COVID-19’s effects send shockwaves of disruption across Harrisonburg

By Randi B. Hagi, Bridget Manley, Calvin Pynn and Ryan Alessi 

Editor’s note, March 17: This article has been updated with information about the nonprofit organization Mercy House’s family shelter.

Harrisonburg businesses, organizations and other service providers made gut-wrenching decisions over the past 48 hours to dramatically scale back their interactions with the public. That has meant shifting to carry-out-only for restaurants, cutting back on hours of operations, limiting visitors to the hospital and, in many cases, closing up for the next couple weeks — at least. 

Unlike other states whose governors ordered bars and restaurants to close, the decisions weren’t driven by government mandates. 

Instead, individual business owners wrestled with complex equations, taking into account their employees, company’s future, customers’ needs and social responsibility to do their part to prevent opportunities for community spread of COVID-19. 

“Out of a desire to keep you and our community as safe as possible, we have made the heartbreaking decision to temporarily close our doors,” Sara Christensen, owner of The Lady Jane, wrote on a sign posted to shop’s door on Main Street. “We feel (it’s) our utmost responsibility to put people first.” 

Molly Delaney, co-owner of the Little Grill Collective, and the other owners decided to close for at least two weeks. “We didn’t want to add to the potential of anyone getting sick,” she said. 

Court Square Theater closed until April 2. 

The Massanutten Regional Library’s board of trustees decided to close all branches to the public from Tuesday through the end of March before re-evaluating. The book-drops will remain open to collect returned items, but the library extended all due dates for materials through April 6.

Larkin Arts also closed its shops and cancelled classes. 

Encouraging carry-out orders

Other businesses, particularly restaurants and breweries, have tried to remain open for business but shift to encourage or only allow carry-out. 

Tim Brady, founder and general manager of Pale Fire Brewing Co., had already canceled planned events for bands and even the weekly Wednesday trivia. Then Monday, after reaching out to staff, decided to serve only to-go orders, which meant reducing its hours to just 1-6 p.m. 

“Nobody’s going to be untouched by this, but especially the businesses that are in industries that really rely on people coming out” will be hurt, Brady said. 

Restaurants, such as Clementine and Boboko, hadn’t closed their dining rooms but were trying to encourage carry-out orders on Monday. 

What can people do to support local businesses

Miranda Ebersold, who owns The Yellow Button on Main Street, said traffic was down 80-90% from a normal Monday, and her only two sales were online on social media. She said she’s concerned that if JMU cancels its graduation ceremony in May that it would be devastating. 

“I get in white dresses specially for this, and all the events that people would normally come in to shop for an outfit for have all been cancelled,” Ebersold said. 

She and her husband, Chance Ebersold who owns Black Sheep Coffee, are both dependent on the local customer base. Black Sheep has cut back its hours to close at 5 p.m. instead of 7 p.m. 

She said she’s “scared for my family and wondering how we will pay our bills.” Ebersold said.  

“He had already been forced to start closing early and cut the amount of staff he has on a normal day in half,” Ebersold said. 

Ebersold said that she hopes the community rallies around her and other businesses during this incredibly difficult time, saying her doors are still open and she’s always available online. 

“Buy gift cards. Message me on Instagram and Facebook if they like something and I will deliver it for free! My doors are open  and no one is here so it’s easy to not be within 10 feet of anyone,” Ebersold said. “Black Sheep does delivery through Giddyup Courier. Order a whole quiche to-go to have for breakfast or dinner while you’re social distancing.”

Brady, from Pale Fire, echoed Ebersold’s message to buy local gift cards and retail merchandise, as well as local food and beer to support local businesses. 

“Everybody’s got a lot of free time right now so if they want to use some of that to think of creative ways to support all the local businesses, that would be fantastic,” he said. “But this will also be a long recovery period for the country’s economy going forward, so think about supporting these local businesses in a couple weeks or months when you feel safe going out again.”

More festivals and events postponed

Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance decided to postpone the Rocktown Beer and Music Festival to Oct. 10, and is postponing their annual Blacks Run Clean Up Day to sometime in the fall, but a date has not been set.

What’s the latest on confirmed COVID-19 cases in Harrisonburg? 

EMU reported Monday that a student reported flu-like symptoms on Sunday evening, which prompted the university to send home the remaining 250 students staying on campus. 

Dr. Laura Kornegay, Central Shenandoah Health District Director, said she had not yet heard about whether the EMU student had been tested positive for COVID-19.

The Harrisonburg resident who was listed as “presumed positive” Friday is now confirmed to have COVID-19.  

Kornegay said the health department has investigated and contacted all persons who had close contact with the patient. Close contacts were asked to stay at home away from others for 14 days to prevent further spread of disease in the area. 

