The year that ends at midnight Thursday began like most others in Wilkes County, with little hint of the changes and challenges ahead due to COVID-19.
Local government capital projects, elections were expected to dominate headlines in 2020. Economic optimism generally prevailed as the year began.
JanuaryIn early January, most Wilkes residents paid little heed to reports of the first known death from a new type of coronavirus in Wuhan, China, which first appeared in a meat market in that city in December. They couldn’t fathom the impact the virus might have here, over 7,000 miles away.
Freshman North Wilkesboro Commissioner Andrew Palmer’s “Bridge the Boros” petition drive, which sought a study on merging Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro, was among stories catching attention then.
The Wilkes County commissioners’ Jan. 7 unanimous approval of a resolution defending the right to bear arms also made headlines. A crowd present in support of the action was believed to be the largest for that meeting place.
The first confirmed case of the new virus in the U.S. was confirmed and announced Jan. 21. It was a man in his 30s who developed symptoms after returning to Washington State from a trip to Wuhan.
That same week, the N.C. Department of Transportation announced that completion of the widening of N.C. 268 East from North Wilkesboro to Airport Road had been delayed again — to late summer. It’s still not finished.
With thousands of people sick with the new coronavirus in China, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared a “public health emergency of international concern” on Jan. 30.
On Jan. 31, the Trump administration suspended entry into the U.S. by any foreign nationals in China in the prior 14 days. Immediate family members of American citizens or permanent residents were excluded.
That same week, Louisiana-Pacific Corp. said more about job losses at LP’s Roaring River plant due to its conversion from producing fiber-based siding to pre-finishing strand-based siding. Employment there dropped from over 300 in late 2019 to about 100 in late 2020, plus the facility no longer purchases low-grade timber and sawmill byproducts to produce wood chips.
FebruaryThrough February, Wilkes Countians followed news reports of COVID-19 spreading across Europe and other parts of the world. The first confirmed COVID-19 death in the U.S. was reported Feb. 29. The person lived in Seattle.
On Feb. 11, WHO proposed COVID-19 (for coronavirus disease 2019) as the name for the disease caused by the new virus to avoid creating a stigma by naming it for any associated people, places or animals.
In early February, Lowe’s Companies Inc. said it was trying to fill about 90 new customer service jobs at the Lowe’s customer support center in Wilkesboro.
On Feb. 14, Sheltered Aid to Families in Emergencies (SAFE) Inc. and its long-established 14-bed shelter in Wilkesboro for domestic and sexual violence victims closed due to lack of funds. It was learned that state funds had been withheld when SAFE failed to comply with reporting requirements. A similar nonprofit in Sparta now provides the emergency shelter and related services SAFE once provided.
By mid-February, the Town of Wilkesboro was making progress on two major projects. One was removing the granite facade of a town-owned building on North Bridge Street and the other was installing pipework to better manage storm water on the sinkhole-filled Taco Bell property near the intersection of Winkler Mill Road and U.S. 421.
Authorities searched in Wilkes and elsewhere for Evelyn Boswell, a toddler reported missing from her home near Blountville, Tenn., in February. The toddler’s grandmother and a male companion, both from Tennessee, were taken into custody in Wilkes for questioning in the case.
Evelyn was found deceased near her home on March 6. Her mother, Megan Boswell, was charged with murder in the case in August and is in custody as a district attorney decides whether she should face the death penalty.
MarchThe Wilkes Journal-Patriot’s first front page article about COVID-19 appeared in the March 10 issue. In the article, Wilkes Health Department Director Rachel Willard listed ways to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
On March 10, Gov. Roy Cooper declared a state of emergency in North Carolina to help coordinate COVID-19 efforts. Fifteen cases were confirmed in North Carolina by March 12. WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11.
On March 3, Hardin Kennedy, Joan Sheets Caudill and incumbent Kirk Walker were elected to the Wilkes school board. Incumbent Misty Smithey won the Republican primary for Wilkes Register of Deeds. Smithey faced no opposition in the Nov. 3 general election. Winners of the GOP primary for county commissioner on March 3 and the general election were incumbents Eddie Settle and G. Keith Elmore and newcomer Casey Joe Johnson.
On March 9, Wilkesboro Elementary kindergarten teacher Alicia Stone was named Wilkes County Schools Teacher of the Year and West Wilkes Middle School’s Pam Huffman was named principal of the year.
