In the early days of March, Loudoun leaders started gearing up the public response to a new virus that was sweeping the globe from its origins in a city in central China. While warning COVID-19 was a serious public health threat, few then could envision the life-changing impacts the battle would bring.
Most remarkable about those early days is what wasn’t known.
In the first public briefings on the new coronavirus, Loudoun’s Public Health director reported the latest direction from the national and international authorities, including that residents should not make a run on medical masks that would be needed by healthcare workers but would provide little protection to the general public. At the time, authorities believed the virus was primarily spread by contaminated surfaces, not through the air. There was no test available to know who had been infected and no treatment established.
“In Loudoun County, we always say, if you see flu in the summer, think Lyme disease,” Dr. David Goodfriend said at the time. “If it looks like you have the flu in March and April you might want to think coronavirus. And it would be great at this point if we had the tests and we just send it to the lab to get the answer, but we’re not there yet.”
“There is no treatment for this. The best thing is to stay home and get rest and get over it unless you’re sure it’s real and then go to the hospital and get supportive care,” he said.
A week later, on March 9, the first known Loudoun case was reported. A resident in his or her 40s came in contact with the virus while attending church in Georgetown.
On March 12, Superintendent Eric Williams announced the county’s public schools would close, the first division in the commonwealth to take that action. The next day, Gov. Ralph Northam made the decision for the others. Initially, the school closure was expected to last only a few weeks, through April 10, but the year finished with students and teachers sharing lessons through their Chromebooks.
While schools remained closed, the division quickly geared up a special program to continue providing food to students who relied on the cafeteria for many of their meals, with buses dispatched throughout the county each day to make the distributions. By the end of June, more than 1 million meals had been delivered.
On St. Patrick’s Day, the shutdown began as state and local governments declared states of emergencies.
“It is critical that we remove any barriers to the county’s ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” said County Chair Phyllis Randall (D-At Large). “This declaration will give us more flexibility as we respond in the coming days, weeks and months to this public health threat.”
Northam issued an emergency order prohibiting more than 10 patrons in restaurants, fitness centers, and theaters. Violations could result in the suspension of health permits or in misdemeanor charges. The order gave local and state law enforcement the ability to enforce this crowd limits, although health inspectors were expected to regulate the requirement.
He urged everyone to stay at home.
“I hope that everyone will have the common sense to stay home tonight and in the days ahead,” Northam stated. “This order will ensure that state and local officials have the tools they need to keep people safe.”
Concerns over the virus quickly resulted in a shortage of many household staples, leaving empty grocery store shelves where paper products and cleaning supplies should be found.
Issuing a quote-of-the-year candidate, Supervisor Tony Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) summed up the public’s frustration. “It should not be this hard to buy toilet paper,” he said.
Hotels closed. Restaurants quickly moved to ramp up curbside delivery systems. Office workers began teleworking from their kitchen tables. In Purcellville, the owners of Catoctin Creek Distillery shifted operations to make hand sanitizer and taught other distillers across the country how to do it.
By mid-March, instances of COVID-19 were no longer isolated; there was evidence of community spread throughout the region.
On March 23, Northam ordered the commonwealth’s schools to remain closed through the remainder of the academic year and closed recreation and entertainment venues for at least the 30 days, and suspended dining-in services at all restaurants.
“We are moving into a period of sacrifice,” Northam said. “The sooner we can get this health crisis under control, the quicker our economy can recover.”
That week, the first public testing center opened in the county, with the Loudoun Medical Group setting up drive-through operations in a Leesburg parking lot. The sight of tents, medical staff in full protective gear, and lines of cars would become familiar throughout the remainder of the year as various locations around the county.
In late March—less than four weeks after county leaders geared up to battle the virus—the Health Department reported the first COVID-19 related death in Loudoun. A woman in her 70s died of respiratory failure in the hospital. She was a former first grade teacher who had been working as a reading tutor at two Ashburn elementary schools.
