2020: Early optimism shattered

The spring and summer months of the pandemic kept people inside, but divisions emerged as the state began to reopen. Mask mandates and racial issues were crucial turning points.

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December 30, 2020 - 10:01 AM

A “Black Lives Matter” event on the courthouse lawn included attendees lying on their stomachs for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the amount of time an officer pinned George Floyd to the ground. Register file photo

This is the second in a three-part recap of the coronavirus pandemic and 2020. 

April

April began on an optimistic note, despite the mounting cases of COVID-19.

After all, help was on the way.

Congress approved a $2.2 trillion relief bill, promising $1,200 stimulus payments and increased benefits for those who lost their jobs to the pandemic. 

State leaders raced to funnel federal funds to small businesses, as reported April 6. In a statewide webcast, which was temporarily hijacked by “Zoom bombers,” Iola native and Kansas Secretary of Commerce David Toland introduced terms like Payroll Protection Program (PPP) and Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL).

The state is using every proverbial arrow in its quiver to help businesses cope with the ongoing COVID-19 economic shutdown, (Toland) said Friday.

The Register continued to interview those affected by the pandemic: more restaurant owners, food pantry workers, dentists, pastors, medical students. Even funeral home providers were affected, as the coronavirus restrictions limited the ability to have in-person funerals. 

The stay-at-home order prompted debate over who was considered an “essential worker.” 

Allen County commissioners responded to Gov. Laura Kelly’s stay-at-home order by asking residents to respect it. 

When the Sheriff and commissioners were asked about enforcing the governor’s declaration, they also emphasized that this would not curtail peoples’ freedom in any overarching or draconian manner.

An April 7 article introduced a couple of Good Samaritans, Iolans Marsha and Kenneth Storrer, who picked up litter from roadsides, “just to make the county a little cleaner,” Marsha said. 

On April 22, Jim Smith tackled cleanup at a park near the Neosho River.

The early days of the pandemic seemed to wrap everyone in a spirit of cooperation. We were all in this together. 

Unfortunately, the hardships became overwhelming.

On April 2, local food pantries reported seeing twice as many families as usual. Allen County Commissioners gave $500 to three area food banks.

On April 13, the Kansas Supreme Court backed Gov. Kelly’s power to shut down operations in the state, including church gatherings. A GOP-led panel of legislative leaders challenged her authority.

The ruling forced the justices to weigh in on an issue that tangles together politics, religion and debate about the powers granted to a governor when a deadly pandemic strikes.

Schools were adapting to a new reality, attempting to educate students remotely. It sounded like every student’s dream: Stay home. Do your work when you feel like it. 

While some students may have seen it that way, most families reported feeling lost. Their routines had been disrupted. Students missed their friends. They were missing key instruction and developmental milestones.

On April 14, school administrators talked of the challenges. 

The biggest problem appears to be the anxiety and depression in younger students who miss their teachers and interaction with their peers. It’s also not a piece of cake for parents to be suddenly put into the position as teachers.

Teachers would weigh in on April 18. IHS speech and drama teacher Regina Chriestenson struggled with the changes and worried for her students.

It is hard to know what to expect from students and still challenge them. Are they still working or working more hours? Are they watching younger siblings? What are their other responsibilities throughout the day? Are they going mad with boredom? We cannot answer those questions, so we just have to do what we think is right.

Allen County Regional Hospital gets a new sign to mark a new relationship with Saint Luke’s.

On April 16, Allen Community College announced it would close the campus through the summer and perhaps longer. 

ACC went totally online starting March 30, and Masterson said the college has already made the determination to remain online-only for the summer term as well.

During the transition, 102 course sections were converted to a digital format, with only six substitute instructors required.

Gov. Kelly wanted to extend a stay-at-home order until May 3, but faced increased pressure from state Republicans. 

On April 20, Humanity House organizers pressed city leaders to amend their utility policy, citing the increased financial pressure of the pandemic. That fight would continue for weeks, with the city agreeing to waive late fees and reconnection charges but only while a state order prohibiting utility disconnections remained in effect. After that, residents would have 15 days to get caught up.

On April 25, Mitch and Seth Bolling, owners of Bolling’s Moran Locker, talked of the demand for meat butchering because grocery stores were limiting meat purchases.

There’s been an “100% [rise] in kill,” Bolling said. Bookings for processing are having to be scheduled months in advance.

Kimmee Garnica, a Neosho County resident who was the first known coronavirus patient in the area, shared her experience April 25. She came home from work at the Russell Stover Candies in Iola on March 23 when she developed a sore throat and stuffy nose. She tested positive on April 10 and later recovered.

“It’s no joke,” Garnica told the Register. “It feels like you have allergies mixed with the flu mixed with strep. I had a sore throat, coughing, sneezing, tired, and a low-grade fever.”

Bryan and Alisha Clay display the enormous tree that landed on their house after it was uprooted during a May storm.

May

TLC Greenhouse reported a surge of business, as the stay-at-home days had created renewed interest in gardening.

