Year of Fear, Chapter 17: At the edge of a pandemic, its direction unknown

June 2, 2020

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On March 13, the same day President Trump announced a national emergency over the COVID-19 pandemic, I was released from Mary Washington Hospital in Fredericksburg, Virginia, after a coronary ablation to get my heart back in rhythm. After four decades of deadlines, bad newsroom coffee, and fast food meals over my office computer, I am no longer the workhorse I was. A triple bypass, a pacemaker installation, and the ablation—all in a span of six months—made me realize that life is fragile. And because I check off so many of the boxes that make a person more vulnerable to COVID-19 than younger, healthier Americans, I vowed to take this pandemic seriously, while still reasoning that the rural community in which I live was less a target than urban areas.

The young woman who pushed my wheelchair to the hospital entrance told me she was a senior pre-med student at the nearby University of Mary Washington campus, where classes had just been suspended. It was her last day at the hospital because all volunteers were being sent home in preparation for the anticipated wave of COVID-19 patients. As a precaution, a temporary pandemic triage unit had been constructed in the hospital’s parking garage. As it turned out, it was not needed. 

Still, we were not untouched. COVID-19 took a while to creep into Northern Virginia and the Richmond area, and even longer to find its way to rural Caroline County, which is just far enough south of the nation’s capital and north enough of Virginia’s capital to stay partially out of the way. The pandemic did eventually find its way here, but not to the extent that many feared––so far. It almost feels as if we are at the edge of a plague—not in it and not out of it either, with the direction uncertain. 

PREVIOUSLY: Saving Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge extends beyond political boundaries

The first COVID-19 case in Caroline County was reported April 1. As of May 27, the number of cases had climbed to a modest fifty-five, an average of fewer than one case per day. There have been two deaths attributed to the disease in Caroline County. The numbers in more densely populated counties around us are far steeper, however. The Rappahannock Area Health District, which encompasses Caroline and three counties to the north, plus the City of Fredericksburg, has reported 1,500-plus cases with 18 deaths. (Neighboring Spotsylvania County, 571 cases; Stafford, 722; Fredericksburg, 166; King George, 69.) The Commonwealth of Virginia topped 45,000 total cases with 1,392 deaths. The counties and cities of Northern Virginia (NOVA) still account for more than half of the state’s total. Richmond and surrounding counties have the next largest concentration. In the scheme of things, NOVA is to the rest of Virginia as New York City is to the Empire State. 

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Some of the same factors that hindered commercial and residential growth in Caroline County over the years have turned out to be a blessing during the pandemic. We have only one nursing home of any size, no hospitals, no meatpacking plants, only one significant assembly line, few office buildings, no movie theaters, and only a handful of apartment-building clusters. A couple of restaurants have bars in them but none draw crowds or stay open until the wee hours. Places where Caroline County residents typically rub shoulders—churches, schools, libraries, restaurants, and the family Y—have been closed or sharply restricted since mid-March.

The number of cases and deaths continue to rise, however, and those numbers included Caroline’s first COVID-19 outbreak, in which five office workers at the M.C. Dean Inc. Modular MEP plant in Ruther Glen, where I live, tested positive. Although no workers on the assembly floor tested positive, the plant shut down for five days and was thoroughly cleaned. This is one of Caroline County’s few manufacturing companies, employing about two hundred people. 

Another, and more alarming, COVID-19 outbreak started with one nurse and, in five short days, involved ten employees testing positive with another nineteen quarantined—all at the Rappahannock Area Health District, the very agency in charge of pandemic testing for the area. This news came as the Commonwealth of Virginia relaxed a number of restrictions on business closures and self-distancing. 

Although the shelter-in-place mandate is not slated to lift until June 10, it is largely ignored by many in the state, as are recommendations to wear face masks in public. Alarmed by this, on May 26, Governor Ralph Northam  made face masks mandatory in restaurants, stores, and other public places, although enforcement is left up to the owners and operators of these businesses. A pediatric neurosurgeon, Northam is the only governor in the US with a medical background. By law, he is not allowed to run again and it is apparent from his thrice-weekly TV press conferences that he is more concerned with the physical well-being of Virginians than the ballot box. Still, many Virginians who prefer Donald Trump’s “somebody told me this, so it must be so” approach, find Northam’s science-based method of reopening Virginia for business to be too clumsy and slow. This red state/blue state divide is readily apparent on social media, and in conversations I have had with friends and neighbors. How this plays out politically in 2020 is anybody’s guess. 

Rob Wittman, our longtime incumbent congressman and a Republican, also has a background that is helpful in the COVID-19 pandemic. Prior to being elected to represent Virginia’s first district in Congress in 2007, Wittman worked for twenty years with the Virginia Department of Health. He served as an environmental health specialist and was later field director for the Division of Shellfish Sanitation. He has a Ph.D. in public health. Long regarded as a moderate who is strong on constituent services, Wittman sends out daily briefings explaining the nuances of COVID-19 legislation and how individuals, businesses, and localities can apply for assistance. He also led a bipartisan effort to protect Virginia fisheries from the harsh effects of the pandemic. 

Because Northam and Wittman represent opposing parties, it may be difficult for some Caroline County residents to appreciate how fortunate they are to have two elected representatives with an understanding of pandemics that transcends partisan politics. 


What is normal?

The threat of a new wave of infections remains in the back of my mind, but I also look forward to the return of some sort of normalcy—although what shape the new normal takes is anybody’s guess at this point. It may be that many cherished traditions will be streamlined or sanitized in our future. 

