On the morning of Sunday, March 15, I sat down to write about the elephant in the room.
COVID-19 had made its way to Ohio that week. While it would be five days until Knox County saw its first confirmed case, clusters of positive tests were already cropping up in the state’s metropolitan hubs. Later that day, Gov. Mike DeWine would announce the temporary closure of all non-essential businesses, marking the beginning of a months-long political struggle over safety and the economy.
It’s interesting now, looking back at what I wrote. The premise of the column was this: The COVID-19 pandemic will demand the greatest versions of ourselves. It will require uncommon selflessness, teamwork and sacrifice. And here in Knox County, I believe we can lead by example.
As we look back on 2020, and particularly the last nine months, I believe we have.
It was a year of tremendous loss, no doubt. COVID-19 claimed 53 human lives in Knox County and sickened thousands of others, straining our local health care system and leaving families to grieve in isolation. It sucker-punched small businesses – particularly restaurants, bars and entertainment venues – and threatened to unwind all the progress small towns like ours have made since the Great Recession.
It forced local leaders to cancel many of our biggest cultural celebrations – the events that bring our community together, year after year, such as the Mount Vernon Music & Arts Festival and the Knox County Senior Fair. It forced teachers and families to adapt to a completely new education system, upon almost zero notice, placing particular hardship on those already most vulnerable.
And it forced us apart during a time when we desperately needed togetherness. During a time of heightened political strife and historic racial reckoning, we were forced to cope alone. A polarizing time emotionally collided with a polarizing time physically. Our social fabric paid the price.
Through it all, though, I believe Knox County proved something to itself. I believe Knox County rose to the occasion.
Long before Knox County saw its first COVID-19 case, local health care leaders and emergency personnel came together to plan for the inevitable. When the virus arrived at our doorstep, we were prepared to meet the moment.
As the months wore on, Knox County’s trademark entrepreneurial spirit paid dividends, as we created products and partnerships that would not only help our community, but also others around the world. We chose early on to be a part of the solution, and to meet the world's challenges head-on. When the going got tough, Knox County got going.
As spring turned to summer and summer turned to fall, we found unique ways to care for each other, despite the circumstances. We masked up and kept our distance, but we also wrote letters and gave back. We recognized the heightened need in our community, and we responded accordingly. Because Knox County always does.
And we didn't let the pandemic stop our progress. We accomplished so much this year, as a community, despite the forces driving against us. We passed nine local levies and saw sky-high voter turnout during the November election, in a year when finances were tight and democracy looked different. We joined communities across the nation in calling for racial justice this summer, holding two protests on Public Square and continuing that conversation in City Hall.
We finished several major infrastructure projects, broke ground on a new city park, and saw one of the county's most important commercial properties come back under local control. Our people were state champions, state leaders, and state honorees. Even amid the pandemic, we kept moving.
Through it all, we saw tremendous bravery and strength from those on the front lines. Local health care and emergency personnel worked overtime to keep the community safe, and to keep the virus at bay. Teachers and school administrators went above and beyond to provide the best education possible during unprecedented circumstances. Business owners and non-profit leaders fought to continue their services, despite economic pressures.
And our essential workforce – everyone from grocery store clerks to farmers – risked their own safety to keep our world running.
By the time winter rolled around, as COVID-19 surged locally and statewide, a glimmer of hope emerged. Knox County received its first shipment of the COVID-19 vaccine. After nine months of uncertainty, we began to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Like most people, I'm looking forward to getting rid of 2020. It was a year of great pain and loss. Its scars will run deep, and its shadow will follow us for some time.
But I don't want us to forget what we learned along the way. I want us to remember the pain, but also the pride. I want us to think for a moment about all that we accomplished this year, and what we learned about ourselves along the way.
We are tough, resilient people. But we're also intelligent, and caring, and creative. We do not shrink in the face of adversity; we rise to meet the moment. We are survivors, and as we proved in 2020, we're capable of thriving under even the most adverse circumstances.
I want us to carry forth this confidence – which was earned, not given – into 2021, where there is still work to be done. The virus rages on, and vaccines are still in the early stages of deployment. Experts predict it will be months until we can safely return to normal.
So, what will 2021 demand of us? The same thing it demanded in March. It will require us to go above and beyond – to exhibit the uncommon selflessness, teamwork, and sacrifice the moment deserves. It will require us to dig even deeper into our reserves for strength, courage and compassion.
It will require Knox County to hold the line – and lead by example – one more time.