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COVID-19 affected the local community quickly and signficantly, beginning in mid-March

CENTRAL OREGONIAN - During the first few weeks of the pandemic, empy toilet paper shelves were a common sight at grocery stores.

January-February; the year begins with news of the pandemic

2020 was a year like no other, featuring news events that few if any could have ever predicted when we all popped open champaign bottles and sang a few bars of "Auld Lang Syne." By late December, people watching the news had heard about a new novel coronavirus that was spreading in China, but there was little worry about the illness making landfall in the U.S.

However, as the winter progressed, more and more countries in the Eastern Hemisphere faced outbreaks and news grew about how contagious and deadly the virus could be. Then, in late February, cases began to emerge in Oregon, and as the calendar flipped to March, the impact of the illness, COVID-19, escalated quickly.

The first piece of local news regarding the novel coronavirus emerged during the first week of February after Crook County health officials circulated a memo to government departments. At the time, there were only six known cases in the U.S. in four states. The county health department said at the time that people are more likely to get sick with other more common illnesses.

"We do not know how long it takes for signs of illness to show up after someone is exposed to Novel Coronavirus," the memo to county departments stated. "We currently believe that the risk to most Oregonians is low. The situation is changing hourly, so we will continue to reassess risks to Oregonians and update the public if that assessment changes."

Public events continued in Crook County unabated throughout February. Crooked River Roundup leaders declared 2020 the Year of the Cowboy in honor of the rodeo's 75th anniversary. A massive gala was held at the Crook County Fairgrounds that drew more than 600 people to the indoor arena. Local high school sports marched forward with some teams headed toward state competitions and residents prepared to attend the Prineville Follies.

March-April; COVID-19 arrives in Crook County

As March began, concern about the coronavirus had grown, but little had changed locally. High school wrestlers and boys basketball players pursued state titles, and a large crowd filled the CCHS auditorium to watch the Follies on March 6 and 7.

But concerns had grown enough for St. Charles Health System to publicly address the virus. A message circulated online by the local health care corporation, titled "Coronavirus 101: Prepare, don't panic," provided multiple data regarding the number of cases in the U.S. and worldwide as well as recommendations on how to prevent the illness and how to prepare for it if it should ever show up in Central Oregon.

"As novel coronavirus – aka COVID-19 – continues to spread, local health officials have stressed that the risk to Central Oregonians remains low," St. Charles stated in its document. "Influenza continues to be a much more active threat to our community."

Meanwhile, the Crook County Health Department provided guidelines on how to stay healthy and sanitize before and after work.

"Before you leave home, wash your hands with soap and water," said health department officials. "Frequently during work, take time to wash your hands with soap and water. Use hand sanitizer if soap and water is not available. We need people to remember that soap and water is an effective method cleaning germs off your hands."

Folks were educated to protect their mouth, nose and eyes and keep that arms-length distance from others. These enhanced common-sense measures were touted to help prevent us from getting sick — which was the biggest risk to your household.

In early March, only 60 known cases had emerged in the United States. St. Charles then noted that officials had seen minimal evidence of the virus spreading in American communities, and there had been no coronavirus-related deaths in the U.S.

It didn't take long for things to take a dramatic and unprecedented turn. People packed an indoor auditorium one weekend. Two and a half weeks later, Gov. Kate Brown had issued statewide executive orders that closed schools and other businesses, reduced restaurants to take-out only and finally urged people to stay home as much as possible.

With the current COVID-19 situation changing from day to day, local communities relied heavily on public health and good communication for updated and accurate information. Human Services Director and Public Health Administrator for Crook County Health Department Muriel DeLaVergne-Brown announced their effort to work collaboratively with a task force of community, tri-county and state partners, which requires a high level of communication on behalf of public health.

The command team included CCFR, hospital, police, emergency management and public health. The Crook County Health Department became a cornerstone for communicating the COVID information with the community during the remainder of the year, and the Oregon Health Authority began reporting daily cases and data on their website.

Nationally, sports leagues at the collegiate and professional level canceled seasons, and all large-audience events were likewise canceled.

All of this happened a week before Crook County had its first confirmed case on April 1.

Ever resilient, local leaders made the most of the situation. Numerous restaurants pivoted to take-out dining in less than a week. Crook County educators quickly developed and launched a distance learning program that featured school bus Wi-Fi hotspots and school meal pickup sites. Students and parents throughout the state of Oregon began working from home on Wednesday, April 1.

Meanwhile, community businesses and organizations quickly got acquainted with Zoom and other videoconferencing platforms while trying to keep the economy and other essential services moving forward. Virtual lectures became common, and the virtual platforms were utilized by Crook County Library, Bowman Museum, and many local and state agencies.