Two women, Betty Daniels and Connie Buller, shared their experience with polio, another virus that spread misery and fear for all parents and children. 

On May 6, Iolan Billie Collins was featured for her role in making cotton masks to protect against the virus. A mask mandate was still weeks/months away, but many saw masks as a vital tool in preventing exposure. A couple of months later, the Collins family would face the virus in a very different way.

The state still restricted the number of people who could gather in one place, which put the kibosh on many events. 

LaHarpe Days would be canceled. Yates Center would not open its swimming pool in 2020. Soon, other cities canceled plans for festivals, events and recreation.

School districts began to debate how to safely offer graduation. 

Allen County remained one of the few Kansas counties without a positive COVID-19 case.

Fingers crossed, officials are hoping this isn’t because of a lower testing rate compared to neighboring counties.

Local restaurants opened for dining May 4, with reduced capacity of 10 and 6 feet of space between tables. 

Leo Vargas-Garcia, general manager at El Charro Mexican Restaurant, said the last six weeks have been a challenge.

“It has been frustrating and stressful, just trying to make enough money to pay bills and salaries,” Vargas-Garcia said.

The county’s first COVID graduation took place at Moran on May 19.

Salutatorian Braden Allison walks through the halls one last time as a Marmaton Valley student.Photo by Courtesy of Halie Luken

No one at Marmaton Valley High School had ever seen a graduation quite like the one that took place Tuesday evening. …

“I was so excited to see everyone, even though we were all 10 feet apart in a parking lot,” graduate Rachel Shaffer said. “I kind of want to keep hanging out with them.”

The Register published a special magazine to celebrate the Class of 2020 for all Allen County schools. It featured profiles on dozens of students and asked students to submit photos wearing their prom dresses and suits to celebrate the prom that never was.

The county’s first official coronavirus case came with an asterisk on May 23. Someone who was an Allen County resident tested positive, although that person had not been in the state for three months. It would be a few more weeks before the virus came to Allen County.

On May 27, Gov. Kelly vetoed a Republican-led effort to limit her powers, but then ceded to local officials the authority to keep restrictions on businesses.

On May 30 came news that a Minneapolis police officer was charged with murder in the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died after an officer kneeled on his neck. The incident would spark a reckoning on racism as protests spread across the country, including in Allen County.

Virtual school board meetings.Register file photo

June

Summer arrived and it seemed like life might be settling back to normal.

In reality, the summer months were just the calm before the storm returned.

On June 1, the U.S. reported a total of 1,792,512 confirmed COVID-19 cases with 104,435 deaths. Kansas reported 10,011 cases with 217 deaths. Allen County had no local cases.

The start of a new month was marked by national uprisings over the death of George Floyd and other Black men and women who died at the hands of police. President Trump wanted to use military forces to quell the protests.

NEW YORK (AP) — Protests erupting across the nation over the past week — and law enforcement’s response to them — are threatening to upend efforts by health officials to track and contain the spread of coronavirus just as those efforts were finally getting underway.

On June 6, more than 250 people gathered on the courthouse lawn to take a stand against racism. The rally included numerous speakers and expressed solidarity with the “Black Lives Matter” movement after Floyd’s death.

Indeed, memory of Floyd’s murder pervaded the event, especially when, so as to highlight the horrific circumstances surrounding his death, those in attendance lay prone on their stomachs for eight minutes and 46 seconds, the amount of time officer Derek Chauvin pinned Floyd’s neck with his knee.

The governor’s reopening plan entered Phase III, which meant gatherings could increase to 45 people. The courthouse was fully reopened on June 10, as was the senior center’s meals program and regular Meals on Wheels services. 

ACC decided to reopen its doors to the public, too. Classes were expected to begin in the fall, but uncertainty remained as to whether they would be face-to-face or online.

On June 11, Allen County reported its first “true” COVID-19 case.

The Kansas Army National Guard’s 891st Battalion, whose headquarters is in Iola, would be deployed for Kuwait, the first overseas deployment for the 891st since 2005 in Iraq. They would leave to great fanfare on July 5.

Woodson County farmers Mark Pringle and Mary Jane Shanklin were featured on a national news special by MSNBC, “American Crisis: Poverty and the Pandemic.”

According to Mark Pringle, COVID-19 “exposed situations already in place,” that is, how serious problems in the nation’s health care, economic and food delivery systems had already existed; the pandemic just made them significantly worse.

On June 24, ACRH leaders met the hospital’s new administrator, Elmore Patterson of Alabama, and prepared for the big changeover to a lease with the Saint Luke’s Health System.

Meanwhile, health department director Rebecca Johnson had to get tough with Bourbon County residents who were ignoring stay-at-home orders. 

She will issue written orders, forcing those who test positive for the novel coronavirus to either isolate or quarantine.

On June 30, Gov. Kelly ordered a statewide mask mandate.

Things were about to get ugly.

