'This virus is no joke': Kentucky officials don't wait for surge of coronavirus cases to tighten restrictions

Determined to slow the wave of cases seen in other states, Louisville’s mayor closed all playgrounds after he worried that some residents weren’t taking social distancing seriously.
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Visitors walk around the Riverport park along the Ohio River in Ashland, Ky., on March 25. Kevin Goldy / The Daily Independent via AP

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By Anita Hassan

Each evening for the past 32 years, Greg Fischer has shared the details of his day with his wife. But for nearly two weeks, the Louisville, Kentucky, mayor has had those conversations with her through a closed door, standing outside their guest bedroom.

That’s become the couple’s routine since Fischer’s wife, Dr. Alexandra Gerassimides, contracted COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

In their nightly conversations over the past week, Fischer has described his growing alarm that some Louisville residents were not taking the outbreak seriously. Last Monday, Fischer told her that his staff had spotted groups of people playing sports and pushing their children on swings in the city’s parks — defying social distancing recommendations.

“I told her I’m thinking about shutting down the basketball courts and the playgrounds,” Fischer, 62, recalled.

Louisville, Ky., Mayor Greg Fischer in his home office. Courtesy Greg Fischer

The mayor knew the restrictions might not be popular. Kentucky’s coronavirus-linked deaths remain in the single digits, and it’s been a challenge to communicate the urgency to some inconvenienced residents. But Fischer — along with Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear and some other mayors and local officials across the state — has been determined to curb the virus’ transmission before it reaches levels seen in harder-hit states like New York. Kentucky has closed schools and shuttered dine-in restaurants, and Fischer has gone even further in Louisville, based on his concerns about the parks.

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As testing capabilities increase, he and other officials want to be prepared for a surge of new cases. He worries that could overwhelm the state’s struggling health care system, which has faced public health budget cuts and rising pension costs in recent years. Like many other states, Kentucky is also facing a shortage of personal protective equipment.

So, on Tuesday afternoon, Fischer ordered the closure of playgrounds, basketball courts and soccer fields in Louisville's 120 parks.

“I hated to do it,” said Fischer, who also extended the city’s state of emergency to May 10. “But so many people aren’t taking social distancing seriously, either because they don’t understand it or are just blowing it off completely.”

Despite increased restrictions and public health guidance to practice social distancing, Kentucky has seen examples of people flouting the rules and recommendations. Earlier this month, a congregant at a southern Kentucky church tested positive for the coronavirus after the church defied Beshear’s suggestion to cancel Sunday services, according to local news reports.

Last week, Beshear criticized a group of young adults who held a “coronavirus party”; one attendee later contracted the virus. The frustration of watching residents continue to socialize led one Kentucky mayor to post an expletive-filled rant on Facebook urging people to stay home.

As of Saturday, Kentucky had five coronavirus-related deaths and 394 confirmed cases — far fewer than the worst-hit regions of the country, and state and local officials are determined to keep it that way.

Kayla Marx places an order outside the door of Day's Espresso and Coffee Shop on March 24 in Louisville, Ky., after a state-mandated carryout-only policy went into effect. Bryan Woolston / Reuters

“The next two to three weeks are going to be absolutely critical in this battle against the coronavirus,” Beshear, a Democrat, said at a news briefing Thursday, thanking all those in the state for the recent sacrifices they’d made. “This is the time where we do everything we can through social distancing and through being healthy at home to make sure we flatten this curve, so we do not see what we see going on in New York or California or Michigan or so many other places.”

Beshear has taken swift action since Kentucky reported its first case of COVID-19 on March 6. The same day, the governor declared a state of emergency and began limiting visits at long-term care facilities. A few days later, he sent a police officer to guard the home of a man who tested positive for the coronavirus, but refused to quarantine.

In the coming weeks, even as the number of positive cases remained in the double digits, he ordered the closure of schools and shut down gyms, salons and child care centers. He restricted restaurants and bars to takeout or delivery services only.

Aaron Graves, the house manager at Seviche, a Latin restaurant in Louisville’s hip Highlands neighborhood, said that at first, he felt the measures taken by officials were extreme. He changed his mind as he watched the crisis unfolding in Italy, where thousands have died.

Graves, 37, understood that the more people who complied with the guidelines, the easier it would be to beat the virus and the faster people could go back to work. He said he is taking the required social distancing seriously, only leaving his home to go to Seviche, which remains open for takeout. During a recent afternoon shift, he looked out the window and spotted a group of about eight people walking down the street, where most businesses had been boarded up.

“I wish people would practice it more,” he said as he watched the group.

During Thursday’s news conference, Beshear said that all local leaders had permission to shut down park activities, as Fischer had, if they noticed not enough people were practicing social distancing. Even after Fischer’s order, Louisville Parks and Recreation officials had spotted people playing group sports.

A line forms at the front steps of the Daniel Pitino Shelter, where only carryout meals are allowed, on March 25 in Owensboro, Ky. Greg Eans / The Messenger-Inquirer via AP

By Thursday, Fischer had removed all rims at basketball courts in the city’s parks, taken down all tennis or pickleball nets and locked up all soccer goals.

“This virus is no joke,” he said. “It spreads easily and people’s lives are at stake.”

He knew that firsthand. Fischer had been under quarantine since March 7 after he attended a fundraising event at the city’s Speed Art Museum. Several of the attendees, including his wife and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., later tested positive for the virus.

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After his wife, a pediatric pathologist, fell ill, Fischer extended his own quarantine until the end of the month and conducts all city business from his home office. He said his wife is doing well and recovering.

The couple have been communicating mostly through text messages. When Gerassimides, 61, gets hungry, he takes up a tray of food, slipping it carefully into the room.

And every evening, Fischer walks down the hall to say goodnight through the shut door. He debriefs on her day and they talk about their 4-month-old granddaughter, Penny. Before he leaves, he sends her a “virtual kiss” using his phone.

“It’s been tough,” Fischer said. “It’s not like you are traveling and 8,000 miles away from one another. You’re just separated by 8 feet and a 2-inch-thick door.”

Sarah Kaufman contributed.