Regional Happenings

COMING TOGETHER IN THE FACE OF COVID-19

Respond, Recover, Reopen & Renew

By Steve York

Throughout history, in the face of a common national or global challenge, we human creatures have typically come together in common cause to overcome that challenge. And, often, in the aftermath of overcoming, we have actually emerged on the other side stronger and more determined to envision new horizons of discovery and accomplishments.

For example, the “Black Death” (or “Black Plague,” as many know it), devastated Europe and North Africa in the mid-1300s resulting in estimates of 75-200 million deaths and wrecking the socio-economic structures of that era. Yet, amazingly, what eventually emerged on the other side was The Renaissance,an explosive period of medical, social, cultural, artistic, economic, architectural, industrial and scientific upward evolution that lasted from the 1400s well into the 1700s.  

In the 1930s and 1940s, a combination of the Depression and World War II nearly destroyed the American Dream and threatened the entire world with ruthless authoritarian rule. Yet, on the other side of that, another wave of medical, industrial, technological, scientific, social and economic boom times emerged; new political, military and trade alliances formed with many peace-seeking nations.

And, of course, there was 9/11, with massive destruction to New York City, attacks on Washington, a huge loss of life, major disruption to our normal way of life and a new level of terrorist threats across the globe. Yet, in the face of that, everyone came together to help save lives, rebuild and re-emerge with new ideas, new technologies, new security systems, new hope and a renewed sense of togetherness. 

Today, in the face of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the predominant message of hope that has emerged in the face of this worldwide threat has, once again, centered on the word, “Together.” ”We’re all in this together.” “We’ll get through this together.” 

Chapter 1: The RESPONSE

The new form of togetherness required of late has, in many cases, become more virtual than literal. Virtual workplaces, virtual meetings, virtual education and graduations, virtual celebrations, virtual entertainment, virtual shopping and virtual relationships of all kinds became more than a playful technological convenience…they became, at least temporarily, a daily necessity. New and sometimes more efficient and profitable ways of doing business, expanding marketing, providing healthcare and extending cultures have emerged.

The good news is that we humans are, by nature, compassionate, adaptive, creative, adventurous and hopeful creatures with generous hearts and a uniquely human capacity for finding the beauty and humor beneath COVID-19’s shroud of ugliness and sadness. 

So how have we marshalled those human traits in the face of this dilemma here in the High Country?  How have we demonstrated our spirit of togetherness and responded to the Crisis?

COMMUNITY ORGANIZATIONS | Beyond the basic dissemination of State health and safety guidelines, High Country Chambers of Commerce and affiliated associations have provided special mentoring and counseling services to help their members and communities navigate these challenging times. They’ve offered webinars and strategies on such topics as: how to optimize web and social media marketing; how to re-imagine business models; how to manage cash flow; how to successfully manage phased re-openings; and how to coordinate with non-profit community organizations to combat COVID-19 related hunger, poverty and many other problems of the day. In addition, the High Country United Way launched the High Country COVID-19 Relief Fund to supply emergency funds to 26 different local non-profit agencies in this area.

The Boone Area Chamber of Commerce and the Williams Avery YMCA respectively have sponsored virtual races and athletic activity competitions as fundraisers for specified non-profit community organizations. Participants signed up, paid a donation fee and posted photos and videos on social media of their athletic performances. Boone’s Keep Boone Healthy – Virtual Walk/Run/Just Move event in April raised $7,498.50, which was allocated to nine non-profits.

The Avery Moves 100 event in May followed a similar format to benefit the Avery Senior Center, Cannon Memorial Hospital, Avery County Schools, Feeding Avery Families and the Williams YMCA of Avery. In addition, Williams YMCA has offered a series of virtual exercise workout classes online and via YouTube for their members. Beyond the several thousand dollars raised at the time, people are encouraged to continue donations in support of the ongoing need for these vital community services.

The Village Foundation of Blowing Rock’s Rock United Relief Fund exceeded $120,000 in donations as of May to help support struggling local businesses. Their grant review committee continues to consider and approve grant requests and provide those funds to qualified businesses.

The Ashe County Chamber of Commerce’s Small Business Support Grant Program has been managing a similar effort to supply individual $3,000 grants to Ashe County small businesses that employ between one and ten people. The Ashe County Chamber of Commerce facilitates online donations via their official website and reports that response has been very encouraging. Meanwhile, in response to an urgent need for ambulances by the New York City Fire Department, Ashe County’s American Emergency Vehicles manufacturer delivered dozens to the hard-hit city.

