By Mark Evans
Blindsiding America and the world, the novel coronavirus called COVID-19 became a focus of local attention at the beginning of March.
Sandra Bell, executive director of the Ste. Genevieve County Health Department, began updating the County Commission twice a week on the situation and addressed the Ste. Genevieve Board of Aldermen meetings regularly.
She first met with them on March 2 and reported that Missouri had just reported its first case. There were 164 cases nationally, although that figure had doubled in one day. Bell noted that figures “change almost hourly.”
COVID-19 test kits were ordered and the battle against the virus began.
Within a week, it was announced that both Ste. Genevieve R-II and Valle Catholic schools would close March 18, with plans to reopen April 6.
By March 15 the numbers were up to more than 3,400 cases nationally, with 65 deaths. Bell was already warning against mass gatherings – first of 50 for more people, then of 10 or more, as the Center for Disease Control (CDC) began an ongoing habit of changing guidelines and recommendations.
As many of the high school seniors had sensed at the time, the doors to the school never opened after March 18. The 2019-20 school year had to be completed “virtually,” with students taking classes online. Graduation ceremonies were postponed into the summer, then held outdoors, with limitations on crowd size.
By the third week in March, Jefferson, Perry and St. Francois County had COVID cases and supplies like toilet paper and disinfectant wipes had disappeared off local store’s shelves as panicked hoarding began. Meanwhile, visitors to the county courthouse and other venues began having their temperatures taken before entering. Many businesses also asked series of questions about the individual’s health and travel history.
Almost immediately, complaints began coming in, both that Bell and community leaders were being too invasive of individual rights, and that they were not being tough enough in cracking down on gatherings and other potentially
dangerous activities. This paradox situation of being blasted by both sides would continue throughout 2020.
Ste. Genevieve County got its first two positive cases on March 29. The figure gradually climbed throughout the year, but for much of 2020, lagged comfortably behind neighboring counties, A comparatively safe “bubble” existed her for a few months.
Bell retired in early July and communication between the health department and county and city leaders – and the public – broke down a bit until recent health board member Jeanetta Wood took the job in early September.
By then, both local schools had opted to start the school year with a combination of live and virtual learning. Federal Caronavirus Aid, Relief and Stimulus (CARES) Act money cane to the county, which carefully disbursed funds to help schools make themselves as safe as possible.
County cases, though, rose dramatically in August. For a while the cost still had much better rates than surrounding counties, but that changed during the fall.
By mid November, the county had been elevated to a “Hot Spot-Red” category, with 110 active cases, which pushed the cumulative total to 823.
Students battled to adapt to the new lifestyle, while the usual political candidate forums were held on Zoom, hosted by the Herald and the county University of Missouri Extension Service.
Many board meetings were cancelled and many others held virtually. Face mask became required in more and more buildings. For a while, local stores had floors taped to require customers to walk one-way down aisles and indoor dining was shut down for much of the year. May local businesses expressed serious concerns about surviving in such a climate.
Meanwhile, questions about the legality of Wood, former administrator of Riverview at thew Park Nursing Facility, taking the director’s position refused to go away. By December, a number of attorneys had concurred that Wood would have needed to sit out one year after resigning from the health board before se could legally take the position. She resigned and was replaced by Jennifer Mueller.