New Kent Charles City Chronicle

News for New Kent County and Charles City County, Virginia | April 8, 2020

COVID-19: How coronavirus has impacted Charles City and New Kent

By Andre Jones | March 21, 2020 12:53 pm

With parts of the nation hunkering down due to COVID-19 (coronavirus), the pandemic has affected life for several people. The drastic changes have resulted in a shift on approaching everyday situations. But for some, the adjustment is just another day in the line of work, while others are trying to plot their next move.

The Chronicle interviewed several people Friday to receive updates and viewpoints on how situations are being handled, as well as thoughts about the pandemic.

Rodney Hathaway-County Administrator, New Kent

New Kent County Administrator Rodney Hathaway said that the situation involving COVID-19 is changing rapidly and that county offices are doing things to assist citizens.

“Beforehand [on Mar. 13], we declared a local state of emergency to enable us to get state and local assistance,” Hathaway said. “Since then, we opened county offices on a modified basis (closed to the public).

“We’re still conducting operations through online payments, drop boxes, and emails,” he continued. “We’re still operating, just removing the face-to-face.”

Hathaway added that county buildings were cleaned last Monday and will be cleaned again on March 23. The county has withdrawn permits for all cultural events and is encouraging social separation, but government leaders will meet to handle necessary business.

“While we meet, we are going to have our social separation,” he said, mentioning sitting approximately six feet apart. “We are getting new information and encourage residents to follow our social media pages. Residents can also call our main line for information at (804) 966-9861. We are going to point them in the right direction and get them answers.

Michelle Johnson-County Administrator, Charles City

Charles City County Administrator Michelle Johnson is in a different situation than New Kent. The Virginia Department of Health confirmed a case of COVID-19 in Charles City on March 18, prompting more precautions.

“Before the State of Emergency was declared, we pretty much debriefed as an emergency management team last week,” she said. “We wanted to get ahead of it, and we declared right behind them.

“We have been on conference calls every day, twice a day,” Johnson continued. “One of the things that was crucial was that we didn’t find out about the confirmed case of COVID-19 until it hit the news media and we are working with regulatory agencies to make sure our local government knows.”

Johnson said that department directors have laptops, as well as essential staff personnel, to conduct county business while facilities are being sanitized. As far as meetings, Johnson said that the lack of Internet factored into the cancellations.

“All of our agendas will be jam-packed for our business meetings,” the county administrator added. “Once the governor lifts the ban, then there may be two meetings a month.”

Johnson did provide some positive news, saying the Central Virginia Regional Health Services branch in Charles City has been approved for COVID-19 testing. But she says that the office will determine if it is necessary prior before requesting the person to come in.

“The person has to first discuss the symptoms before they can go to the office,” Johnson commented. “Our local medical center will be able to test now and that’s relieving. For now, we want people to stay inside and practice those things that are recommended by VDOH (Virginia Department of Health) and the CDC (Center for Disease and Control).”

Brian Nichols-Superintendent, New Kent County Public Schools

In his first year in the role of superintendent for New Kent County Public Schools, Nichols has already seen the highs from student performances in and out of the classroom. But he never thought about schools being shut down for so long during the outbreak of COVID-19.

“The governor’s announcement caught us by surprise, and we learned about it live,” Nichols said. “We were already going to close on that Monday and were preparing learning packets at that time.

“We were going to have the buildings clean and were also getting content uploaded to the Chromebooks,” he added. “We were already looking at the extended closure and we don’t see the governor allowing schools to open up soon.”

Nichols said that everyday he’s receiving questions about graduation, SOL (Standards of Learning) testing, and dual-enrolment cases. He says his staff are doing things and taking steps to make sure all students have quality education while buildings are closed.

“We are doing a grab-and-go program for student lunches and the buildings are off limits to staff,” Nichols said. “We are working with county churches and local business, as well as repositioning our school routers so that students can have Wi-Fi and internet access while sitting in cars outside of the schools.

