COVID-19 hit Hampton Roads hard. Where are we one year later?


(WAVY) — COVID-19 hit home for some people in Hampton Roads one year ago on March 3, 2020. That’s when health experts gathered to advise the NCAA on whether there should be a March Madness Tournament. Ten days later, the $1-billion tournament was canceled.

For some, that’s when the pandemic and its far-reaching impacts became real.

Lynn Jennings owns Footers Sports Pub in Virginia Beach. She knew on March 16 that life would take a long time to return to normal. On that day, she found out that the following day, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam was going to lay down an executive order that would greatly impact business across the commonwealth. 

“When the governor said ‘no’ we said ‘no,’” Jennings told 10 On Your Side.

Northam’s March 17 executive order to combat COVID-19 shut down Jenning’s annual St. Patrick’s Day buffet, which is free to all. 

The business restrictions were the beginning of a hard year.

“Devastating,” is how it felt when COVID-19 really hit home. That’s when her close business associate, Michelle Garner, died from COVID-19 on Oct. 12.

“It scared me to death. It scared our people. It scared our customers. It brought awareness that it is real,” she said.

“At that point, we knew it was real. It was here,” says Norfolk City Manager Chip Filer. “We knew we would be making operational changes.” 

It was real March 12 as Filer and his COVID Leadership Team gathered at City Hall and watched the governor declare a COVID-19 State of Emergency. The day after, Filer would gather with state and local leaders.  

Almost a year later, the COVID-19 aftermath is everywhere and has brought long-term changes.

“I think we have realized we can get a lot of the city business done without having folks come in to this one building,” Filer said.

COVID-19 has changed the way we do business across the country and the world.  

Norfolk City Hall is mostly dark, and open by appointment only.  In 2020, Norfolk saw a net loss of 77 business licenses with millions in tax revenue gone. It is a similar story all over Hampton Roads, and we are not connected like we were.

“There’s been a loss of that connectivity … and it has hurt us. We have had to become very savvy and creative in our communication capabilities.” 

We’ve been forced to become creative like in-person music instructor Chris Pickett, who immediately lost 20 of 70 students. To survive he had to do what he calls the “COVID-pivot.” 

“Now is a good time sitting at home to learn a new skill. At first, it was just music and people jumped on this because they were saying ‘I have time now. I’ll start learning something new,’” Pickett said. 

His business went online and expanded.

“I had one person who was a music teacher who could teach nine languages, and then I had people who were gifted at cooking, and sewing and photography, so we started to add all these programs because people just started jumping on it,” he said.

Pickett says 2020 was his best year ever. 

Jennings and Pickett are both members of the Coastal Virginia Chamber of Commerce.

“You have seen a lot of resiliency with a lot of the businesses. We are allies with the small businesses to get back on track,” Coastal Virginia Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Ron Villanueva said.

The chamber has been instrumental in helping local businesses make it through.

“We are getting resources for these members to apply for the loans at the local levels and the nonprofit groups,” he said.

For the collective humanity, it’s really been the worst year ever, and the sting lingers.

“Annihilated. I mean, we were devasted,” says George Kotarides, who owns three Dough Boy’s Pizza operations and is president of the 65 member Atlantic Avenue Association.

Kotarides talks about the lingering emotional stress of the last year. 

“I feel the stress of it every day. My wife and I both. We have worked through a difficult time, and I don’t think you ever get over something like this.” 

Kotarides’ theme is “Survive and Adapt.” His revenue is off 85% March 2019 compared to March 2020.

If you were to give him a grade, what would it be? We asked Virginia Beach restauranteur Bill Dillon to grade Northam.

“Oh, an F — an F,” he said.

Dillon is so upset with Northam’s handling of COVID-19 restrictions he’s taking the governor to court.

“He’s been terrible… customers, in general, are afraid to go out to dinner. They don’t want to socialize. They want to stay home, so that has affected us… his executive orders hurt us,” Dillon said.

Some others give the governor high grades.

“I’d give the governor a B or B+,” said Jennings.

At the end of the day, 10 On Your Side found a guarded optimism that 2021 will rock.

“We are expecting a damped spring followed by a massive surge of activity in late summer or early fall,” Filer said.

Kotarides also feels optimistic about the Oceanfront.

“We are optimistic people. I speak with people and I think we have pent-up demand… I just hope we’re right,” he said.

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