The spread of Covid-19 that had turned virtually all of northwest Georgia into a “red zone” now appears to have re-invaded Metro Atlanta.
As TIGC reported in a couple of recent posts, most of the counties in the northwestern corner of the state had been posting 7-day case rates of at least 100 new cases per 100,000 residents, which would put them in what the White House Coronovirus Task Force considers a “red zone.”
Until recently, the bug seemed to be doing most of its recent and current damage in a cluster of nearly 20 contiguous counties in north Georgia, but it hadn’t re-entered the Metro Atlanta region with enough force to push the area back into the seven-day red zone. Now it has, as this map illustrates.
Indeed, the AJC reported Friday that the head of the Cobb and Douglas county health departments had issued a special warning because of rising rates in the area. The newspaper quoted Dr. Janet Memark, the director for the Cobb-Douglas health district, as saying the rates were rising even though testing was down, and that she thought state data underestimated the actual spread of the virus.
“It’s decreased demand [for testing] but yet the percentage positive is going up,” she told the AJC. “I do think we have some substantial transmission that’s happening.”
The only North Metro and North Georgia counties that escaped red zone numbers were Gilmer, Dawson and Forsyth, and they didn’t miss it by much; their seven-day case rates were 95.5, 99.7 and 90.7, respectively.
On Metro Atlanta’s western edge, Douglas and Paulding counties posted 7-day case rates in the mid-80s, and the counties on the southern edge of the Atlanta region — Heard, Coweta and Fayette — were cooler still, with case rates in the 50s and 60s.
But the four biggest counties in Metro Atlanta all posted seven-day case rates that put them in the red zone: Fulton at 113.3; Gwinnett, 133; DeKalb, 129.4, and Cobb, 106.8
All told, 70 counties qualified for red zone status as of Saturday’s report from the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH), and for a change the southern part of the state appeared to be somewhat cooler than the northern half, as this map illustrates.
While there were obviously clusters of counties in Middle and South Georgia whose numbers put them in the red zone, the vast majority — again, for a change — appeared to be seeing at least a brief respite from the virus’s siege through those parts of the state.
Trouble in God’s Country’s preliminary take on Tuesday’s still-being-counted presidential election results:
First, Georgia’s overall political map won’t change much if at all. President Trump, the Republican incumbent, and Democratic nominee Joe Biden are carrying the same counties their parties have carried in the past few election cycles, as this map illustrates. Trump will carry the 130 counties shown in various shades of red (the darker the red, the bigger his margin) and Biden will dominate in the 29 shown in mostly paler shades of blue (ditto on the shading).
The good news for Democrats is that — based on vote counts pulled from the Georgia Secretary of State’s office this morning — Biden is generally out-performing Stacey Abrams, the party’s 2018 gubernatorial nominee (who, of course, did pretty well, coming within two points of defeating Republican Brian Kemp).
Biden’s doing a little better than Abrams in about half the counties she carried in 2018 and, perhaps even more important, added to the Democratic share in fast-growing suburban and exurban counties that are still solidly Republican, as this table illustrates:
The flip side of that, of course, is that Trump is largely lagging behind Governor Brian Kemp’s 2018 performance, if only, in many cases, by a fraction of a point. But his share of the overall vote trails Kemp’s in 129 counties, is better in 29 others and appears to be dead-even in one (Talbot County).
Also clear from these early returns is where the next major partisan ground war will be fought in Georgia. If Biden has gained ground in Metro Atlanta’s northern ‘burbs, the Republicans appear to be trying to build a political Maginot Line of sorts that runs from Rome and Floyd County on the Alabama border pretty much due east to the South Carolina line.
The two dozen or so counties north of that line, especially those along the border with Tennessee and North Carolina, gave Trump 70 and 80 percent of their vote — as they did Kemp in 2018.
(At this writing, Trouble in God’s Country is unable to confirm reports that Republicans are planning to build a physical wall across that line (let alone that Mexico will pay for it) or that the few Democrats still hiding in the North Georgia hills are being rounded up and deported to Cobb and Gwinnett counties.)
There are, of course, still dozens of solidly Republican rural counties in Middle and South Georgia, but the difference between them and their North Georgia counterparts is that most of them are losing population and shrinking economically. North Georgia is, for the most part, growing.