“We are also looking at how we can put Wi-Fi on buses and position them around the county,” he continued. “That will not only provide students the ability to do work, but also allow adults to telework.

“I’d really appreciate what our staff and the people of New Kent County is doing during this unprecedented experience,” Nichols said as he began to wrap up his comments. “The county has worked side-by-side and the community has rallied with the kids. I couldn’t be any prouder to live, work, and serve in this community.”

David Gaston-Superintendent, Charles City County Public Schools

Even before Governor Ralph Northam made his announcement to close schools, Charles City had planned to be closed for a week. With Charles City schools now shutting doors until at least April 13, school superintendent David Gaston believes that the move was necessary for the safety of staff and students.

“It was good to have a hard stop to make sure crews can disinfect the facility and there wasn’t going to be any cross-contamination,” the superintendent said. “We want to make sure our staff and students come back safe.

“We have enough banked hours to coverer instruction through April 12,” Gaston continued, pointing to the accumulation of required time that was required by the state before the mandate was recently waived due to the pandemic. “At this point, we had made plans and students will have packets available for them.”

Gaston commented that due to the inequity of internet service in the county, hard packets of classwork will be available during meal distribution times and from 5-7 p.m. on March 26-27. Those who are unable to pick up the packets from the bus loop in the back of the school will have them mailed. He also said that due to kids being out of school, there will only be a semester report card for the final 18 weeks.

The superintendent says he doesn’t expect parents to be substitute teachers, but is asking parents to become more involved with their child’s schoolwork.

“We’re asking the home to engage the students as much as teachers engage with the students,” the superintendent said. “We need to be partners during these experiences. It’s a little bit different, but it’s going to be a lot of reinforcement items to keep them on top of things.”

The school system will be offering limited grab-and-go meals, as well as the school’s Community Den and Tiger Packs still being distributed. Gaston said the community has stepped up as well.

“We’ve had some good community partnerships with churches, and they’ve been great at getting supplies to us,” Gaston said as he wrapped up his comments. “There are a lot of connections and helping families in need. I don’t know how long this will go on for, but we will all get through this together.”

Joe McLaughlin Jr.-Sheriff, New Kent County

One of the biggest concerns revolves around community safety during a time where many people are panicking. That is an issue that is being taken seriously by New Kent County Sheriff Joe McLaughlin Jr.

“So far, so good,” McLaughlin said when asked about how citizens are adjusting to the changes. “The biggest objected is to remind people to stay calm and follow the recommendations of VDOH and the CDC.

“Our staff is doing well and trying to maintain community focus and remain vigilant,” the sheriff continued. “So far, the citizens have done well by self-quarantining.”

With the governor’s mandate of gatherings of more than 10 being banned, McLaughlin commented that if a situation like that occurs, he will use it as an educational point.

“Enforcement will be a last resort,” the sheriff said, pointing to how a violation of the ban can results in a misdemeanor. “If it’s repeated and we get calls, then we will have to enforce it.”

In conclusion, McLaughlin commented that New Kent has done well considering the pandemic that is making its way through the country.

“I’d like to say remain calm as this is something that we have not faced as a nation,’’ he added as he wrapped up his comments. “I want to thank the businesses, organizations, and neighboring partners for pulling together for assistance and checking on senior citizens and people with previous conditions. It’s tremendous to see how our citizens respond together for the betterment of all.”

Leslie Comer- Major, Charles City County Sheriff’s Office

Even the spread of COVID-19 altered operations for Charles City’s Sheriff’s Office. For Major Leslie Comer, meetings with the emergency management team before the governor’s declaration prompted steps to safety for both citizens and staff.

“We have been working with the county and been having meetings on a daily basis,” said the major. “We wanted to take precautions to keep both our citizens and staff safe.”

