FREMONT – It should come as no surprise the COVID-19 pandemic and its dramatic impact locally is the News-Messenger’s top story from 2020.

With small businesses struggling from stringent safety protocols and local schools trying to merge online learning with in-person instruction, COVID-19 hit Sandusky County hard.

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This year’s COVID-19 pandemic hurt small businesses and restaurants in downtown Fremont and throughout Sandusky County, with businesses forced to shut down temporarily and shift to more stringent safety protocols in an effort to stay open. The pandemic’s impacts on the community made it the News-Messenger’s top story of 2020. (Photo: Daniel Carson/The News-Messenger)

Cases surged toward the end of the year, as hospitals strained to handle a crush of patients.

Sandusky County also got a bit of good news, as the first COVID-19 vaccines were administered at the county health department’s clinic in December.

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Sandusky County EMS Director Jeff Jackson was among the first people in the county to get a Moderna vaccine shot in December, as the county’s health department received about 200 doses in its initial shipment. (Photo: Daniel Carson/The News-Messenger)

Bethany Brown, Sandusky County Public Health commissioner, said before Christmas the county had been seeing at least 50 positive cases per day in recent weeks.

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Ohio National Guard members assisted Sandusky County residents with COVID-19 tests at a pop-up site at Rodger Young Park Dec. 8. The site drew hundreds of residents, as the county began experiencing a sharp increase in COVID-19 cases. (Photo: Daniel Carson/The News-Messenger)

Hundreds of county residents showed up for drive-through COVID-19 testing at the Ohio Department of Health’s pop-up site at Rodger Young Park Dec. 8.

Local government feels the pinch

In April, Sandusky County Commissioners asked its departments and other elected officials to tighten their budgets amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The commissioners asked for departments to scale back on spending in areas where they can save money as the state’s economy continues hanging by a thread due to the virus.

There were five key areas in which the commissioners wanted departments to save on spending.

All travel expenses, training and conferences, unless mandatory for licenses and certificates; small equipment purchases; uniform and clothing purchases; books and periodicals, and wage increases and a hiring freeze were part of the commissioners’ request to save the county money.

The county trimmed about 10% off 2020’s budget, with the commissioners asking departments to budget the same heading into 2021 due to the pandemic.

In March, the City of Fremont suspended all activities at the Fremont Recreation Center and limited access to the municipal building as part of its efforts to minimize the spread of the coronavirus.

Mayor Danny Sanchez said residents would be asked to pay their water bills online, via phone or at the water office’s drive through window.

Sanchez announced later in March the city decided to close all of its fishing access to the Sandusky River, a precaution linked to coronavirus fears.

The mayor said he would encourage businesses to prohibit parking to the public.

The announcement resulted in a big hit to the city’s annual walleye run, which attracts thousands to the Sandusky River.

In 2018, Sandusky County’s Convention and Visitors Bureau estimated walleye and white bass seasons (white bass starts later in April and runs through May) bring almost 14,000 fishermen to the Sandusky River.

That translates into 10,000 of those fishermen considered day trippers, with the rest staying overnight at area hotels, creating an economic impact of more than $2.5 million March-May.

City Auditor Paul Grahl said in October the city received just over $1.2 million in CARES ACT funding over three rounds. It was used to purchase personal protective equipment such as masks, gloves and eye protection.

The county had used its CARES Act funds on administrative expenses, improvements to telework throughout county offices, public health expenses to health department, Emergency Management Agency and board of elections.

Bars, local businesses hurt by state shutdown

Local bar and restaurant owners worried in November that Gov. Mike DeWine might shut them down again, as COVID-19 cases began to surge.

Shelley Hoppes, owner of Shelluke’s Bar & Grill on East State Street, said at the time she experienced the same anxiety she felt when the pandemic began in March and restaurants, bars and fitness centers were shut down until mid-May.

“The stress is the worst,” Hoppes said. “I worry about my employees, a lot of them are single mothers trying to take care of their children … It’s scary.”

Hoppes said the restaurant did enough in the spring to sustain business, but about 70% of the business is predicated on alcohol sales, while the remaining 30% comes from food sales.

To help offset costs and loss of revenue, Hoppes said Shelluke’s was able to get money from the federal $349 billion Paycheck Protection Program that aided small businesses.

Downtown businesses were trying to get by as they abided by DeWine’s executive order issued March 22, which closed restaurants, movie theaters, small retail businesses and offices to minimize coronavirus risks.

Shawn Kern, co-owner of Elroy’s, The Garrison and Scarpetta Italian, said in May the three downtown restaurants employed 84 people before the stay-at-home order was issued.

After coronavirus-related orders closed Ohio restaurants to in-person dining, staffing for those three restaurants has dropped to 35 to 40 employees.

The Ohio Restaurant Association reported 300,000 employees lost their jobs and half of the state’s restaurants have halted operations.

Movie theaters, like the Paramount Cinema in downtown Fremont, also remain closed for months.

The pandemic also affected some local farmers that were unsure if they would have enough migrant workers for the upcoming season.

On March 18, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine suggested businesses remaining open during the coronavirus pandemic to take the temperatures of all employees entering their buildings.

