CYNTHIANA, Ky. — Closing in on a week after the coronavirus had descended on his small, rural community, James D. Smith sat behind a microphone in the WCYN studio on Main Street for his regular morning show, “Coffee Break Extra.” On his head, he wore a dark blue cap that said “mayor,” and in his eyes, the stress of the past several days.
“Everyone knows what’s going on,” the lifelong Cynthiana resident in his sixth year as mayor told listeners. “We’re keeping our hope up. We’re keeping our faith up. We’re keeping our chin up.”
Mr. Smith assured his audience that in these anxious times, he would keep the morning conversation light. And he certainly tried: His guest that morning had brought her daughter, a first grader, and he gushed about the drawing the little girl had made for him.
Still, it was impossible to stray too far from the emergency that has consumed his days, upended his city and been the talk of the town. A week earlier, a 27-year-old cake maker had tested positive for the novel coronavirus that has swept across America at a ferocious, frightening speed.
Here in Cynthiana, dozens of miles from any metropolitan center, the town’s roughly 6,300 residents had not expected the virus to arrive so quickly. In the following days, the town would emerge as the center of the state’s outbreak, as five others were diagnosed, at one point accounting for about half of the cases in Kentucky.
Mr. Smith acknowledged the fear of older and infirm residents. He understood the concerns of small-business owners because he is one himself. But he repeated a plea he had made quite a bit in recent days — if people were healthy, they should take the proper precautions, but they should support local businesses and live their lives.
As soon as the mayor signed off, a radio station employee spritzed the studio with disinfectant spray.
The call that upended Cynthiana came around 5 p.m. on March 6, from the operations center that had been set up so state health officials could monitor the coronavirus. They had been bracing for the inevitable, and it had just arrived.
Dr. Crystal Miller, the public health director, had been ready to glide into her weekend. Mr. Smith had jotted on the calendar weeks earlier a weekend date with his wife at the Cheesecake Factory in Lexington, 45 minutes away. Everything was canceled, and the group had to scramble to address an emergency unlike any other the town had confronted.
On the morning after the first diagnosis, Becky Barnes, the editor of The Cynthiana Democrat, the town’s weekly newspaper, caught a ride to Frankfort, the state capital, with Mr. Smith and Alex Barnett, the county judge-executive, or ranking government official, for Harrison County, which includes Cynthiana. The officials rushed to meet with the governor. Later, while packed in with other journalists, Ms. Barnes strained to hold still as she recorded video of the briefing with her iPhone.
The gravity of the outbreak soon became clear, she said, and plans for a special edition of The Democrat were hatched. It had been more than two decades since the last special edition, in 1997, when the Licking River overflowed, flooding the small town and stranding residents on roofs.
Ms. Barnes has a small staff, with just a reporter and an editorial assistant. They worked around the clock. A four-page edition was mailed to every address in their circulation area. Its front-page headline blared in huge type: ‘Don’t Panic.’
There had been whispers around town that the virus was nothing more than a conspiracy cooked up to derail President Trump’s re-election efforts. For some, the newspaper might be their only source of reliable information.
“Not everyone has internet,” said Ms. Barnes, who has worked for The Democrat for 44 years. “We have an older demographic.”
A week into the outbreak, she was relieved to have a tidbit of good news to report: The first patient, who had not been outside the country or in close contact with anyone who had, had tested negative for the virus and was being released from the hospital.
No end in sight
As the virus spread in Cynthiana, so too has a general feeling of uncertainty. This is a quiet community reached by two-lane routes that meander through green pastures specked with grazing horses and tin-roofed barns. Some residents figured a larger city — Louisville, or maybe Lexington — would have gotten it before they did.
“We’ve had tornadoes, we’ve had ice storms, we’ve had some other state-declared disasters,” Mr. Barnett said.
But this was a different kind of threat, insidious, invisible and boundless, with no one knowing how it arrived in Cynthiana, how long it would last or how far it would spread.
In a conference room in the public health office, which has been converted into a command center, a team of employees have abandoned their day jobs to become investigators, picking through the lives of the people who became ill.
They began with the first patient, who works at the Walmart Supercenter bakery and attends a small church. From there, they unraveled a tangle of daily routines and trivial interactions.
They followed the threads that stitch together the connections of a small town, looking for anyone who spent more than a half-hour within six feet of the patients.
It added up quickly.
“You can imagine the web that weaves in a small community,” said Dr. Miller, the local public health director, noting that a week after the first diagnosis, about 150 people had isolated themselves, calling in daily to report their body temperature and condition.