“We’ve not seen any new cases emerge around that case,” she said. 

How do people get information about COVID-19 testing? 

Kornegay said there are two routes for people to get tested for COVID-19. The first is through the public health department, which has limited test supplies. The second is through commercial testing available through health care providers. 

In addition, the Virginia Department of Health set up a phone line today (1-855-949-8378) to handle the high volume of general questions about COVID-19. The line will be staffed from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. 

Sentara Healthcare, which runs RMH hospital, also established a COVID-19 Call Center (1-833-945-2395) launched at 9 a.m. Monday and will operate seven days a week from 9 a.m.-7 p.m. The call center is meant to direct people to resources “based on nurses’ evaluations,” Sentara said.

Neil Mowbray, Sentara RMH Marketing and Communications, said hospital staff screen anyone who comes to the Emergency Department and test anyone who meets criteria established by the CDC as being “at risk” for potential COVID-19 and are experiencing symptoms. Those tests are sent out to LabCorp or the Virginia Health Department, and results are available within several days, he said.

As of Monday, there were no additional positive cases at RMH.  

School board to have televised meeting, city council still considering options

The Harrisonburg City School Board was slated to crunch the next year’s budget during a work session Tuesday, but has rescheduled that meeting to this Thursday at 5:30 p.m. in the city council chambers. The meeting will be televised and the School Board is working with city officials to arrange for members of the public to participate remotely, according to an email announcement. 

In addition, the school’s central office will be closed as of 5 p.m. Tuesday, Superintendent Michael Richards said. 

Meanwhile at City Hall, the decision to cancel, postpone or change next week’s city council meeting has not been made, according to Michael Parks, Harrisonburg’s director of communications.

Court and public services changes

The biggest changes to public services announced Monday was the District Court postponing all traffic court cases through April 30 and the city’s Parks and Recreation Department canceling all programs, as well as indefinitely closing the Cecil F. Gilkerson Activities Center, Westover Pool, the Price Rotary Senior Center and the Lucy F. Simms Education Center beginning Tuesday. 

Parks, the city spokesman, also said that the city does not have the authority to postpone or waive utility or electric bill payments, but they are having conversations about how to help residents in other ways. 

“A lot of those conversations are things that the city does not have the authority to do,” Parks said. “It may not even be possible that the state would have that authority — some of that would have to come from the federal level. But we have not started detailed conversations about that other than are there some things we can do to support our local businesses and our local residents.” 

Retirement centers and RMH hospital limit visitors  

Sentara announced strict limitations on visitors to its hospitals across Virginia, including RMH in Harrisonburg. 

Area retirement homes, such as Sunnyside Retirement Community, suspended visitations and limited access to only residents or employees, as of Friday. 

“Early on we put a number of protocols in place,” said Karen Wigginton, Sunnyside’s chief marketing officer. 

Sunnyside Communities has three campuses —  one in Harrisonburg, one in Martinsville and one in Waynesboro. They set up a hotline for each campus “for residents and families, and there are daily updates on there” about the virus and implemented new protocols based on the CDC and Virginia Department of Health recommendations.

Family shelter anticipates rise in demand for services

Shannon Porter, executive director of the nonprofit organization Mercy House, said in an email to The Citizen he expects that “family homelessness is going to spike in the coming weeks,” as their clients are likely to bear the brunt of businesses scaling back and shutting down, leaving them without a paycheck.

“Mercy House is still operating because our work is more important than ever and we anticipate a rise in demand for our assistance,” Porter said.

The organization has closed their administrative offices to the public and is currently not allowing outside visitors into the family shelter. Porter said they do welcome donations of hand sanitizer, sanitizing wipes, and toilet paper; as well as monetary donations through their website.

After school program closed but daycares stay open

Second Home, a before- and after-school program, will be closed until March 27, according to the organization’s voicemail.

Other daycare facilities are trying to stay open, especially with schools closed. 

“Some parents have the option to work from home, but not every family has that choice,” said Paloma Saucedo, owner of Arcoiris Daycare, which has 12 children enrolled. But she said she is monitoring the CDC guidelines and will close if that’s deemed necessary. 

Saucedo said in addition to regular hygiene standards, the daycare pays for a weekly “deep cleaning” to ensure the highest possible standards.  

“As a licensed Family Day Home, we have high hygiene standards in place already,” she said. “We only use licensing-approved cleaners and disinfectants, which are the same the CDC recommends. We constantly wash our hands and our children’s hands and we teach our children to cover their coughs and sneezes as well as washing hands after coughing or sneezing, toileting, playing  and before meals.”

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