It’s not that anyone had directed Jamie Dove to close up his three pizza shops in and around Johnson City, Tennessee. But that was what bothered Dove: As he mulled over his decision that weekend, schools had not yet closed, and Tennessee officials’ main response to the coronavirus’ spread across the United States was to discourage gatherings of more than 250 people.
Still, Dove, 43, anticipated that business would slow on its own; while his pizza shops were popular, they were the kind of bustling joints one might expressly steer clear of in the age of social distancing. But from the kitchen of County Line Pie, in Chuckey, Tennessee, Dove watched as patrons continued to stream in. He listened to them crack jokes about the virus that struck him as something other than gallows humor. “People’s behavior just wasn’t changing,” he said.
After a sleepless night, on Monday, March 16, he announced his decision in a long Facebook post. He says he was the first restaurateur in Johnson City to voluntarily close his doors. “If I go broke, I go broke,” he said in an interview. “But if I’m uncomfortable in my own spaces, how can I ask my employees to come in here, too?”
Dove is one of many Americans who have become unlikely leaders as the country navigates a pandemic. As 50 states each devise their own plans of action, some officials have proved far less vigilant than others, allowing nonchalant and even cavalier sentiments about the virus to fester. In those spaces, unexpected decision makers, like business owners and religious leaders, are stepping in and filling the void.
They are confronting what has become a basic and essential question: How do you shut down in a community where many are convinced there’s nothing to fret over?
“Being first is hard,” Dove said. “But then finally what really broke the dam for me was, if I do this correctly, it may start a chain reaction.”
Dove braced for a swift backlash as he typed out his reasons for closing. After all, social media posts waving off the “apocalypse” still abounded. A few weeks earlier, when he first contacted the state’s Department of Labor to learn how to best take care of his employees in the event of layoffs, “just to be safe,” he said that no one seemed sure how to respond.
So he was surprised by the flood of support he received, which registered like a collective sigh of relief, as if many in the area had simply been waiting for someone to give voice to their own quiet anxieties.
Less than 24 hours later, another staple of downtown Johnson City, Mid City Grill, closed its doors. The owner shared Dove’s post on the restaurant’s Facebook page when announcing the closure. “As hard as this decision is, it is beyond the right thing to do,” wrote the owner, Steven Garnett. “Thank you Jamie Dove for helping us make this decision easier!”
A handful of other local businesses, including coffee shops and boutiques, followed suit. Days later, on Sunday, Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, signed an executive order suspending in-person dining services, mandating gym closures, and prohibiting gatherings of 10 or more people.
“You’ve just got to get to a climate where it’s OK just to say it,” Dove said.
For weeks, pastor Jose Rivera had urged his congregants at the Church of God of Prophecy in Phoenix to elbow bump instead of shaking hands or embracing. They mostly ignored the advice.
On Sunday, March 15 — days before the governor of Arizona would recommend against gatherings of more than 10 people — the church was almost filled to its 250-person capacity. When Rivera offered his sermon, dozens of people gathered near the front, bowing in prayer, placing their hands on one another’s shoulders.
Two days later, Rivera had begun to break the news: There would be no regular church service the next Sunday, or on any Sunday for weeks to come.
“The people are not going to be happy,” he said in between calls to parishioners. “But if they see that everybody is biting the bullet and we have to do this, maybe they will understand the situation. If we were in the jungle, you don’t have to listen to rules. But people are looking up to us in many ways.”
By the time he was done making alternative plans — livestreaming all the regular music from weekly services, setting up small groups for Bible study — parishioners who had been loath to give up warm embraces just days ago said they were willing to stay home.
“We have to be the example,” he said. “If we can stop this epidemic that is going on, I think we will celebrate together when this is all over, regardless of how we feel now.”
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Carlos Ruiz Esparza, a congregant who is studying to be a minister himself, had initially rejected reports about the virus as overblown. But when he spoke with Rivera, he began to understand, he said.
“He’s being careful, obeying the law of the land and being obedient,” Esparza said. “I can’t get disappointed because I know my pastor is always doing the right thing for everybody.”
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Robert Putnam, the author of “Bowling Alone,” which famously explored civic disengagement and the decline of social and political connections, and a professor of public policy at Harvard University, said it was not unusual for “innovation and decisiveness to be found more at the local level.”
Putnam pointed to studies suggesting that during the Spanish flu of the early 20th century, survival rates differed sharply among individual cities.
“In normal times the differences between Kalamazoo and Springfield are going to be very clear, but in a crisis your chances of living or dying are going to turn out to pretty closely follow whether you live in a place with good leadership,” Putnam said. “Times of crisis like this put all institutions under a greater stress test, and some communities will respond better because of their leadership.”
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In some states, parents have no qualms about urging people to self-isolate and help flatten the curve — even if their elected officials won’t.
On March 14, Gov. Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma, a Republican, tweeted a photo of himself and his children eating out at an Oklahoma City restaurant. “Eating with my kids and all my fellow Oklahomans at the @CollectiveOKC,” he wrote in the post. “It’s packed tonight!”
A backlash prompted Stitt to delete the post, but the next day, a Sunday, after declaring a state of emergency in Oklahoma, a spokesperson said the governor’s outlook had not changed from “remain calm, live your life and support local businesses.”
By Monday, two Oklahoma City bloggers were on the phone with a local T-shirt company, eager to spread their own message: They were “staying OklaHome.”
Stacy Gentling and Caitlynne Miller are the owners of Oklahoma City Moms Blog, a site where moms post about parenting in the area, coordinate neighborhood groups and review and promote local businesses.
In the last few weeks, the women said, they had been inundated with questions from readers about how to help their community as the number of coronavirus cases in the state began to grow.
The blog largely depends on advertising to stay afloat, but in this moment, “We absolutely didn’t want to try and take a sales approach and get money or anything like that,” Miller said.
Instead, she, Gentling, and the rest of their team tried to come up with a cheeky spin on the need to self-quarantine, then work with a local business they’d long loved to promote it.
Finally, they arranged to have all proceeds from the shirts go to one of their favorite charities, Infant Crisis Services, which provides formula, diapers and food to struggling families in the area.
In the last two weeks, their writers have put together detailed guides to free educational resources, how to navigate working from home with young children, and activities to keep children occupied, like virtual tours of Oklahoma City museums. Pinned at the top of their Facebook page, which has a following of more than 18,000, is “A Parent’s Guide to COVID-19 in OKC.”
“Honestly, we’re nervous. We have no idea how this is going to affect us,” Gentling admitted. But she said her drive to make the blog the best possible resource for parents trying to navigate the virus, physically and emotionally, had given her a sense of purpose.
“Because if I was just stuck in my house thinking of how I was going to home-school my kids, I would be going crazy — not saying I’m not going crazy,” she added, laughing. “But being real and transparent, and saying this is hard, and we don’t know when this is going to end, and pumping out resources that are useful, that’s what we want to do.”
On Tuesday, Stitt issued a shelter-in-place order for people aged 65 or older, as well as those with underlying health issues. It was a start, but the moms will continue trying to convince people that it’s past time for everyone to stay OklaHome.
“I feel like we have a responsibility to the moms of the community to share what’s important,” Miller said. “And sometimes that’s not agreeing with what our leadership says, and doing what we know is the safe and healthy choice.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times .