When the first orders to close down nonessential businesses and start taking serious precautions came down, it set both business and government scrambling to adapt. At that time, few people living had been through a pandemic. Nobody knew exactly how the disease spreads—or exactly how dangerous it is.
“I’m still having this conversation with myself: The governor shut us down, shut down pretty much all nonessential businesses. And if he would have said, ‘I’ll leave it up to each individual owner,’ I don’t know hsow I would have done it,” said Ford’s Fish Shack founder Tony Stafford. “I don’t know if I would have shut down. I don’t know what I would have done, and I think about that all the time, I challenge myself, I think: ‘Tony, what would you have done?’”
As he said, at that time, face masks were “something you had in a hospital.” Now, he and the rest of Loudoun’s restaurateurs take even more extensive precautions to keep their customers safe.
And as restaurateurs and business owners have learned and adapted, their businesses have changed. Before COVID, Stafford said, about 5% of the business’s sales were takeout. Now, about 40% of their business is takeout—and he hopes people keep eating that way.
“Those habits are great habits that we want people to keep now, because before those guests just weren’t coming to the restaurant. Well, now they can order food to go, they can call us and have us bring our food truck to their neighborhood,” Stafford said.
But it wasn’t all success stories. Many employees were out of work while restaurants were closed.
Some never came back—they decided to get into another line of work. Stafford, who before the pandemic often said he would open more restaurants if he could find the staff for them, said that’s now one of the things he and other restaurant owners talk about:
“Are people still going to want to work in the restaurant industry? Because for the last year, it’s been sort of a shaky business to work in. You didn’t know if your restaurant was going to be open when you go in, you didn’t know if the governor was going to shut it down,” Stafford said.
Where before Ford’s employed about 160 to 175 people, Stafford said, today they’ve brought back everyone who wants to come back, about 125 people. But, he said, those people are making more now than they were before.
“This is something that’s touched not only small business and restaurant owners—it’s touched all of our employees who have stuck by us the last year, knowing we may not make it, and having the confidence in us that we were going to make it,” Stafford said.
And as the weather warms, all three Ford’s Fish Shack locations have outdoor seating.
Two Local Governments
Photos of the first pandemic press conference a year ago in the County Government Center are disconcerting today—all of the key figures in Loudoun County government’s pandemic response, from elected leaders to public safety and health officials, standing unmasked and shoulder-to-shoulder inside the boardroom.
Ever since the pandemic came to Loudoun, said County Chair Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large), Loudoun has been running two local governments in parallel: the normal local government, and the COVID response government. The county’s Emergency Operations Center, normally only opened for limited times to deal with particular catastrophes, has been running constantly since then.
“One year ago, we didn’t know what PPE was, we really didn’t,” Randall said. “We didn’t talk about all these acronyms that now exist in our lexicon.”
Loudoun’s government quickly adapted to holding meetings virtually, as well as reaching out into the community to get information out to as many people as possible. That also meant partnering with organizations like New Virginia Majority and the NAACP to reach as many communities as possible and in as many languages as possible, Randall said.
“Then, of course, when we had our first COVID case and then our first COVID death, it was very upsetting,” Randall said.
As of Tuesday, March 9, the Virginia Department of Health reports the virus has killed 259 people in Loudoun—more than the entire population of the county’s smallest town, Hillsboro, with around 170 residents.
Randall said she still writes a letter to the family every time she finds out who one of those people are, often through a family member or pastor reaching out to her.
“I don’t like writing form letters, so I try to let them know, first of all, how on behalf of the county, on behalf of the board and the county, we send our condolences for the loss of their mother, their grandmother, their sister, their brother, whomever that might be,” Randall said. “[I write] that that person meant something to them. Although we count numbers and we talk about COVID in number of deaths, that that person wasn’t a number for them, that was somebody they loved and cherished and cared for, and that I hope that the memories of that person can at some point in their life bring comfort to them even through the pain.”
The pandemic has also thrown many of the inequities in society into stark relief.
“One of the largest inequities that we saw almost immediately was who had access to good broadband,” Randall said. “[…] We’ve been talking about that for a long time, but not until COVID when kids have to go home and do distance learning that it becomes crucial, because literally they can’t go to school. You literally can’t get an education.”
The same has been true for older people who have access to the internet but aren’t computer-literate, she said. Loudoun supervisors and schools have taken steps to push broadband access out to as many people as they can as quickly as possible, like expanding broadband access near libraries or even using school buses as mobile hotspots.
And those inequities have persisted as health officials seek to get people vaccinated who may not have internet access or speak English.
