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'It feels like a bad breakup:' High school seniors in Richmond area missing out on important rites of passage

High school seniors are having a pretty disappointing final semester because of the coronavirus: Most senior traditions are scrapped, graduation is still a question mark, and prom has been canceled.

Some are coming up with creative solutions to the cancellations, while others are feeling the emotional burnout of having the end of senior year stolen from them.

Caroline Burrows, a senior at Hermitage High School in Henrico County, decided to splurge on her prom dress this year.

“I thought it was my senior prom, I’ll go out with a bang,” she said.

In the past, she’d always waited to try to find a deal and ended up scrambling to find a decent dress before the dance. This time, she went shopping in February and found the perfect dress — a beautiful, floor-length stunner with pockets.

“I loved it. I felt beautiful in it,” she said. “Our prom was supposed to be at the Hippodrome Theater downtown, and I thought I’d have the pictures forever.”

But instead of wearing her dress to prom, she found herself under the governor’s stay-at-home order, getting dressed up for actor John Krasinki’s virtual prom on “Some Good News” on YouTube. He hosted the streaming prom with such musical guests as The Jonas Brothers and Billie Eilish for all the seniors across the country who wouldn’t get a regular prom this year.

Burrows got dressed up with a friend, and they danced along to the virtual prom in her living room.

“Honestly, this whole thing feels to me like a bad breakup. The first few days, you wake up and, at first, you forget everything that has happened. Then you remember and it’s this overwhelming feeling of, ‘I can’t believe this is happening right now.’ And then you get used to it. We’re at the part where everything feels normal. You figure out how to go about your day. It’s unfortunate that this happened. But I’d rather have a canceled prom than an entire school of sick families,” she said.

“We’re at the age when you understand why something is happening, but you still have that kid side, like ‘Why is this happening to me?’ But I’m coming to terms with it. My friends and I, we’ve been saying, 20 years later, we’ll be the ones in the history books,” she said.

She also said she thinks the crisis is going to affect her generation for the better, not for the worse.

“I don’t think this will lead to a generation of germaphobes, but to a generation that knows how to react to a crisis,” she said. “The biggest thing we’ve learned is that in the future, we’ll need a plan of action. We can reflect on what happened and not let it happen again.”

She’s planning to go to Christopher Newport University in the fall where she will major in social work and pre-law and take advantage of the leadership program there. In the meantime, she’s going to keep her part-time job at Bruster’s ice cream and save money for college. She’s also hoping to take a beach week this summer, if that’s still allowed.

***

For Morgan Broce and her friends at Hanover High School, they decided to take their canceled senior prom and make an epic TikTok video out of it.

“Making the video with my friends gave me a reason to get dressed up,” Broce said.

The TikTok video shows before and after images of each girl, getting glammed up in their prom dresses. In the video, Broce and her friends look beautiful and young, in their fancy dresses and glittery makeup, smiling for the camera. They titled it: “RIP Senior Prom.”

Afterward, Broce took prom photos in the backyard in her plunging burgundy velvet dress. Her dad even showed up, in a suit, to serve as her stand-in date. While Broce and her dad went to pick up take-out dinner, her mom and college-age sister decorated the den with streamers and a small disco ball borrowed from a neighbor for a surprise mini-prom.

“My family still made it special,” she said. “It wasn’t what I had planned or hoped for, but we still made it memorable.”

***

Mackenzie Green was looking forward to her first prom at Prince George High School with her boyfriend, Jacob Lively.

Before the coronavirus, they were planning to go out to dinner with friends and take pictures at the Hopewell Riverwalk before heading to the dance. Green had her dress already picked out from Lex’s of Carytown, but didn’t have time to get it altered before the stay-at-home order came down.

“I was really sad I wasn’t going to get to go,” she said.

Green’s mom and her boyfriend’s mom decided to come up with a solution and throw their kids a surprise prom. Lively came over in a shirt and tie, and Green wore a long dress, although not the one she had picked out at Lex’s.

Green and her boyfriend shared dinner at her kitchen table, 6 feet apart. Afterward, they danced socially distant in the living room to songs by Ed Sheeran.

“We were so surprised,” Green said. “We thanked both of our moms. It felt like ‘Sixteen Candles’ a little bit. We called it our ‘fake prom.’ ”

***

Other seniors are struggling. And they’re not afraid to say it.

“I miss my friends the most,” said Cora Lewis, 17, a senior at Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School.

It’s hard for her to connect with her friends online and she feels isolated. She’s lost her drive for schoolwork and watched her grades slide.

“I’ve been super disorganized and worry that I’m falling behind. I took a test in calculus and got a grade almost 30 points below what I usually get on tests in that class. I was devastated. It’s just far too easy to procrastinate,” she said.