Feeding Avery Families and Reaching Avery Ministries in Newland received substantial grants from the A.M.Y. (Avery Mitchell Yancey) Wellness Foundation to continue their missions of providing food and assistance to families in need. And next door in Crossnore, a grant from the Winston-Salem Foundation enabled Crossnore School to increase network bandwidth on their Winston-Salem campus to support tele-health services for children and families in need of virtual therapy services. Additionally, the faculty of Crossnore’s Center for Trauma Resilient Communities has offered free webinars to help people navigate through these challenging times. On top of that, the Crossnore Weaving Room transitioned operations in a major Mask Production Project for their Avery campus.

Mayland Community College’s Advanced Manufacturing teams down at their Yancey campus and Mitchell High School got busy early on creating personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers in their area. Instructors, students and volunteers were producing face shields and reusable masks to be distributed through Emergency Management Operations Directors to Avery, Mitchell and Yancey counties.

Hospitality House in Boone, who traditionally would sell their hot dogs, chips and Moon Pies at MerleFest each year to raise money for their charity, instead had a virtual online hot dog sale due to the event’s cancellation. In turn, everyone who donated online became eligible to bring their donation receipt to MerleFest 2021 and receive a free bag of chips. Last year they sold over 4,300 hot dogs and nearly 1,200 add-on items with total sales topping $17,000. Hospitality House is hoping to raise that amount through the Virtual Hot Dog Stand donations.

OASIS, Inc., an organization that specializes in domestic and sexual abuse cases across the High Country, has been dealing with a disturbing increase in these types of abuse since the advent of COVID-19.  Forced in-home quarantining has exacerbated already existing domestic tensions, forcing people to remain in close proximity so that abuse victims are unable to flee and seek safe shelter with friends or relatives. To combat this dilemma, OASIS has had to develop special code words and methods to help victims alert authorities and escape dangerous environments.

RETAIL BUSINESSES |  Moltox (Molecular Technology, Inc.) in Boone partnered with Bistro Roca and Antlers Bar in Blowing Rock to donate food for feeding the hardworking late night staffs at Appalachian Regional Health Care’s Watauga Medical Center. They were joined by Lost Province Brewery in Boone who was also delivering pizzas to the hospital. Stick Boy and Booneshine partnered with Blowing Rock Cares, Carebox/Ransom and Hospitality House to donate 220 loaves of bread to the community. Over in the Village of Banner Elk, Sorrento’s has been donating food to Habitat for Humanity and Newland’s Carolina Barbeque has been offering donations to Feeding Avery Families.

Mast General Store, home-based in Boone, featured a ‘Gift Cards for Good’ program. Beginning as early as March, Mast Store offered gift cards that donated 20 percent of the total purchase amount back to their seven different food bank partners throughout their seven store locations. As of June, they shifted to offering their customers the opportunity to round up the balance of their total purchase to the next dollar and donate that amount to those same food bank partners.

Boone’s Autobell Car Wash has been offering a free hospital-grade, EPA-code disinfectant process to their standard vehicle cleaning. It’s free to all essential workers with the purchase of an interior cleaning.  And it’s free to first responders and official government workers, no purchase required. The disinfectant is applied using a fogging technique once people and pets have exited the vehicle. This is followed by a one-minute activation period with car doors and windows closed.

SERVICE BUSINESSES | Many public utility companies, like Blue Ridge Energy, and Mountain Electric Cooperative have come to the aid of customers by offering to suspend disconnections and late fees temporarily for those unable to pay their bills on time. Those customers may qualify for delayed payment plans and/or may also be directed to financial assistance services. At the same time, customers not strapped by current economic strife are encouraged to donate some or all of their earned capital reserve credits back to the company in support of those who can’t keep payments current.

Meanwhile, HVAC businesses, like Avery Heating and Air of Linville, are offering their customers something called the REME HALO® whole home in-duct air purifier. Installed directly into the air supply system, the device is designed to help kill viruses, bacteria, odors and other pollutants, both in the air and on surfaces.

Chapter 2: The RECOVERY

In addition to physical health issues, the hardships of lost work and income, disruption of routines, missed family celebrations, canceled social gatherings and mounting quarantine anxieties have contributed to increased mental, emotional and relationship issues. Some of these stresses have reached the point of overload resulting in depression, substance abuse and even physical abuse. So healthcare, spiritual care, and community care services have become even more vital these days.

HEALTHCARE SYSTEMS | The Appalachian Regional Healthcare System has been on high alert preparedness since the outbreak and have been following all the CDC and State guidelines for guarding the safety of their patients and their medical workers. Testing services are available at designated locations and patient visitation safety restrictions have been uniformly implemented.

