COVID comes to Rappahannock
Part 1 of 3: Foothills Forum and the Rappahannock News look back on 2020 with a focus on COVID-19 as well as several key issues – schools, broadband and cellular, business, housing -- we have reported on throughout the year.
Closed schools, shuttered shops, layoffs, virtual government meetings, record absentee ballots. These are only a few of the dramatic changes Rappahannock County saw in the age of COVID-19.
By Bob Hurley for Foothills Forum
When County Administrator Garrey Curry issued an Emergency Declaration on March 17, it was anyone’s guess where things were headed. But with creative workarounds, community spirit and government leadership, county residents and businesses overcame any number of challenges.
Restaurants and businesses adapted with curbside pickup and online orders, local farmers and meat processors saw an increase in sales, and schools quickly developed virtual learning curriculums. And perhaps most importantly, the county’s virus count has risen to a total of 159 cases, 10 hospitalizations and two deaths.
A community steps up
Rappahannock residents and nonprofits generously gave their time and money to help one another this year, sewing hundreds of free face masks, joining “pop-up” personal service groups like HelpingHannock and saving summer camp for dozens of county families.
To lift financial burdens caused by the pandemic, the PATH Foundation, Northern Piedmont Community Foundation (NPCF), Rappahannock Communities, the Lions Club and others donated more than $350,000 to key local service organizations such as the Food Pantry, Benevolent Fund, Child Care and Learning Center and Businesses of Rappahannock. Donations to Rappahannock’s charities from NPCF’s annual one-day online Give Local Piedmont event grew from $241,846 to $389,808, almost a 38% increase.
• Though the COVID case count in Rappahannock has remained relatively low when compared to neighboring jurisdictions, a spike over the past month has caused the county’s numbers to double. There have been ___ cases toward year-end, with only one “super-spreader” event in June at the Massanova Pentecostal Church in Castleton where 32 members of the congregation were infected and two died, including the pastor, Lindsey D. Savage. By contrast, as of Wednesday, Culpeper had 2,954 cases, Fauquier experienced 2,330, Warren counted 1,321 and Madison reported 289.
The county government received almost $1.3 million in federal funding under the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. These funds were largely dedicated to school, public safety, and county government operations to help offset COVID-related costs. Tax revenues into the county coffers remain steady with no budget shortfalls expected. County schools have had to make many unbudgeted pandemic-related expenditures, but infusions from the federal CARES Act have, midway through the fiscal year, diminished the risk of exceeding the annual budget.
Businesses of Rappahannock distributed more than $250,000 in direct grants and technical support to county businesses, helping them weather the economic downturn. In addition, the federal CARES Act Paycheck Protection Program provided almost $6 million in loans to 133 local county businesses. Almost all of the county’s restaurants, shops, businesses, wineries, breweries, distillers and art galleries continue to serve customers.
Real estate businesses saw a spike in sales and rentals as the virus prompted people from cities to seek the quiet and safety of rural areas. By the same token, increased home sales and rental prices made affordable housing scarcer.
With schools opting for online learning and many people working from their houses, high-speed broadband became a necessity in 2020. According to School Superintendent Dr. Shannon Grimsley, about two-thirds of school families have either insufficient or no internet access at home. Though RCPS set up 20 free drive-up hotspots at various locations around the county, high-speed internet service remains largely inadequate to meet residents’ needs.
COVID-19 did not dampen voter enthusiasm; quite the contrary. A whopping 84% of registered Rappahannock voters cast their ballots this year. Of the 4,986 votes recorded, a record-breaking 2,143 were cast absentee. Even with brand new COVID-related election procedures like early in-person voting, officials said the election went smoothly.
Years in the making, the county’s Comprehensive Plan was approved unanimously by the Board of Supervisors on Dec. 7. Responding to residents’ comments, the board did not include the boundary maps of Rappahannock’s villages.
Foothills Forum is an independent, community-supported nonprofit tackling the need for in-depth research and reporting on Rappahannock County issues.
The group has an agreement with Rappahannock Media, owner of the Rappahannock News, to present this series and other award-winning reporting projects. More at foothills-forum.org.
Part 1: Intro and Business
Part 2: Housing and Budget
Part 3: Broadband and Schools
County businesses ride out the rises and falls of a rollercoaster year
By Sara Schonhardt for Foothills Forum
An unseasonably warm start to the year brought in more visitors than usual and seemed a sign of good things to come. Then, in March, nationwide shutdowns in response to the historic COVID-19 pandemic took hold.
In April some relief came in the form of the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which provided emergency loans for small businesses guaranteed by the Small Business Administration.
More than 120 enterprises in the county received a total of just over $6 million through the PPP, which incentivized businesses to keep employees on payroll by offering loan forgiveness to those that retained or rehired their workforce.
The funding, which was recently revived and expanded as part of the $900 coronavirus stimulus bill, ranged from a few thousand dollars for home enterprises and personal businesses to almost $1.4 million for the Inn at Little Washington, according to government data. Dozens of businesses also received money through the SBA’s Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL), low-interest loans for small businesses hurt by the pandemic.
