ONE YEAR SINCE LOCKDOWN
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When will normalcy return? It’s been a year since Pennsylvania and much of the United States entered into a series of coronavirus-related lockdowns. Things are looking up as restrictions continue to be lifted and vaccine availability from the federal government continues to increase.
TIMELINE — TOWN TALK
“I think my best experience has been having more time with my children and spending more time with my children. We became much closer, and we’re a closer family because of this.”
— Angelina Crosby-Piggot, Robinson
“I don’t like wearing masks, they hurt my ears.”
— Natalie Kinzler, Neville Island
“The best thing was I got to spend more time with my family, so I became more family-oriented. I also got to organize myself more, and I had more time to figure out what I wanted to do and things I needed to do.”
— De’Andrea Quarles, Coraopolis
March 13: School closure
Area districts responded in a variety of ways to Gov. Tom Wolf’s initial two-week school closure issued March 16, 2020.
Sto-Rox students were immediately sent home with packets to complete, while Cornell and Montour students were not assigned home instruction until the statewide closure was extended by an additional month starting March 30.
Just 10 days later, on April 9, Wolf announced schools must close to in-person studies for the remainder of the school year.
March 19: Business closures
In the initial weeks after Wolf’s business closure, local businesses found creative ways to stay afloat, unsure how long they would have to ride out the stringent measures.
“Nobody knows what to expect right now, it's all new for everyone. Everyone needs to stay calm and not panic,” said Paulino Paixao of Kennedy’s Paixao Jewellers.
As the weeks wound on without a clear plan forward, local business owners like the Paixaos felt the regulations were unfairly targeting certain industries without clear justification.
“I really believe this virus has taken 10 years off my life,” Stowe-based Optometrist Claudia Wendel said during an interview in late April. “...Watching something that you work for all your life go down the tube is an unbelievably rotten feeling.”
Up until regulations were eased in Allegheny County on June 5, businesses not deemed essential had to remain shuttered while many larger chains including Walmart, Home Depot and Giant Eagle were granted exemptions.
April 3: PPP loans
By mid-April small portions of the $2.2 trillion unleashed by the federal CARES Act bill of March 27 began making their way to area businesses through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).
When data was later released to the public in July, nearly 1,300 area businesses had by then received some form of a low-interest recoverable loan through the program. Of this number, 311 had received loans totaling more than $150,000.
The PPP was established to prop up small and mid-size businesses, which bore much of the brunt from shutdown regulations. After initial funds ran out, the program was revived by two further rounds of federal spending.
April 9: Schools adjust
Following Gov. Wolf’s April 9 extension of the in-person school shutdown through the remainder of the school year, area districts had to work quickly to ensure students could continue learning from home.
For the Montour district, this transition was made smoother by the fact that every student had access to a technology device going into the pandemic and the district already made use of digital teaching platforms. For Sto-Rox, Cornell and Carlynton, however, school officials had to work around a host of challenges, involving not only student technology access but also home internet service, and a lack of experience among teachers in teaching through online mediums.
Helped by federal government aid distributed through the Pennsylvania Department of Education, by late summer, all districts were equipped to teach virtually. The Sto-Rox district, hamstrung by dire finances and academic shortcomings, hailed its new tech-savy status as a major victory that would boost the district beyond the years of the pandemic.
May 19: Caring Heights
Playing into an established trend across the region, by mid-May Kennedy nursing facility Caring Heights Community Care and Rehabilitation Center was home to more than 90% of reported COVID-19 cases for the 15108 ZIP code.
Data released by the Pennsylvania Department of Health May 19 showed Caring Heights residents and 22 staff had by that point contracted the coronavirus. Of that number, 28 lost their lives as a result.
Outside Caring Heights, only eight other cases had been reported across the 15108 ZIP code, which includes Coraopolis and portions of Moon, Robinson and Kennedy.
June 11: Coin shortage
Several months after shutdown measures began, local businesses started to feel the pinch of a nationwide coin shortage resulting from supply-chain disruptions.
In the weeks following a June 11 statement from the Federal Reserve acknowledging the shortage, local retailers issued statements of their own – usually on storefront windows – requesting customers pay in cash only.
Locally, gas station franchises including the 7-Eleven locations in Ingram and Kennedy were affected by the shortage, as were larger retailers with local outlets, such as Giant Eagle, Walmart and Dollar Tree.