As with most healthcare providers and clinics, and excepting for essential one-on-one surgeries and medical care, the Appalachian Regional Healthcare System has been encouraging the use of “telehealth” conferencing between patients and their healthcare providers when possible. In many cases—and despite the possible delay in scheduling a telehealth consultation—people are reporting that this approach can be just as productive and even more efficient. There are no long, inconvenient and uncomfortable waits in reception rooms and the consultation time with medical professionals can be just as much or more focused and comprehensive.

MENTAL, EMOTIONAL & SPIRITUAL HEALTH | Dr. Denise Lovin, a psychology professional in Boone, is helping people deal with increased stress, anxiety and fear caused by COVID-19 challenges. Those challenges can also further exacerbate conditions for patients already prone to anxiety, including hypochondria, eating disorders and other pre-existing mental health issues. In private practice now after 22 years with the Appalachian State University Counseling Center, Dr. Lovin is also applying the positive messages of hope and optimism—which are fundamental to psychology—to the décor, amenities and operations of the Horton Hotel in downtown Boone, which she and husband, Fulton, purchased, remodeled and opened last year. Despite its temporary closing during early COVID-19 guidelines, the Horton Hotel has begun its recovery and has reopened operations.

Reverend Ted Henry, pastor of the Banner Elk United Methodist Church and Chaplain in Extension Ministries at Lees-McRae College, is one of many ministers who have been working with people from a spiritual perspective. Although many of his worship services, Bible study classes, and counseling services have had to be held via Zoom and phone, Pastor Ted reports seeing a refocus, a reconnecting, a return to faith and an increase in church attendance, albeit virtual. And, while many are anticipating that life will eventually go back to “normal,” he offers a slightly different paradigm: “I would suggest it would be more accurate to say we are living in a time of transition…between what was and what will be, instead of a new normal—an opportunity to re-evaluate, look deeply into everything we’ve been about, recognize our weaknesses and make positive changes.”

Along with more traditional approaches to personal well-being, holistic healing has gained in popularity. Online Yoga, meditation, at-home exercise and self-help classes have extended the reach and connectivity between practitioners and their students. In fact, the lack of socialization and physical activity caused by forced lockdown has inspired many people to incorporate these types of virtual classes as part of their new daily or weekly wellness routine. After all, gaining peace of mind and keeping bodies in motion are equally essential to holistic health.

And let’s not forget the value of humor and laughter as an essential tool for our total wellbeing. Among all creatures, humans have the unique capacity for seeking and finding the humorous ironies often embedded within some of the darkest tragedies. All across social media we continue to see hilarious posts based on lifestyle changes instigated by quarantines and social distancing. Laughter! It plays a key role in our collective spirit of recovery.

Chapter 3:  The REOPENING

Despite temporary closings or limited operations, most businesses, institutions and attractions have found creative ways to reimagine their operations, renew their spirit of enterprise and restore service to their customers and communities.

HOSPITALITY & LODGING | Along with area attractions and restaurants, lodging of all kinds has taken some of the biggest hits. However, short-term rental restrictions were partially lifted in May with 50 percent of units allowed to be rented or leased. And, in most cases throughout surrounding High Country counties, campgrounds and RV Parks have been allowed to fully reopen. Of course, strict cleaning and disinfecting procedures will remain in place and officials will continue to monitor all lodging and hospitality facilities, and eventually increase capacity.

RESTAURANTS | As became the norm, most cafes and restaurants across the High Country had substituted carry-out and/or curbside service for indoor dining during Phase 1 restrictions. To keep the “dining out” experience alive and to show appreciation for the continued patronage, these creative—though struggling—entrepreneurs typically spiced up their carry-out orders with new menu items, extra treats, discount coupons and other enticements. And those restaurants offering home delivery service often did so at a loss, or barely break-even, after deducting delivery costs. Now open under the State’s latest guidelines, restaurants, cafes and even some grocery store delis are allowed at least 50 percent seating capacity with safe distancing and strict health regulations in place. 

REAL ESTATE & CONSTRUCTION | Many in the construction and real estate trades seem to have fared better than others. Although not as robust as in previous years, new home construction and remodeling operations have, for the most part, stayed busy. The same goes for landscaping and yard maintenance services. And their relative productivity bodes well for most other parts of our local economies down the road, as those homeowners create demand for new goods and services, like interior design, furnishings and basic home products. 

PARKS, ATTRACTIONS & ART CENTERS | Public access to State Parks as well as scenic and cultural attractions varies depending on the type of operation, parking limits and visitor capacity restrictions—some other common gathering areas are off limits altogether. But many parks and attractions, like Linville Caverns, Linville Falls, Mount Jefferson State Natural Area in Ashe County and nearby Roan Mountain State Park in Tennessee, have at least partially, if not fully, reopened. 

