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Top 10 of 2020: ‘Everybody tried to do the best we could’; coronavirus changed everything
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Top 10 of 2020: ‘Everybody tried to do the best we could’; coronavirus changed everything

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Coronavirus.

No one was left untouched in 2020 as the virus spread throughout every segment of society, completely changing daily life.

People began wearing masks in public. More began working from home. Schools switched to virtual learning and then to a “hybrid” model with some virtual, some in-person learning.

Local events were cancelled, like the Rose Festival, Showcase Orangeburg, the Orangeburg County Fair and the Orangeburg County Christmas Parade.

Churches throughout the region sought different ways to conduct services, including holding them outdoors or livestreaming them over the internet.

And while life seemed to return to something closer to normal in mid-2020, rising cases of coronavirus caused many schools to return to virtual learning.

The historic and life-changing nature of the COVID-19 pandemic made it the top T&D Story of Year for 2020.

The virus

The novel coronavirus was first identified in Wuhan, China, in December 2019 before arriving on U.S. soil in January.

The most common symptoms of the virus include fever or chills; cough; shortness of breath or difficulty breathing; fatigue; muscle or body aches; headache; new loss of taste or smell; sore throat; congestion or runny nose; nausea or vomiting; and diarrhea.

The first case reported in The T&D Region was discovered in Calhoun County on March 17.

The first two coronavirus cases reported in Orangeburg County were discovered March 20.

There were 4,924 coronavirus cases and 146 deaths in Orangeburg County in 2020, according to figures from the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

Bamberg County had 931 cases and 40 deaths, while Calhoun County had 769 cases and 17 deaths.

Orangeburg County Chamber of Commerce Chairman Daryl Cate, a florist, caught COVID this summer. He says the entire ordeal opened his eyes and gave him “2020 vision.”

“The pandemic has definitely been a challenge physically, mentally, emotionally and financially for sure,” Cate said in an email. “Physically, I am still recovering even after more than six months after leaving the hospital.”

Cate says his energy level is back to normal but that he does have permanent lung damage as a result of the virus.

“I continue respiratory therapy and treatment to keep my lung functions as optimal as possible,” Cate said. “It's just something that I will deal with.”

“Recovery is taking longer than I thought, and now both my doctors and I are concerned about other long-term side effects and possible reinfection,” he said. “Since my lungs are compromised, another infection or even pneumonia could be devastating.”

Cate says the pandemic has changed his perspective on many things in life.

“It has forced me to reevaluate my priorities for certain,” he said. “I try very hard to remain positive and upbeat. I have been very blessed.”

Business

The virus had a ripple effect on the local economy.

Banks, barber shops and other businesses that require close contact with customers all closed for a time. Banking was conducted through drive-thru and online means with reduced hours.

At one point, the majority of the stores at the Prince of Orange Mall were closed.

Local grocery stores remained open as essential businesses, but with changes designed to increase social distancing.

There were challenges with the supply chain. Paper towels, toilet paper, water and sanitizing wipes were hot commodities and stores struggled to keep up with the high demand.

Veterinarians in the area formed a system where pet owners would call to let them know of their arrival and then come out to retrieve the pet from the owner.

Restaurants began setting up sophisticated drive-thru and carry-out dining options so they could continue operations.

As the public grew more accustomed to the virus and more information was known about how the virus impacts individuals, businesses and government offices began to slowly reopen to the public -- at least on a limited basis with safety protocols in place.

Many businesses invested in new equipment and installed safety measures such as Plexiglas shields and cashier protections.

Marji and Warren Albergotti of The Chestnut Grill in Orangeburg say the coronavirus affected their restaurant in many ways.

“On March 18th, when we were forced to transition to 100% take-out, it was a considerable blow to our entire operation,” the couple said in an email. “At the time, we employed over 50 employees, many of whom had worked for us for many, many years.”

“A considerable number of those were front of the house employees whose job and the majority of their income relied upon dine-in customers,” they continued. “Because of the complete switch over to take-out, most of them were laid off.”

The Albergottis said the restaurant's take-out business had steadily increased over the years, especially at lunch when the traditional lunch hour had all but disappeared.

“Due to this experience, we were able to adapt quickly and adjust our operation to accommodate the new requirements set forth by the” S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, they said. “Our incredibly loyal customers continued to support us as we adapted to curbside and take-out only.”

The take-out only format prompted the restaurant to switch all its packaging in an effort to improve the quality of food being ordered to go.

As 2020 becomes 2021, restaurant sales are still below average even though customers can dine in again.

