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From the first socially distanced concert to the first USS Roosevelt death, Fort Smith was in the spotlight of COVID-19

Max Bryan
Times Record

The global pandemic that devastated the world in 2020 had a profound impact on the Fort Smith region, both in the number of cases and deaths and how it has affected daily life.

Sebastian County as of Tuesday, Dec. 29 had 7,805 total COVID-19 cases and 142 COVID deaths. It's the microcosm of the worldwide effects of virus, which has killed more than 1.78 million people worldwide and has overcrowded hospitals, forced lockdowns, caused economic detriment and has left many wondering when life will return to the way it was.

Baptist Health-Fort Smith medical staff conduct COVID-19 testing July 2, 2020 at a new testing site, 1500 Dodson Ave. The drive-thru testing site is open 7 a.m. to 11 a.m., seven days a week.

COVID-19, which President Donald Trump on March 11 sounded the alarm on for the United States, reached Sebastian County on March 21, when the first case was confirmed. It had previously been confirmed in Pulaski, Jefferson and Washington counties.

Arkansas was one of only a handful of states to not issue a shelter-in-place order. Gov. Asa Hutchinson instead issued a series of mandates in a "targeted approach" that in most cases resulted in a similar effect with the intent to keep job losses lower than in other states.

Nonetheless, unemployment in Arkansas ballooned to more than 106,000 weekly unemployment claims filed in the state at the beginning of May. Like the total cases and deaths, these numbers are a fraction of the impact of the pandemic throughout the country — the U.S. at one point in 2020 had more than 20 million such claims.

As a result, each region of the country and the world has been forced to decide how to prevent the spread of a global pandemic while retaining a sense of normalcy. This comes with balance in mind for both for economic stability and the general welfare of the population. In Fort Smith, this was seen through two concerts — one that landed its organizers in a legal battle with the state, and another that caused public outrage when it was held.

The region also suffered the death of Fort Smith native Charles Thacker Jr., the first active duty military serviceman to die from the virus.

"In this job, sometimes you experience some things that you didn't think you'd run across, and I discover sometimes, you have to cry," Fort Smith Mayor George McGill said in a video message at the onset of the pandemic. "This is one of those times, because we're facing unknowns."

Charles Thacker

Thacker, a U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer, died April 11 in a Naval hospital in Guam after contracting COVID-19 aboard the USS Roosevelt. He was one of more than 1,000 sailors on the aircraft carrier who tested positive, according to the Associated Press.

Thacker had attended Southside High School in Fort Smith, according to former principal Wayne Haver, but other records of his early years in the city are scarce.

Chief Petty Officer Charles Robert Thacker Jr.

Thacker was laid to rest July 8 at Fort Smith National Cemetery with military honors. He was unable to be buried earlier because of a Department of Defense travel ban through June 30.

"All of that is very important to the family, as it should be," Edwards Funeral Home Manager Jim Edwards said in May.

U.S. Rep. Steve Womack and U.S. Sens. John Boozman and Tom Cotton each honored Thacker in a statement issued after his death was announced.

“His dedication to our nation was perhaps only surpassed by the tremendous love he had for his dear family," Boozman's statement read. "Petty Officer Thacker’s appreciation for the special things in life – particularly his loved ones and passions – reminds us how precious time really is and how this virus poses a threat to all of us, even the warriors dedicated to defending America."

The outbreak on the Roosevelt was part of a series of events that included the firing of the carrier's previous captain, the resignation of the Navy secretary and an investigation into the outbreak itself and how commanders responded.

Thacker is survived by his wife Symantha Thacker, whose Facebook account showed her and her husband with two children.

The first socially distanced concert in the U.S.

In the tradition of the Beastie Boys, the managers of TempleLive in Fort Smith fought, for their right, to party — during COVID-19.

The venue's May 18 socially distanced concert — the first of its kind in the United States — was preceded by legal actions taken at a state level to prevent the concert from going forward on its original date three days prior, before the reopen date for venues. The concert went forward in adherence to state mandates, but not without plenty of bravado from the venue presidents and their legal team that drew national and even international attention.

Audience members watch Travis McCready perform on Monday, May 18, 2020, at the first socially distanced concert in the United States at TempleLive in Fort Smith.

The concert adhered to the state's capacity guideline of no more than 33% capacity at the time it was held but was out of compliance before the guidelines were relaxed. TempleLive President Lance Beaty and Vice President Mike Brown originally moved the concert from its original May 1 date to May 15 because they expected they would be able to hold it then as churches were advised they could reopen on May 4.

Former Arkansas Department of Health Secretary Dr. Nate Smith in early May said the concert would not proceed unless it complied with state guidelines. While Hutchinson recognized the venue's efforts, he announced on May 12 the Department of Health would issue a cease-and-desist order on the show.

Brown in a video challenged Smith on grounds that the concert would be permitted in a church. But he and Beaty moved the concert after Arkansas Alcoholic Beverage Control removed TempleLive's liquor license, promising it back if they don't hold the show on May 15.

“We fought the law, and the law won,” Venue Vice President Mike Brown said at a news conference four days before the show actually went forward. TempleLive's legal counsel John Scott said he hadn't seen anything like the state's condition in his career.

Concert goers on May 18 sat in "pods" that were socially distanced within rows of chairs blocked off with caution tape. They generally expressed confidence in the venue's protocol and enjoyed McCready's blues songs and wailing vocals.

Brown said McCready told him the show was the best he's ever played.

“Watching from the front of the house, the video and the comments from the live stream we were getting online, I think it was phenomenal,” he said.