Bowlus Fine Arts Center’s Mandy Moyer poses amidst colorfully painted rocks surrounding its fountain. People painted the rocks during a brief shutdown due to the pandemic.Register file photo

July

Gov. Kelly’s new mask mandate didn’t go over well, as many counties vowed to opt out of her order. In Garnett, a newspaper publisher drew national condemnation for an editorial cartoon that equated the mask mandate with the mass murder of Jews during the Holocaust.

About 30 people packed the Allen County courthouse basement — only a few wore masks — as commissioners debated how to address the matter.

Commissioner Jerry Daniels said he thought the order was “almost impossible to enforce,” and that he “hopes it’s a recommendation not a mandate.”

After a couple of days of debate, commissioners would vote 2-1 to uphold the order, with Daniels opposed but Bill King and Bruce Symes in favor.

Symes said that he “takes the virus very seriously,” but that “a word like ‘mandate’ gives [him] the heebie-jeebies.” He said people have a “right to make responsible decisions on [their] own.”

Saint Luke’s officially took charge of the county’s hospital on July 1, under a minimum 10-year lease agreement. The county continues to own the hospital building and all other facilities. 

On July 6, Kansas had reported 15,919 confirmed cases with 277 deaths. The state was setting new records for infections. Allen County had five cases.

Windsor Place resident Barbara Perry chats with Sharon Boan in a new “visit box” constructed to allow the assisted living residents to see and talk with loved ones during visiting restrictions forced by the COVID-19 pandemic.Photo by Vickie Moss

On July 7, Windsor Place showed off its newest offering, a “chat room” that allowed family members and friends to safely visit loved ones through a plexiglass window and intercom system.

A program that provided free meals to everyone in USD 257 ran out of money after just two weeks, readers learned July 8. Food service administrators said it demonstrated increased need caused by the pandemic.

On July 9, ACC said it will offer in-person classes in the fall, after all, and would operate as normally as possible while still taking safety precautions.

On July 11, IHS’s Class of 2020 finally graduated. Humboldt students did so the next day. Graduations were moved to outdoor football stadiums in their respective communities. 

Like many events taking place at this time, the (IHS) ceremony was quite unique, with many clad in masks and the 82 families of graduates grouped together in pods to promote social distancing.

On July 16, Gov. Kelly again shook things up when she declared schools would not open until after Labor Day. After the backlash that followed, the Kansas Board of Education ruled it’s up to each district to set its own plans. USD 257 Superintendent Stacey Fager said a delay would cause more problems than it would solve. Classes would begin Aug. 24, only a few days later than scheduled.

The Allen County Fair quietly rolled into town on July 19, a scaled-down affair that featured no public events.

Marmaton Valley Elementary School’s Cynthia Johnson takes the temperature of third-grader Bentley James Parker on the first day of school. Schools implemented several precautionary measures to protect against the coronavirus, including temperature checks, wearing masks and maintaining social distance. Register file photo

August

Polls opened Aug. 4 for a primary election. Voters cast their ballots using social distancing measures, plexiglass and special stylus pens. Allen County Commissioner Bruce Symes defeated his challenger, former commissioner John Brocker, by just nine votes. In other races, David Lee advanced in a three-way Republican race for the county commission, defeating Craig Mentzer and Gene Weatherbie. Sheriff Bryan Murphy held off a challenge from commissioner Jerry Daniels. 

The county’s total COVID cases rose to 15. 

Also on Aug. 4, Iola council members announced they planned to hire Chris Weiner as the new city manager. Except… Weiner is the city administrator in Garnett, and his supporters there begged their city leaders to pay Weiner more money so he would stay. They did. He did. Iola’s search continued.

Families started to enroll for school on Aug. 6, when they had to decide whether to attend in-person or online classes.

On Aug. 17, White House coronavirus coordinator Deborah Birx offered a stern warning for Kansas to adopt policies like maks mandates and social distancing requirements to deflect a coming wave of COVID-19.

“Kansas has rising test positivity,” she said. “This is the moment to get it under control. Wear a mask. Close bars. Decrease indoor dining. Increase outdoor dining. Every single person needs to commit to not having parties and family gatherings that are going to spread this virus.”

Local racial tensions were stoked on Aug. 18 when IHS students painted parking stalls in support of President Trump, using white supremacist symbols. The school board would release a statement Aug. 25, condemning hate speech and symbolism.

Marmaton Valley students were the first to return to classes on Aug. 19. Students were greeted at the door with temperature checks and were required to wear masks and practice social distancing. 

Allen County accepted an offer from the state for two drop-off boxes where voters can deposit their absentee ballots for the Nov. 3 general election. Some voters were leery of putting ballots in the mail, after reported cutbacks and problems with the U.S. Postal Service. Voters were also leery of voting in person because of the coronavirus pandemic.

On Aug. 25, USD 257 administrators unveiled the district’s remote learning plan. 

The district’s model is unique because it appoints three elementary teachers to instruct remotely, guiding preschool through fourth-graders through the required online hours and holding them accountable for attendance and performance.

The model also is unique because it allows families to switch from remote learning to in-person classes, and vice versa, at any time.

Also on Aug. 25, the county’s positive COVID-19 cases increased to 30. 

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