The Blue Ridge Parkway is now open for vehicle traffic, scenic overlooks and Parkway trail hiking, although people are advised to keep safe distances and limit group gathering size. The same exceptions noted for State Parks also apply to the Parkway’s courtesy and visitor facilities, as well as water and boating attractions like Price Lake near the Blowing Rock exit. Visit https://www.nps.gov/blri for updated COVID-19 notices.

The Blowing Rock in the picturesque town of the same name is famous for being North Carolina’s oldest travel attraction. Like many other attractions in the area, after being closed during the spring, it is now open seven days a week under limited capacity and with safety guidelines in place, and has resumed its traditional Blowing Rock trail and vista tours. During the shutdown, The Blowing Rock offered special “Stay At Home” care packages to customers wishing to enjoy a virtual taste of the experience while the venue was closed. Its ticket and gift shop are now open and management is wishing a “warm welcome” to both new and repeat visitors.

Blowing Rock Art & History Museum (BRAHM) has offset its temporary public closing by offering a virtual outreach, engagement and promotional strategy of its visual arts and history exhibits online to help bring BRAHM into the home. For example, their “Young at Art Student Spectacular” exhibition created by kindergarten through third grade students from Blowing Rock School was converted into a completely digital experience. In addition, one of their newest exhibitions, Terra Ludis: Play Ground, features an online component in addition to stunning photography by local photographers. Visit www.blowingrockmuseum.org for COVID-19 updates and reopening schedule.

Tweetsie Railroad and Wild West Theme Park, also forced to delay its 2020 opening, has offered Golden Rail Season Pass customers special privileges by extending 2020 pass benefits through the 2021 season. They’ve also extended their pre-season ticket prices through October of this year. In the meantime, they feature Tweetsie 3D Train & Town Sets that families can download at https://tweetsie.com/3d-train-town-sets.

The Turchin Center for the Visual Arts at Appalachian State University, in the heart of downtown Boone, has offered virtual visitations and exhibition tours during its temporary closure. Those tours, along with art and artist information, and special videos can be explored via their website at tcva.appstate.edu. Workshop prompts are also offered digitally through the website and Facebook so that community members can be creative outside the Turchin Center.

Apple Hill Farm and Gift Shop, located, appropriately, on Apple Hill Road just outside of Banner Elk, offers an inspiring actual or virtual getaway from the dulling drone of the COVID-19 blues. Whether in person or online, you can come face-to-face with real, live alpacas, llamas, angora goats, donkeys, dogs and even a mini-pig. Along with in-person visits, owner Lee Rankin and her staff have been offering virtual ZOOM visitations and chats with the alpacas and friends. Turns out that people from around the world have ZOOMED IN to get up close and personal with these gentle and fascinating creatures while taking a virtual tour of the farm. Even professional psychologists have employed these virtual Alpaca Zoom visits as part of their COVID-19-related patient therapy.

The Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation has kept its connection with park fans via their web and Facebook “Nature Minutes” video series. Beautiful panoramic vistas of Grandfather Mountain along with narrated virtual presentations by park staff helped “bring the mountain to you,” as Stewardship Foundation President and Executive Director, Jesse Pope noted. And, now that the mountain has reopened with limited capacity, health and safety measures in place, and online ticket purchase requirements, people can once again take that steep, winding drive up to the mountain’s peak, venture across its famous Mile-High Swinging Bridge, hike its trails, shop its gift store, tour its museum and visit its wildlife and environmental preserve.

Wilderness Run Alpine Coaster in Banner Elk across from Sugar Mountain is a brand new attraction and the first of its kind in this part of the state. It features a 2,390-foot, bobsled-type downhill run through forests, and around boulders, banked turns and three 360-degree loops traveling at speeds up to 27 miles per hour. Braking of the two-person sled is controlled by the riders. Following a COVID-19 delayed opening, Wilderness Run now plans to operate seven days a week, year-round, including during ski season.

High Country AVA Wineries, like Grandfather Mountain Vineyards, Banner Elk Winery & Villa, Linville Falls Winery and Watauga Lake Winery all got a last-minute reprieve on the eve of Memorial Day weekend to open under Phase 2 guidelines. Those that offer food, entertainment and special events will be doing so in compliance with State regulations. As some of our newest destination attractions, these AVA rated wineries draw enthusiastic wine lovers from all over the southeast who are looking to experience new wines and wineries in our mountain environment.