Over the last several days, the fallout of the outbreak has been stark but also subtle.
“All around us is chaos,” Mr. Smith said. “And yet here, kind of in the eye of the storm, life goes on.”
A joke going around town is that Cynthiana might be the most sanitized city in Kentucky. The aroma of cleaning supplies wafted through shops, restaurants and businesses.
On Thursdays, when the Rotary Club usually meets, its members typically hog all the parking spots on downtown streets; last week, there were plenty. Many residents caught themselves before they shook hands or hugged.
At Walmart, a lighter-than-usual crowd loaded tortilla chips and jugs of iced tea into their carts. One woman leaned on her cart, her chin resting on her hand, as she caught up with an old co-worker. Outside, traffic jammed behind a horse and buggy poking along Main Street.
Gov. Andy Beshear had urged residents to avoid religious services — a hefty request in a community that has dozens of churches of varying sizes and Christian denominations. A fried chicken joint in town offers customers a 10 percent discount if they come in with a Sunday bulletin.
At the Saturday evening vigil Mass at St. Edward’s Catholic Church, only about a third of the regular parishioners attended. They spread out in the pews, too far apart to easily offer peace to one another, even if handshaking hadn’t been cut from the service.
Tim Coy could not imagine skipping. “It’s just your whole week is off,” he said as he smoked a cigarette after Mass.
“I feel like the Lord is going to protect us,” his wife, Mary, added. “He’s not going to let anything happen to us in the church.”
Mr. Coy, 55, has a co-worker in the automotive industry who tested positive for the coronavirus, though they had not crossed paths. “I think people are scared,” he said.
The disruptions were undeniable: Some churches have canceled services. Schools have canceled classes for the foreseeable future, although one has remained open to distribute meals to students in a city where nearly 25 percent of the residents live under the poverty line.
The Coys’ son is a senior wrestler at Campbellsville University, about 110 miles away, but he was now coming home for at least two weeks. “He’s tore up,” his father said.
The Coys still went to a birthday party for their grandson, but Ms. Coy’s cousin, a woman in her 80s, stayed home. But she said any fear her cousin had was overshadowed by her outrage over the University of Kentucky ending its basketball season early.
A life-or-death test
Cynthiana has defied the fate that has befallen many rural communities across America. Downtown storefronts are lively here, as younger residents have moved in and opened small businesses. The industries that have underpinned the economy, like the 3M plant producing Post-it Notes and Scotch tape, are healthy and steadily growing.
But the coronavirus struck at a moment when the turnaround still feels fragile.
“We’re still in our infancy,” Karey Riddell said of the revival and her own year-old business, the Burley Market and Cafe, named for the kind of tobacco that once blanketed the farmland surrounding Cynthiana.
Roads, some barely wide enough for a pickup truck, twist through hills and around soggy fields toward Cynthiana, like blood vessels tracing back to a heart. The city has a square with a brick courthouse and rows of century-old buildings. Its streets are lined with churches and family homes, some stately and nicely appointed, others with chipped paint and mucky yards.
Ms. Riddell, 39, called herself a “boomerang,” someone who had left Cynthiana and returned to find it more appealing than she had remembered. Still, opening a business was stressful enough, and not knowing what was on the other side of the outbreak — or when it would be over — has compounded her anxieties.
After the first couple of days, the initial panic subsided, and people began to stream out of their homes. But the outbreak was nowhere near over. Health officials expected more cases, state officials ordered that restaurants and bars not serve in-person customers, and some residents saw potential for fear to swell back up.
As he sat at the Burley Market and Cafe one afternoon last week, Mr. Smith, also a minister at the Cornerstone Christian Church, talked about his own business, an old theater downtown that he had bought and fixed up with his friends. He had not canceled a showing of “Onward,” the new Pixar movie, and he wondered whether people would show up.
Rohs Opera House, the downtown theater that originally opened in 1871, had fallen into disrepair by the time Mr. Smith and the other owners took it over. They added new seats, and Robert Kirkman, a Cynthiana native and the creator of “The Walking Dead,” helped replace the projector. As the 7 p.m. show approached on Friday, Mr. Smith held the door open for families that trickled in with buckets of popcorn. There was plenty of room for social distancing. A trio of children spread out in a center row they claimed for themselves.
By the time the lights dimmed for the feature presentation, the fumes of cleaning supplies had been overpowered by the scent of salted butter.
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