For example, on May 26, the Caroline Board of Supervisors held a County Budget Hearing that was part in-person and part virtual. Before the budget discussion, though, the supervisors heard from Dr. Donald Stern, the interim director of the Rappahannock Area Health District. Stern said many individuals are walking around with COVID-19 who are not counted in the daily statistics—because they are asymptomatic and do not realize they have the virus. He suggested multiplying the known cases by five to understand the problem. Eliminating COVID-19 is unrealistic until a vaccine is approved, he said. The goal is to “box it in” and slow it down through increased testing, staying at home, wearing a mask when in contact with others, and washing hands and cleaning surfaces. For the budget hearing part of the meeting, staff and members of the public were allowed to send in comments or come in person, register to speak, and then, when called, approach a remote podium.

Caroline High School, meanwhile, held a four-day, graduation-by-appointment ceremony, which allowed each senior to arrive with family, get a diploma, and pose for photos that will later be incorporated into a video. The Health District already has a task force working on ways area schools can safely reopen in September.

The way we cast our votes in 2020 will be different from the past, as will the methods used by candidates to win those votes. Local elections were held May 19 in the Town of Ashland, twenty miles to the south, and the City of Fredericksburg, twenty-five miles to the north. For the most part, incumbents won easily. A combination of absentee, curbside, and in-person voting was used and functioned well, albeit for a small sample size. 

The electoral process will face a larger test June 23 when primaries are held for the Democrats’ nomination to run against Wittman in District 1, and for the Republicans’ nomination for the US Senate seat occupied by Mark Warner, a Democrat. Local election officials encourage absentee voting for these primaries, using COVID-19 as the reason. Just a few candidates will run—only two made the Democratic ballot for the first district congressional race, and three for the statewide Republican primary. Three hopefuls withdrew or were disqualified for the Democratic primary and seven for the Republican primary. The inability to gather a sufficient number of signatures before the March filing deadlines—a task made far more difficult by the pandemic—undoubtedly helped thin these fields. 

The First District Democratic Committee, meanwhile, claimed a precedent of sorts by holding the state’s first virtual convention, on May 2. The 175 delegates, representing all of the counties in the district, normally meet in caucuses that turn into lengthy affairs, complete with speeches, pomp, and posturing. “This one took about thirty minutes,” according to the District Democratic Chairman, Matt Rowe, a former Bowling Green Town Council member. Similar virtual conventions were held by the Democrats in the other ten districts on three successive weekends, Rowe said. A June 20 Democratic state convention will also be virtual.

Meanwhile, Republicans are sticking with in-person conventions, at least to some degree. The First District Republican Party plans to hold its convention on June 13, at Caroline County High School. “Due to the COVID health emergency, we will be using a modified convention format authorized by the Republican Party of Virginia that will allow delegates to the convention to vote using ‘curbside’ voting procedures,” noted District Chairman Bob Watson. The GOP state convention, which had been scheduled for May, was postponed due to the pandemic. A new date has not been made official. “We will not let this setback define our 2020 efforts,” said party Chairman Jack Wilson in a statement. “Republicans are more energized than ever to flip Virginia for President Trump and send our do-nothing Senator, Mark Warner, packing,” Wilson added.


Reopening the Commonwealth

Virginia has been slower than other states to reopen many businesses, churches, and attractions. Governor Northam announced a three-phase system, portions of which went into effect May 15, excluding the hot spots of Northern Virginia and Richmond. Under phase one, Virginia moves to a “Safer at Home” strategy, which continues the ban on social gatherings of more than ten people and maintains recommendations for social distancing, teleworking, and face coverings in stores and businesses. Businesses are required to make modifications to maintain six feet of physical distancing and increase sanitization of high contact surfaces. Retail establishments are allowed to operate at fifty percent occupancy, as are restaurants and bars that can offer outdoor dining. 

Also under phase one, churches may hold indoor services at fifty percent capacity, and can continue to hold drive-in services in parking lots. So far, many churches in Caroline County are taking a “wait-and see” stance while continuing to livestream Sunday services. Ashland, which depends heavily on tourism and restaurant revenues, embraced the challenge. Restaurant owners were offered two-thousand-dollar grants to purchase outdoor tables, chairs, and canopies, while sections of streets were temporarily closed  and turned into expanded sidewalk cafes, which were much used over Memorial Day weekend.

Although many Memorial Day activities were cancelled in Virginia, a traditional ceremony went on as scheduled in front of the old courthouse in Bowling Green. Many local veterans participated, along with County Supervisors Jeff Sili and Nancy Long, Sheriff Tony Lippa, and other officials. 

“I cannot recall a more emotional moment for me as the Bowling Green District Supervisor, or a time when I was prouder of the partnership between VFW Post 10295 and the county,” Sili said in a Facebook post. “We did it, and were able to observe social distancing and quarantine rules still in place. We did not fail those who gave their lives so we can wake up free people each and every day.”

Next week, Chapter 18: Politically-motivated investigations, racial tension, budget cutting and distorted virus data: election season in Macon-Bibb is getting dirty.

This project is supported by a gift from the Delacorte Center for Magazine Journalism Fund at The New York Community Trust.

Greg Glassner is a Caroline County resident with more than forty years of experience in the newspaper business, the majority of it as editor of community weeklies in Virginia. He was editor of the Herald-Progress in Ashland for eight years, retiring in 2012. He also served as interim editor of the Caroline Progress in Bowling Green for six months in 2015, and wrote a weekly column and feature stories for both papers until they ceased publication in March 2018. A US Army veteran who saw service in Southeast Asia, Glassner is the author of five books, including biographies of US Attorney General William Wirt and Virginia Gov. William “Extra Billy” Smith.