The Ashe County Chamber of Commerce and the Ashe County Arts Council note that, even if certain art exhibits and festivals have been either canceled or are uncertain, there’s still a lot to see. A leisurely stroll up and down the streets in West Jefferson offers a spectacular view of murals adorning the sides of downtown buildings. These murals portray the vivid history, musical heritage, colorful landscape, and diverse culture of the region. And, while there, don’t miss the famous frescoes at the historic St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in West Jefferson and the Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Glendale Springs. Painted in the 1970s by Benjamin Franklin Long, IV, they depict “Mary Great With Child,” “John The Baptist,” “Mystery of Faith,” and “The Last Supper.”

EDUCATION | Home schooling or remote classes have been the norm for most levels of education since mandatory shutdowns. Virtual or delayed commencement ceremonies were the common option for High School and College spring 2020 graduates. While maintaining careful distancing and tracking guidelines, as well as making exceptions for older, more vulnerable teaching staff, Lees-McRae College, Appalachian State University, and the entire UNC system are expecting to resume classes starting in August (with revisions to the standard school calendars). Caldwell Community College posted their reopening in late May, while Mayland Community College is holding normal Summer classes.

Chapter 4:  The RENEWAL

One of the most “together” things we love to do is attend large outdoor festivals, concerts, and sporting events.Our souls must take time to celebrate, renew and rejoice in the spirit of life. While many in-person public celebrations have been postponed or cancelled this year, some are still on, while others have come up with alternative ways to keep that spirit of renewal and rejoicing alive

CELEBRATIONS & MUSIC | The Grandfather Mountain Highland Games scheduled for July 9-12 have been cancelled until 2021. In announcing the Games cancellation, GMHG, Inc. President Steve Quillin noted special considerations for all camping, patron packages, clan tent sponsorship, and general admission tickets, as well as the honoring of essential upfront committed expenses and considerations for music performers.

However, plans were made to offer a “Virtual Entertainment, Clan and Vendor Presentation” on that weekend to celebrate the Spirit of the Games online. Music Director E.J. Jones and band leaders like Kirk McLeod of Seven Nations noted their enthusiasm for a streamed celebration as a way to carry on the 65-year tradition and express their sincere appreciation to GMHG organizers for the opportunity to perform for their fans over the years.

The Woolly Worm Festival in Banner Elk, scheduled for the weekend of October 17-18, is at the time of publication still on. In its 43rd year, the event features the famous Woolly Worm races along with entertainment, food and a variety of vendors. Festival officials will continue to monitor conditions through the summer months. The Valle Country Fair in Valle Crucis is scheduled for that same Saturday, October 17. Of course, the public is always advised to keep posted of any possible changes in scheduled events.

Normally our Summer issue would be overflowing with music events. And, even though many larger public events have been cancelled this season, the music has not died. Since earliest dawn, humanity has been spontaneously making music. From tribal ceremonies, to sacred incantations, to native ballads, to pop tunes, and to soaring symphonies, music is the common language and the common connection that often pulls us together when nothing else can.

Many amazingly talented musicians—both amateurs and recording stars—from around here and all over the world have been posting songs and virtual concerts online, some as fundraisers for major causes, some as fundraisers for their own bands, and some just for fun. Fortunately, the partial re-openings of many establishments have allowed area musicians to take stage and give us live music once again here in the High Country. Although safe distancing and limited attendance guidelines will prevent larger crowds from packing close together, the music is back. And, if you can’t see it live, many venues and bands are arranging for streaming through social media.

———-——

We, the things we cherish and our irrepressible spirit of adventure will prevail through COVID-19. History declares that we somehow manage to overcome and re-emerge stronger and better. We rise above and come out of the battle with a vision and a will to exceed our past achievements and blaze new trails of discovery.

In time, we hope to see the dining-out experience revived and prosperous again. We are eager to see mom-and-pop stores, novelty shops, service centers, large retailers, utility providers and civic organizations fully open and active again. After all, they not only help supply the goods and services we demand, they also employ our families, our neighbors and our community workers.

We look forward to the day when we can once again gather at live music concerts, theater performances, outdoor dramas, art galleries, parks and recreation facilities, all alive with people enjoying the entertainment, inspiration, creativity and rich adventure of life here in these marvelous mountains. 

From all of us at CML, here’s to complete healing and a new beginning…together!

Due to the uncertainties regarding COVID-19 throughout this Summer and Fall, CML advises everyone to check with local and state authorities—as well as individual destination websites—when planning seasonal activities, shopping and social gatherings. Visit CMLmagazine.online for links to COVID-19 information in our area. 

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