COVID-19 and how Nanaimo coped with the pandemic’s challenges is the News Bulletin’s story of the year for 2020. (News Bulletin file photos)

COVID-19 and how Nanaimo coped with the pandemic’s challenges is the News Bulletin’s story of the year for 2020. (News Bulletin file photos)

Story of the Year: How Nanaimo coped with the challenges of COVID-19

City endured sickness and other sufferings, but tried to make the best of things in 2020

The world came down with a bad case of COVID-19, and the symptoms felt in Nanaimo are the News Bulletin’s story of the year for 2020.

A global pandemic, which we’d heard a little bit about in the first couple months of the year, arrived all at once in mid March and changed our lives more than any of us likely expected.

“Oh my, what a year it’s been,” said Nanaimo Mayor Leonard Krog in his final mayor’s report of 2020, at a city council meeting last week. “I’m hoping 2021 will be the year we were all wishing for last December, when we were anticipating what 2020 was going to be like.”

COVID-19 immediately changed community news in Nanaimo. The front page of the News Bulletin on March 12 was about speed limits and plastic checkout bags. The next four front pages detailed panic buying, the city’s emergency response measures, school shutdowns, paper hearts in windows, inventory of intensive-care-unit ventilators, and small businesses boarding up their shop windows.

The early stages of the pandemic were marked by unknowns and fear of those unknowns. It only took days for supermarkets to run low on soup, toilet paper and paper towels. Vancouver Island University was among the first institutions to close, followed quickly by other schools, law courts and the Port Theatre and other City of Nanaimo facilities.

Sports seasons came to an abrupt end. The Nanaimo Clippers, who had swept their first-round series, never got to play a second round and the VIU Mariners women’s basketball team, set to host national championships in their home gym, never made it to tip-off.

Over the next week or two, workers in almost every sector were laid off and businesses had to radically and rapidly change their business models, close temporarily, or worse.

“Their life’s dreams washed away by a pandemic which no one anticipated, in circumstances that were entirely not their fault,” Krog said. “I think we have to express some sympathy for those folks and understand how it’s impacted everyone’s life in this community.”

The closures and cancellations kept coming. The Dragonboat Festival was among the first major festivals to cancel, and one by one other organizing committees followed suit until the whole summer calendar had fallen victim to the virus.

Gabriola Island and other communities began asking visitors to stay away, and before long even the Regional District of Nanaimo asked that people avoid non-essential travel in and out of the region. In early April, B.C. Ferries made waves with an announcement that Departure Bay ferry terminal would be closing for 60 days as traffic volumes had dropped 80 per cent. The tourism and hospitality industry and the transportation sector were flattened.

Something that was evident the first couple of months of the pandemic was the community’s efforts to try to lift up others during a challenging time. Non-governmental organizations were quick to respond, with the United Way launching a Local Love in a Global Crisis fund and the Nanaimo Foundation leading the creation of a Nanaimo Community Response Fund. The Salvation Army increased the number of meals it was serving, all from a mobile kitchen truck set up outside the New Hope Centre. Nanaimo residents put up hearts in their windows, banged on pots and pans every night at 7 p.m. to salute health-care workers and there were multiple vehicle cruises past Nanaimo Regional General Hospital to show support.

By late spring, quarantine started to come to an end. Woodgrove Centre reopened, the provincial government announced that schools would be re-starting part-time classes and VIU announced plans for a ‘hybrid’ learning model. The city formed a mayor’s task force on recovery and resilience to try to brainstorm ways for businesses, institutions and the local economy to bounce back from the pandemic.

Meanwhile, the efforts of Nanaimo citizens to fend off the virus appeared to be working. A front-page headline in our May 27 issue reported that cases were “next to nil on Vancouver Island,” though that was tempered on the editorial page, which cautioned that a second wave of the virus was “probable.”

The summer time saw a noticeable shift to mask-wearing. It became an expectation as people began gathering at events such as Black Lives Solidarity rallies, and during the summer masks were seen more commonly in supermarkets and other stores. RDN Transit and then B.C. Ferries made masks mandatory in August, and Woodgrove Centre, under new ownership, introduced mask and temperature checks at mall entrances at the start of fall.

Late September brought a new surprise as B.C. Premier John Horgan called a snap election, so the next few weeks saw a physically distanced election campaign in a pandemic. Rallies were muted and the only debate in the Nanaimo riding was held in an empty auditorium. On election day, the NDP swept to a majority with New Democrats winning all three local ridings, an indication British Columbians were satisfied with the pandemic response to that point.

The end of October saw the Vancouver Island Economic Alliance’s annual summit held over Zoom instead of at Nanaimo’s conference centre, and those in attendance heard a “not-so-rosy” State of the Island economic report.

Even as a second wave of COVID-19 was becoming evident, MNP senior economist Susan Mowbray said she thought “the bottom was hit” in the spring and anything after that has been part of the recovery.

“The question is, how long does the recovery take to get us back to where we were? And that could be years…” Mowbray said. “If we go into additional restrictions, that’s going to push us backwards again and it’s going to prolong whatever the recovery is and for some businesses, that will be the end of them.”

The second wave intensified in November, as a COVID-19 case was reported at Dover Bay Secondary, the first of several exposures to hit Nanaimo schools over a span of a few weeks. There was also an outbreak of five positive cases in one unit at NRGH.

Also in November, the mayor’s task force made its report to city council, recommending a pride-of-place campaign and collaborative pursuit of big-ticket strategic investment. Donna Hais, a member of the task force, urged everyone in the community to get behind the recommendations.

“You need to contribute, you need to get involved and you need to be part of the solution because it involves all of us,” she said.

November also saw the return of lockdowns, as restrictions on gathering with those outside the household were expanded from the Lower Mainland to provincewide. Case numbers reached their 2020 peak and health officials pleaded with British Columbians not to bend the rules. Central Island medical health officer Dr. Sandra Allison penned an op-ed cautioning people about remaining empowered and not letting fear take over.

“We can control some of the fear that changes us for the worse and negatively affects our health, even it we don’t catch the COVID,” she wrote.

We weren’t able to stop COVID-19 from cancelling Christmas gatherings, as health officials decided it was too risky to have Christmas get-togethers with anyone outside our immediate households. It’s too early to tell, yet, how our quiet Christmas celebrations impacted COVID case counts, but numbers seemed to be trending in the right direction the last couple of weeks, just as the first British Columbians have been getting vaccinations.

As of Dec. 31, the Island had seen 928 COVID-19 cases and 11 deaths, with approximately 52,000 cases and 900 deaths provincewide.

It feels like we’re getting through the pandemic together. It’s caused a lot of harm and hardship and hard feelings. Some of the things we’ve lost we won’t ever get back, and even when it’s over, things might not be the same as they were, pre-COVID-19.

“Sometimes life is just about enduring until things change, and they will,” Krog said. “They will change and they will get better and we will see brighter and happier days ahead.”

READ ALSO: Stay informed about COVID-19

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