Glenn Jacobs feels trapped. And the trap is COVID-19.
Peering out from his sixth-floor office window in downtown Knoxville, Tennessee, the 7-foot, 300-pound Knox County mayor surveys a city without a pulse. It’s 2, maybe 3 in the afternoon, and rooftop parking garages are vacant. Neyland Drive, curving left across his view, is almost empty.
It’s like scene from a Stephen King novel. “How do I wake up?” he wonders.
It’s not his first time in a tight spot. Ten years back he was locked in a chain-link cage to wrestle a man called The Undertaker. Their fight was part of a WWE event called “Hell in a Cell,” and Glenn’s name then was Kane. He choke-slammed his way to victory, keeping the title belt. Too bad there’s no signature move to beat the coronavirus, no ding-ding-ding when it’s over.
Glenn took office in 2018, cruising to victory in a deep red county after winning the Republican primary by just 17 votes. He’s traded his tights for a coat and tie, but his frame still stretches the seams of his extra-large suit, and veins still bulge from his hands. But while Kane was defined by fire and other hellacious imagery, Glenn flashes a gap-toothed smile, a made-for-radio voice and a flair for libertarian politics; he’s even delivered lectures on Austrian economics.
None of that prepared him for this fight.
Neither did the fact that he saw it coming. All the way back in January, the health department director warned him about what was happening in China. “So we had been talking about this for quite some time,” he says. “Now, I don’t think any of us envisioned the intensity that would follow.”
Suddenly, there were daily calls with the health department — not one he’d normally speak to that often. And he became very deliberate and intentional with his messaging, making sure to never make light of a serious illness.
So far, five people have died from COVID-19 in Knox County, while more than 300 have recovered. Glenn tweets these numbers daily, along with the number of active cases and hospitalizations, hoping to avoid overreactions. “Everybody looks at New York, and that becomes the national news,” he says. “The situation here is different.”
He’s tried to tread softly. No stay-at-home orders here. Five dead is a “tragedy,” he says, but he doesn’t want to overstep his mandate. He worries about governments using safety as a justification to undermine peoples’ rights. A perpetual emergency can make it easier to govern, getting things done whether people want them done or not. “I’m not saying that’s what’s happening here, or that’s what will happen here,” he says, “but it’s something we need to be aware of.”
Still, the city looks like a movie lot. A few blocks west, the University of Tennessee is deserted. Few venture to Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse or a nearby barbecue joint called Calhoun’s on the River.
No one knows, he concedes, how the crisis ends. He’ll let the experts talk about vaccines and herd immunity. But he does believe it will end, though not with a V-shaped economic recovery. “I just don’t think that’s possible,” he says. And the economic damage will stick with people, will be remembered, more than the virus. “That’s not to discount the people who have lost loved ones,” he adds. “I just think the wide-scale economic pain is what’s going to impact folks the most, unfortunately.”
There’s not much he can do for now but wait. Like Kane, he could try to climb out of this steel cage. But someway, somehow, the virus would grab him by the ankle and drag him back in. Turning away from the window, he wonders when — or if — he’ll see these downtown streets bustle again.