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These Are the COVID-19 Community Heroes We’re Celebrating in 2020

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Words by Ashley Breeding, Scott Pruden and Meg Ryan.

As we celebrate this year’s class of Best of Delaware winners, we also sought to highlight the heroes helping us every day. From first responders to grocery store workers, these folks have stepped up in a time of unprecedented change.

Restaurant Warriors

As soon as COVID-19 put a stranglehold on Delaware’s restaurant industry, Carrie Leishman got to work.

The Delaware Restaurant Association president and CEO advocated for the state’s eateries as each new regulation came in from the governor’s office. Leishman is in her 20th year as president, and to say this year is the most important of her tenure is an understatement.

“I never expected this,” she says.

She worked with Gov. John Carney’s office to help create guidelines for restaurants to maintain a revenue stream while helping to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Balancing public health with promoting an industry that generally survives on razor-thin profit margins was tough, but Leishman stuck it out. “I fight every day for an inch,” she says.   

After the governor’s first emergency order in mid-March limited eateries to takeout and delivery, the association helped shape the guidelines for Phase 1 of reopening, which allows 30 percent occupancy, face coverings except when eating, a reservation system, and socially distanced tables, among other regulations.

After Phase 1 was announced, Gov. Carney instituted an additional interim step where restaurants, bars, taprooms and craft breweries could apply to expand outdoor seating capacity to safely serve more customers when their businesses reopened.

The DRA actively used its social media to share facts and figures on how the pandemic has affected the industry, from job and revenue losses to mounting debt. To keep members looped in, Leishman and the DRA hold weekly Zoom town halls/information sessions. They’ve also organized mental health workshops to address the emotional toll COVID-19 has taken on workers.

The future is what keeps Leishman up at night, she says. The association estimates 20 to 30 percent of the state’s restaurants might not survive, and six months from now could be when the real battle is waged. “Restaurants are going to be the new startups,” she says.

But Leishman says she’ll be there no matter what. “It’s just in our DNA.”

First Responders

On an ordinary day, Delaware’s first responders are the ones we turn to when life goes sideways. But, as we’re reminded in what now seems to be a continuous loop, these are not ordinary days.

Those on whom we could always count to be there when tragedy strikes—whether it’s a house fire, a car accident or a health emergency—have found themselves in the roles of society’s protectors and saviors in circumstances few thought they would ever see.

With each already challenging job come additional layers of challenge—wear your mask, minimize your team’s exposure to those who might be COVID carriers, continue to interact with the public while reminding even the reluctant (or downright obstinate) that each person’s measure of protection and distance helps protect the rest of us.

The pandemic hasn’t stopped the heart attacks, the shootings or domestic discord. The stovetop grease still catches fire and children still play with lighters. All the while the responders themselves must bear the burden of worry for themselves and their families, limiting their exposure and tamping down the anxiety of that ever-present question: “What if the virus happens to us?”

But as Delawareans, knowing that the police, firefighters and EMTs ask that question after first protecting and caring for us makes them the very best of who we are.

Child Care Workers

Since Gov. John Carney ordered schools to close in March to help stop the spread of COVID-19, many working parents have struggled to strike a balance between their careers and caring for children at home.

While homeschooling older students through the end of the academic year remained difficult for many, emergency and essential workers with younger tots are eternally grateful to organizations like the YMCA and JCC for providing child care during the crisis.

“Our YMCA team members have been on the front lines in their communities like never before—distributing food,  providing child care for those who must get to work and showing up with enthusiasm and love,” says Deborah Bagatta-Bowles, CEO of the YMCA of Delaware. “The work they are doing now is laying the groundwork for new safety protocols in working with children and the public. They are teaching us so much, and we can’t thank them enough.”

On March 30, the Y opened for families of medical personnel, essential employees and first responders at several locations, including the YMCA of Delaware, Rocky Run, and the Brandywine and Bear-Glasgow branches. In May, the Siegel JCC in Wilmington followed suit by reopening for babies, tots and preschoolers of “essential” parents, making it just a little easier to get through these trying times.

Grocery Store Workers

Once the COVID-19 stay-at-home orders came down, Delawareans flocked to grocery stores to stock up on essentials—so much so that items like toilet paper, disinfectant wipes and canned goods were wiped from the shelves, with some not getting restocked for weeks.

Paula Janssen, the general manager of Janssen’s Market in Greenville, described it as three weeks of snow days. She says prior to the pandemic, many customers would just pop in to the gourmet grocery store–meets–café for dinner supplies or a mid-workday lunch. But now, clients are buying in bulk and only visiting once a week or less.

To keep customers and employees safe, Janssen’s began to limit store occupancy, and instituted regular sanitization of high-touch surfaces and shopping carts. The store added acrylic barriers at the cash registers and keeps plenty of hand sanitizer around, compliments of Dogfish Head’s distillery.

In addition, Janssen says all employees are supplied with gloves and masks. Staff are encouraged to wash hands every 30 minutes to take a much-needed breather.

“Use that as a time to get off the floor and take a break and look outside a little bit,” she says.

The shopping experience has also been also modified. The café area was closed to dining in and customers were offered premade, packaged meals. The usually bustling salad bar was converted to a premade meal station. Curbside pickup was also expanded, so customers didn’t have to enter the store. As the state began to looks towards phase one and two, Janssen says the store will continue to adjust.

Janssen says she’s incredibly proud of her team’s flexibility and how they rose to meet every new challenge. She’s also grateful to all the supportive customers who have stood by them.

“I think that’s the strength of small business,” she says. “We see the challenge and we just say, ‘OK, let’s try it this way.’ [We] keep going and keep making forward progress and keep everybody safe.”

Health Care Heroes

Imagine being trapped on train tracks as a slow-moving locomotive rumbles your way. You know it will arrive and do significant damage.

You can hear it approaching, but you can’t get out of its way. Now reframe this scenario as Delaware’s health care community watching the global spread of coronavirus, knowing that eventually it would arrive here. Hospital systems braced for the impact, establishing special wards and dedicated space. Protective gear and practices—face masks, full gowns and limits on the number of personnel who could work in proximity to each other—were put into place as the disease made its way to the First State.

But as much as doctors, nurses, technicians and the array of support personnel could prepare for the clinical side of a pandemic, there was only so much they could do to steel themselves against the emotional and psychological effects they would endure. Despite Delaware’s comparatively low numbers—nearly 10,000 positive cases and 350 deaths by the end of May, according to statistics from Delaware.gov—our health care workers have seen the pandemic’s toll up close and felt the despair and loneliness of those in their care deep in their own bones. And still, they have stood and faced the threat. So, behind the masks and gowns of those who heal and comfort, among those who clean and sanitize and prepare for more of the sick, we see not just workers but angels.


Published in the July 2020 issue of Delaware Today magazine.

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