She was excited about her internship at a computer science lab at Virginia Commonwealth University, but after the stay-at-home order, she can only do it at home and said, “it just hasn’t been the same.”

Perhaps even scarier, she hadn’t decided on what college she was going to attend before the stay-at-home order was in place. She was debating between the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg and Macalester College in Minnesota. She was supposed to visit Macalester over spring break but couldn’t because of stay-at-home order. Now, she’s found herself enrolling at Macalester, sight unseen, because it offered her the best financial aid package.

“I really hope that things can get back to normal soon, because I’d like to be around people,” she said. “And I hope I can start the fall semester in person.”

***

Liesel Bragg, a senior at Hanover High School, is also having a hard time finding the motivation to do just about anything.

Some days, she gets out and rides her bike around her Lakeside neighborhood or watches Netflix or plays Animal Crossing online with her friends. Other days, she finds it hard to get out of bed, often sleeping until 2 p.m.

“I’m struggling a lot to find the motivation,” she said. “My school doesn’t have the resources for online school, so we have three pass/fail assignments for each class due May 22. I think a lot of teenagers are a little lost without the structure going to school provided them with. I know I am.”

***

Jillian Allen, a senior at Trinity Episcopal School, said she’s missing out on all the senior rites of passage: prom, senior chapel, baccalaureate and graduation.

“I just miss being on campus and seeing my friends,” she said.

Missing senior chapel hurts the most, she said. It was a special school event where the seniors got dressed up, their parents were invited, and they all gathered together to celebrate their accomplishments, look at photos of themselves over the years and hear from speakers.

But, she said, she’s enjoyed having more time with her family and her sister who came home from college. In the fall, Allen is planning to go to the University of Virginia.

“It’s definitely disappointing that the end of the year didn’t go how we wanted it to,” she said. “I hope we get to walk for graduation at some point. But honestly, I’m trying to look forward and focus on spending my first semester on campus at UVA.”

***

Without these typical rites of passage, many teens are left feeling in a weird limbo, stranded between adolescence and adulthood.

“This year, seniors won’t have the finality I think a lot of us were waiting for. Now there’s nothing to bring our educational experience to an end. Nothing to tell us that it’s actually over,” Bragg said. “So is it over now? Or is it over on May 22 [when home school ends]? We don’t know, and that’s a weird feeling we never thought we’d have.”


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Coronavirus
Hospitals restart elective procedures after a monthlong pause for COVID-19. Will patients return?

The hallways at Mary Washington Hospital in Fredericksburg were eerily quiet in April.

Its emergency department saw half as many patients as an average month. The hospital has treated 40% fewer people for heart attack and stroke this April compared to last, a figure that makes Dr. Christopher Newman, chief medical and operating officer for Mary Washington Healthcare, fear that many people are not seeking urgent medical care to avoid the risk of catching the novel coronavirus at the hospital.

The hospital has treated 212 COVID-19 patients as of Thursday, both admitted and outpatient — about the same number the emergency department would see on a typical day before the COVID-19 pandemic reached Virginia, Newman said.

Hospitals across the state — particularly in regions that have not seen high numbers of COVID-19 infections — have reported similar stories: quiet halls, sidelined staff, plummeting revenue and a relatively small number of COVID-19 patients.

Hospital leaders in the state have projected more than $600 million in lost revenue related to the pandemic. They hope more people will seek care since Gov. Ralph Northam’s executive order banning all non-urgent surgeries — an order put in place over a month ago to preserve limited supplies of protective equipment and to open up beds for a potential surge in COVID-19 cases — expired on Friday.

But as hospitals begin to reincorporate more surgeries and procedures into their daily workloads, they must balance the business of providing regular medical care with preparing for a possible future surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations that may have been delayed by statewide restriction measures that have encouraged social distancing.

How it’s done will likely vary from hospital to hospital and region to region, said Julian Walker, vice president of communications for the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association.

“Each hospital and health system will approach this process in a responsible fashion that emphasizes best practices and considers a range of factors including treatment capacity, available supplies, the hospitalization status of COVID-19 patients and many other variables,” Walker said in an email.

For some hospitals, this will include testing surgery patients for COVID-19 before the procedure, reviewing the latest COVID-19 hospitalization numbers before scheduling surgeries, and keeping careful stock of the available protective equipment. Northam has also directed all hospitals to keep at least 25% of their bed capacity open in case of a sudden surge in COVID-19 patients.

At Chippenham Hospital in Richmond and Johnston-Willis Hospital in Chesterfield County, which were using 7% of their ventilators as of Thursday, the new normal will mean having patients coming into the hospitals for surgeries use a separate entrance from those coming for COVID-19 symptoms; separating the waiting room chairs 6 feet apart; and having everyone who comes in screened, temperature checked and masked.