Brown and Scott nonetheless traveled to Little Rock on May 21 and alleged Beverage Control overstepped their legal boundaries by revoking their liquor license. They were told Beverage Control Director Doralee Chandler would not appear in the meeting because "the appropriate venue for TempleLive to air their grievances is in a hearing before the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board."

Even still, Brown said other artists who would likely play in venues larger than TempleLive have reached out and asked about the concert.

The mask mandate

Fort Smith adhered to Arkansas' statewide mask mandate to combat the spread of COVID-19, but not before arguably the most contentious city meeting of the year over a proposed localized version of the mandate.

The Fort Smith Board of Directors on July 11 tabled the proposed ordinance as the meeting reached three hours of discussion and public anger toward the notion of wearing masks. The proposed ordinance would have required anyone inside buildings in the city to wear masks.

Fort Smith resident Kevin Lewleling addresses the topic of a mandatory face mask, Saturday, July 11, 2020, during a Fort Smith Board of Directors meeting at the Fort Smith Convention Center.

The governor on July 16 issued the statewide ordinance, which in most cases requires anyone in Arkansas to wear a mask within 6 feet of another person when in public. Arkansas prior to the ordinance had reached 31,000 cumulative COVID-19 cases and 341 deaths.

Citizens at the July 11 meeting largely argued for their personal freedoms, including two who likened the requirement to Nazi Germany. One person at the meeting argued the masks were ineffective.

At least one citizen at the meeting argued for the mask to prevent the spread of the virus in settings like public transit.

The public comment section of the meeting was followed by so much discussion among the directors that Ward 2 Director Andre Good asked the board to table the item. Mayor George McGill after the meeting called for the board to pass the mask ordinance, expressing concern for the citizens of Fort Smith.

The ordinance was to be voted upon July 21 but was taken off the agenda after Hutchinson announced the statewide mandate.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson gives a COVID-19 update from the State Capitol in November at a time when some state legislators have called for more debate on the governor's emergency declaration, mask mandate, and public gathering restrictions.

Peacemaker

The mask mandate was promptly followed by a music festival praised as innovative by some and called irresponsible by others.

Held July 24-25 at the Riverfront Amphitheater, Peacemaker Festival in its sixth year drew more than 2,500 people who were sectioned off in grids marked off on the grass and required to wear masks when moving about. While the Arkansas Department of Health said COVID-19 cases were not linked to Peacemaker, it nonetheless caused concern and outrage over the number of people at the event and a report of a woman who got tested for the virus, went to the festival and later tested positive.

Christine Taylor of Fort Smith, right, and Jeff Hester of Hartford, center-right, speak to Rhianna Wagoner, center-left, and Clay Wagoner of Greenwood on Friday, July 24, 2020, at Peacemaker Festival at the Riverfront Amphitheater in Fort Smith.

Approved by city and state officials, Peacemaker organizers capped ticket sales at 4,600 — 46% of the Amphitheater's capacity. They sat in the grids, between which were rows with arrows indicating the directions the crowd members could walk.

The Times Record noted while covering the event that several of those attending the festival were within 6 feet of each other while sitting in their grids. People were also seen without their masks when outside of their grids.

Beverage Control cited the festival for "failure to maintain health, safety and sanitary standards, ABC rule 1.79(7)."

“While the organizers had a plan in place to enforce COVID-19-related guidelines and worked closely (with) ABC throughout the two-day event, there were several instances in which staff and volunteers were not able to adequately enforce social distance and mask requirements,” said Arkansas Department of Finance spokesperson Scott Hardin.

"Masks are not being worn in high numbers and social distancing is not being practiced," AR District 78 state Rep. Jay Richardson, D-Fort Smith, said of a photo of the festival taken July 24. "While I respect people’s right and need to socialize and participate in community events, I must urge concert goers to practice social distancing and wear a mask. We are in the midst of a global pandemic that is beginning to spread in high numbers within our own community."

Crowd members gather in line for concessions at Peacemaker Festival on Friday, July 24, 2020, at the Riverfront Amphitheater in Fort Smith.
Crowd members sit in rows of grids to promote social distancing on Friday, July 24, 2020, at Peacemaker Festival at the Riverfront Amphitheater in Fort Smith.

Festival organizers the week after the festival said there was no record in their database of the woman accused of attending the festival while waiting for her positive COVID test to come back. The woman, who on the second day of the festival said she tested positive, had someone in the comment section of her post accuse her of attending the festival.

Department of Health spokesperson Danyelle McNeill on Aug. 12 reported Department of Health officials had not seen any cases directly related to the festival. Sebastian County EMS Director Dr. Lee Johnson attributed this to the festival being outdoors and the mask mandate that had gone into effect that week.

“As long as people are abiding by the social mitigation efforts that we’re making to try to slow the spread of the disease, I think there are safe ways to do a variety of different events of that nature,” Johnson said.

A look forward

As 2021 begins, the Fort Smith region is hoping for an endgame for COVID-19.

Sebastian County Medical Officer Bryan Clardy at a Nov. 20 news conference said "the end is in sight" if people in the region wear masks, limit travel for Thanksgiving, socially distance, avoid enclosed social gatherings and get the COVID-19 vaccine when it's approved. He also said Sebastian County is now better able to care for COVID patients.

Clardy's remarks came just before distribution for the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine was shipped to states for distribution in December.

"It boils down to what we do as individuals, and we can do our part," McGill said in his March message.

Dr. Bryan Clardy, a family medicine physician at Baptist Health-Fort Smith, receives one of the first COVID-19 vaccines in Fort Smith, Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020 at the hospital.