From TIGC’s perspective, the bottom line in these early numbers is that — no matter who carries the state or wins the presidency — Georgia is continuing to tear itself apart politically. Only 14 of the state’s 159 counties were decided by 10 points or less. Trump carried one county (Brantley) just over 90 percent of the vote; 24 with more than 80 percent; 42 with more than 70 percent, and another 43 with 60 percent-plus.
Further reinforcing that point: Biden is getting 70 percent of his vote from 29 largely urban and suburban counties he’s carrying (and that number will almost certainly rise as the final votes come in from Fulton County and other metro area counties). Trump, meanwhile, is pulling 66 percent of his vote from the 130 largely rural counties where he’s leading.
Some 40 years ago, some editorial writers and civic leaders began to sound the alarm about the widening economic divide between what came to be called “the two Georgias.” At the time, most political leaders were loathe to acknowledge the problem. Today, though, it’s clear that there are two political Georgias, and it’s far from clear how they can be put back together.
This year’s presidential election — and tomorrow’s election-day voting — is shaping up as another rematch in the long-running political war between urban and rural Georgia. The big question is whether rural Georgia can hold off Metro Atlanta’s rising urban and suburban tide one more time.
While demographics are clearly working against the state’s rural regions, they have managed to hang on at least until now; in 2018, rural voters turned out in bigger droves than their urban counterparts and dragged Brian Kemp across the finish line and into the governor’s office.
There’s little evidence in this year’s political tea leaves to suggest that rural Georgia’s task has gotten any easier. One of the biggest clues has been President Trump’s own campaign strategy. The fact that he’s been here twice in the past two weeks makes it clear that Georgia is indeed in play (as do virtually all the recent state polls), but it’s the way he’s campaigned here that’s the dead give-away.
Instead of making a public play for the suburban women whose votes he publicly covets, he’s gone instead to Macon and Rome, regional communities that anchor surrounding rural areas that gave him overwhelming majorities in 2016. Clearly, Trump’s strategic objective is to juice his rural base and maximize its turnout, not to try to reclaim suburbs that may be slipping away.
Beyond Trump’s own campaign tactics, the most attention-getting data point I’ve found is that the 29 counties that voted for Democrat Stacey Abrams in 2018 have cast 345,304 more absentee and in-person early votes than voters in the 130 largely rural counties that sided with Kemp. I mined that figure from the excellent georgiavotes.com website, which pulls data from the Georgia Secretary of State’s website and organizes it for easy public consumption.
It’s difficult (for me, at least) to read those numbers in any way except that the Democratic presidential nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, has probably built up a pretty good advantage in the early vote and will begin tomorrow morning with a fair Georgia lead over Trump. The question for Trump’s rural Georgia supporters is whether they can replicate the 2018 turnout advantage and overcome what looks like an early Biden wave.
In 2018, the 130 largely rural counties that went for Kemp produced higher turnouts than the Abrams counties in both the early vote and the total vote. In the early vote, the Kemp counties produced 34.3 percent of their eligible vote versus 31.7 percent for the Abrams counties; by the time all the votes were tallied, the Kemp counties’ turnout was 62.1 percent versus 60.6 for the Abrams counties. That difference was arguably decisive.
So far this year, the Democrats appear to be doing a good bit better: the early vote turnout in the 29 Abrams counties (driven no doubt by Covid-19 concerns as well as heightened interest in the presidential race) is 51.8 percent versus 52.4 percent in the Kemp counties — a mere half-point difference.
Even with the improved numbers, Biden and the Democrats face some notable soft spots. One problem that seems to be repeating itself is the turnout performance difference between Metro Atlanta’s white north side and black south side.
For example, in the 2018 governor’s race, heavily white and overwhelmingly Republican Forsyth County, on Metro Atlanta’s northern edge, turned out 64.9 percent of its registered voters and gave Kemp 70.6 percent of those votes; the south side’s Clayton County, heavily black and Abrams’s strongest county, delivered only 54.4 percent of its available vote.
This year, the divide is even bigger so far: 67.6 percent of Forsyth’s registered voters have cast their ballots versus only 43.6 percent Clayton County’s. Other heavily-black, Democratic counties also seem to be under-performing in the early vote: Bibb County at 46 percent; Dougherty, 33.5 percent, and Richmond, 43.8 percent, among others.