“There’s a lot of human tragedy that’s come out of COVID that has nothing to do with the virus itself but because of fear,” said Dr. William Lunn, CEO of HCA Virginia’s Chippenham and Johnston-Willis hospitals, describing a scenario where a patient experiencing a heart attack waited too long to come the emergency room. “We’re definitely safer than the grocery store or Home Depot. ... If you’re having chest pain — having symptoms of stroke, please come to the hospital.”

But at Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington County, a locality that has one of the highest COVID-19 hospitalization rates in the state, while the overall patient volume has gone down over the past month, COVID-19 cases have increased by the day, according to Dr. Rohit Modak, the hospital’s chief of infectious diseases.

The cases have also been worryingly serious.

“We’re seeing 30- and 40-year-olds — we’re seeing patients on ventilators, and they are not getting better,” Modak said Thursday. “We’ve had a few improve, [but] this level of acuity has not been seen before.”

Modak said his hospital’s 28-bed intensive care unit is near capacity.

He agrees that it’s time to start scheduling more surgeries, especially those that are important for a patient’s health, but fears that a broader loosening of restrictions could bring the surge in COVID-19 patients that the past month’s measures have helped avoid.

“This virus has the potential to spread much more quickly,” Modak said. “[Without social distancing] we’ll think everything is fine. In two weeks, people will be getting sick. In three weeks, people will be coming to the hospital. In four weeks, we’ll see people dying. This is not the time to loosen up.”

VCU Medical Center in Richmond — where there have been about 29 COVID-19 hospitalizations per 100,000 people, about half as many as in Fairfax County, according to data from the Virginia Department of Health — has continued to perform dozens of urgent surgeries and admitted hundreds of patients each day, but has also seen a significant drop in emergency department visits and other kinds of medical work.

The result has been about a $95 million loss of revenue since March 12, about a week before VCU Health System decided prior to the governor’s ban to cease non-urgent, elective surgeries, according to Chief Financial Officer Melinda Hancock.

The health system also incurred additional expenses by building more hospital bed space, including in a converted Virginia Commonwealth University dorm.

But in April, only 4% of the hospital’s total discharged patients had been treated for COVID-19, according to Dr. Ron Clark, interim CEO for VCU Health System.

“That’s a pretty small fraction of the overall care,” Clark said. “The bigger threat to public health is not seeking care when it’s needed as opposed to getting coronavirus going to an ER.”

Clark said VCU Health System is taking precautions, including limiting visitors, testing all surgery and admitted patients for COVID-19, and isolating COVID-19 patients in separate units where the air is vented out of the building.

As of Friday, there were 5,181 available hospital beds throughout the state, a sign that many hospital leaders and the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association say shows it’s time to proceed with some scheduled surgeries and procedures, all while continuing a complex monitoring process that changes based on the day’s figures.

But while doctors and medical leaders are urging patients with serious symptoms not to fear seeking medical attention at hospitals, they also caution the public not to believe that the threat from the novel coronavirus is over.

“This virus is still here,” Clark said. “It’s important for people to not take their eye off this and remain vigilant.”


Business
Some Richmond-area small businesses now tapping into federal loan program, but uncertainty remains

Loans from a federal program designed to help small businesses survive the coronavirus pandemic are now flowing to some Richmond-area businesses, but uncertainties remain about how long the funds will last and how much will ultimately have to be paid back.

Some Richmond-area businesses say they were successful in obtaining loans through the initial, $349 billion round of the Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP, passed by Congress.

Other businesses were not successful and are now waiting — and hoping — to get money from a second, $310 billion round of funding.

The low-interest or forgivable loans are designed to keep businesses afloat for about eight weeks, with most of the money aimed at keeping employees on the payroll, but some small-business owners are already starting to wonder what happens after that two-month period.

“These programs are good, but they are temporary,” said Pat Heaney, co-owner of Mango Salon, which has three salon locations in the Richmond area that have been shuttered since March 17 because of the pandemic.

After what Heaney described as a somewhat “chaotic process” of applying for a loan, the business was able to secure a $927,000 loan to help keep his 85 employees on the payroll. Heaney said the company was able to get the loan after being declined by its primary lender, then turning to Village Bank, one of several community banks that some business owners say have been the most responsive to loan requests.

Mark Smith, owner of five Midas of Richmond auto shops, said he was able to secure a loan of more than $500,000 from the Paycheck Protection Program through South State Bank.

His Midas stores are still operating — people still need to get their cars repaired, and auto shops are considered essential — but Smith said routine maintenance work such as oil changes has declined significantly because fewer people are driving.

