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Life goes on as pandemic tightened its grip on rural Nelson County

Life goes on as pandemic tightened its grip on rural Nelson County

For several weeks, if not months, Nelson County was a rural refuge from the pandemic that raged around the county on all sides.

In July, Nelson County was uniquely positioned at the onset of Phase 3 of Gov. Ralph Northam’s plan to reopen Virginia — which would loosen COVID-19 restrictions for several industries — to fare better than most other localities thanks to its rural setting and low population density, resulting in relatively low infection rates at the time.

The county didn’t report its first positive case of COVID-19 until late March and had only amassed just 18 cases by the time the transition occurred to Phase 3 with no hospitalizations or deaths.

Now, roughly 10 months later, Nelson County reported 378 cases, 20 hospitalizations and four deaths as of Jan. 4, according to the Virginia Department of Health website. Nelson has firmly held the lowest number of cases and hospitalizations of all localities in the Blue Ridge Health District — formerly Thomas Jefferson Health District — footprint since March.

The bulk of growth in case numbers in Nelson has occurred since August, health district data shows, with case numbers climbing from less than 190 at the start of December.

Despite the slow start, the ripple effects of COVID-19 still could be felt in Nelson as it altered or changed in some way or another almost every aspect of life in the county. Churches, businesses, residents, local government, courts, schools; all have had to adjust to meet ever- changing restrictions and health measures as the pandemic continues into the new year.

Here’s a look at just some of the ways life changed and how the county responded:

Community a lifeline for businesses

Many Nelson County businesses saw revenue and employment losses across several industries, but it was lodging, craft beverage and restaurants that Director of Economic Development and Tourism Maureen Kelley said have been hit the hardest by the pandemic.

Drive-thru and curbside services became the norm for some in order to maintain a steady income and others went as far as producing new products entirely, like distilleries pivoting to make hand sanitizer.

“There was so much uncertainty [in the beginning], people didn’t have the tools to make business decisions ... and they had to change their business operations so drastically,” Kelley said.

Deb Verplank, co-owner of Orchard House Bed & Breakfast, said those beginning months of the pandemic were “personally and business wise the most stressful time we’ve ever been through.”

In their roughly five years as business owners, the Verplanks were on track for their Lovingston-based bed-and-breakfast to have its strongest year yet.

But the B&B managed to scrape by through gift cards for future stays, repeat guests and a rush of reservations that began in June as Nelson County became everyone’s “plan B.”

“People started to recognize that Nelson County was taking this extremely seriously because this whole area is dependent on hospitality. So that worked to our advantage [since June],” Verplank said.

Like Orchard House Bed & Breakfast and so many other businesses, the Lovingston Cafe found itself having to shut down because of the pandemic. According to General Manager Jeffrey Remsberg, who joined the business in October, the cafe was on track to have a good year in January and February.

“We were on pace to hit above average numbers and then March happened and that put a big hiccup in things. We had to reevaluate where we were and what was important,” Remsberg said.

Since reopening, the cafe has focused on consistency for locals and commuters and cut overhead. The restaurant, like many others, also has had to keep current with ever changing regulations and safety measures.

Remsberg credited the community with keeping the business going during the pandemic. He said the regulars are “the reason we’re here.”

Traditions pushed aside for safety measures

At the onset of the pandemic, churches in the area were faced with a daunting question: how to continue to preach and worship without being able to meet in person?

Many found their answer online through virtual streaming or uploading services.

Every Thursday, Bethlehem United Methodist Church officials record the slimmed down worship service of scripture, sermon and singing and posts it to their Facebook page so it goes live Friday evening.

Having always been built around in-person connections, Ed Childress, pastor of the Roseland church, said the choice to not meet in person since March required the seasoned worship leader to adjust.

“We opted at every crossroads we came to, to take the safer option and I think now we’re feeling good about doing that,” Childress said of not meeting in person. “Every time we had to make the decision it was gut wrenching, it really was.”

Presented with the same challenges, Dan Magan, pastor of The Well of Nelson in Lovingston, said his church also turned to virtual worship for the first couple months at the onset of the pandemic before reintroducing in-person services that took place outside.

But faced with dwindling attendance and donations exacerbated by the pandemic, the church’s longevity was in jeopardy.

Magan said The Well, having established roots in Nelson County about five years ago, officially dissolved Dec. 31 and was absorbed by Rockfish Valley Baptist Church. The church’s last service was held Dec. 20.

“The pandemic hit us hard,” Magan said. “We had our core people that were here but the majority of our people sort of quit coming and because they were affected so negatively because of the virus I’m sure their giving declined because of that.”