A final question is whether the state will continue the red-to-blue shift that has been taking place over the past several election cycles, and all these challenges are, of course, intertwined. Democrats lost Georgia by five points in the 2016 presidential race and by less than two in the governor’s race in 2018. If they can gain that much ground again this year, Biden will carry Georgia and win its 16 electoral votes. Pumping up those turnout percentages in Bibb, Dougherty and Richmond, et al, is probably key to that.
When President Trump goes to Rome, Ga., on Sunday, he’ll be visiting a part of Georgia that is deep red on two counts. It’s a part of the state he carried with upwards of 70 percent of the vote in 2016, and it’s also an area that is currently suffering one of the state’s hottest Covid-19 outbreaks.
As of Friday’s report from the Georgia Department of Public Health, 17 contiguous counties in the northwest corner of Georgia, including Floyd County, reported seven-day case rates of at least 100 per 100,000 people, the threshold for being designated a “red zone” by White House Coronavirus Task Force. Floyd County’s seven-day case rate was 235.2 — more than double the case rate required to qualify as a red zone. In the region, only Whitfield and Gordon counties had higher seven-day case rates — 281.8 and 236, respectively.
Those counties are also part of one of the state’s reddest political regions. Each one of those counties gave Trump at least 70 percent of its vote over Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential race — as did all the other counties in the northernmost swath of the state. (The map here shows all the North Georgia counties that gave Trump at least 70 percent of their vote in 2016.)
Why the president feels a need to campaign two days before this year’s General Election in a region he carried so heavily in 2016 is a question we’ll leave for others. But it will be interesting to see how much masking and social-distancing will be practiced at the Rome rally.
In the interest of responsible journalism, I must now report that I was wrong.
Based on data now available from state and federal agencies, the cost of hardwiring unserved areas in the 100 Georgia counties that comprise Trouble in God’s Country’s Middle, Coastal and South Georgia regions will probably be in the neighborhood of $1.4 billion. Add the unserved areas in the northern half of the state and you’re looking at a total of about $2.3 billion.
In my defense, I was working with some fairly limited data when I took that first swing at ballparking the cost of wiring rural Georgia for broadband internet service. Basically, I combined some testimony to the House Rural Development Council — to the effect that it would cost about $40,000 a mile to wire rural Georgia — with county-level road-mile data from the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT), made some charitably conservative assumptions and came up with a figure in the neighborhood of $500 million.
Since then, a couple of things have happened that give us a stronger basis for estimating the real costs of hardwiring the state’s rural regions.
One was the creation of the Georgia Broadband Deployment Initiative (GBDI), which was spawned by the work of the House Rural Development Council and is now part of the Georgia Department of Community Affairs (DCA). One of its major accomplishments so far has been the development of what’s been billed as a first-of-its-kind map identifying parts of the state that are unserved by terrestrial internet service capable of delivering download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second (Mbps) and uploads of at least 3 Mbps.
Study the GBDI map at right and you could be forgiven for thinking that about half of Georgia doesn’t have access to that level of internet service.
But that’s land mass. Extract the county-level data from the map and you might be surprised to learn that, even in most rural areas, a large majority of the GBDI “locations” already have access to 25/3 service. Statewide, GBDI puts the number of “unserved” locations at nearly 507,000 out of a total of just under 5 million locationsd, a little over 10 percent.
The problem is worse, of course, in rural Georgia. Nearly 312,000 of the state’s unserved locations are in the 100 counties that comprise TIGC’s Middle, Coastal and South Georgia counties — 17.4 percent of the total locations in those counties. In contrast, only about 1.5 percent of the locations in TIGC’s 12 Metro Atlanta counties are unserved.
So that gives us a sense of the magnitude of the task. Now to the question of cost.
Thanks to a new program funded by Congress in 2019 and run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), we’ve now got a pretty good baseline to use in projecting what this is going to cost. Dubbed ReConnect, the USDA program is now in its second year of operation and has funded 75 projects that are supposed to provide at least 25/3 Mbps service to more than 168,000 locations across the country at a total cost (including local matching funds) of more than $760 million.
Here in Georgia, there have been four awards so far. Independent telephone companies in Ellijay, Darien, Pembroke and, most recently, parts of three west Georgia counties (Carroll, Heard and Troup) are now plowing a combined total of $27.1 million into providing 25/3 service to a grand total of 6,159 locations.
That works out to $4,404 per location, which is actually a little better than the national ReConnect average of just over $4,500 per location.
The obvious follow-up question here is whether it’s worth that kind of cost to wire unserved areas of rural Georgia, especially those in serious, sustained decline.