By year’s end there would be more than 150 COVID-related deaths, more than 130 of those fatal cases involved residents age 70 and older. Special focus was devoted to the county’s retirement communities, assisted living centers and nursing homes. The first outbreak, reported at Falcons Landing in Cascades, was brought under control with the help of a testing effort led by the National Guard.
By April, the county government was asking for the public’s help in collecting personal protective equipment, establishing a donation center in Leesburg. The PPE effort was hampered when federal authorities intercepted a shipment the county had purchased directly from manufacturers.
“FEMA took those supplies and then distributed them into their regular pipeline, and then we were told to go and meet our PPE needs through our state process,” County Administrator Hemstreet said.
In May, a six-member majority of county supervisors stirred controversy when they joined other Northern Virginia leaders in asking Northam to delay the first phase of lifting business restrictions and public gathering limits.
The delay sparked protests outside the County Government Center, with board critics urging supervisors to lift business restrictions. The protests, often featuring unmasked participants, would continue weekly through the summer.
Following Memorial Day weekend, restaurants, breweries, wineries and other businesses were permitted to serve customers outdoors, at only half their normal capacity, and only with six-foot separation between parties enforced, among other rules.
The state guidelines also called for residents to wear masks when in public indoors spaces—not to protect themselves from the virus, but to limit its transmission. Health officials now concluded that the virus was indeed spread through airborne particles, often by infected people who were asymptomatic and unaware they carried the virus.
Business restrictions were relaxed again June 12. Under the Phase 2 rules, businesses could let customers inside at up to half their normal capacity, with a minimum of six feet of distancing between parties. Congregating areas such as bar seating remained closed, as did game areas, dance floors and playgrounds. Other businesses, such as retail shops and hair salons, were required to meet similar guidelines for interior occupancy and social distancing. Gyms and exercise facilities reopened for the first time in months, although at even lower capacities. The cap on social gatherings was increased from 10 people to 50.
As graduates in the Class of 2020 accepted their diplomas in individual ceremonies scheduled over several weeks, the School Board in June approved the structure of a hybrid learning plan that would provide students two-days of in-person learning if public health conditions allowed schools to reopen in the fall. Families were asked to choose whether to continue with 100% distance learning or enter the hybrid program. About half opted to stay home.
On July 1, Phase 3 of the statewide reopening allowed restaurants and retailers to return to full capacity; community swimming pools, childcare centers and entertainment venues to open; and visitation at senior care communities to resume under certain conditions. All activities were still required to comply with physical distancing and disinfecting protocols, with face coverings required in indoor public spaces. Social gatherings were permitted up to 50% of occupancy space with a maximum of 250 participants.
In mid-July, Loudoun’s response was performing well. The two key measurements that would become familiar to most residents and community leaders during the year reached new low points. The average number of new daily cases was below 30 and the average percent of daily positive test results was only 6%. But cases were spiking in other states.
The School Board voted to begin classes in August with 100% distance learning, putting the hybrid plans on hold. In September, the schools began a phased introduction of in-person learning starting with special education and English language learners and progressing to all elementary school students before spiking cases resulted in a suspension of hybrid classes in December. At year’s end, it remained uncertain when those classes would resume and whether the expansion of in-person classes to middle and high school students would continue as planned Jan. 21.
With increasing COVID-19 cases across the commonwealth, Northam in November began reinstituting restrictions, limiting in-person gatherings to a maximum of 25 and expanding the requirement to wear face coverings in all indoor public spaced to individuals age 5 and up. Previously, the requirement applied to those 10 and older.
Through December, the average daily positivity rate remained above 10% after reaching that level for the first time since July. The county was reporting more than 100 new cases each day.
At year’s end, the first vaccines were being provided to healthcare workers and elderly residents in congregate living centers.
“After months of waking up every day and looking at COVID positivity rates and holding my breath to see if we have any new deaths, which has been so hard to do, this is the beginning of the end,” Randall said. “And of course, we have to still keep wearing our masks and social distancing until we get to herd immunity, but it’s the beginning of the end. And it was very exciting to see county employees, especially the ones that risk their lives to take care of us, get vaccinated today.”
• as reported by the state health department through Dec. 29.