Fear of coronavirus has spread like wildfire in Amherst County as a rapidly changing cascade of school and event closures, disruptions in the local economy and changes to everyday life have unfolded in recent days.
By Tuesday, the Virginia Department of Health reported 67 people in Virginia had tested positive for COVID-19, including a Charlottesville resident, and two people in their 70s died from the disease. Gov. Ralph Northam on Friday announced all public schools would close at least through March 27, more. President Donald Trump on Monday said gatherings should be limited to 10 people and on Tuesday morning, Northam agreed.
Amid a national state of emergency county residents swarmed stores, emptied shelves and churches were far less attended than normal Sunday, many closed altogether, and handshake greetings were replaced with friendly elbow bumps. Sweet Briar College suspended all campus events and moved to remote learning with online courses and Amherst County Public Schools launched an at-home learning plan, providing instructional materials and a Chromebook with a flash drive for students while away from class.
Amherst County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Claudia Tucker said Monday afternoon the board has been in constant contact with Sam Bryant, director of public safety, and is satisfied proper protocols are in place. The board also has been briefed with latest available information from the governor’s office, Centers for Disease Control and on financial assistance that may be available during a concerning time for many.
“We are taking COVID-19 very seriously and we urge our residents to use the common sense precautions that we have all heard; wash your hands and practice social distancing,” Tucker said in an email. “If you are sick, please stay at home.”
She said residents are urged not to use 911 unless it’s a true emergency situation to not place a strain on essential resources. Tucker described Amherst as a strong county with an inherent sense of responsibility and independence.
“We urge caution but not panic,” Tucker said.
Sweet Briar President Meredith Woo announced March 12 the college is moving to remote teaching and learning until April 17, the end of its 12-week session, and all campus events were suspended.
“This has been a difficult decision, but the health of our students and community is our top priority,” Woo said in a statement.
County government offices and Town of Amherst offices held normal business hours on Monday. A March 13 public service announcement from the county urged residents to avoid large gatherings. U.S. Rep. Ben Cline, R-6th District, postponed a town hall meeting planned for Monday in Monroe.
Town Manager Sara Carter said Monday the town is taking proactive measures to protect its employees and residents at Town Hall.
“We have added nanoseptic pads and door pulls and are limiting public contact wherever possible,” Carter said in an email. “We are following recommendations issues by CDC and the State Health Department and are modifying our practices as necessary.”
The Amherst County Sheriff’s Office announced on its Facebook page Monday the inmate workforce program through the Blue Ridge Regional Jail Authority is suspended for the next two weeks.
Starting Tuesday, curbside breakfast and lunch is being distributed for students in need at Amherst County High School, Temperance Elementary School and Monelison Middle School. Beginning March 19, meals will be available for neighborhood delivery by the division’s transportation department.
Amherst County Public Schools Superintendent Rob Arnold said during the Amherst school board’s March 12 meeting in the event of school closures the division needs to ensure continuity for online and at-home learning opportunities and meal service for food-insecure students.
“It’s not about trying to replace what we do in the classroom,” Arnold said, noting the division can’t do what colleges are capable of with distance learning.
The Amherst County Chamber of Commerce sent out a notice Tuesday morning stating the virus delayed the arrival of materials for students and the division needs flash drives. Businesses and organizations were encouraged to to drop off any drives at Amherst County High School, Monelison Middle School and the school administration office at 153 Washington St. in Amherst.
According to a report before school officials March 12, just more than a dozen students were pulled out of school prior to Northam’s closure announcement due to concerns on the disease. Board member John Grieser said the fear is not only in the severity of the disease, which as of Tuesday morning had not yet reached the county, but with overwhelming the health care system.
“Thank you for staying calm and staying on top of things,” board member Abby Thompson said to school administration. “It can change at any moment.”
“This is a revolving door right now,” Chairwoman Priscilla Liggon said. “It does change every minute. You have put everything in place you can. The main thing is communication.”
Liggon said division officials are doing all they can to ensure students and employees are safe. “The main thing is not to hit any panic button as far as I’m concerned,” Liggon said during the March 12 meeting.
Garry Friend, president of Neighbors Helping Neighbors, a county nonprofit that provides meals to residents in need, said its weekly kitchens on Wednesdays and Thursdays in Amherst and Madison Heights would switch to take-out with aid of volunteers. The organization’s food warehouse in Madison Heights also will switch to a drive-through or pickup service with volunteers helping bring out items.
“It will be a slight reduction but not a significant amount,” Friend said of the visits he anticipates there.
He said the warehouse and two local kitchens draw in much traffic from residents who need a helping hand and panic buying and emptying of shelves at grocery stores in the past week has further fueled that need.
“At this time it’s probably more important,” Friend said of making those meals available. “We’re ready to do what we need to do.”
Reach Justin Faulconer at (434) 385-5551.