First, let’s acknowledge the obvious. Access to broadband internet service is essential to modern life, no matter where you live. It is the latter-day equivalent of electricity and telephone service, and both were supported by an array of public policies and funding mechanisms designed to provide them to the broadest swath of the population possible. Somehow, the same principle should apply today.
But “somehow” is a big word, with a lot of wiggle room, and these are different times. Maybe private-sector players will eventually step into some rural areas that show signs of growth, but for the moment it seems they have decided it’s not worth their time or money to plow capital into rural areas that are poverty stricken and sparsely populated.
And while that puts the onus on the public sector, I would submit that, even there, it’s reasonable to have a discussion about what constitutes a prudent use of tax funds in areas that are losing population and suffering a long-running economic decline. At what point are we simply throwing good money after bad?
Take, for example, tiny Baker County, in deep southwest Georgia. Between 2013 and 2018, its population fell 7.7 percent, from 3,351 people to 3,092, according to the Census Bureau, and its annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP) shrunk 14.6 percent, from just under $108 million to less than $88 million, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA).
According to the GBDI map, there are a total of 1,799 locations in the county, and only eight of them have access to 25/3 broadband. Based on the ReConnect cost data, it would cost right at $8 million to wire those 1,791 unserved buildings and provide service to just under 3,100 Georgians living in a county with a shrinking economy. Is that a good expenditure of public funds that are, by definition, coming out of somebody else’s pocket?
Altogether there are 21 small rural counties (population 30,000 or less) that saw both their populations and their economies shrink in the five years from 2013 to 2018 — 20 from the gnat line south and one in northern Georgia. The GBDI map puts the number of unserved locations in those counties at 63,970; at the ReConnect average of $4,500 apiece, it would cost just under $288 million to wire all those locations.
I’m ordinarily pretty liberal when it comes to plowing public money into important infrastructure projects, but I’ll have to admit I’m struggling to see even a publc-sector business case for investing this kind of state or federal money in areas that are shedding population and economic activity.
This is not to write off Baker County or its similarly-distressed rural Georgia cousins, let alone the citizens who live there, but it is to suggest that their problems require a multi-faceted response. Spending millions on high-speed broadband won’t do any good if there’s nobody left to use it.
In my last couple of TIGC posts, I’ve reported that Covid-19 case and death rates are now higher in counties that sided with Governor Brian Kemp, a Republican, over his Democratic opponent, Stacey Abrams in Georgia’s 2018 gubernatorial election.
That resulted in a handful of unkind comments from readers who apparently felt it was impolite to apply such a political lens to Covid-19 data, so I decided to take an entirely apolitical swing at the numbers.
If anything, the results are even more striking. Where coping with Covid-19 is concerned, size does seem to matter: the bigger the better.
For this analysis, I’ve divided the state’s 159 counties into six population groupings — more than a half-million people (four counties); between 200,000 and 500,000 (seven counties); between 100,000 and 200,000 (14); between 60,000 and 100,000 (14); between 30,000 and 60,000 (21), and less than 30,000 (99). Then I pulled today’s county-specific Covid-19 data from the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) website and sorted it into the appropriate buckets.
The truth is, I’ve probably put an unnecessarily fine point on the population groupings. There’s not a great deal of difference in the results for the three largest groups of counties — in other words, counties with populations of 100,000 or more.
As the popuation groupings get smaller, though, significant differences do emerge. Taking the worst beating, collectively, are the 99 counties with populations of fewer than 30,000 people. That group of counties had the highest Covid-19 case rates and far and away the highest Covid-19 death rates, as this table shows.
The big takeaway from this is that the 99 smallest counties have a combined Covid-19 death rate that is more than double that of the four largest counties — 102 deaths per 100,000 people in the under-30,000 counties versus 47.6 deaths per 100,000 in the four largest counties.
Indeed, as the population grouping gets smaller, the death rate gets higher — and the same generally holds true for case rates as well.
I should probably emphasize that this analysis is based on a single day’s data — today’s — and that there can be some day-to-day fluctuations. I haven’t had time to string together a long-term day-over-day analysis, but I’ve done enough spot-checking of recent data to say that today’s data isn’t a fluke or an anomaly, it’s part of a trend.
We reported last week that the collective Covid-19 death rates in the largely rural and sparsely populated Georgia counties that sided with Republican Brian Kemp in the 2018 governor’s race had surpassed that of the mostly urban and densely populated counties that went for his Democratic opponent, Stacey Abrams.
