COVID: A Year Later

Herrington: 12 days that changed Memphis, 12 months later

By , Daily Memphian Updated: March 22, 2021 10:40 AM CT | Published: March 08, 2021 4:00 AM CT
Chris Herrington
Daily Memphian

Chris Herrington

Chris Herrington covers the Memphis Grizzlies and writes about Memphis culture, food, and civic life. He lives in the Vollintine-Evergreen neighborhood of Midtown with his wife, two kids, and two dogs.

One year ago today, the first known COVID-19 case was identified in Shelby County. 

COVID came to Memphis gradually, and then all at once. Or so it felt.

The World Health Organization first announced a spate of coronavirus-related pneumonia cases in Wuhan, China, on Jan. 9. We’d later learn that Memphis-based FedEx activated its corporate “pandemic plan” on Jan. 13. 

“Coronavirus” brings up 123 pages worth of mentions on The Daily Memphian site. The first was on Jan. 24, 2020, a Jane Roberts story titled “Local infectious disease experts tracking coronavirus developments.”

Local infectious disease experts tracking coronavirus developments

A couple of weeks later, epidemiologist Dr. Manoj Jain, soon to become a city consultant, was answering the question “Do I have coronavirus or the flu?,” with the flu, at the moment, the more pressing concern. Two weeks after that, he wrote of his worry that “with COVID-19 we are in uncharted territory.”

By this point, elbow bumps were replacing handshakes and paper and cleaning-supply shelves at local stores were beginning to empty, but outside of government and medical sectors — Feb. 27 headline: “Local prep for coronavirus thorough, ongoing” — life remained normal. Presidential election primaries and a dual Memphis basketball season were more top of mind. 

But it was already here.

Dr. Jon McCullers, associate dean in the College of Medicine at University of Tennessee Health Science Center, made this case in a March 3 column, writing that we were likely already in “the early stages of a pandemic with a novel coronavirus” and that it would “almost certainly” emerge from hiding in Memphis in the weeks to come.

It didn’t take that long. 

Five days later, mayors Jim Strickland and Lee Harris joined Dr. Stephen Threlkeld at a Sunday morning press conference at the Shelby County Health Department offices to announce Shelby County’s first confirmed case of COVID. 

Earlier that morning, the top three stories in our email edition were about Shelby County delegate selection in the aftermath of Super Tuesday, a “Mardi Growl” dog party at Overton Park and Ja Morant out-dueling Atlanta Hawks point guard Trae Young in a head-to-head battle.

It would be a while before the news was so low-stress again. (Maybe we’re still waiting.)

UT researchers seek drug to stem coronavirus effects

It only took a dozen days after that March 8 news conference for Strickland to invoke the first civil emergency order in Memphis in more than a generation, closing gyms, bars and indoor restaurant dining. 

A quick, selective timeline of 12 days that changed Memphis:

Sunday, March 8: The first confirmed Shelby County coronavirus patient is announced at Baptist Memorial Hospital-Memphis.

Monday, March 9: A fourth case is identified in Tennessee, but still only one in Shelby County. The Daily Memphian launches a coronavirus live blog. Asked about restaurant closures, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland says, “I don’t think we are even close to that now and hopefully never get there.”

Tuesday, March 10: A seventh case is identified in Tennessee. The Stax Museum and Orpheum Theatre announce extra cleaning measures. Grizzlies head coach Taylor Jenkins conducts a socially distanced media session before a loss to the Orlando Magic at FedExForum. Asked about the prospect of empty-arena games in the near future, fans in attendance are perplexed. “Daytime regulars” at Midtown bar Zinnie’s dub a drink a “Quarantini.”

Wednesday, March 11: The World Health Organization declares COVID-19 a pandemic. Memphis in May announces that plans are still on for its spring festivals. The Shelby County Health Department launches a public COVID data site. Rhodes College and UT-Memphis medical school suspend in-person classes. The NBA suspends its entire season. 

