two restaurants in Albany. "We are going to listen to our local health community because that’s where our trust is.”

Singfield said at least a dozen restaurant owners from Albany met recently to discuss reopening and how to do it safely. The group, he said, agreed they needed the green light from medical experts and a 14-day decline in new cases as recommended by the federal government. 

More than 30 local church pastors also united, releasing a joint statement that they would not yet resume in-person church services. And the Albany City Commission signed a resolution urging citizens to continue to shelter in place. 

WATCH: President Trump disagrees with Georgia Gov. Kemp's decision to reopen parts of the state

Pastor Daniel Simmons of Mt. Zion Baptist Church said it's important for the community to be of one accord. 

“For a lot of people, they feel pressure to reopen, financial pressure, peer pressure," said Simmons, who leads a congregation of 3,000. “You may have members who feel like we need to reopen, but then they look around and see pastors standing in unity … then you have some ground to stand on.”

Albany Mayor Bo Dorough said he is concerned about the lack of sufficient testing in his community and the threat of a second wave of cases for states that reopen too soon.体育在线365 He won't feel fully comfortable with reopening the city until there is an "extended period" without positive cases. 

体育在线365“I understand the governor is having to make a difficult decision, I just think he made the wrong one," Dorough said. "The governor should have carved out an exception for places like Albany.”

A 'perfect storm' pummels Albany, a poorer, mostly black community

Late last week, downtown Albany showed few signs of life. 

On Thursday, six days after Kemp's easing of restrictions for salons, the inside of every beauty and barbershop was dark, styling chairs empty. A steel gate guarded the front of a shuttered pawn shop, and a man sat alone on a nearby corner bench eating a sandwich, his white N95 mask resting on his forehead. 

体育在线365But there were signs of hope, too.

One hanging from the outdoor patio in front of Singfield's restaurant The Flint said in white, black and red lettering, "WE WILL OVERCOME. Albany Strong." 

Next door at Pretoria Fields Collective Brewery, large blue letters spelling out "EVERY-THING WILL BE OK" covered the front windows, as two employees sold bottles of hand sanitizer and six packs of beer at a table outside the building.

Owner Tom Vess said he partnered with a sister company to make FDA-approved hand sanitizer that's helped him keep his staff employed while the brewery is closed. Vess said he needs to see a downward trend in coronavirus cases before he reopens. Kemp loosened restrictions on restaurant dining April 27.

"The safety of our employees and the community come first," he said. 

The town of about 70,000 people is so close knit, Singfield said, "When somebody dies here, everybody knows that person." In Albany, the dead have included a probate court judge, a prominent art gallery owner and a pastor.  

Many think a funeral in February at Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Chapel sparked the outbreak in Albany. City Commissioner Demetrius Young said a man from Atlanta who attended died a few days later from the disease caused by the virus. 

The demographics of the community also make it vulnerable to the virus. At least 32% of residents live below the poverty level and there are high rates of cancer, obesity and high blood pressure. Albany is also 73% black, and black Americans are dying at significantly higher rates. A by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week showed more than 80% of hospitalized coronavirus patients in Georgia were black. 

体育在线365“We were a perfect storm for this to happen in," said Democratic State Rep. Winfred Dukes, who represents Albany. 

体育在线365Still, Dukes said the question of reopening has left many residents torn. They want to go back to work because they need the money but don't have access to health care if they get sick. He blamed the state for not adopting Medicaid expansion that would have provided coverage for many poor families in Albany. 

体育在线365"If you have to pay your bills and you're not getting unemployment, those people are put in a bad situation," Dukes said. "But what we are encouraging people to do is to take the choice of health, because you can get some additional money, but you don’t have but one life.”

She lost a son: 'If you can’t sit still to save your own life, save somebody else's'

If a second wave does come, localofficials say Albany is in a better position to the combat the coronavirus than in March and early April. 

Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital, which has treated many of Albany's victims, is seeing a downward trend in the number of COVID-19 cases. The number of patients peaked at 155 on April 9, according to hospital data. On May 1, the hospital was down to 74 patients.  

Phoebe CEO Scott Steiner said in late March the hospital was understaffed and went through six months worth of personal protection equipment in seven days. Since then, the hospital has been able to stock up on supplies and critical care staff has arrived from other parts of the state to help. 

体育在线365Last week, the National Guard set up a free COVID-19 testing site in town. 

体育在线365While Steiner was reluctant to weigh in on reopening, he said Phoebe will be prepared.

"Part of me is saying we shouldn't be doing anything until we know this thing is gone," Steiner said. "But this is going to be around for quite some time. We’re still going to have positive cases for months to come." 

Williams, meanwhile, is urging her neighbors to stay home so others are spared the pain she has endured losing her son. 

Williams still doesn't know how Kenya, who was born with Down syndrome, contracted coronavirus. The only public place they visited in Albany was Sam's Club on March 12. 

She misses his forehead kisses, his gentle voice calling her "my dear" and the sound of him singing in his bedroom while blaring Frankie Beverly & Maze songs.

“Just because you haven’t lost anybody doesn’t mean that you won't,” Williams warned. "If you can’t sit still to save your own life, save somebody else's."

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