The statewide closures were initially temporary, but as cases numbers continued to grow heading into April, they were extended. On April 8, schools were officially closed for the remainder of the school year. Limitations on restaurants and other gatherings persisted throughout April without an end in sight.

In the midst of this chaos, a COVID-19 relief grant of $450,000 from Facebook to CCSD was announced on May 6.

The grant allowed the district to make significant investments in new tools so they could serve both students inside the traditional classroom and families who might want to choose online learning long term.

Behind the scenes, as the need for personal protective equipment demands continued to rise, a growing number of people in Central Oregon began making masks for the health care community. Among them, Central Oregon Emergency Mask Makers united people and resources across Central Oregon to address the demand for medical masks and other PPE to resupply the shortage within the Central Oregon community.

A number of local seamstresses joined in the effort to supply cloth face coverings for the community. Other groups, such as local quilt groups, found ways to continue with their efforts to distribute needed quilts locally.

May-June—Crook County demonstrates more resourcefulness

Finally, in May, cases started to decline, and local governments increased pressure on the state to reopen the economy. The result was a new phased approach to reopening restaurants, bars, churches and other businesses. On May 15, locals enjoyed their first opportunity in two months to eat inside a restaurant. Gradually, as case totals stayed relatively low, business restrictions were lifted, enabling shopping, dining, exercising in athletic clubs, visiting salons and more.

One of the biggest challenges for restaurants was the social distancing that limited seating and capacity in restaurants. For owners, this posed a challenge when making the most of their square footage and seating arrangements. Establishments like Club Pioneer in Prineville found ways to meet restrictions and provide a comfortable environment for their customers. Restaurants were given the option to either put up plexiglass as a barrier, or they could ensure tables or booths were six feet apart.

For the first time since the first COVID case was announced, hair salons were able to open under restrictions, and many locals finally received their first haircut in months.

But it wasn't all good news in May. Ironclad restrictions on large gatherings forced the Crooked River Roundup Board to pull the plug on its highly anticipated 75th rodeo and races. Meanwhile, educators, students and parents grappled with how to celebrate the graduation of the Class of 2020.

Again, locals showed their resiliency. The schools ultimately hosted a virtual graduation ceremony that combined pre-recorded speeches and livestreamed commencement events with a new and well attended graduation parade through town. The weekend of graduation, signs of each senior were placed along Third Street. The signs were sponsored by parents and businesses in Prineville and remained for the public to see long after graduation week.

The parade, which featured graduates riding in decorated vehicles, was popular enough that school leaders are considering holding the parade in subsequent post-pandemic years.

Other activities that impacted the community in June also showed Crook County's ability to be resilient and watch out for those struggling during the pandemic. On June 11 and June 12, the biggest food give-away project ever to take place in Prineville was a huge success. It involved nearly 600 volunteer hours, and 1,061 households received food from the event.

The food giveaway was made possible from funds left over from Crook County Holiday Partnership, equaling $6,000. The Crook County Sheriff's Office Search and Rescue matched those funds, and Fortis Construction donated approximately $18,000. Facebook also donated $20,000. Altogether, the funds donated to the food giveaway equaled $50,000.

The graduation procession was not the only special parade held that summer. Roundup officials and other residents held a rodeo-themed parade through the streets and neighborhoods of Prineville, and on Independence Day, the Band of Brothers organized another parade to highlight the Fourth of July.

With the uptick in COVID-19 cases, many Crook County residents wondered how this would affect other summer activities. In Early July, the Prineville-Crook County Chamber of Commerce had to cancel the traditional chamber awards celebration. The celebration went on, however, with a video produced by Ellen Morningstar of Morningstar films, and was a huge success and put the spotlight on last year's shining stars in the community. Despite COVID-19 and the resulting challenges, Prineville-Crook County Chamber Director Kim Daniels and her board found a way to recognize those fine folks.

"Originally, we were just going to postpone the awards," reflected Daniels in July shortly after the video release. Daniels said they considered several options, but things did not change with restrictions and social distancing.

Other services that were of utmost importance to certain demographics included the Meals on Wheels in Prineville, that provides as many as 400 meals to seniors every week.

Because of a remodel of the senior center and the pandemic, which coincided, the Soroptimist Neat Repeat had remained temporarily closed. The Meals on Wheels program is dependent on donations from the community to subsidize the federal funding and funds derived from the Neat Repeat. The community stepped up and donations poured in daily to help make up the shortfall.

"Right now, that's what is keeping us going—those checks," commented Melody Kendall, coordinator and bookkeeper for Prineville Senior Center in May.

