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Athens Mayor Steve Patterson speaks at the Athens City Council meeting on March 2, 2020. (FILE)

Q&A: Athens Mayor Steve Patterson talks about COVID-19 cases in Athens, pandemic’s affect on his position

COVID-19 cases in Athens County have majorly risen since the return of Phase 2 students at Ohio University. 

Athens County officials have implemented many restrictions and guidelines to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 throughout the county, including mandating the use of face coverings in public.

The Post sat down with Athens Mayor Steve Patterson to discuss the impact COVID-19 has on Athens, and on his position as mayor.

The Post: As of right now, how many cases are in Athens?

Patterson: Total cases, I believe it's over 1,140. I'm not mistaken, I think it's probably 1,145, but that will again likely change today at two o'clock.

The Post: How have you seen these cases fluctuate?

Patterson: I can start by telling you that from mid-March, all the way up through, late May, early June, we were holding at single-digit cases, total cases for quite some time. And then, again, late May, early June, the numbers started to rise into the double digits. Again, still wasn't extreme until mid-July, early July, I should say, after the Fourth of July weekend. We saw that it went from 30 total cases up to I believe it was about 179 total cases within a very short span of time. I think it was within the course of about two weeks it had really started to escalate. It peaked at 176 active cases and then started to drop back down again to I believe it was late August, in that timeframe, we were down to five active cases at one point, which was great. We kind of watched the first spike and wave run through the city of Athens. And then, since that time, it has slowly crept up over time, until more recently, to where we saw daily cases coming in, anywhere from the 20s to up to 40 to 45 cases a day, a steep rise. And a lot of that was because, as you're aware, we saw with classes starting on August 24, we started to see the cases increase—positive cases, increase. And then with the Phase 2 of Ohio University’s teaching, where there was an increase of students coming in to live in the residence halls—I believe it was somewhere around 1,300 students moving into the residence halls—we started seeing a little bit sharper rise in daily positive cases or total positive cases. I think, if I'm not mistaken, we are now at about 252 positive cases. You can easily fact check that, and I would encourage you to by going to the Athens City-County Health Department's dashboard.

The Post: You said that there was a spike in July. Why do you think that was?

Patterson: I think part of it was that there were a large number of off-campus residents that moved into their apartments and rental units. I think another part of that is that the county withheld for so long, at single-digit cases, that I think that a lot of individuals felt that, you know, ‘Hey, Athens is probably a much safer place to be than other places in the state.’ We have individuals who live here during the academic year that are from all across the state of Ohio and the Ohio Valley and border states and whatnot. I think that was part of it. It looked that Athens was a pretty safe place to be in terms of the rest of the COVID-19 cases that were arising throughout the state, most notably in larger metropolitan areas; Dayton, Columbus, Cincinnati, Cleveland. Plus, it was you a lot of people who were under contract with their landlords, and so they had a place to move into and live out of. I think it was all the above.

The Post: To change directions a little bit, what measures are being taken to prevent COVID-19 cases right now?

Patterson: Well, the city has a face mask ordinance and we have since July 13. Got that in place July 14. The state governor came out with this mandatory statewide space covering ordinance about 10 days after the city of Athens came out with ours. So we have that, but it's required that if you're out in public or entering into a business open to the public that you have to wear a face mask. The other thing is that the governor's order is still in place, in that it is not permissible to have gatherings of greater than 10 people. Because of the global pandemic being experienced here in the state of Ohio, Ohio University also has a face covering policy in place that you have to wear a face covering on campus. And those are some of the main things. I know, like the police department, if they encounter large groups of people waiting outside drinking establishments on Court Street, or elsewhere, that they will certainly approach them and tell them they are in violation of the face mask or face covering ordinance. They have face masks that they carry with them, and they will give them to individuals standing around and ask them to wear them and also try to get them to effectively social distance from each other. Those are the main tools that we have to work with under the global pandemic.

The Post: What difficulties have you faced trying to enforce the safety guidelines?

Patterson: Some of the difficulties are those who feel that they don't need to be compliant with wearing face covering or social distancing, which is troubling from a humanity standpoint because we're all living under a pandemic. We’ve got our population that has a pretty equal distribution of age groups. In that, I've got people representing every age demographic. And I have a lot of concern for the community spread to those who are more vulnerable from a health standpoint. And, a lot of people will sit and say, ‘Well, we don't engage with those people,’ but what people tend to either ignore or not think about is that if you frequent Seaman's grocery store, if you frequent Kroger, if you frequent Busy Day Market, if you frequent Walmart, all those locations, if someone is asymptomatic, COVID-positive, it’s kind of conceivable, not only conceivable, but it’s likely that could initiate community spread and spread to more vulnerable populations throughout the city, as well as the county. 