On March 13, MerleFest was cancelled and all gatherings of 100 or more people in Wilkes County were prohibited under a state of emergency declared by Wilkesboro Mayor Mike Inscore, North Wilkesboro Mayor Robert Johnson, Ronda Mayor Victor Varela and Eddie Settle, chairman of the county commissioners. The next MerleFest is set for Sept. 16-19, 2021.
Other local events cancelled included Carolina in the Fall, the Brushy Mountain Apple Festival and the Peach Festival.
On March 14, Cooper ordered that all public schools statewide close for two weeks at least through March 30. He also banned gatherings with over 100 people. “Our lives have been turned upside down by this pandemic, but we will get through this. Hindsight is 20/20. I don’t want any regrets in our rearview mirror when this pandemic stops,” said the governor.
Classes at Wilkes Community College were cancelled March 16-22 and later mostly went virtual.
Town, county, state and federal parks and recreational facilities were closed, government services were limited and other action was taken to help slow the spread of the virus. Public libraries in Wilkes, Ashe and Watauga counties, part of the Appalachian Regional Library system, were closed.
Also during the second week in March:
• all interscholastic athletics (games, practices and workouts) statewide were cancelled through at least April 6;
• all Wilkes school field trips were cancelled through early April;
• Atlantic Coast Conference basketball tournament was cancelled;
• all University of North Carolina system classes were changed from in-person to online indefinitely, starting March 23.
• visitor restrictions were expanded at Wilkes Medical Center. Some local long term care living facilities imposed visitor restrictions;
• all District and Superior court cases statewide were postponed for 30 days.
State and local limits on the size of gatherings were revised to exempt churches. Many local churches cancelled in-person worship services in March. Some began having services in church parking lots. Some went to remote services and are still doing so, some later returned to in-person and some offer services remotely and in-person.
The Wilkes Family YMCA and other YMCAs were closed starting in mid-March. Many other organizations were similarly disrupted.
On March 17, Cooper ordered that restaurants limit service to take-out and delivery and that all bars close at least through March 31. He also made jobless benefits more widely available.
On March 23, Cooper ordered all public schools closed to in-person learning through May 15, changed the ban on gatherings to 50 instead of 100 and ordered additional types of businesses closed.
On March 27, Cooper issued an order requiring that people remain at home after 5 p.m., except to visit essential businesses or for certain other reasons. Some “essential” jobs were exempted. The order caused the temporary closure of some businesses and cut profits of many. In Wilkes, people were cited for violating this order a few times when they were also charged with criminal offenses after 5 p.m.
Cooper issued other COVID-19-related orders in 2020, some with greater and some easing restrictions. On June 24, Cooper issued an order making face masks mandatory in most public places in the state. His most recent orders increased face covering requirements (Nov. 23), implemented a modified stay at home order and required nighttime closure of some businesses (Dec. 8) and allowed delivery or carry-out of mixed alcoholic beverages (Dec. 21).
AprilWilkes County’s first two confirmed COVID-19 cases were announced March 30, and the county had 56 by the end of April. The first confirmed COVID-19 case in Wilkes became the county’s first death from the virus on March 31. The official death total in Wilkes was 70 by Tuesday of this week.
On April 7, the Wilkes Health Department recommended following new CDC guidance calling for wearing cloth face masks or other facial coverings in public to help control COVID-19.
Previously, the CDC recommended not wearing face masks unless needed while caring for someone sick who couldn’t wear one. The earlier guidance was partly the result of a shortage of face masks.
Tyson Foods Inc. began requiring that employees at its meat processing plants and other facilities, including in Wilkes, wear masks in April. Tyson also started using a temperature scanner at the processing complex in Wilkesboro to help catch COVID-19 cases due to rising case totals there.
Face masks became a political issue, partly because President Trump expressed skepticism about the effectiveness of them.
The governor’s stay-at home order became an issue in his bid for re-election. In April, Settle sent a letter to Cooper asking that county commissioners have authority to reopen businesses closed under Cooper’s orders.
On April 14, amendments to local state of emergency orders in Wilkes were approved. These prohibited hotels, bed and breakfasts and other short-term lodging providers in Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro from renting to people from out of town, with certain exceptions. They also impacted retailers including by letting only one person per family shop in a business at a time and by required social distancing while shopping.
MayIn early May, a state of emergency declaration signed by the Wilkesboro, North Wilkesboro and Ronda mayors was amended to align with Cooper’s order that eased COVID-19 restrictions in three phases. Settle signed an amendment keeping the county’s state of emergency order in place as long as Cooper’s order remained. Settle said this allowed the county to keep getting state assistance.