Meanwhile, Businesses of Rappahannock, which represents local business owners, distributed more than $250,000 in direct grants and technical support to county businesses. This included $109,000 in $1,000 grants it provided in partnership with the nonprofit Rappahannock Communities to 109 businesses.
Another $90,000 from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act went to a grant program that qualifying businesses could put toward rent or mortgage expenses, utilities, insurance, payroll and other critical operating costs. To qualify, businesses needed to demonstrate at least a 25% loss in revenue due to COVID-19, have fewer than 50 employees and have been in operation for more than one year. At the request of the Board of Supervisors, $30,000 was reserved for nonprofits and local private schools.
For many county businesses, the late summer and fall brought a wave of customers as people fled the city for more rural locales. Pen Druid opened its new location off Sperryville Pike at the start of October, garnering rave reviews and lines of traffic. The brewery continued to host the Rappahannock Farmer’s Market, which pivoted to pre-orders and drive-through pick up from May through its holiday market on Dec. 19.
Robert Archer, who runs Happy Camper in Sperryville, said he saw a lot of new faces and an increase in sales starting in the fall. He’s also benefited from strong online purchasing.
Drew Beard and Deb Harris, who run the Gay Street Inn in Washington, said they saw a surge over the summer and into October, with every month meeting or exceeding occupancy from previous years.
The increased visitation helped offset some of their spring losses while local, state and federal programs allowed them to keep their one employee on the payroll and avoid a significant hit even after the expense of adapting to COVID-19.
And some of the changes have made their operations more efficient.
“Check-in will remain contactless, we’ll be able to offer in-room breakfast options, and we may even keep the pre-ordered wine and cocktails,” Beard said.
The pandemic has even boosted some businesses, like Piedmont Broadband.
“In 2020 we noticed a huge spike in the demand for high-speed internet throughout the county,” said office manager Jess Settle. “We had a difficult time keeping up with it in the spring and the wait times for new service were sometimes close to a month.”
The business ended up hiring additional staff to meet demand for installations and now serves more than 550 customers.
“We feel very comfortable with the state of our business,” Settle noted. “Internet is such a needed resource since so many people have to work and do their schooling from home due to the pandemic. We are working hard to accommodate everyone that we are able to.”
Even with the vaccines rolling out, the next year remains uncertain. Some businesses continue to battle back from a devastating March and April. Archer said he anticipates around a 20% dip in sales revenue from 2019.
“The fall was good to businesses, but they were still recovering from the spring,” said Theresa Wood, president of Businesses of Rappahannock. Now, with winter here and COVID-19 continuing to spread, many business owners are telling her that revenue is down 20 to 40 percent from the fall and some are reaching out for further assistance.
Wood continues to search for money and is pursuing some potential private funding, but much is up in the air.
In the meantime, BOR plans to expand its online business training and counselling services to provide help with things like website development.
In an attempt to draw more visitors to the county, the organization is also putting $95,000 into a social media campaign scheduled to launch in February and scale up in the spring. The effort was made possible with $65,000 of CARES Act from the county and $30,000 from Businesses of Rappahannock for further marketing.
“We want to do what’s good for the businesses,” Wood said, “and so we’re listening to what they need right now.”
Archer said he’s closing his store during the typically slow winter sales period until the end of February. Until then, he plans to focus on commercial property development.
Having recently sold one property to Moon Shine Jewelers, Archer is completing a project on Lee Highway that he’s hoping to develop into a lodge. Another of his properties along the same stretch of road outside Sperryville could someday house a brewery, signalling that the business community in Sperryville continues to develop. (The Dulcimer Museum project in Sperryville, the brainchild of long-time resident John Hallberg, is also moving along.)
Debbie Donehey, owner of Flint Hill’s Griffin Tavern, said 2020 was a roller coaster. In April the restaurant concentrated mostly on food and groceries to go, learning a lot about what worked — curbside pickup and payment — and what didn’t.
Guests came out in droves starting in mid-September, but when the leaves and temperature dropped, “it was like the faucet shut off,” Donehey said.
As the county enters 2021, her business is where she expected it to be.
“I’ll be burning up some savings, but my focus is on March when I hope the guests, tired of the cold and cabin fever, are ready to visit the businesses and the beauty of Rappahannock County.”
Theresa Wood, President, Businesses of Rappahannock
Where are businesses now? “It’s been sort of a roller coaster ride. … I think people are holding their breath in the dips and the valleys and they’re not sure what’s coming. But I think they’re hopeful that in the spring they’ll see more of what they saw in the fall.”
Debbie Donehey, Griffin Tavern
What gives her hope? “We are very thankful for all of our guests, our wonderful regulars and all of the kind, encouraging words.”
By the numbers
$6.18 million, the amount that went to 124 businesses across Rappahannock in PPP funding. That’s just a tiny slice of the $525 billion that went to more than 5.21 million small businesses across the United States to help them survive during the pandemic.