"We are still seeing a much greater proportion of take-out orders compared to dine-in," the couple said.

The key to survival has been the ability to adapt.

“We have made many changes to the entire operation,” the couple said. “We added the outdoor patio dining, and rearranged the inside seating to allow us to be able to seat all of the tables and still maintain distance between the customers.”

Hours of operation have also changed, with the restaurant being closed from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. for sanitation and cleaning purposes.

“The restaurant now offers delivery through OnPoint Delivery service and are in the process of upgrading our POS system to allow for touchless payments,” the couple said.

The roll out of the coronavirus vaccine is “vital to the sustainability of the full service restaurant sector.”

“It is our hope that by spring/summer 2021 that life for everyone will return to a new normal,” they said.

Brett Andrae, owner of Company Jewelers on Russell Street, described 2020 as a challenging year socially and for business,

“I saw traffic patterns change up,” Andrae said. “The way they act changed up as far as people coming in and how they buy. It was a unique year.”

Andrae says the store was shut down during the peak spring wedding, engagement and anniversary season.

“It probably cost us a small fortune in sales,” he said. “Hopefully 2021 will be a better year. We are hoping to make it better.”

Andrae said one way of making 2021 better is “refocusing on the details and looking for better opportunities.”

The roll out of the vaccine could improve people’s level of comfort, he said. One thing is for certain: another lockdown would kill small businesses.

“If they don't open things up, you are going to lose half the businesses in the country,” Andrae said. “They are already gone and there will be continued fallout for a long time from that.”

The virus also impacted Cate’s business.

“Since I primarily do weddings and events, and most everything in spring and summer was cancelled, sales and revenues were substantially less,” Cate said. “With the fall reopenings of many venues, business began to pick up, only to later decline due to the increase in COVID cases.”

“I have remained open and have kept all of my employees,” Cate continued. “My business has been lucky. I am very thankful for the community support and my loyal customers that have kept us open.”

Cate says he is optimistic about the COVID vaccines

“I think it's a great start to help keep this virus under control,” he said. “But our primary defense is still wearing the mask, washing our hands and social distancing. Of course it's inconvenient, but a little inconvenience is worth saving someone's life.”

The pandemic has also impacted nonprofit groups as the level of donations fell. From the Salvation Army to the Cooperative Church Ministries of Orangeburg, donations fell as many struggled financially.

Industries

The virus caused local companies and manufacturers to conduct layoffs and furloughs in an effort to survive the downturn.

Some companies went from three shifts to one shift. Some Orangeburg County companies reduced their workforce by 50%.

The Orangeburg County Development Commission worked with local manufacturers and directed them toward the federal government's paycheck-protection program, which was created to provide a direct incentive for businesses to keep their workers on the payroll.

Some businesses and manufacturers stepped up to the plate to either manufacture or donate personal protective equipment to the health care sector to meet the rising demand.

Closures of businesses due to the pandemic resulted in job losses for thousands in The T&D Region. Some still employed had to deal with furloughs or reductions in pay.

In Orangeburg County, May's unemployment rate was 14.5% compared to the 4.8% pre-coronavirus rate.

Bamberg County’s unemployment rate was 13.2% in May, compared to 5.7% before. Calhoun County's rate was 8.6% in April, compared to 3.5% before the pandemic.

Unemployment rates began to fall in June as businesses slowly reopened and people went back to work. By November, local unemployment rates continued to hover between 4% and 6%.

The unemployed were able to benefit from a number of COVID-related unemployment benefits, including state Unemployment Insurance benefits, Pandemic Unemployment Assistance for the self-employed and others, the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program, the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation program and Extended Benefits.

As the year was drawing to a close, Congress passed legislation to extend the unemployment benefit programs created under the CARES Act.

Rental challenges

Job losses also impacted those who rent.

A federal moratorium on evictions was put in place earlier this year for those who were struggling with job losses due to COVID-19. Protections have applied to tenants who signed and submitted a declaration under threat of perjury stating they were unable to pay rent because of the pandemic.

The moratorium, which was expected to expire Dec. 31, has been extended through the end of January.

However, tenants who violate their lease can still be evicted. So can tenants whose leases are expiring.

The State Housing Finance and Development Authority says thousands of individuals have been evicted from their homes and apartments across the state since the pandemic began.

Calhoun County Sheriff Thomas Summers said the county has not had any evictions of individuals who could not pay rent due to unemployment.

Overall, the sheriff's office has carried out 20 evictions due to other factors outside of the moratorium, such as lease violations and expirations.