John Smith, business agent for Fremont Logistics, Warehouse and Heinz Co., said some employees coming into the factory to work are not having their temperatures taken, despite having nursing for all three shifts.

The company began temperature testing March 20, Smith said. 

Lynne Galia, a corporate affairs officer for Heinz, said safety measures were in place due to the facility’s production of food.

In Fremont, Galia said there is ample space for social distancing during breaks and lunch as well as production areas.

Whirlpool put in place its own COVID-safety features at its Clyde plant to keep its roughly 3,000 workers safe and production flowing.

When Whirlpool employees arrive for their shifts, they go through a temperature scan and answer a series of questions that ensure they have no COVID-19 symptoms and haven’t been exposed to anyone with the virus.

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Whirlpool’s roughly 3,000 employees adjusted to new COVID-19 safety protocols this year at the company’s Clyde plant, with social distancing, masks, and plexiglass barriers some of the ways the company tried to keep workers safe. (Photo: Daniel Carson/The News-Messenger)

There is blue tape on the floor, spaced six feet apart, where employees stand as they wait to go through the screening and clock in for work.

Employees can apply hand sanitizer and put on disposable ear protection and masks before they enter the production floor.

When employees scans in for work, their temperatures are recorded on their employee badge.

On the work floor, Whirlpool has spaced out employees six feet or more where possible.

In areas where employees can’t distance themselves six feet apart, Whirlpool has installed plexiglass barriers between workers.

Schools, Terra alternate between in-person, online learning options

Fremont City Schools, Clyde-Green Springs Schools, Gibsonburg, Woodmore and Bishop Hoffman Catholic Schools all experienced disruptions resulting from the pandemic.

Most districts opted for a mix of in-person and online learning options for students, in an effort to keep students and staff safe.

Fremont Ross celebrated its commencement ceremony at Grace Community Church in June, with residents lining the city’s streets to congratulate students.

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City residents cheered on Fremont Ross High School’s 2020 graduates in June from the State Street bridge, as the high school celebrated commencement with a parade through the city. (Photo: Daniel Carson/The News-Messenger)

Fremont City Schools opened its four new elementary school buildings in August.

The lingering pandemic put a damper on the opening of Fremont district’s new buildings and its overall reopening, with about one-third of the district’s students opting for online learning in the fall semester and the rest only able to attend in-person classes twice a week.

Compared to years past, Fremont City Schools has a third of the available substitute teachers and classified staff.

Jon Detwiler, FCS superintendent, told the News-Messenger the district has about 25 substitute teachers, compared to the 75 it normally would have.

Detwiler said the district was in a “critical state” with substitute shortages, saying the lack of subs in part is due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which has scared off many of the retired teachers who make up the majority of the substitute teacher pool.

The shortage forced FCS to scramble when it comes to coverage, with Detwiler chipping in as a substitute teacher.

Terra State Community College closed its campus to in-person classes in March and later reopened in August, with new safety protocols in place.

Graduates celebrated commencement over three days in June, as the college scrambled to preserve an annual tradition.

The college also faced cuts related to the pandemic, with enrollment declining sharply in the summer and fall semesters.

Terra State began offering on-campus COVID-19 testing in September for students, faculty and staff.

Bright spots in the pandemic

As businesses and residents adjusted to the new normal during the pandemic, Sandusky County came together as a community.

Some businesses, like Root’s Poultry, thrived in the early parts of the pandemic.

Chicken production increased locally during the early stages of the pandemic, according to Annette Reed, retail and production supervisor at Root’s Poultry.

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Chicken production increased locally during the early stages of the pandemic, according to Annette Reed, retail and production supervisor at Root’s Poultry. (Photo: Doug Hise/News-Messenger Correspondent)

Reed said after a short lull of a week or two, chicken production quickly rebounded, causing a surplus and boon to Root’s.

Since then, for the 25 or so employees at Root’s, Reed said production has continued to increase during the pandemic, saying the company had to bring in additional help to chop up, cook and shred chicken.

John Cahill and Andy Mayle teamed up as part of the “Buckland Group” to do their part in helping Sandusky County’s healthcare workers, police officers and other workers on the front line against the coronavirus.

Cahill, Fremont Ross High School’s boys basketball coach, and Mayle, an area attorney, teamed up to bring food deliveries on a regular basis to ProMedica Memorial Hospital’s emergency room staff, the Sandusky County Sheriff’s office, Fremont and Clyde police departments, local gas stations and other Sandusky County businesses and agencies.

They swapped ideas on what businesses or agencies they could deliver food to, whether it’s pizza from AJ’s Heavenly Pizza going to one place, shakes from Clyde Nutrition to the city’s police department or protein shakes from Viva Los Healthy to another agency.

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Workers at ProMedice Memorial Hospital flashed their lighted phones through a window at the hospital, as local residents showed up at the hospital’s parking lot in a show of support Dec. 21. (Photo: Doug Hise/News-Messenger Correspondent)

In December, Father Michael Roemmele, pastor at St. Ann’s and St. Joseph Catholic parishes, and parishioners organized a public show of support for health care workers at ProMedica Memorial Hospital.

Residents honked their horns and waved lighted phones to let the doctors, nurses and medical workers know they appreciate what they do.

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