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COVID-19 forces more changes to Virginia colleges, businesses

Mike Still • Mar 19, 2020 at 11:00 AM

WISE — Businesses and colleges in Southwest Virginia are seeing more changes as state officials keep trying to limit the spread of the COVID-19 viral disease.

Several restaurants in the region on Wednesday displayed signs reminding patrons of Gov. Ralph Northam’s order on Tuesday that restaurants, fitness centers and theaters across the state limit seating to 10 people or close. Restaurants are encouraged to continue take-out or delivery sales.

In Wise, the Ely Fitness Center at The University of Virginia’s College at Wise opted to close until further notice.

Northam’s order authorizes the state health commissioner through local health districts to suspend a business’ health permit or close any affected business where the 10-person rule is being violated. Local and state law enforcement agencies can enforce the order with a class 1 misdemeanor or a class 3 misdemeanor charge against violators under state law on emergency orders.

Two colleges in Wise County — UVA Wise and Mountain Empire Community College — announced on Wednesday that they will extend their shift to all-online courses for the rest of the spring semester.

UVA Wise’s announcement followed similar action by the University of Virginia earlier on Wednesday. All classes were already set to move online on March 23. Also, the college’s scheduled May 9 commencement has been postponed to a later, unspecified date, and all campus events are cancelled until at least May 15.

In a letter to students and college employees on Wednesday, Chancellor Donna P. Henry said that resident students would only be allowed to remain on campus if they are international students unable to return home, students whose only residence is on campus, or students whose return home would pose a severe health risk.

“Please understand it is our hope that the action we are taking, beginning today, will help prevent the spread of this virus and assist with the efforts to ensure that the healthcare teams in our region are not overburdened,” Henry said.

Henry said that student workers being paid under federal work study will continue being paid, and that campus dining and housing procedures will be modified.

All UVA Wise employees who can telecommute will do so with input from their supervisors, Henry said.

MECC President Kristen Westover on Tuesday said classes will move to online format or be evaluated for other delivery formats by March 23, with more information coming to students via email, the college website and social media.

All on-campus public events for the next eight weeks will be canceled or rescheduled, Westover said, including the college’s graduation ceremony, nursing pinning ceremony and MECC’S Celebration of People.

“What’s difficult is that the very things that make these ceremonies meaningful also make them dangerous in this pandemic,” Westover said in a letter to employees and students. “While it’s a celebration of individual achievements, it’s a community celebration.”

Regarding upcoming events on campus: For the next 8 weeks, MECC will cancel or re-schedule all public events on campus. Unfortunately, this includes MECC Graduation, the VATNP Nursing Pinning Ceremony and MECC’s Celebration of People.

Student work study positions are also being evaluated, Westover said.

Mountain Empire Older Citizens, which earlier had announced closing of its nutrition sites in Wise, Lee and Scott counties and Norton, has also postponed for the first time what has been a major fundraising event for four decades — the MEOC Walkathon for the Emergency Fuel Fund.

MEOC Executive Director Michael Wampler said a new date has not been set for the walkathon, but it will be delayed until the COVID-19 threat no longer exists.

Another MEOC fundraiser — the Harold Lester Memorial Golf Tournament for the Mountain Laurel Cancer Support and Resource Center — will also be postponed from its normal mid-June time to a later date.

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