The novel coronavirus began to wreak havoc in Sunflower County in late March.
By early April, the entire state was shut down, and in order to alleviate the financial pain of the shelter-in-place order that remained in effect for weeks, the federal government supplemented the state’s unemployment insurance to the tune of $600 a week.
That meant that folks who were out of work could potentially collect as much as $835 per week until the full benefit ran out without renewal at the end of July.
The Sunflower County Board of Supervisors issued a proclamation early on in the pandemic, allowing many employees the option of staying at home on furlough, which meant they could be eligible to collect the $835 a week benefit.
Some with underlying conditions understandably stayed home.
But there were many who chose to come to work, even if it meant they stood to make less money due to the enhanced unemployment benefits.
Assistant Road Manager Kirby Chambers and county road department employees Gary Walker, Jeryl Smith and Keon McCloud all chose to remain on the job, in spite of the danger.
“I’m a mechanic, so I figured if I stayed home, a lot of stuff would go unfixed,” said Walker.
They are not the only ones who stayed at their posts, but they are great examples of what dedication and the spirit of public service looks like.
McCloud, a truck driver for the county’s road crew, said he felt blessed to have his health during the pandemic, and he did not want to stay home when there was work to be done.
“I’m used to working, and it was a blessing for me not to be sick and to be able to come to work,” McCloud said. “I wasn’t going to use anything I didn’t have to use, and if I was able to come, like I said, it was a blessing, because some people weren’t able to do it.”
Smith, another truck driver for the road crew, said he was concerned too many things would go unattended without the road crew.
“I needed to work, and we also had a job to do,” Smith said. “We had grass growing…We had to get on it, and we didn’t want it to get out of hand.”
After taxes and insurance, the men said they bring home between $400 and $450 a week.
Since the county was paying the insurance premiums during the pandemic, they could have potentially made twice as much not working.
“We had things that needed to be done, and we had a couple of operators out that ran certain pieces of equipment, and we didn’t have anybody else to run them,” Chambers said.
Working brought its own set of risks for Chambers, who has an underlying health condition.
Even though he did stay away for some time, he would come back anytime he was called, day or night, to address road problems or help in other ways.
He even received an award from the county for work helping to lift a tree off a trailer house early on during the pandemic.
Even through all the precautionary measures, Chambers eventually tested positive for COVID-19.
“It was a blessing. I never had any major symptoms,” Chambers said. “I had fever one night, and I had a really bad headache one day. Other than that, I was blessed that I didn’t have to go to the hospital or any of those things.”
Chambers said he does not know exactly how he contracted the virus, but several county workers who attended a budget meeting with Chambers ended up testing positive.
Because Chambers interacted with the road department, the county decided to shut it down for about a week.
When the air cleared, all four men were back on the job.
Chambers said there are some parts of the county that need more attention than others, but he said the workers have maintained most of the main roads, and they have not gotten a lot of calls from farmers who couldn’t access roads.
“That’s one of the reasons I wanted to be available,” Chambers said, referring to the area’s farmers who began planting season back in the spring. “We wanted to make sure everybody could move around.”
McCloud said that it took a while to get used to wearing his mask, especially in the Delta summer heat, but he says he now takes all the precautions he can to keep from contracting the virus.
“I just take care of myself,” he said.
Walker and Smith said they do the same, cleaning their hands, sanitizing equipment and making sure they have their masks on when they are riding in trucks together.
Most of all, the men say they pray. They pray they do not get the virus or spread it to others.