Reacting to COVID-19

Published 7:45 pm Tuesday, March 17, 2020

By Diana McFarland


Folks took comfort last week in bottles of hand sanitizer and bulk white potatoes as everyone settled into a new reality caused by the arrival of COVID-19 to the Commonwealth. 

Perhaps the biggest disruption to regular routines was the blanket closing of all schools in Virginia, as ordered by Gov. Ralph Northam on Friday. 

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While no cases of the novel coronavirus has been yet reported in Isle of Wight and Surry counties, fear and apprehension about the flu-like respiratory disease have surely become the overriding topic of conversation among residents. 

As of Thursday morning, the Virginia Department of Health has reported 77 cases of COVID-19 in Virginia, with the biggest clusters being in James City, Fairfax and Arlington counties. Cases of the virus are now in every state in the United States and its territories, with 7,038 reported cases and 97 deaths by early Thursday, according to the Centers for Disease Control. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

Isle of Wight and Surry schools are closed at least through March 27 in an effort to stop or slow the spread of the disease, having responded to an order by Gov. Ralph Northam on Friday. 

Isle of Wight Academy and its daycare center are also closed in response to the order. 

Northam also called for a statewide ban on all events of more than 100 people. 

School officials have come up with a plan for meal distribution and continuing student lessons and coursework from home. 

Smithfield resident Joe Giltner, whose daughter Abby, attends Hardy Elementary, plans to work  from home while school is closed. Other parents are not so fortunate, and are scrambling to find someone to watch the kids. 

Smithfield resident Kelly Ballard picked up food in Smithfield Monday, after the division devised a plan to get meals to students who needed them during the shutdown. 

Ballard is a certified nurse’s assistant at Riverside General Hospital, and while her hours haven’t changed  yet due to the virus, she may have to lean on family member to watch her son, Isaiah while she works her shifts. She’s also concerned about upcoming Standards of Learning tests. 

Abby Giltner, meanwhile, likes the idea of being able to stay up late because there’s no school, but will miss seeing her friends every day. Her father said that staying up late isn’t part of the schedule.  

Local hospitals and nursing homes have revised their policies regarding visitors, with most limiting their numbers as elderly people, especially those with underlying health issues, are the most vulnerable to the disease. 

Local clubs and organizations have cancelled or postponed some events. For a listing of cancellations, see page xx. 

Shopping for supplies hit high gear last week when shelves quickly emptied of items as varied as potatoes to soup, chips and soda. 

“People bought them all,” said one Food Lion clerk Saturday of the white potatoes. Sweet potatoes supplies were down, but some were still available. 

Toilet paper, paper towels, hand sanitizer, isopropyl alcohol and bleach were either gone or very hard to find in Smithfield over the weekend as folks armed themselves with disinfectants. 

As customers passed through the lines, store clerks pulled out fistfuls of disinfecting wipes to go over key pads and other often-touched areas. 

The Smithfield St. Patrick’s Day parade was cancelled Friday after Northam, and then the Town of Smithfield and Isle of Wight County, declared states of emergency due to the virus. 

By declaring a state of emergency, the state and localities can more easily access funding as it becomes necessary. 

That seemingly didn’t stop visitors from shopping and eating in downtown Smithfield Saturday. Isle of Wight Tourism Director Judy Winslow and her husband, Mike Whalen, tried to soften the blow of a cancelled parade by handing out drink cups and candy and having the Newport News Police Pipe and Drum Corps perform on Main Street. 

Winslow hopes that people will be driven to smaller towns like Smithfield rather than bigger cities, where the threat of the disease may be higher. 

Smithfield Station co-owner Ron Pack was worried that guests would start canceling. 

“It’s mass hysteria,” he said Saturday after having breakfast at the Smithfield Gourmet Bakery. 

Pack was especially concerned about business travel, as it represents the mainstay of their business during the week. 

Pack said he was willing to provide drive-through meal delivery if that would make people feel safer.

Employees at Smithfield Station, as well as other restaurants and businesses, have started regularly wiping down doorknobs and other frequently touched areas during the day. 

Taste of Smithfield manager Cristin Emrick said the restaurant is closing briefly during the day to thoroughly sanitize the dining room. 

The Cockeyed Rooster was packed Sunday morning, and each table was outfitted by a bottle of hand sanitizer — already a regular feature at the restaurant. 

“I’m surprised they have them out on the table and they’re not locked down,” said one customer. 

Some events did go on as usual, such as the Windsor 118th birthday party, although Isle of Wight Museum Director Jennifer England made everyone wash their hands when they arrived. 

The Fort Huger tour also went on as usual and was attended by a group of visitors from the United Kingdom, who had arrived the evening of March 11 — the day before events began to deteriorate in a big way. 

Antony Antoniau was concerned they wouldn’t be able to get back to the U.K., but since they have their own place in Williamsburg, staying a few more weeks won’t be a hardship. 

Antoniau said he and his friends had so many events planned, including the St. Patrick’s Day parade, that have been cancelled. 

The larger church denominations, such as United Methodist and Episcopal, asked that churches not hold services for the duration. 

Christ Episcopal Church member Kim Newman said that if it takes canceling church services to protect the elderly, then the sacrifice is worth it. Newman also thinks folks should pray for those whose jobs are being impacted by this crisis. 

Rev. Betsy Caudill of Benn’s United Methodist Church said this new disruption will require her to learn new ways to reach her flock, such as Facebook Live. 

It will be a new challenge, she said. 

Isle of Wight County is looking at ways to reduce exposure, such as suspending all non-essential travel, increasing the amount of cleaning, and are asking employees to limit personal travel. {/mprestriction}