Comer commented that nobody is allowed in the sheriff’s office and that deputies are greeting people at the door. The threat of the spread has also shut down normal tasks that the offices usually provide.

“We had to eliminate some services such as fingerprints and send volunteers for the animal shelter home,” Comer continued. “Right now, we’re only allowing paid personnel on property.”

The major added that the department has seen a rise in calls in the early stages of the pandemic.

“We noticed an increase in domestic calls this past weekend,” Comer continued. “We have increased patrols and we are working on different schedules.

“With people locking down, we want to be proactive to prevent domestic disputes,” he said. “Right now, we are going to continue to do things that include property checks and increase manpower. We are also cross-training staff as well in case one of our dispatchers becomes ill.”

Comer added that the sheriff’s office will be cleaned Mar. 26-27 and that essential personnel will work from the government building. But he assures that county citizens will continue to have the support and protection of county deputies.

“Along with the county, we are putting out resources to make sure that we all stay safe,” the major said as he wrapped up his interview. “Right now, the best thing to do is work together and support each other and the county.”

Cullen Jenkins- Owner, Cul’s Courthouse Grille

Local government agencies and school systems aren’t the only ones who have to deal with the pandemic outbreak of COVID-19. Governor Ralph Northam’s mandate of no more than 10 people in a gathering environment has put strain on the restaurant industry. Local restaurants, such as Cul’s Courthouse Grille in Charles City, has already seen the results in the early stages of the order.

“We were already hunkering down on Monday [March 16] when the governor made his decree,” said owner Cullen Jenkins. “It’s only been a few days and we are already taking a hit.

“We understand and are abiding by the 10-person limit and we have made some adjustments,” he continued, commenting on how the restaurant is focusing on takeout and curbside orders.

Just like several other local businesses, Jenkins plans to work hard to keep his workers employed.

“Right now, those who want to work are still on regular schedule and are getting paid,” the owner said. “Our focus is to make sure they stay employed and with a means to support their family, even if that means the business takes a hit.

“If they were unemployed, who knows how long and how much they would get from unemployment,” Jenkins added. “But eventually, businesses are going to have to do what they need to stay afloat. The only question is when this will happen.”

John Spiak-Athletic Director, New Kent High School

Even in the early stages of COVID-19, New Kent High School Athletic Director John Spiak was probably one of the first people who felt the effects. When schools in James City County closed down, where several of his Bay Rivers District opponents reside in, the athletic director knew that this year would be different than others.

“Our whole district is going to reopen at different times, and we are all looking for more information,” Spiak said. “So far weather wise, this has been a perfect season and we are hoping to get back our there to give our athletes some sort of season, even if it’s a mini-regular season or postseason.”

The athletic director says he believes everybody understands the circumstances of the situation, but he believes his group of athletes for his outdoor season had something special.

“Everybody was so excited about getting to Spring sports and unfortunately we can’t take advantage of it,” Spiak added. “We got to be prepared to when we go back and have everybody ready to start playing when we do.”

Aysia Wallace-Senior, Charles City High School

Among those who are affected the most is the graduating Class of 2020. The combination of sitting out from school along with no known date to return to the classroom has impacted many seniors. For Charles City High School Senior student-athlete Aysia Wallace, it has been more of how to decipher the situation and being patient.

“I’ve been handling it pretty well right now,” she said. “I have to have more self-motivation to do work without having the teachers here. It kind of has its pros and cons.”

But for Wallace, she also is a member of the high school’s track and field team. With no clue if the season will take place, she has to continue to work out in the confines of her own home until the facility reopens for practice.

“I’m anxious to get back into the activities,” Wallace says, mentioning how track and field is one of her motivators that keeps her going. “I don’t know how long we are going to be out with the virus thing going on.

“I’m handling thing and if there is a possibility to go back, I’m going to be ready,” she said as she began to wrap up the interview. “I have to uphold to everything that I’m doing now and provide a little more effort in both the classroom and the athletic field.”