Thursday, March 12: Shelby County Health Department Director Alisa Haushalter announces the county’s second confirmed COVID-19 patient. We later learn that the second case is connected to the first. Still no evidence of community spread. Shelby County Schools announces schools won’t reopen after spring break, staying closed until March 30. The AAC basketball tournament, in Fort Worth, Texas, is canceled hours before the Memphis Tigers are set to take the court. Headline: “Restaurateurs worry as business slows down amid coronavirus fears.”

Restaurateurs worry as business slows down amid coronavirus fears

Friday, March 13: State total cases are now at 26. McCullers and Dr. Scott Strome of UT Health Science Center write about the importance of “flattening the curve.” Headline: “County Mayor Harris, delegation in Ghana during pandemic.”

Saturday, March 14: Headline: “Hospitals making triage plans, preparing for uptick from rural counties.”

Sunday, March 15: Headline: “Memphians worship apart for Sunday services.”

Monday, March 16: Local closings begin to ripple: Playhouse on the Square, National Civil Rights Museum, Stax. The stock market has its worst day since 1987. Gov. Bill Lee urges every school system in the state to close. Memphis Starbucks removes their seating. Headline: “State has only 500 coronavirus tests available.”

Tuesday, March 17: A third local case is confirmed, unrelated to the first two. Headline: “Closings, vacancies accelerate as Memphis tourism braces for downturn.”

Wednesday, March 18: A fourth case is identified in Shelby County, a fifth in the metro area. Statewide cases are up to 98. The Memphis Zoo closes. The Orpheum postpones shows through April.

Thursday, March 19: Strickland declares civil emergency, closing bars, gyms and indoor dining. Drive-thru coronavirus testing is set up at Tiger Lane. Headline: “10 local cases Thursday afternoon, community transmission noted.” Headline: “Memphis in May to move, new dates expected soon.”

Quick start to a long year

Those 12 days brought changes to Memphis that were sudden and hard. But we likely didn’t appreciate then how lasting they would be. 

When some of us were guiding our kids through homework at the kitchen table in late March, we suspected we’d be doing it for the rest of that school year. We didn’t think that it would be nearly a year before they were back in a classroom.

We didn’t think we’d be watching a Grizzlies playoff chase happen in the dead of summer, in a “bubble” in Florida, or Ja Morant close strong in a nationally televised MLK Day game in a mostly empty FedExForum. 

We didn’t think our restaurants would become accordions, expanding and retracting, for a calendar year and counting, at least those fortunate enough to survive it. 

Bars sue Health Dept. over COVID closing

We didn’t think then that four full seasons in the life of a city would be so disrupted. 

A spring without hoops at FedExForum. Without Opening Day at AutoZone Park or Africa in April in Church Park. Without crawfish and hot wing festivals. Without Memphis in May down on the river.

A summer without lolling on the Levitt Shell lawn or big-name bands at the Botanic Garden. Without Peabody Rooftop Parties and with many fewer international fans in for Elvis Week. Fan-free fairways at Southwind during the WGC golf tournament and no Southern Heritage Classic at the Liberty Bowl. 

A fall without fairs and festivals, from Cooper-Young to Germantown, from RiverArts to the west to Mempho Music Festival to the east to all points in-between. Tigers and Grizzlies openers in nearly empty arenas. Gonerfest gone virtual and Indie Memphis “online & outdoors.” The curtain not rising on a new Orpheum season. A fitful Tiger football season, with Liberty Bowl crowds that would have fit inside the Mid-South Coliseum. 

A winter without “The Nutcracker” — or “Nut ReMix” — on stage, but on television and drive-in screens instead. Without blues-band hopefuls descending on Beale for the International Blues Challenge. Without a full house at FedExForum on MLK Day. A St. Jude Marathon gone “virtual” and individual. Perhaps fitting for a year in which everyone was running their own race. 

Most of these things will come back strong, in the coming year or a little further down the line. 

But not all losses are temporary. 