“I don’t know that I know an answer to addressing the disparities in the healthcare system. I do know that for my little part of the world, Loudoun County, my job will be having better connectivity, and I don’t just mean broadband connectivity, but connectivity between organizations and groups and that sort of thing,” Randall said. “I think that is so important. I get on Zoom calls around COVID and everyone on that call is white, or everyone on this call is Black. It’s like, what are we doing?”
The effort it also complicated by people who are mistrustful of government and the vaccine, and by the politicization of the pandemic.
“Not only have we divided ourselves among demographics, but we divided ourselves among party lines, which is completely ridiculous, because this virus doesn’t care about your political party,” Randall said. “So when you have a virus that’s been politicized, it’s even harder to convince people that vaccines are something you want to consider.”
Even amid the difficulties of a long winter of COVID-19, there were some bright spots—all things considered.
“What really surprised me was how effective our mitigating strategies were at preventing the flu from coming into our community, because all of our modeling was that it was going to be a really horrible winter,” said Loudoun Health Department Director Dr. David Goodfriend. “And it was a bad winter with the second phase of COVID, but the model was that our emergency departments and our hospital beds would be overwhelmed because we were dealing with the flu and COVID at the same time. But we didn’t have any flu, which allowed our doctors to give the best care possible to everyone who had COVID, and definitely saved lives.”
“I have stopped saying ‘we’re all in this together’ or ‘we’re all in the same boat,’” Randall said. “I stopped saying that because it sounds good, but it’s not really a true statement. The better statement is, ‘we’re all in the same storm,’ but some of us in the storm have a canoe, some of us have a tent, some of us have an umbrella, and some of us are standing out in the storm getting drenched. So we’re all in the same storm, but we haven’t all been affected by it evenly.”
Today, the Loudoun Health Department is working with various organizations like churches, hospitals low-income senior communities and the Arc of Loudoun to get the vaccine to the people who are most vulnerable—and have the most trouble getting signed up. That can mean anything from lacking internet access to difficulty with the English language.
They are also working to take the vaccines to where people live, rather than requiring people to come to the centralized vaccination site at the Dulles Town Center Mall.
“I want to make sure everyone in Howardsville is vaccinated, everyone in Conklin, everyone in St. Louis,” Randall said. “So we’re doing kind of the macro-level vaccinations right now, but there are pockets of people all over Loudoun who I know are not getting vaccinated, and probably will not until we come to them.”
With limited vaccine supplies, that can pose a challenge, because vaccinators have a limited amount of time to administer all the doses in a vial of vaccine once it is opened, people are monitored for 15 minutes after being vaccinated to make sure they have no adverse reaction to the vaccine.
“In a mass clinic setting, that’s easy to do, because we’ve got one area where folks get vaccinated, and a completely separate area where folks sit in their chairs and look at their phones, and we just stare at them for 15 minutes,” Goodfriend said. “When you go to someone’s house, then essentially […] that person also has to sit in their house for 15 minutes. It’s problematic when you need to get all 10 doses of the vaccine used within 6 hours.”
And they are still figuring out how to get the vaccine to another particularly vulnerable population—people who are homebound. Goodfriend has said before that for now, everyone around those people should get vaccinated, and offered a reminder that people who care for a homebound person are eligible for vaccination now.
More help could also be coming for businesses if and when Loudoun receives funding from the American Rescue Plan—among other things, giving the local government the money to do more rounds of grants to support small businesses, Randall said.
If past pandemics—even those a fraction as deadly as COVID—are any indication, this one could have a lasting impact on health practices. Goodfriend said that after the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, often called swine flu, hand sanitizer and practices like sneezing into the elbow instead of the hands became more common. He said it’s hard to predict which COVID-era precautions will stay with us.
“Will people go back to normal completely, and in which case we have a bad flu season every year and on top of that probably some COVID deaths?” Goodfriend said. “Or, now that our school systems are built up to be able to be a bit COVID-resistant, […] we’ve really seen how productive folks can be with Zoom meetings, do we take advantage of that and have fewer in-person meetings? […] We just don’t know what will happen in the future.”
Since the pandemic began, so many things have changed—for example, in the beginning, the advice from public health officials was to leave the masks on the shelf for the doctors to use. Now they are ubiquitous. Similarly, today school and government leaders are debating how to reopen schools safely, amid evidence that young people may be less likely to transmit the virus, and that schools may be able to take precautions to prevent its spread in the classroom.
“There was just so much learning that had to go on in the middle of this,” Goodfriend said. “I think given that, I think public health got a lot of things right. Modeling was always the challenge, but even with that, it is playing out a bit like the Spanish Flu a hundred years ago, where you had the first wave and then you had a bad second wave in the winter.
“Fortunately, we’re in a better position by the second winter.”
Since then, the practice of medicine has had 100 years to improve, and can do things now never imagined during the Spanish Flu.
“That helped save a lot of lives,” Goodfriend said.