Eviction numbers from Orangeburg and Bamberg counties were unavailable.

SHFDA Chief Research Officer Bryan Grady fears there could be many more in danger of eviction in the near future.

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Grady says about 20% of renters across the state are behind their monthly rent. There are about 10,000 renters in The T&D Region.

At the 20%, he says it can safely be assumed that about 2,000 individuals or families in the region would be at “pretty imminent risk” of eviction upon the expiration of the moratorium.

The authority has focused its efforts on federal assistance programs. He said when the virus outbreak began in the spring, the agency was able to allocate about $5 million in emergency funding for rental assistance.

The funding has since been exhausted but he said the agency is in line to receive an additional $25 million in grants from the CARES Act. The agency is now looking for local government and nonprofit groups to administer the program by going into the community and getting qualified renters to fill out the appropriate applications to qualify for the funds.

Grady said the program is currently in the process of being compiled with hopes it will be operational in February 2021.

Education

The virus has impacted the area's educational institutions.

As the pandemic began to spread, South Carolina State and Claflin universities suspended international travel.

The universities then shut down campuses and switched to virtual learning. Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College, Denmark-Technical College and Voorhees College also switched to online classes.

University and college-related events were all cancelled and postponed, including inauguration activities for new Claflin President Dr. Dwaun J. Warmack. Commencement exercises were held virtually or postponed.

Several NCAA events were canceled, including all sports activities in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. S.C. State is a member of MEAC.

Claflin University’s Athletics Department also cancelled all athletics-related activities.

Schools throughout The T&D Region ended up closing, with students switching to virtual learning.

School districts spent money to upgrade safety at schools. And throughout the year, the districts tracked the spread of the virus and fluctuated between providing all online learning and a hybrid model that included some online and some in-person education.

Some parents expressed concerns about the virtual instruction model and its impact on the emotional well-being of students, while others praised the move as necessary.

In some cases, parents took their children out of public schools altogether and chose to either homeschool or send their children to private schools.

High school graduations were allowed outdoors with limited attendance and social distancing.

Private schools generally remained in a traditional in-person setting throughout the year, with some deciding to go completely virtual near the Christmas holiday break.

Calhoun County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Steve Wilson said 2020 has been a year of learning.

"When this thing first hit us ... nobody was ready for that," he said. "I think initially it was not the best format for kids.

“Everybody tried to do the best we could."

Wilson said when the new school year began, the district had a better opportunity to plan.

"Obviously everybody would like to have face-to-face instruction," Wilson said. "Nothing can replace teachers’ one-to-one with the students."

Wilson said generally virtual instruction has “gone as best as we could.”

"We are hoping the quality of instruction is much better than it was when it first started," he said. "Hopefully, we will see good results as a result of it."

Wilson says he is optimistic the vaccine will help change things for the better later in 2021.

"We are hoping that the vaccine is going to put us back in a normal condition at some point," he said. "My understanding is that won't be for the next few months."

"I think everybody is looking forward to that day and hoping that day will be sooner rather than later," he said.

Local school districts have been reimbursed for costs associated with implementing safety measures through the Coronavirus Relief Fund to the tune of nearly $2 million.

Health care

As the virus began to spread, the Regional Medical Center of Orangeburg and Calhoun Counties suspended all hospital visitations and restricted hospital entry access.

The hospital also ended up cancelling all elective surgeries.

RMC set up a number of triage sections to ensure patients are properly spaced and temperature screenings became the norm in an effort to monitor those visiting the hospital.

The hospital continually had to monitor its supplies of personal protective equipment, ventilators and beds. Costs associated with ensuring safety amid the virus also negatively impacted the bottom line.

In order to better handle the number of coronavirus patients, the RMC developed an alternate care site with the help of the South Carolina National Guard. Tents were set up outside the hospital with medical equipment.

In April, the RMC had about a quarter of its non-clinical employees reduce their hours or work in different departments due to the reduction in volumes.

The hospital also had to contend with its own staff contracting the virus, requiring it to hire more costly contract labor.

The hospital struggled financially due to the decline in volumes and the cancellation of elective surgical procedures.

From March to the end of the hospital's fiscal year in September, the hospital and its six primary care practices lost a total of $23.9 million in revenue due to the coronavirus.

The RMC and other local health centers were able to survive the financial toll with federal help provided through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act.

Through the CARES Act, the hospital received $26.5 million.

