Everything stopped in early March of last year, or so it seemed. The coronavirus pandemic that had been rumbling around the globe since the beginning of 2020 finally reached the Plains.
East Alabama Medical Center was nearly overrun with COVID-19 cases. Lee County lost 11 citizens in that first month, and had 265 confirmed cases of the virus. It could have been much worse, if not for Opelika, Auburn, EAMC and Auburn University officials maintaining near constant contact in the weeks prior to the March outbreak.
The public was ordered to stay home. Local school districts and Southern Union scrambled to supply students with laptops and Wi-Fi access so they could continue their studies at home. Auburn University students were told not to come back from Spring Break and to finish their semesters online.
Opelika and Auburn had to scuttle busy spring calendars for their parks and downtowns. Public workers were told to work from home, save, of course, for cops and firefighters and nurses and doctors. The Auburn City Council, with brand new chambers to show off at Ross Street and Magnolia Avenue, had to meet online instead.
All high school and college sports were cancelled. There was no A Day, no baseball at Plainsman Park, no students bar hopping on the weekends, no high schoolers checking out the AU campus, no church on Sunday, no restaurants packed with families for Sunday dinner after church, no Little League or kids out on their bikes.
It was quiet that first month, to say the least.
AdjustmentsGroceries and drug stores became the only public spaces, with many – but certainly not all – shoppers wearing masks and maintaining proper social distance. Paper towels, toilet paper, hand sanitizers, thermometers and more disappeared from shelves as people rushed to protect themselves.
Many local retailers came perilously close to going under for lack of the spring receipts they count on ahead of typically slow summers. Those shopkeepers who hadn’t paid much attention to e-commerce before began furiously schooling themselves on the virtues of the internet.
“Oh, well, we’re not making what we made before,” said Southern Crossing owner Valerie Smith in April, “but we have actually been slammed this week with Easter. We implemented free delivery — we’ve never delivered before. And we’re doing curbside from 1-4 p.m. every day.”
“… We’re working a lot harder than we normally work per sale. I would say because people are messaging us over social media or online. It’s been a learning curve because we don’t do this online usually,” Smith said.
Smith, husband Mike and manager Clayton Harris were pleasantly surprised by the business scared up simply by putting a bit of time into Instagram and Facebook.
“I really think it’s going to enhance our business once everything gets back to normal – I hope and pray that it’s going to just add to the business we’re already doing,” Smith said.
“I mean, not to toot our own horn, but we stuck through. I mean, we have stepped up and work every day.”
Valerie said it was a learning curve for her husband, Mike.
“He has never done any other social media, so we’ve had to teach him how to answer, and it’s become hilarious,” she said, laughing. “He thinks he’s an influencer. Last night, he got an order to his watch, and he goes, ‘We got it. I got a message! I answered it!”
Fast food restaurants were able to rely on their drive-through windows, but bars had to rely on limited curbside service and eateries focused on takeout and delivery. Servers and bartenders were sent home in droves.
But some places were able to keep their people working. Mellow Mushroom owner Greg Bradshaw said the surge in delivery business allowed him to keep all of his people working until downtown Auburn dining rooms reopened in late spring.
Most, however, merely endured. Mark Coxwell of Butcher Paper BBQ in Opelika had to cut back on everything – staff, operating hours, inventory – when dining rooms were closed, concentrating solely on curbside takeout and delivery.
“Seeing the value of what I’ve built diminish significantly over the matter of a day, that hurts,” he told the newspaper in April. “To think that everything that you’ve done and all the work that you’ve done and all of this that you’ve worked so hard to build can be taken away so quickly. It’s a hard thing to grapple with.”
Civic mindednessSome local businesspeople rallied to help out their neighbors. The run on hand sanitizers gave Jimmy Sharp an idea.
His John Emerald Distilling Co. in downtown Opelika found a new use for its 190-proof alcohol. The distillery began providing local businesses with sanitation products and the rest of the community with the hottest commodity at the time — hand sanitizer.
“We’re in a unique position that we have a base alcohol that’s 190 proof,” said Sharp, owner and head distiller “We thought it was a great idea and we wanted to jump. Good ideas are there for stealing so we said let’s do it.”
And then there was Tucker Boswell.
Shop owners and restaurant proprietors in downtown Auburn struggled in those first weeks. Boswell was their UPS driver, pulling up in front of their places every day in his big, brown van to pick up or drop off packages. He chatted them up about their kids, grandkids and how their businesses are faring.
Those friendly chats turned gloomy in early March and only got worse as the coronavirus quickly settled in to the Plains.
“The shops felt it immediately,” said Boswell, a Tennessee native who moved here 17 years ago. “The whole spring calendar was cancelled for the university. Downtown counts on the students and AU just as much or more than anyone.”
Boswell decided that these businesses, owned and operated by his friends, needed some help, and he’s not the kind of guy to just hope for the best. He promoted these businesses to anyone who would listen, and he took this reporter around to visit with friends along his route to hear how they were coping.
One solution he helped cook up was #KeepAuburnRolling, an Instagram campaign that offered a weekly drawing for a $100 gift card to be used with a local merchant.
“I want Auburn to look the same when this is all over,” he told the newspaper.
Better news abounds We’ve emerged from that scary time slowly over the last year, with most schools and businesses easing back into regular operations. Gov. Ivey has decided the state’s mask mandate can end April 9, and local governments aren’t tied up trying to manage a pandemic while conducting the rest of the public’s business.
Federal help over the last several months is helping those local workers affected by COVID-19 to stave off evictions, foreclosures and bill collectors, and the local job market seems to have recovered its pre-coronavirus strength.
Students – primary, secondary and collegiate – are finishing up their spring terms in class, for the most part.
Most importantly, EAMC is treating fewer and fewer COVID-19 patients as citizens get their coronavirus vaccinations.
There will be A Day. There will be baseball this spring at Plainsman Park – and Little League and plenty to do in Opelika’s and Auburn’s city parks.
When and if we get our Old Normal back remains to be seen, however. A lot of us have gotten used to staying home, to not shaking hands and fretting over whether or not to visit friends and loved ones.
Let’s hope this pretty spring weather holds up and pushes us to come out of our shells again.