“People just aren’t getting that work done,” said Smith, whose business employs 43 people.

“The people I have around me are key to what we accomplish in the stores,” Smith said. “If I start laying off people and losing people, it will take me years to recover.”

Loans from the Paycheck Protection Program are forgivable only if businesses use the money according to a formula, which is mainly aimed at helping them keep employees on the payroll.

Yet Heaney said some of his laid-off employees are actually able to make more money through enhanced unemployment benefits than they were when they were working.

Smith said he worked with his bank and his payroll services provider to put the PPP loan money in a separate account and use it only for needs that are forgivable under the program.

“We are following the outline to the letter,”’ he said.

***

On April 17, the Virginia Bankers Association reported that Virginia banks had provided more than $8.7 billion to small businesses through the Paycheck Protection Program.

Banks had processed more than 40,000 applications, yet nearly 23,000 small-business applications for about $3.2 billion in funding remained outstanding.

Congress approved the second round of funding of $310 billion for the PPP loans. Applications opened on Monday.

Some banks also have reported their own lending numbers from the PPP.

For instance, Richmond-based Atlantic Union Bank reported Thursday that it had received Small Business Administration approval for more than 10,000 Paycheck Protection Program loans totaling more than $1.7 billion.

Atlantic Union Bank, one of the largest banks based on assets with headquarters in Virginia, said about 80% of the clients to whom it has originated PPP loans operate businesses with fewer than 20 employees, and the median size for all loans was about $45,000.

The bank said it will continue processing loans for current and new customers until the current round of PPP funding is depleted.

Midlothian-based Village Bank and Trust Financial Corp., the parent company of Village Bank, said Wednesday that it was able to get approval for about $185 million in PPP loans for more than 1,300 businesses and nonprofits employing more than 20,000 people.

The nation’s largest bank — Chase Bank, a unit of JPMorgan Chase & Co. — said Friday that it expects to fund about $29 billion to more than 239,000 businesses across the country under the PPP since the program’s inception.

Chase Bank said it had processed about 227 loans in Virginia valued at a total of more than $104 million, with an average loan size of $460,509.

Doug Jones, a managing director and fractional chief financial officer for clients of Fahrenheit Advisors, a Richmond-based consulting firm that serves businesses in Virginia, said some of the firm’s clients were able to secure loans.

Others did not get loans, not because of any substantive problems with their applications but because the money simply ran out before their loans were approved.

“They have been told that they will be funded as part of the next round of appropriations recently approved,” Jones said.

***

Some surveys have indicated that only a small percentage of small businesses were able to access the first round of loans.

For instance, a survey of 1,260 small businesses released on April 22 by LendingTree, an online lending marketplace, found that just 5% of business owners had received a PPP loan, although 60% of those surveyed had applied for funding.

Matthew Freeman, owner of the Richmond consulting firm Dialectix, said the process of applying for Paycheck Protection Program funds has been “super frustrating” for him as a sole proprietor. His business, which mostly involves doing in-person employee training for clients, has declined by more than 90% because of the pandemic.

“It would be nice to have this program that was intended for small businesses come through and help,” he said, but as of Friday he had not heard from his banker, Truist Financial, as to whether he will be approved. Truist Financial was created late last year with the merger of BB&T Corp. and SunTrust Banks Inc.

“You are sitting and waiting with zero information and no human being to talk with about it,” he said.

Steven Gooch, who owns two restaurants in Richmond — The Franklin Inn and The Stables — was not successful in getting a loan from the first round of funding. The two restaurants are still offering takeout, but Gooch has had to lay off 20 of his 25 employees.

“What the takeout does is it slows the bleed,” said Gooch, adding that Richmond-area residents have been very supportive of local restaurants during the pandemic. Despite takeout orders, his revenue is still down about 70% without dine-in business.

Gooch said he went to Wells Fargo to get a PPP loan, but was unable to get it approved before the funding in the first round was exhausted. He is hoping his application will be approved for the second round.

“It is entirely an automated process,” he said. “There is no one you can call. They tell you don’t talk to your banker. There is nothing they can do to help you.”

***

Smith of Midas said he is trying to prepare for what he expects will be a slow economic recovery.

“I think the ramp-up is going to be very gradual,” he said.

Heaney of Mango Salon said he is grateful for the short-term help through loans, but even when the economy starts to reopen, businesses such as salons will likely operate under restrictions for an unknown period of time.

“We won’t be able reopen at 100% capacity because of the strict guidelines, so you are going to have lower sales, and more debt, and that is not a good combination,” he said.

“The key message is that Main Street is under attack,” he said. “In the end, when we come through this pandemic, Main Street [businesses] will be burdened with more debt.”