Note: This story has been updated slightly from the print version to reflect new information.
The coronavirus outbreak upended life in Louisa County this week as the public schools closed, most events were canceled and businesses saw a rapid drop-off in customers.
What seemed like a far-off crisis a short time ago suddenly feels very close at hand. Cases of the virus have been reported in Charlottesville, Spotsylvania, Hanover, Goochland and Fluvanna counties. Health officials urged residents and workers not only to wash their hands frequently, but to exercise social distancing when possible to minimize their chances of spreading the illness.
With Louisa County Public Schools closed, working parents were left to scramble to find child care and figure out whether they could work from home. Restaurant owners wondered if they would have to close, as Gov. Ralph Northam ordered them not to seat more than 10 patrons at a time.
“Basically, there’s no money coming in and it’s terrifying,” said Jade Lourenco, who operates Obrigado Restaurant in the town of Louisa. “Because the money that comes in today is what pays the bills tomorrow, including staff hours, which have already been cut.”
Lourenco said the restaurant would close indefinitely beginning on March 18, although she is trying to establish a curbside pickup service.
County and town of Louisa officials cancelled public meetings, including a Louisa County Board of Supervisors hearing that was scheduled March 16 on the real estate property tax rate. It’s unclear when the county meetings will be rescheduled. Officials are under time constraints to complete work on the annual budget and public hearings are required before tax rates can be set for the next fiscal year.
Whether they are introverts or accustomed to eating out, churchgoing and community life, residents prepared to hunker down for an extended hiatus from normal life.
The community tries to adapt
With kids out of school, many families with limited incomes were encouraged to hear the schools would offer free lunch service on Tuesdays and Thursdays, at least through March 27. The schools plan to remain closed until that date, if not later. Louisa County Resource Council announced clients could keep picking up food, but they were to remain in their cars while volunteers transferred food from the warehouse to their car trunks.
On March 16, the first day of drive-through food deliveries, Rachel Robertson, a mother of two, said she was pleased with the service.
“A program like this means a lot,” she said. “I highly recommend people come out if they need food.”
It typically takes about 11 people to resource council’s daily operations. The council has increased staffing to 16 or 17 people to offset the impact of maintaining a safe distance from clients.
The Louisa Arts Center tried to stay open initially. Executive Director Karen Welch said on March 12 that staff and volunteers would practice social distancing, with ushers viewing customers’ tickets at the door but not handling them. Staff would hold doors as people walked into the theatre. But four days later Welch cancelled all events for the month.
Some churches cancelled their workshop services for the time being and encouraged members to view them remotely, if they have the ability. New Life Christian Church offered a livestream of services on social media and invited people to share prayer requests online. Other church leaders insisted they would keep welcoming members to worship in person.
“If God is willing, the church doors at Shady Grove Baptist Church will be opened tomorrow,” Pastor Reginald Cleveland wrote in a March 14 Facebook post. “As to where to go and not to go, each individual has to make that decision for him/herself; given the current risk assessment, offering worship for those who choose to attend remains a high priority.”
The county’s two main medical and retirement facilities for older citizens, English Meadows and Louisa Health and Rehabilitation Center, said they would not accept visitors for the time being, with limited exceptions.
Businesses watch and worry
Child care operators were forced to weigh the need to serve parents against the health risks of clustering numerous children in small spaces. Abundant Love Learning Center shut down its program in the Betty J. Queen Intergenerational Center after Jefferson Area Board for Aging closed its adult care center across the hall.
Bessie Fortune, the child care program’s director, said most of the children will be staying home with their parents, while some will be coming to her other facility in Bumpass. JABA announced services would be suspended on Monday, giving her one day to notify parents.
“I was hoping they would wait to close until Friday, to give the parents time to prepare for the changes,” Fortune said. “We’re making sure the children wash their hands and are wiping down surfaces. We do those things anyway, but we’re taking extra steps right now.”
While government officials have urged businesses to allow their non-essential staff to work from home, that isn’t an option for many. Klockner Pentaplast, which employs hundreds of people at its facilities near Gordonsville, is encouraging some staff to work from home, but has to maintain its production capacity.
“We’ve done a lot with social distancing. We’ve even closed the cafeteria,” said Jim Wagner, a Klockner senior marketing manager. “We’ve pretty much stopped in-person visits from customers, and we curtailed non-essential travel. There’s a lot more videoconferencing happening.
“We are monitoring the situation very closely,” he said. “There’s almost constant communication internally.”
Many of the national chains that operate in the county have changed their schedules in response to the crisis. Walmart reduced its hours to allow more time for stocking merchandise. Dollar General announced it would only allow senior citizens in during the first hour of operations each day, from 8 to 9 a.m., since they are the most vulnerable to the virus. The state’s ABC liquor stores announced that with limited staffing, hours might be erratic.
Obrigado is not the only local business to close its doors, at least for now. Nourish, in the town of Louisa, said it would close but offer curbside pickup for customers as requested.
Tim’s at Lake Anna said Tuesday it would shut down for 15 days.
“While we know that we have done a wonderful job with sanitizing the restaurants, there's no way of knowing if someone was exposed to the virus and an unknown carrier that could transmit to a loved one with a compromised immune system,” the restaurant said in a statement on Facebook.
Government keeps lights on, but with tweaks
Police officers and sheriff’s deputies continue to patrol the town of Louisa and the county as usual, although they are paying more attention to personal protection.
Town police already carried N95 masks, gloves, gowns and goggles to be prepared for unusual incidents, according to Tom Leary, Louisa police chief.
“When you have to make an arrest it’s hard to be six feet away. We have to respond when people need us,” he said.
The same is true for the sheriff’s office. Deputies were fitted for masks by staff of the county’s Department of Fire and Emergency Services and advised to spray the insides of their vehicles with disinfectant after they transport a passenger, said Det. Chuck Love, a sheriff’s office spokesman.
Dispatchers in the county’s 911 communications center have been sequestered, Love said, to protect them from possible infection. There’s a limited number of people trained for the job of handling emergency calls, so their health is especially critical.
The sheriff’s office temporarily cancelled fingerprinting for most purposes to limit staff’s contact with visitors, and encouraged residents to use the mail rather than coming to the county office building.
On the other side of the county office building, County Administrator Christian Goodwin said visitors would be limited to the first floor to minimize contact with staff. That guidance was later revised to bar all visitors to the building, except to make contact with the sheriff’s office. The number of staff in the building is being reduced, with staff working remotely on a rotating basis. County services should not be affected there or other facilities such as the refuse and recycling centers, although workers at the latter are being asked not to interact with the public.
The Louisa County Board of Supervisors declared a state of emergency at a March 13 meeting, the same meeting at which Superintendent of Schools Doug Straley announced classes would be suspended for two weeks. The board went on to cancel its budget work session and regular meeting on March 16.
“We’re waiting for guidance from the state on how to have public meetings,” Goodwin said. “You can have an emergency meeting, but you can only discuss things that are part of the emergency. We just have to be creative to ensure there is adequate public input.”
Straley and his staff developed a plan to distribute learning resources to students to use while the schools are closed. On March 20 teachers and other staff handed out the first set of resources to parents as they drove up to the school buildings in their cars.