Tyson announced in May that of 2,244 employees and contractors tested for COVID-19 that month at the company’s complex in Wilkesboro, 570 (25.4%) tested positive for COVID-19. Tyson plants in Wilkesboro were closed for several days in May for extensive cleaning due to COVID-19 cases there.
Three COVID-19 deaths in Wilkes the third week of May brought the county’s virus death total to four. That same week, free drive-by COVID-19 testing for two hours each day, three days a week, began in the Walmart parking lot in Wilkesboro through a joint effort of Walmart, the Wilkes Health Department and the state.
The Wilkes Economic Development Corp. started two grant programs in May to help small businesses get through the pandemic. Both provided up to $2,000 per business, with one designed to help become established online.
On May 10, Daniel Lee Martin, 56, was charged with murder in the shooting death of Jonathan Lindbergh Watson, 17. Both lived in the State Road community and the shooting occurred at Martin’s residence on Old Highway 21. A Wilkes Sheriff’s Office press release said it stemmed from an altercation between the two.
The May 31 death of Irene Triplett, 90, of Accordius Health in Wilkesboro made national headlines because Triplett was the nation’s last Civil War pension recipient. Triplett received the pension through her father, Moses “Mose” Triplett, who started out in the Confederate Army and later switched to the Union Army.
About 200 people participated in a May 31 march in North Wilkesboro to protest the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis, Minn. It went down Main Street and elsewhere in downtown.
Brood IX of the 17-year cicadas appeared in northern and western Wilkes from mid-May through June.
JuneWilkes County passed the 500 mark in COVID-19 cases June 1, but it leveled off at around 550 and changed little for nearly two weeks in late June.
It was announced in early June that millions of dollars through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act was going to county and town governments in Wilkes, Wilkes County Schools and Wilkes Medical Center. County government alone received $2.69 million.
A cluster of COVID-19 cases at the Wilkes Correctional Center in North Wilkesboro was reported on mid-May, with 22 inmates and three staff members there testing positive.
A June 19 march from North Wilkesboro’s Memorial Park to Wilkesboro’s Carolina West Wireless Commons, where there were speakers and music, commemorated the abolishment of slavery in the U.S. during the Civil War.
About 150 people participated, about an equal number of Blacks and whites.
JulyIt was learned in early July that about 450 federal Paycheck Protection Program loans totaling were approved for Wilkes businesses. This included five loans between $1 and $2 million each. The loans were intended to help companies and nonprofits survive the pandemic and retain jobs.
Due to COVID-19, Wilkes high school graduation ceremonies were delayed to July 23, 24, 27 and 28. Students received their diplomas by appointment at different times in their school gyms, with only the student’s immediate family, the presenter and another person from the school present to assist.
About 175 people participated in a “Back the Blue” march in and near downtown North Wilkesboro in support of law enforcement on June 19.
It was learned in July that the number of suicides in Wilkes increased substantially in the first four months of the pandemic.
Wilkes County beekeepers harvested one of their best sourwood honey crops in recent memory in late summer.
AugustThe 2020-21 academic year in the Wilkes public schools started Aug. 17 without students actually in their schools due to the Wilkes school board voting to have them remain at home and use remote learning at least until Sept. 8. This was based on Willard’s advice.
Wilkes passed the 1,000 mark in COVID-19 cases on Aug. 27.
On Aug. 5, Rachel Palmer Bentley, 38, of Roaring River was charged with murder in the fatal shooting of Dwight Kelly Payne, 44, of Boomer. Payne died from one shot with a shotgun outside Bentley’s residence.
Wilkes Medical Center’s new $6 million Medical Hematology and Oncology Clinic opened in mid-August.
The door-to-door phase of the U.S. Census started in September. By late August, more than 42% of Wilkes households still hadn’t filled out a census form.
On Aug. 13, the North Wilkesboro Planning Board voted unanimously to recommend that the town’s commissioners deny a rezoning needed on Old Brickyard Road for Jefferson-based Tri-County Paving Inc. to build an asphalt plant there.
Serious flooding occurred in parts of North Wilkesboro when about 3 inches of rain fell within an hour and a half on Aug. 13.
SeptemberWilkes public schools switched to a combination of in-person and remote learning on Sept. 8. Students had the option of continuing to work remotely or rotating between learning remotely one day and in-person the next. For the rotating plan, students at each school were divided into two groups. One worked remotely while the other worked at home each day to comply with Cooper’s order limiting students in a school to half of capacity. About 1,800 students in all grade levels in the Wilkes schools continued remote learning.