The program also received a donation from a ranch in Paulina for 75 pounds of hamburger. The 1017 Project from Shiloh Ranch Church in Powell Butte had committed to a full beef the first part of May.

The chamber staff sought to recognize the businesses who were opened back up after the COVID-19 closure in the spring. In honor of every chamber member business that reopened, they made ribbons with the business name that were put on a "Ribbon Tree." The tree was a way to represent the local businesses opening back up.

July and August bring more challenges

As July turned the corner, Crook County had the sobering news of its first COVID death. Oregon's 225th COVID-19 death was a 63-year-old woman in Crook County who became symptomatic on July 1 after close contact with a confirmed case and died on July 8 at her residence. She had no underlying medical conditions.

As of Monday, July 27, Crook County had 29 COVID-19 cases, one hospitalization and one reported death because of COVID-19. As of that date, there were 1,398 negative COVID-19 tests conducted.

The limit of people gathering at all indoor venues was lowered from 250 to 100 in July in Crook County, and the restrictions included larger restaurants and bars, churches, movie theaters and gyms in all counties. Oregonians participating in gym activities were required to wear face coverings during exercise. The limit was set at 10 for family gatherings.

"The outdoor venue cap for activities will be maintained at 250 at this time," said Gov. Brown at a July news conference.

Despite the upswing in cases, volunteers for the Relay For Life found creative ways to hold their event—mostly virtual—in order to raise funds for cancer victims and their families. It was one of the few events held in Central Oregon for Relay For Life and was successful, in spite of COVID.

The annual fireworks display launched off viewpoint on July 4, and fireworks sales around the state were at an all-time high.

Then, in early August, Crook County Fair leaders pushed forward to ensure that one summertime staple still took place. During the traditional four days scheduled for the fair, people could wander different booths throughout downtown Prineville. Exhibits went virtual and the livestock show and auction were livestreamed, while concerts with limited attendance took place at the fairgrounds.

During August, plans for the 2020-21 school year gained momentum, but it appeared initially that students would spend the school year learning from home again. Guidance released by the governor initially required counties achieve a case load of 10 per 100,000 people for three consecutive weeks before all grades could return to in-person education. At the time, only one of 36 counties qualified. The guidance was less strict for grades K-3 (30 cases per 100,000 people), which enabled students in those grades to start the school year in the classroom.

The state's positivity rate dropped to 4.4% the week of Aug. 23-29, which was below the target of 5% for all students to return to classroom instruction. Counties needed to meet this metric three weeks in a row to have all students return to the classroom.

In August, the state required that individuals who tested positive be quarantined for 14 days, under which time they were under isolation. 72 hours after they had not shown any symptoms or fever, they were dropped off the numbers.

Several employment sectors showed modest gains in job recovery between June and July 2020. Oregon's total nonfarm payroll employment rose by 20,500 jobs in July, following a gain of 57,000 jobs in June. Between June and August, employers added back 38% of the jobs that were cut in March and April.

Leisure and hospitality suffered by far the largest job loss during March and April. In true form, the local restaurants found ways to serve their customers and provide their usual savory menus. Crook County businesses demonstrated their ability to be resilient and resourceful when things got tough. Some restaurants and businesses even offered delivery and curb-side delivery.

September-October

On Sept. 2, the state dashboard numbers for OHA for Crook County were 27 active cases, 27 cases recovered, 55 cumulative cases and one death. Shortly after this date, the state discontinued tracking active cases and recovered cases and reported only presumptive and positive cases.

As Labor Day approached, Crook County, along with other counties in Oregon and around the country, braced for the potential backlash from gatherings and traveling.

Most students started the school year online, but the governor later relaxed school COVID metrics, paving the way for grades 4-12 to return to the classroom. First, in late September, the governor removed a requirement for state positive test rates to come in at less than 5%.

Amongst school beginning and teachers and students navigating their way through online learning, a series of fires broke out north of Eugene in late September. The fires devastated several small communities, and smoke and road closures affected other portions of the state for almost two weeks. Central Oregon was no exception, as smoky skies hung over Prineville for more than one week.

The Oregon Health Authority reported eight new COVID-19 cases in Crook County on Friday, Oct. 16. Saturday, Oct. 17, Crook County gained five more, pushing the total to 13. The state metrics required that local cases remain at seven or less per week for two weeks in a row.

