Athens resident Wendy Bartels flew out of Atlanta on Feb. 29 for a two-week cruise along the coast of South America with her sister, scheduled to visit Uruquay, Argentina, Chile, and Cape Horn. They were supposed to return on March 15. Instead they and 2,700 other passengers and numerous crew members wouldn’t get back to the States for a full month.
For the first part of the trip, there was the usual gambling, dancing, socializing, and day trips. When the time came to disembark on March 15 in Santiago, Chile, the world had changed. “We kept hearing how terrible things were,” Bartels recalls.
No one was allowed off the ship, nor was the ship allowed to dock to re-supply. That forced them on to the next port where a ton of supplies were trucked from Santiago and then ferried by boat out to the ship since there was no docking there either.
Luckily, everyone was still healthy as the trip wound down although there were no tests on board. During that time, many, including Bartels and her sister, chose to isolate in the small cabin rooms. Bartels was sick toward the end of the cruise but subsequent antibody testing indicated it was not the coronavirus. When the ship docked in San Diego, one woman was rushed off and spent two months on a ventilator. Everyone else had their temperature taken as they came down the gangplank, and if they were feverish, they were quarantined.
Sorority houses empty out
Susan Reinhardt and three other sorority managers were taking a much-needed Spring break at The King & Prince on St. Simons Island in mid-March. Suddenly, the news was filled with the emerging threat of the coronavirus and the world was upside down. Word came that the university was shutting down and students were told not to come back.
“There we were, the four of us, each in a corner of the hotel room, calling our Boards,” says Reinhardt. The group rushed back to Athens, opened their houses, and notified their residents they would have 30 minutes on a given day to get their belongings and leave.
Now, the governing boards and managers are discussing safety precautions, a reduced number of live-in students, sanitizing protocols, and negotiating the costs of food contracts, security and housekeeping, given a reduced census.
Many, if not most, of the sorority managers are middle-aged women, who will be at much more risk than their young charges. As the countdown to Fall semester begins, Reinhardt and her friends have concerns. “I would usually eat at least one meal a day with them and be in close physical contact as we hold meetings and plan events. That’s going to be difficult now.”
In-person businesses come to a screeching halt
“We’re at the greatest risk of any specialist,” explains Marcus Bullock, practice manager for Athens ENT, one of the largest ear, nose, and throat physician practices in the area. In mid-March, the advice from the governing academy of the specialty advised closing for in-person appointments. “Overnight we went to tele-health.”
The practice immediately eliminated waiting room use and had patients wait in the parking lot to be notified by runners. In fact, entry through the waiting room was changed to another doorway, and patients and all staff began wearing masks, and social distanced when possible. The new routine was tested with two physicians and then increased to three. While they normally had a certain amount of personal protective equipment, replenishing it was a challenge at first.
“We’ve stayed open but referrals are our lifeblood so those fell off,” Bullock notes. Two employees couldn’t report to work when their childcare facility was closed. And two employees contracted the virus from somewhere outside the office – they had mild symptoms for a week. One realized she had it when her daughter asked her “what’s burning?” Loss of the sense of smell is one of the symptoms.
“It’s been a wild ride,” says Bullock.
Local vet changed to curbside service
Hope Animal Medical Center, like all veterinarians, was deemed an essential business during the shutdown of the state beginning in mid-March.
“We decided to be proactive,” says Teri Jordan, practice manager. They closed their waiting room, implemented curbside drop-offs and pick-ups, and eliminated services such as nail trims or baths, and non-essential surgeries. A page at their website outlines the new procedures and even contains informative videos for owners to watch while they are waiting in their car.
The pandemic seems to have encouraged more people to get pets. “People are getting new puppies and kittens because now they’re home and can train them,” she observes. While the practice continues annual exams and necessary vaccinations, they are careful about seeing pets that might have strange symptoms should the virus mutate.
“We’ve been taking this one week at a time, and we’ll follow the advice of the government,” Jordan says. “Most everyone has been understanding. It’s been a nice journey with our clients.”
Enormous changes at the last minute
When the pandemic struck in March, changes for Athena Air Heating & Cooling, came so quickly that the owners of the small family-owned business found themselves “flying by the seat of the pants,” on most days, says Breya Jones, office manager for her husband Nicholas’s business.
“We have two elementary-aged children so we found ourselves balancing home schooling and working remotely as much as possible,” she recalls. Although deemed an essential business, access to protective gear was difficult so the couple closed the business for two weeks. “The beginning was very trying and we, along with everyone else, were left with more questions than answers.”
During that time, she says they spent hours reading about federal loans. Luckily, about a month in, they were approved for the Paycheck Protection Plan Loan, which allowed them to keep employees on the payroll. “We are so grateful to have this buffer.”
Business slowed for a couple of months but is now picking up and now their employees have protective hear. Consultations are done outside or over the phone.
“We are all navigating these uncharted waters together,” she says. “It’s been nice to band together as a community during this time.”
Calming investment clients’ nerves
Michele Pearson owns a local Edward Jones financial services franchise. When the stock market began its pandemic-related slide, she began calling her clients before they called her.
“We had been expecting a market downturn before the virus struck,” she says. “What goes up must come down. We always talk with our clients about volatility but some people don’t believe it, they can’t see it.”
While she says there were a few clients with a “nervous nelly” outlook, most of the alarmed calls were from people who were not her clients. “We give our clients a six-question risk tolerance test at the first appointment. And we try to educate them that in terms of retirement, that they should be chasing a goal, not a return.”
Pearson was in the mortgage industry during the 2008 recession so she has had practice in remaining calm during a crisis. As her corporate office has shared email advice, she passed it along to her clients. She no longer sees people in person and while she has an older clientele, they have learned to interact electronically. For those who haven’t, there’s always the phone.
Still buyers but fewer sellers in real estate
Bob Allen, owner of Greater Athens Property did not see any downturn in closings during the first couple of months of the pandemic. Since real estate transactions usually have a 40 to 60 day delay, business continued apace although closings were done electronically and with social distancing.
“Some sellers pulled their homes off the market but we still have buyers who need a place to live,” he explains. For the time being, the bulk of activity is in new construction or vacant homes. Listing agents are also posting more 3D virtual tours.
“Retirees are still a big part of the market and some shoppers are looking for homes big enough to house their parents,” he says. Allen also owns a property management firm with over 500 rental properties. Only four out of that number couldn’t pay their rent.
Aging agency makes smooth transition
The Aging and Disability Resource Center, a division of the Northeast Georgia Area Agency on Aging, barely skipped a beat when the mayor of Athens ordered residents to shelter in place on March 13. An initiative of the federal department of Health and Human Services, ADRC provides information, referrals, and access to services, ranging from assistive technology, financial aid, employment, Medicaid, housing, caregiving, and more.
“We are pretty well set up to work remotely,” explains Megan Vogt, ADRC program manager, having done so during various weather emergencies over the years. “We do a lot of our work on the phone, and we were able to rout the main line in the office to the same secretary and her cell phone. We wanted as little interruption as possible.”
The center’s staff, which continued to work every day from 8:30 to 5, fielded a lot of calls for emergency financial assistance, meals, and housing, says Vogt. They discontinued assistance for people to move into senior care facilities although they were able to assist with paperwork for transitioning from nursing homes to the community. The 14 senior centers in this region were also closed, which left many seniors who depend on those programs for social connection, with no support system. The center has stayed busy providing telephone reassurance.