Steps to prevent spreading COVID-19 in the Wilkes schools included additional cleaning of facilities, temperature and health screening checks of every person entering a school, mandatory face masks in schools and serving meals outside school cafeterias.
It was announced on Sept. 2 that the Wilkes Journal-Patriot, owned by the Hubbard family for three generations, had sold been sold to Paducah, Ky.-based Paxton Media Group.
A new three-story, 47,000-square-foot Samaritan’s Purse office building in North Wilkesboro was completed in September. The building is part of the disaster relief ministry’s 21-acre campus along N.C. 268 East.
OctoberWilkes averaged 10-40 new COVID-19 cases in October, mostly due to community spread
All Wilkes elementary schools switched to fulltime in-person learning on Oct. 20, with students still being given the option of fulltime remote learning.
On Sept. 14, the Wilkesboro Town Council voted to hire Charlotte-based HDR Engineering of the Carolinas for a wastewater treatment plant expansion and upgrade to meet increased demand from the Tyson Foods chicken processing complex. Production at the complex increased during the pandemic and earlier.
Results of a five-month-long housing study were announced in late September. The study identified severe shortages of both rental and for-sale housing for various income levels in Wilkes. Local businessman Scott Nafe purchased the Elks Lodge property from the Town of North Wilkesboro in December for establishing non-subsidized multi-family housing. Local businessman Cam Finley also announced his plans for building condominiums in Wilkesboro.
Remains of the body of Jadejuia Nicole Hamilton, 26, were found in Roaring River on Oct. 14. Wilkes Sheriff Chris Shew said the death is being investigated as a homicide and that there is a suspect. Hamilton lived in Wilkes until she moved to Sparta about five months ago.
The disappearance of Wilkes resident Renee Ann Walker, 28, is also being investigated. She was reported missing to the Wilkesboro Police Department in July.
A newly-completed Wilkes Emergency Medical Services station in Mountain View was officially opened Oct. 29 with a ribbon cutting. This station, as well as an another planned on a portion of the East Middle School property near Ronda, are designed to shorten response time.
NovemberThe first report in a new statewide COVID-19 alert system, announced Nov. 17, included Wilkes among 10 counties in the state with “critical community spread” (worst of three levels). The designations are based on number of new cases per 100,000 people in a 14-day period; percentage of positive molecular (PCR) tests for COVID-19 in the 14 days and hospital impact of COVID-19.
Lack of student engagement during remote learning was discussed at the Nov. 2 Wilkes school board meeting. It was stated that 21% of Wilkes students were failing more than one class as the end of the first nine-week grading period.
With a record 80% turnout, Wilkes voters overwhelmingly supported Republicans for local, state and federal offices in the Nov. 3 election. In Wilkes, there were 10,960 ballots cast on Election Day, 20,109 cast at the county’s two one-stop, early voting sites and over 4,400 cast through absentee voting.
A record number of Wilkes voters turned out for absentee and early, one-stop voting in Wilkes.
Severe flooding occurred in southeastern Wilkes and parts of Alexander and Iredell counties on Nov. 12. Four people drowned in Alexander. Those three counties and Caldwell were designated a disaster area due to flooding.
Construction of the fifth landfill cell at the Wilkes County Landfill in Roaring River was well underway in November. Completion of the $2.5 million, 5 ½-acre project was expected in January. County officials said the landfill property in Roaring River can meet the county’s needs for at least 20 more years.
DecemberThe number of new COVID-19 cases each week in Wilkes continued to rise in late 2020 but Wilkes was included among counties with the least severe community spread in the Dec. 8 report from the state’s COVID-19 alert system.
By Dec. 28, 3,728 Wilkes residents had tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic started. This included 284 active cases and 37 of these were hospitalized.
A Dec. 22 update of the state’s COVID-19 alert system included Wilkes among 27 North Carolina counties in the middle (orange) level of three levels indicating severity of COVID-19 community spread.
Vaccinations of Wilkes Medical Center staff with the highest risk of being exposed to COVID-19 started Dec. 21. They received Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine brought from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem.
Other medical staff with the highest risk at the hospital, Wilkes Health Department, Wilkes Emergency Medical Services and elsewhere locally are also receiving the Moderna vaccine, delivered to the health department.
In mid-December, the Wilkes schools released data showing that the number of students absences due to COVID-19 contact in a school setting was over three times the number of students who actually tested positive for COVID-19.