A cranking up of mint production beginning July 2019 has helped ease the shortage, however, the partial shutdown of the economy has continued to reduce coin circulation throughout the nation.
July 4: Celebrations canceled
Community celebrations across the area were canceled or altered as a precaution against coronavirus spread last summer.
Crafton Celebrates, Ingram Days and Robinson’s annual Independence Day firework display were all called off, in each case breaking longstanding traditions.
Fall term: Schools return
Following a tumultuous summer marked by changes in case numbers and state-directed regulations, school districts throughout the area opted to begin the fall term in a variety of ways.
Intent on returning students to the classroom in the run-up to the fall semester, Sto-Rox directors instead approved a virtual-only learning plan shortly before the district reopened.
Following a spike in cases mid-summer, Carlynton directors approved a similar plan.
Citing a strong preference among parents for a full return to the classroom, Montour directors voted to reopen all three schools while also providing virtual learning options for those who preferred to opt-in.
The Cornell district sought a middle ground option, by returning students to school on a half-day rotating schedule, where they spent the other half learning remotely from home.
Pointing to their smaller numbers and greater flexibility, the majority of area private schools – including Robinson Township Christian, Archangel Gabriel and St. Philip in Crafton – approved full in-person reopening plans.
Oct. 20: Restaurant fears
As cool weather began to set in, local restaurateurs began to worry about surviving the winter with dine-in restrictions still in place.
“It’s scary,” said Joe Willett, owner of Lynn’s Cafe in Stowe. “I’ve been here 15 years... I’m about to lose my business now, but I’ll do what it takes” to stay open.
Several restaurant owners said their businesses had been unfairly targeted by coronavirus restrictions and were frustrated to learn a measure seeking to ease dine-in restrictions fell short in the Pennsylvania legislature Oct. 20.
“They’re gonna do what they’re gonna do,” said Joseph Caliguire, owner of Sarafino’s Pasta & Pizza in Crafton. “…We’re gonna keep providing good food and good service – we can’t control anything else.”
Dec. 1: Schools scale-back
As virus cases in Allegheny began to ramp up in November, area school districts took moves to temporarily scale back starting Dec. 1.
Directors at Sto-Rox, Carlynton and Cornell each approved plans to pivot to virtual-only learning for a period of days in an attempt to ward off the worst of the winter surge.
Montour directors meanwhile reverted the high school and middle school to hybrid models and left the elementary school fully-open on grounds of having low case numbers.
Winter 20-21: Willows outbreak
Beginning around the holiday season, staff and residents at the Willows assisted living facility in Kennedy were hit by a virus outbreak that quickly spread throughout the facility.
In total, the facility suffered 43 resident cases and 33 staff cases, and at least 7 residents died according to a report published by the facility.
Staff later spoke out against the facility’s handling of the disease, saying not enough was done to isolate the sick from the healthy and that the facility was understaffed and failing to support workers.
“It’s taking a toll physically, mentally, emotionally – it’s so stressful,” one employee said.
Feb. 10: Blood donation
Responding to blood supply shortages caused by pandemic restrictions, national non-profit Vitalent partnered with local optometrist Eyegotcha of Stowe in hosting a blood drive for the community Feb. 10.
Since shutdown measures began in March 2020, organizations like Vitalent have been forced to reduce blood drives as a safety precaution while demand for convalescent plasma has risen as a consequence of the virus.
Under FDA guidelines, donors for the Stowe drive were required to have received a vaccination after becoming diagnosed with COVID-19, and to be six months removed from experiencing COVID-related symptoms.
February: Vaccine delays
Two months after the first vaccines were approved by federal agencies, local residents voiced frustration with supply shortages and disjointed scheduling systems that many in the elderly community were unable to navigate.
When we spoke to those with concerns in early February, just 50,000 Allegheny County residents (approximately 4%) had received a single dose of vaccine. By March 5 that number had climbed to 127,000 – still short of nationwide averages.
“This whole vaccine rollout in Pennsylvania is abysmal,” said Lisa Smarra, a Kennedy resident who spent weeks attempting to arrange vaccinations for her elderly mother and health-compromised sister. “I feel like we’re not protecting our elderly population.”