The Post: What would you change about how COVID-19 is being handled, if you would change anything?

Patterson: One of the things I would change right away would be mandatory COVID-19 testing. Really, it's not in my wheelhouse. It would be more on Ohio University. When you look at the COVID-19 positive cases coming in, 75% or more is coming from two age demographics: 19 and under, and 20 to 29. You look statistically at the 30 to 39-year-old demo, 40 to 49-year-olds, so on so forth all the way up to 90 to 99-year-old demographics. Those, the positive cases, in those age groups pale in comparison to the lower the bottom two age demographics. And one of the things that would certainly be helpful for a university community, for a college town, would be to have mandatory testing, once, if not twice, a week. There are other universities in the United States that have taken such measures, and the most notable being Cornell University in Ithaca, New York to where their COVID-19 cases, percentage-wise, for a university campus that is significantly larger than Ohio University's campus is running at about, give or take, 1%. Whereas, OU’s campus, so our university campus is running at a much higher percentage than that 1% for sure. I think things like that would certainly be helpful, and I think just being cognizant of everybody around you. When you wear a mask on your face, you're not so much protecting yourself, you're protecting those around you. There's not an hour that goes by, there's not a minute that goes by where I'm not outside in the public, without a face mask on. I am always masked up when I'm out. As a matter of fact, I just did a press conference, or an Athens city update, a weekly update with the mayor, down at the new Richland Avenue pedestrian passageway, which is on Richland Avenue between West Green and Porter, Grover, Baker Center, and it was just one of the technicians from the government channel, recording me and myself. And we were both masked up, even though we were more than six feet away, and I don't know that I passed by but maybe one or two people when I was down there. But it's just the right thing to do, to if you're outside, you're out in public, that you wear a mask. If you're in gatherings, wear a mask.

The Post: What are the plans for the future with COVID-19? How do you plan to proceed with things?

Patterson: Well, I will certainly share with you that COVID-19 is not going away anytime soon. There is no vaccine right now for COVID-19, and even if there was a vaccine that came out, say, November 1, there is just is not at this point in time, the capacity or distribution capacity to get that vaccine out immediately to the entire population of the United States. It's just not going to happen. It'll happen, it's going to take time. I don't foresee things changing significantly for at least eight months to possibly a year from now. It's going to take quite a bit of time to get 350 million people inoculated against this particular virus, and we still don't know when a virus comes, or when a vaccine comes out, as to whether it's going to be a single dose, or it's going to be a multiple dose vaccine, to where you can't just be inoculated once in the course of months or six months, whatever it is. You're going to likely have to be vaccinated a couple of times, as I understand it, at this point. And I don't mean a couple times, once a year, I'm talking about this to be effective. It may require multiple doses of said vaccine. So that's yet to be seen. So, to answer your question, ‘how are we preparing for it?’ Again, the best things that people can do is social distance, wear a mask and wash your hands frequently. And be mindful of others around you. You never know when you're out in public or if you're in the grocery store, you're in Walmart, whatever. I think we all tend to walk around and not be 100% cognizant pre-COVID-19 as who's standing near you or around you. And, it's just, I think, given the pandemic that we're living under, it's really good to be mindful as to how close you are to others and how close you are to people who may have compromising health conditions to where I don't know if the person standing next to me has, is recovering on remission from some type of cancer. I don't know if someone standing next to me has had a severe disease, or hypertension, or someone next to me has COPD. And we have to be mindful at that level to where we don't want to inadvertently subject somebody to something that could actually lead to serious hospitalization, or worse.

The Post: And lastly, how has COVID-19 impacted your position as mayor?

Patterson: I can speak not just for myself. I can speak for most of the mayors and city managers that are a part of the Mayor's Partnership for Progress, of which I'm the vice president of, as well as the Ohio Mayor's Association, which is mayors from the 30 most populated cities in the state of Ohio and mayors and elected officials representing 19,000 communities across the United States, as I serve on the board of directors for the National League of Cities. It's, it's challenging. It's challenging. We, interestingly, as mayors and city managers and city and village council members, we’re always in communication with each other and sharing successes as well as sharing challenges. But, at the end of the day, our roles are to lead our communities, and I think if nothing else, the challenges make you a stronger, better person at the end of the day. But, there are days that are extremely challenging and there are days that are extremely rewarding going through. But that's what it means, at the end of the day, to be a public servant. You can't pick what global situations are going to get thrown at you. You serve, and you serve for the best of your capacity.


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