Some businesses, of course, have been shuttered.

Governor signs executive order curtailing business operations statewide

A year after the first identified COVID case in Shelby County, there have been more than 88,000 more. Most of those have recovered, but there have been more than 1,500 COVID-related deaths in Shelby County alone. The ongoing health effects of those who got sick and recovered are still uncharted territory. The impact on those left behind from the loss of parents, partners, siblings or friends is incalculable. 

Together and apart

It might be comforting to say we’ve all been in this together. But that’s not entirely true. 

A year of COVID has been a microscope on Memphis. 

“Shelby County Schools” is a misnomer. Shelby County students exist more in three school systems — city public, suburban public, and private — and how the pandemic impacted their schooling depended on which they were truly in. When we say that Shelby County students missed nearly a year of in-person school, we’re only talking about a portion of the real student population and often the ones who needed it most. 

A close friend who’s a public high school teacher in a different city, about a decade from retirement, recently noted that he’d be teaching “pandemic kids” for the rest of his career. We don’t know the academic, social or emotional impact that will linger.

With Harris’ Ghana trip and the Shelby County Health Department’s vaccine fiasco bookending our March-to-March year, COVID has put a microscope on the divided city/county government. Would the clarity of consolidation have served us better this past year?

Series of miscues led to Haushalter’s rapid fall from grace

Whether COVID impacted us or our families specifically was partly a matter of chance. But only partly. It did not impact all communities equally, putting a microscope on health and economic disparities across the city. 

And it put a microscope on Memphis’ odd place as a demographic and political outlier within the state and on its rare place as the hub of a tri-state region, facing a threat that does not care about borders.

It put a microscope on the different ways we live and the different ways we’re governed across this tri-state metro area. Weddings were postponed and funerals restricted in some places, while only miles away the same ceremonies went forward with minimal disruption.

We were all in this together, but all of our lives are singular. And so, to a large degree, has been our experience of Our COVID Year. 

New day rising

It has been longer and harder than most expected when COVID first emerged in Memphis a year ago. And yet these are days of miracle and wonder.

Writing last March, McCullers suggested it might take two years to produce a vaccine. Soon after, Dr. Anthony Fauci suggested the most optimistic scenarios might have a vaccine ready to distribute in 12 to 18 months.

A little more than a year ago, we were talking about the state government having fewer than 500 tests for a disease that was shutting down schools across the state. Today, more than 110,000 people in Shelby County alone have received at least one vaccine dose. This past weekend, we hit nearly 3 million vaccines administered nationally in a single day.

Public rushes to get vaccine reserved for first responders

The distribution of vaccines in Shelby County has been problematic. The existence of vaccines to distribute is the one triumph of the year. 

But a year is arbitrary. This retrospective is written amid a thing still happening. 

In recent weeks, new COVID cases in Shelby County have stabilized to around 135 a day. A year ago, 10 total cases spurred once-in-a-generation action. 

If the past year has been, in part, about learning as a country and a community to live with COVID, to manage our way through it until science pulls us out, well, the finish line is in sight, but still in the distance. 

“In this (next) month, we have Easter (in April) and spring break,” Shelby County Health Department deputy director David Sweat said last week. “We know there are plenty of opportunities for human behavior to re-energize this epidemic and that is something we do not need. We need to get the vaccine into as many people as possible as soon as we can. We know that normal times are coming, they’re just not quite here yet.”

If the vaccines continue to outrace the virus variants and we can resist a too celebratory spring, it could be a great Memphis summer, if not yet a full return to whatever normal will be. 

Memphis in May, so understandably reluctant to pull the plug a year ago, is perhaps a leading indicator of our Memphis public life ahead: The World Championship Barbecue Contest and Great American River Run are back on for this May. The crush of the Beale Street Music Festival will wait until 2022. 

A year after COVID hit Memphis, we’re coming back, but stepping gingerly. 


coronavirus COVID 19 vaccines Restaurants Shelby County Health Deparatment

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