TIGC also reported last week that the case rate trend lines were converging. We can now report that those lines have indeed crossed and that the 130 mostly rural counties that voted for Kemp and narrowly nudged him into the governor’s office now have slightly higher Covid-19 case rates than the 29 counties that went for Abrams.
Based on TIGC calculations using data pulled from the Georgia Department of Public Health’s daily Covid-19 status updates, the case rate lines appear to have crossed on September 9th, as the chart below shows. They had run at nearly identical rates for several days before that and have been steadily separating ever since.
The case rate trend lines have been separating slowly but steadily since they crossed about a week ago. The table below shows the case rates — the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases per 100,000 people — as the numbers tightened up around September 6th, crossed on the 9th, and then continued to separate through the 17th.
Those trends can of course change. All it would take is the emergence of a new Covid-19 hotspot in one of the state’s larger urban — and typically Democratic — counties.
For the moment, though, the current data would appear to put to rest early thinking that Covid-19 would do more damage in heavily populated urban areas. While it clearly struck first in such areas — including, of course, Metro Atlanta — it has since found its way into rural areas. Indeed, the interesection of the case and death rate trendlines coincides generally with the virus’s Sherman-like march to the sea across the state’s rural east-central and southeastern counties.
Here’s a little breaking news on the coronavirus front: The Covid-19 death rate is now higher, collectively, in the Georgia counties that voted for Governor Brian Kemp in 2018 than in those that went for his Democratic opponent, Stacey Abrams. What’s more, the difference in the rate of confirmed cases is narrowing dramatically.
This is a little bit of a surprise. Early on, the virus hit densely-populated urban Democratic precincts much harder than remote, sparsely-populated Republican communities, and there was a good bit of credible speculation that the gap between the two might never fully close.
The New York Times took a deep dive into national data in late May and posited that while case and death rates were rising in conservative areas, it wasn’t “on a scale that would close the gap in the virus’s impact on red and blue counties.”
That’s no longer true in Georgia. The Covid-19 death rate in the 130 mostly rural counties carried by Kemp in 2018 squeaked past that of the 29 largely urban counties that went for Abrams on August 25th.
The Kemp and Abrams death rate trend lines converged through the middle part of August. They were nearly identical by August 24th — 47.52 deaths per 100,000 people in the Abrams counties versus 47.43 in the Kemp counties. The next day, the lines crossed — 48.37 deaths per 100,000 people in the Abrams counties versus 48.52 in the Kemp counties — and they’ve been separating, fairly rapidly, ever since, as the graph above shows.
The Abrams counties have so far suffered more overall deaths than the Kemp counties: 3,095 out of population of 5.67 million versus 2,833 out of a population of 4.95 million. But even that may be changing. Since the Kemp and Abrams death rate trendlines crossed on August 25th, there have been 785 Covid-19 deaths in Georgia. Of those, 353 occurred in the Abrams counties while 432 took place in Kemp country.
While the Abrams counties are still reporting higher rates of confirmed Covid-19 cases than the Kemp counties, those trend lines are also converging. On August 25th — the day the death rate trend lines crossed — the 29 Abrams counties had a combined confirmed case rate of 2316.7 cases per 100,000 while the combined case rate for the 130 Kemp counties was 2178.6, a difference of 6.3 percent. By September 8th, the difference was down to 1.9 percent — 2529.9 cases per 100,000 people for the Abrams counties versus 2483.2 for the Kemp counties.
Put another way, during that August 25-September 8 period, the Abrams counties reported a total of 12,089 new confirmed Covid-19 cases while the Kemp counties reported 15,069 new cases.
These trends can, of course, shift. The recent death and case rate trends appear to have been driven largely by the virus’s Sherman-like march across east-central and southeast Georgia, which is heavily rural and went overwhelmingly for Kemp. All it would take to alter — indeed, reverse — these patterns would be a major outbreak in one or more of the major urban counties.
Still, the current data and trends would appear to put to rest the early thinking that the virus would be satisfied with feasting on Democrats in densely-populated urban areas. It took it a while, but it finally found its way to virtually every corner of the state’s rural areas, which have older, less healthy populations and frailer healthcare delivery systems. Those Republican hunting grounds now appear to be just as fruitful for Covid-19 as the big Democratic cities.