"This has been very helpful, but the overall impact of COVID-19 on the Regional Medical Center health system has been closer to $50 million since the beginning of the pandemic," RMC Interim President and CEO Kirk Wilson said.

The hospital has performed over 10,000 COVID tests within the RMC hospital system, which includes the Emergency Department, Bamberg-Barnwell Emergency Center, Santee Urgent Care, Express Care and through hospital inpatient and outpatient laboratory services, Wilson said.

Over 2,000 of those tests were positive for the COVID virus.

Of the patients who sought care at RMC with positive COVID tests or related symptoms, there have been 560 patients that suffered from serious enough conditions to require inpatient hospitalization. Just over 100 patients have lost their lives, Wilson said.

Over the past two months, the RMC has been averaging 20 to 30 COVID patients.

"The surge in patients in South Carolina has not extremely impacted RMC as much as some Palmetto State urban tertiary hospitals," Wilson said. "However our nursing and respiratory staff is stretched and we are having to use national contract nursing services at a great expense to accommodate the 20-30 inpatients we do have."

As 2020 ended, the first rollout of a vaccine began. The hospital was among the first to be selected for the vaccine because of its storage capabilities.

RMC received 150 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in its first week and was expected to receive up to 1,000 doses in the roll out.

The first doses distributed to RMC were offered and administered to bedside health care workers.

RMC will administer the vaccine through a phased approach based upon risk categories. By the summer of 2021, the vaccine is expected to be available for the wider population.

Wilson said the hospital staff has expressed excitement about receiving the vaccine.

"We have vaccinated over 400 staff members and will vaccinate an additional 175 staff members each week as vaccine is made available to us and staff members make themselves available for vaccination," Wilson said. "Next week we will begin to provide some with the second dose in the two-shot Pfizer vaccine regimen."

Agriculture

Farmers also saw an impact from the virus.

Cotton markets were hurt, especially with regards to China. The country is one of the largest markets for U.S. exports.

Grains used for feed also saw a price hit when meat-packing plants shut down after employees were infected with the virus.

Local chicken and beef producers saw operations slow down at their farms due to virus-induced restrictions.

There were some delays in processing due to plants being shut down or processing capacity being reduced when employees became infected.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency provided farmers with aid through its Coronavirus Food Assistance Program.

The program provided direct relief to producers facing price declines and additional marketing help.

Government offices

Administrative offices for Orangeburg, Calhoun and Bamberg counties closed to the public temporarily, as well as other government offices such as Social Security. Towns and municipalities throughout the region also closed their town halls to the public.

Residents had to conduct traditional services online or by phone.

Government and school district meetings were held via Zoom, Facebook Live, Microsoft Teams and in other ways to balance the public's right to know and safety.

County, city and state parks were all closed. City cemeteries were open, but funerals were limited to immediate family.

Libraries throughout the region closed their doors for a time, suspending overdue fines and resorting to phone and email services.

Both Orangeburg city and county implemented mask ordinances which remain in place for the new year.

Courthouses also closed periodically throughout the region.

All General Sessions and Common Pleas jury trials and hearings were postponed for a time. Probate and magistrate courts were suspended and visitation to the Orangeburg County Detention Center was limited.

While local governments have adjusted to the coronavirus, it came with a cost.

Orangeburg County has spent about $1.2 million due to the coronavirus and the expenditures continue to climb, Orangeburg County Administrator Harold Young said.

“The impacts most felt have been financial,” Young said. “It is tough because we still haven’t seen any CARES Act funding yet.”

Young said the county has taken every precaution it knows to protect its staff and county residents.

All staff are required to wear personal protective equipment, barriers have been constructed to protect citizens and employees and cleaning supplies are used regularly.

“Many of our employees now have the means to work from home if necessary so our staff can rotate where they can in some offices,” Young said.

Young said the county has also expanded its digital options so residents can conduct business related to the county on its website and sign up for any important alerts and notifications.

“We don’t take any chances -- when we needed to close the courthouse, we did,” Young said. “We realized that there was too much of a chance of exposure at the December Delinquent Tax Sale, so we cancelled it because we don’t want anyone to even potentially become exposed to COVID-19. One positive person is one too many.”

Young says a vaccine will help protect the county's frontline workers, but notes that the county is prepared for the worst.

“We cannot stress how important it is to be safe,” he said. “Not everyone will want to or be able to get the vaccine, and we have to account for that.”

Young says heading into 2021, the county will know better how it needs to budget due to COVID.

“We know what has worked with different COVID levels, and have a better grasp as to how to respond as a county,” he said.

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