When coronavirus struck one small Kentucky town, residents didn't let 'social distance' stop them from helping each other

Gaby Levesque

The Cynthiana Democrat has been in existence for 152 years and prints about 5,000 copies for distribution every Thursday morning. Last Sunday, it ran 18,000 copies of a special edition — its first in over two decades. Why? Because the area had just become ground zero for COVID-19 in the state.

On March 7, the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the state of Kentucky was reported from the small town of Cynthiana. Despite their fear and confusion, locals quickly jumped into action to help, and so did the town’s weekly newspaper. Becky Barnes, editor of the Cynthiana Democrat, knew that information had to reach the people as soon as possible.

“We are very fortunate that we have a newspaper and a radio station both in our county,” said Barnes. “We are part of the community, and we are our community’s newspaper. We are their source of information. And you know, I like to think that the newspaper is important to those readers who wouldn't get that information otherwise.”

Cynthiana Democrat
The recent special edition of the Cynthiana Democrat. (Courtesy Cynthiana Democrat)

In a county with a large population of elderly residents, not everyone has access to the internet. So Barnes and her small team at the Cynthiana Democrat put together a four-page broadsheet on everything they could regarding COVID-19 and best practices in a national emergency.

“We put this section together and I feel like the community responded. If you did not receive one, we asked ‘Where are you?’ and we if we couldn't go hand deliver them ourselves, we put them in an envelope and mailed them out,” said Barnes.

The special edition of the paper that was published on Sunday contained information that the state and county had issued about the lone case of coronavirus in the area.

At this point, the entire state of Kentucky has a total of 11 cases of confirmed COVID-19 cases, of which six are from Harrison County, which includes Cynthiana. Along with those six confirmed cases, there are “probably over 100” other people in the county who are self-isolating out of fear of possible exposure, said Mayor James Smith. “They’re watching to see if they develop symptoms.”

In a town of 6,300 where gossip can spread just as fast as a worldwide virus, this news hits close to home. “So when we tell you, you know, there’s six confirmed cases, most of this community knows who those people are,” says Mayor Smith. “And it makes it a whole lot more real.”

From the moment the news broke last Sunday about the coronavirus case in Cynthiana, the mayor and townspeople have been lauded for their response to the situation, and for setting an example for other communities.

Even though all classrooms in the county were closed on the following Monday, teachers are still reporting to schools to help hand out food to those students who depend on their school lunches. “You can pick your kid’s meals up at the school. You can pick those up, kind of like a drive-through thing,” laughs Barnes. “Our school personnel are out on the sidewalks handing out bags of their lunch meals to them. The administrators are kind of trying to make it fun, and so some of them are dressed up like pizzas or different things.”

Teachers, administrators and staff
Teachers, administrators and staff keep the mood light while ensuring students get the food they need. (Robin Smiley)

Local restaurants are still open and have adapted to make sure customers can get food at home. They’ve “instituted curbside service. So you can call ahead, place your order and pull right over and not even get out of your car. Some of them are offering delivery,” says Mayor Smith. “Some of our restaurants are offering free meals and delivery to those 100 or so people who are shut in and being isolated.”

Cynthiana, 45 minutes north of Lexington, promotes itself to tourists as a quaint “escape for your soul. It’s a place where you can get away from big city,” says Smith.

“If you come to our downtown, we have no empty buildings because we have nice little shops and restaurants in every single building. Our economy’s been doing great,” says Smith. But, he adds, that “contributes to some of the fear that we have. We have so many small businesses and we've done so well and come so far in five years. We’re scared that it just lingers on. Or, you know, a month, two months, that will undo everything that we have built in the last five years.”

Mayor Smith says, “That's the beauty of a small town. We know one another, that’s good and bad. The good part is that because we know one another, we care about one another, and anything that we can do to help someone else through this, there’s somebody willing to do that.”

In a small town like this there’s no room for politicizing the issue. “I don’t see where anybody could have any other motivation other than saving people’s lives and responding in the best way that they know how. Politics is not entering into our decisions here locally. Not one little bit,” says Smith. “So maybe the example we're setting here locally is an example that they can take to Washington, D.C.”

Harry Burchett, left, and Ryan Quarles
Harrison County superintendent Harry Burchett, left, and Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles arrive at a local school to distribute lunches for kids. (Robin Smiley)

“I’m just so proud of this community in the way it has responded. Cynthiana is my hometown and I love it and I’m so proud to be from Cynthiana, Harrison County and just proud to be a Kentuckian,” says Barnes.

Looking back over the last seven days, Mayor Smith admits to a roller coaster of emotions. “There’s the concern and fear, and on the other side, I'm very, very proud of how this community has come together and helped one another and loved one another through this.”


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