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Employees check identification as customers enter Double Barrel in Athens, Georgia on Saturday, Aug. 1, 2020. Some bars took customers' temperatures before entering. (Photo/Taylor Gerlach; @taylormckenzie_photo)

Jess Carmean, a retail worker and resident of Athens for 19 years, has Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, an autoimmune disease that causes her immune system to attack her thyroid gland. She also has a genetic mutation that further reduces her immune system’s capacity to fight off illnesses. 

For Carmean, the COVID-19 pandemic has already presented a challenge, and now, her hometown has thousands of new people coming into the community.

The University of Georgia started its fall semester on Aug. 20, inviting more than 37,000 Athens students to campus for in-person instruction. Athens-Clarke County had 2,491 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of Aug. 23.

Other college towns across the nation are preparing to deal with similar reopenings, and Athens residents have anxieties about the potential for new outbreaks of the coronavirus. 

As students flood back into the Athens community, student groups have been seen failing to follow safety guidelines recommended by the university. Photos of house parties within UGA’s Greek life organizations were posted online throughout the summer. Days before classes began, groups of students were seen congregating in bars downtown.

Carmean said that keeping herself safe at work has been hard enough, as some customers refuse to wear their masks and practice social distancing. Athens’ population suddenly increasing by tens of thousands may increase her risk of transmission.

“To reopen the school is a threat to not only students and professors, but actual citizens of this town,” Carmean said. “We have already seen [students] not follow social distancing protocol around town. It would be ridiculous to expect them to. At their developmental stage, they are unable to truly understand the long-term impact of their instant-gratification decision making.”

If Carmean does test positive for COVID-19, she can expect her case to be longer and more severe than most. She said that when she gets the flu, she is ill for six to eight weeks, and the stress of illness can trigger other issues. Severe cases of COVID-19 can last for more than six weeks, and may cause lasting damage to the body, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Kim Zanone, who has lived in Athens for 15 years, lives with her 90-year-old mother, who is at high risk from complications of the virus. She said Georgia being a “hot spot” of the coronavirus has made it unsafe for a return to campus. She also raised concerns about students not following safety guidelines. Zanone said that she and her husband are fortunate that they are able to stay home and care for her mother.

“Some would say, ‘well, she has lived a good life, so what if she gets COVID-19?’” Zanone said. “No one should have to die that horrible death if it is avoidable.”

While having more people in town can lead to more cases of COVID-19, a lack of students in the city would drastically reduce business for Athens’ local shops, restaurants and bars. Haley Davis, a 24-year-old lifelong Athenian, took into account the possible economic hardship that businesses would face if campus remained closed.

“It’s a hard decision because a lot of businesses thrive off of college kids and out-of-town sports crowds to stay in business,” Davis said. “I never thought of Athens like a tourist area, but without the college, many places wouldn’t be here at all.”

Davis noted, however, that she does not think the university is concerned with keeping local businesses afloat with its reopening plan.

“I personally do not believe UGA cares about the small business aspect, but is simply bringing students back due to athletics and raking in cash during the football season,” Davis said. “I’m hoping the students will take safety seriously, but already crowded bars at night are not an encouraging sign.”

With UGA students returning to the community and some disregarding safety guidelines, Athenians like Carmean who are at high risk of COVID-19 face an uncertain and potentially dangerous future.

“I am extremely uncomfortable to work and have already had to experience so much aggression from customers,” Carmean said. “As someone with an underlying condition, this truly frightens me.”

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