Jason Carr, director of communications for Crook County School District, remained vigilant in keeping the public informed of changes, which sometimes seemed to change day by day. Carr began his position as the pandemic began, and his communications became a key component in keeping the local education community in touch with parents and media. At this point in time, the positive cases had to remain at seven or less per week for grades 4-12 to remain in classrooms. If they remained at eight or above, Superintendent Dr. Sara Johnson was prepared to announce plans to go back to online learning, on Nov. 2.

The number of cases the first two weeks of October pushed the school district into the Red Zone.

Then in October, the number of cases allowed in a county were increased and Crook County School District was granted a Safe Harbor designation. Under the designation, schools could continue in-person education until January, and any decisions to close schools would be in the hands of county health officials.

So even though case numbers rose again during the fall, elementary school students continued to attend classes full-time while two different cohorts of middle and high school students went to school twice a week on alternating schedules. All students are required to wear masks in the buildings and have their temperature taken upon entry.

With Halloween fast approaching, many parents and children feared that this holiday would not be a safe holiday to participate in. With a little ingenuity and careful planning, the Prineville-Crook County Chamber of Commerce partnered with Prineville business owners to bring the traditional Candy Crawl to eager youngsters.

"It's one of those opportunities to hold an event and try to do it as safe as possible," Chamber Director Kim Daniels said.

November-December

As case numbers rose to record highs during the fall, schools faced the possibility of returning to distance learning in January. A shortage of teachers, due to COVID exposures and quarantining had already resulted in kids learning from home during the last week of school before winter break. However, local educators were once again relieved to see the state pass an extension of the Safe Harbor designation, which will enable schools to continue in-person education for the foreseeable future.

There were several events planned for the late fall, which happened despite rising case numbers. Shop Business Saturday, a part of Small all Season Long in Prineville, launched in late November, with a long list of local business participants and specials. Unlike last year's traditional Black Friday and Small Business Saturday, this year's event had a number of modifications to ensure social distancing and safety protocols.

Other events that continued through the early winter included the Holiday Partnership and the annual veterans dinner—both modified to accommodate protocols and safety. St. Vincent de Paul found ways for their volunteers to pack food boxes and load them onto the pantry truck to provide clients food without interruption. The truck, fully loaded with 30-35 boxes of food, was moved into their parking lot, and large carts with apples, oranges, milk, and coolers of frozen meat were stationed on the north side of the truck. Volunteers took food out to the clients, so they did not have to get out of their vehicles.

Another two-week freeze period from Nov. 18 to Dec. 2 was announced by Gov. Brown, and most local businesses were impacted to some extent. During the freeze period, restaurants, bars, taverns, brew pubs, wine bars, wineries, cafes, food courts, coffee shops, clubs or other establishments that offer food or drink could not offer or allow on-premises, consumption of food or drink—inside or outside. Establishments could offer food or drink only for off-premises consumption such as takeout or drive-thru or for delivery.

As the new freeze drug on beyond the initial two weeks, several restaurants found themselves unable to offer take-out only a feasible alternative. Several eating establishments closed temporarily, without takeout alternatives as an option. Residents were urged to stay home for Thanksgiving, and in-home gatherings were restricted to six, with no more than two families in one gathering.

In early December, Crook County announced the State of Oregon had awarded COVID-19 relief funds to Crook County, and Central Oregon Intergovernmental Council (COIC) together with Crook County, were offering another round of grants to Central Oregon small businesses and nonprofits negatively impacted by the economic downturn caused by COVID-19.

Crook County had more than $675,000 in grants available from the State of Oregon as part of their CARES relief funding allocation.

When the Oregon Health Authority updated the new metrics that went into effect on Dec. 2, Crook County fell into the "Extreme Risk" category.

Christmas seemed to arrive quietly, with many of the winter events that are planned around Christmas canceled. Annual celebrations, such as the annual Christmas parade, Grimes Christmas Scene, and the Crooked River Miniature Railroad were canceled. The Holiday Partnership and Christmas In the Pines—which also represent important traditions to Crook County residents—continued with restrictions and modifications.

A surge that began after Halloween resulted in Crook County having 64 cases in two weeks. The Crook County Health Department said that the numbers steadily increased over the weeks after Thanksgiving. Those cases were traced to social gatherings.

A new year and some hope

Going into 2021, the pandemic continues, and health officials are projecting a dark winter with high case totals and more deaths. But the year will begin with hope as two different vaccines have gained FDA approval are now getting distributed nationwide.

Opinions vary on when the pandemic will truly end and when masks and social distancing will no longer be necessary. Some say late spring, others believe it will happen sometime during the summer, and some experts predict it will not happen until the fall or later.

But a light is seemingly showing at the end of the dark COVID tunnel, and people throughout the world are hopeful that we will reach the end of 2021 in a much better situation than we started it.


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