If there’s a silver lining in the coronavirus pandemic, it’s this — the Town of Blacksburg, Virginia Tech students, and the larger New River Valley community make a good team.

But the pandemic isn’t over. And with a recent uptick in cases in the New River Valley among people in the age groups 25 to 59 and those 60 and older, the community must keep wearing face coverings, staying physically distant, washing hands, and taking other precautions to protect the vulnerable, said Noelle Bissell, health director of the New River Health District.

Bissell joined other town and university leaders, including Leslie Hager-Smith, Blacksburg mayor; Anthony Wilson, Blacksburg police chief; and Frank Shushok, vice president for student affairs at Virginia Tech, during an evening virtual town hall on Nov. 19.

“I know everyone is tired,” Bissell said. “We have been doing this for a very long time. The weather is getting colder. We need a break. We need to remain vigilant. COVID is not going to go away.”

The virus transmission among working adults often is happening through social gatherings, carpooling, and church events, she said. Bissell encouraged people to be particularly mindful of public health during the Thanksgiving holiday. Her suggestions are that people from different households wear masks indoors, sit farther apart at meals, and even move food outside to prevent spread of the coronavirus.

“We are very social creatures,” she said. “We have to be careful in those places where we tend to want to let our guard down.”

Below are some highlights from the town hall:

Supporting Blacksburg businesses

Many small businesses are hurting during the pandemic, which is evident in tax revenue for the Town of Blacksburg, said Hager-Smith.

Some have shifted their business models by offering online ordering. Hager-Smith noted a successful new program, Blacksburg Delivers, through which restaurants deliver food to-go to campus for Virginia Tech students.

Also, the town recently launched Blacksburg Bucks, a new gift certificate program to support local businesses during the holiday season. With this initiative, the town will double the amount of each gift certificate purchased, using funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. 

The gift certificates, sold in $20 increments, can be purchased at six National Bank of Blacksburg locations.

The program launched on Nov. 20, but sold out quickly.

Blacksburg will offer a second round of the program, with pre-orders beginning on Dec. 1. Consumers must call the National Bank branches to order certificates. They will be available for pick up on Dec. 8.

“I have learned how resilient our businesses can be and how important they are to us,”  Hager-Smith said.

Students staying the course

This fall, many Hokies have been models of adhering to public health guidelines, and Shushok encouraged them to take this leadership back to their own homes during the holiday season, while also enjoying some rest and reflection time.

When students return to campus, they will see small changes, including new intramural sports and more in-person activities that follow public health and science guidance, he said.

“In March, we didn’t know a whole lot, and we shut the lights off,” he said, referring to the spring 2020 semester. “Now we are pushing the lights up a little more and a little more. When we come back in January, students are going to feel like there is a little more light here at Virginia Tech.”

Also, this spring, the university is launching a new residence hall pod program for students living on and off campus. After all receive COVID-19 tests, Hokies can register the names of up to 14 students who will be in their friend group or pod, and interaction within these groups will have slightly looser guidelines, depending on the situation.

Also, Wilson said he has been excited about the ways that Virginia Tech students have been involved in conveying public health messages in the community. He mentioned the COVID Crushers, a student group that weekly handed out masks and hand sanitizer in downtown Blacksburg this fall. There’s also a group of students that is brainstorming ways to help with community projects this spring.

“As we have gotten better at this navigation, we are learning that we need to reinvest our most valuable currency, that’s our community currency,” Wilson said. “We have a really huge opportunity to engage them in some of the best work they will ever do in their life during this college experience. It will put them on the right course for a successful spring semester. I can’t wait for them to get back [to Blacksburg].”

Think positive for the spring

There may be a COVID-19 vaccine ready nationally by the spring season, though Bissell cautioned that there is still much to be known about it. A vaccine likely would first go to health care workers and first responders. 

In the meantime, she encouraged the community to consider ways to be outdoors when the weather allows and to recharge for the spring.

“It’s about being positive moving forward,” she said. “I think there’s a lot to look forward to. There’s the light at the end of the tunnel, and we need to stay focused on that.”  

Written by Jenny Kincaid Boone

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