Magan added the pandemic had sped up the process of “showing us our weaknesses.” With many families hurting financially, Magan didn’t want to use what was being given for bills or overhead when it could be used to help others.

The pandemic also wreaked havoc on Nelson’s community calendar, causing many events to be canceled or forced formats to change drastically. The LOCKN’ Festival, which draws thousands to the county each summer, also wasn’t held for the first time since 2013. The music festival is slated to return October 2021.

‘The mission is the mission’

For Curtis Sheets, chief of Wintergreen Fire and Rescue, thinking about the pandemic’s challenges in retrospect was difficult.

“It’s hard for me to even think about it in the retrospect because we’re in the middle of it and each day it seems like it’s getting worse,” Sheets said.

Emergency Services Coordinator Russel Gibson said changes to public safety have been more like “small tweaks” rather than a major overhaul because “with public safety the mission is the mission.”

When dealing with the public, first responders wear personal protective equipment and departments have taken measures, like closing doors to non-essential staff or taking additional time to sanitize an ambulance, to eliminate potential for exposure.

While fire and rescue agencies and law enforcement have had to implement changes, Gibson said the EMS side has been most heavily affected. The pandemic has also strained resources and manpower across the board, especially in the event when public safety personnel are forced to isolate or have to take time off.

Sheets shared Gibson’s concern over ongoing challenges with maintaining staffing as several employees at one time may have to take time off because of the virus.

“Unfortunately it just means everybody else has got to work harder,” Sheets said.

Sheets also commended the county for allocating resources to public safety departments.

“I’ve been really proud with how our people have acted,” Gibson said. “Through the little tweaks and staffing changes and through the extra considerations we’ve had to take public safety has still been there and able to meet peoples needs as much as we’ve been requested.”

Virtual learning’s learning curveNelson County Public Schools and other school divisions in the commonwealth shut their doors in March for the remainder of the semester as part of an effort to mitigate the spread of the virus. Those doors have remained shut as the division began its fall semester in an entirely virtual learning format.

School officials developed both an instructional plan, outlining learning models for the division’s return to school, and a health plan, outlining how students and staff would be kept safe once they did return to the buildings.

Currently, virtual learning offers both synchronous and asynchronous options and the division has remained flexible in order to address growing trends in failing grades and more students testing below benchmarks by allowing a select number of students to receive in-person remediation.

Superintendent Martha Eagle said in an email the academic slide is very real because of limitations to virtual learning and the long-term impacts of the pandemic on the nation’s younger population are still unknown.

“There has definitely been a huge learning curve for everyone as we have adapted to virtual learning platforms, new schedules, and different expectations,” Eagle said.

The biggest obstacles that have emerged since March have been internet connectivity and any inequities of service, lack of personal connection especially in regards to mental health and nutritional needs, and student engagement.

“People have shown incredible adaptability and agility in meeting this crisis challenge and although not perfect, we have all worked together to get the job done,” Eagle said.

Technology, broadband take center stage

From teleworking to telemedicine and virtual learning, internet and technology needs would soon become front and center for the rural county where many residents lack access to reliable, high-speed internet options.

“Whether that’s going to work, whether that’s education, whether that’s socialization ... all of those things are tied up to access to internet in today’s world,” Nelson County Broadband Authority Chair Jesse Rutherford said.

During the course of the pandemic, local government officials have funneled millions of dollars into the county’s broadband infrastructure in order to foster rapid and long-term expansion projects with Firefly Fiber Broadband. The money has come from a mix of both the federal aid provided by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act and the county’s own coffers.

“Then you have people say I can’t live here without internet access and every year that voice got louder and louder and when the pandemic hit everyone had the same voice,” Rutherford said.

NCPS also received $500,000 of the county’s federal aid money to help meet the technological needs of students in the virtual learning format. Businesses and public facilities also have been providing WiFi access to residents, including at the schools for students or the parking lot of Nelson Memorial Library.

CARES Act

Federal aid money from the CARES Act provided the county an avenue to meet changing needs and additional costs associated with the pandemic. With an influx of more than $2.6 million, officials looked to the arenas of local government operations, public safety, schools and community relief for how to spend it.

While broadband and schools were the largest recipients of this money, the Nelson County Board of Supervisors, the entity responsible for distributing the funds, also invested heavily in public safety and community relief.

Supervisors also introduced Nelson CARES 2020 Small Business Assistance Grant Program, a program aimed at giving relief to qualifying small businesses in the county able to provide documented losses as a result of the pandemic.

As of the board’s December 2020 meeting, 35 businesses had received varying amounts of funding for a total of $255,000 of the available $350,000. Although it initially targeted the industries of craft beverages, hospitality, retail, recreation and agriculture, supervisors would go on to open the program to others.

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