Long, strange seven months since first COVID case

Delaware Department of Correction Commissioner Claire DeMatteis has her temperature taken by Lt. Angelo Daniello as Correctional Officers Union of Delaware President Geoff Klopp waits his turn before entering Morris Correctional Center in Dover in March, before the state required face coverings as part of efforts to stem the transmission of COVID-19. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

DOVER — Everything changed March 11.

That day, the World Health Organization declared coronavirus to be a pandemic, the NBA suspended its season and Delaware announced its first COVID-19 case. The United States had only seen a few coronavirus deaths to that point, but as the virus quickly spread, totals skyrocketed.

Three weeks later, more than 1,000 Americans were dying per day.

Delaware’s first death came March 26, and by April 11, one month after the first confirmed case, the state had seen 1,600 cases and 44 deaths. Another month later, the totals stood at 7,244 and 328.

As of Wednesday, there had been 21,550 cases and 649 fatalities here.

Efforts to flatten the curve were fairly successful, with the virus leveling off by August. However, the number of cases has begun to climb back up, and experts have warned the colder weather could spark another wave.

Difficult as it may be to believe, Delaware recently surpassed 200 days in COVID-19-induced lockdown. Though restrictions have evolved quite a bit from the early days, as scientists and doctors have learned more about the virus, there’s no telling when people will finally be able to venture out in public without worrying about masks or social distancing or any of the other things that have become common knowledge over the past seven months.

Only medical experts and the most astute observers could have predicted at the start of the year how life might soon be altered, but this is the new reality for the time being.

Timeline

Here, a state of emergency kicked in March 13, giving the executive branch extraordinary powers under the state constitution. In the months since, Gov. John Carney has handed down more than two dozen orders pertaining to COVID-19 restrictions.

After initially recommending organizers of large events cancel, officials issued a mandate to do so a few days later. At the same time, they closed restaurants and bars for all but takeout and delivery, while also instructing movie theaters, gyms and bowling alleys, as well as the state’s three casinos, to shut down.

Restrictions kept coming in the ensuing weeks, with the governor closing down beaches, instructing nonessential employees to work from home and, on March 22, announcing the start of a stay-at-home order. Delaware’s presidential primary was pushed from April to June (it ended up taking place in July after another postponement), and protections against evictions, utility shut-offs and price gouging were established by the governor.

Soon, more gatherings were canceled and visitors from other states were ordered to quarantine, as well.

All that came within the first 30 days of the initial positive COVID-19 case in Delaware.

Public records requests were suspended for nearly seven months before the governor recently lifted the exemption, a move good-government advocates called overdue.

Preventing Delaware’s hospitals from becoming overwhelmed by hundreds of COVID-19 patients was the top concern for state officials, an effort that was largely successful. Delaware’s peak for coronavirus-related hospitalizations was 337 on April 27, well below the worst-case scenario.

Gov. Carney has treated hospitalizations, the seven-day rolling average of people testing positive and the state’s supply of personal protective equipment as key benchmarks in the fight against the pandemic, all metrics that look far better now than they did in early spring.

A report released last week by the Pandemic Resurgence Advisory Committee noted that “Delaware has not experienced the kind of surge that overwhelmed infrastructure in other Northeast states, aided in part by decisive action on the part of officials and a health system with sufficient capacity to manage its case rates.” Still, the report accurately pointed out, life has changed immeasurably, and more than 600 Delawareans who might otherwise be alive are not.

Eighty-two percent of deaths here have involved individuals at least 65 years of age, and only 5% of the fatalities occurred in people younger than 50, including no one under 18.

Delaware has rolled out widespread programs aimed at stopping the spread of the virus, working with pharmacies and community organizations to provide free testing and developing a contact tracing program.

Through the first five-and-a-half weeks of contact tracing, the Department of Health and Social Services was able to contact 2,781 of the 4,818 people who tested positive from late June to early August.

The average person who went through the whole process had 3.6 contacts at risk.

Across the nation, the pandemic has disproportionately impacted minorities, and Delaware is no exception: Hispanic/Latino and Black Delawareans are more likely than White residents to have caught the virus.

Poultry plants were slammed early on, while nursing homes have accounted for about 60% of deaths so far.

‘Economic carnage’

Perhaps needless to say, the virus wreaked havoc on Delaware’s businesses and employees. In the words of Gov. Carney, it’s been “economic carnage.”

Nothing illustrates that better than the unemployment rate, a straightforward statistic that has set ignominious records this year.

In February, the First State’s unemployment rate was 3.9%. The next month, it jumped to 5.1%, the largest increase since 1990.
Unfortunately, things were just getting started. The jobless rate hit levels unseen since the Great Depression 80-plus years ago, with unemployment at 14.9% in April and 15.9% in May.

Prior to this year, the state’s highest unemployment rate on record was 9.8% in 1976, the first year relevant job data is available. During the Great Recession, Delaware’s nadir was 8.8%, coming in January 2010.

In the first four weeks after COVID-19 arrived in Delaware, almost 62,000 workers in the First State sought unemployment benefits, nearly double the number of claims the state saw in all of 2019.

At the peak in May, 75,000 Delawareans were out of work.

“The hardship that the coronavirus pandemic has placed on Delaware workers is unprecedented,” Labor Secretary Cerron Cade said in April.

Though there have been improvements since, with unemployment at 8.9% in August, the long climb back is far from over.

The federal government approved expanded unemployment benefits in March, enabling individuals out of work to receive more money for a longer period of time. The legislation also authorized independent contractors and self-employed individuals to qualify for benefits.

Gov. Carney recently said the state has received more than $900 million in federal funding due to COVID-19, with about $350 million paying for unemployment benefits, $128 million going to child care assistance, $100 million covering business relief grants, $80 million being earmarked for coronavirus testing and other funds being used for rural broadband, rent and utility assistance, community relief and contact tracing.

The crowd chants U.S.A during the Reopen Delaware Rally at Legislative Mall in May. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

Some of the restrictions around receiving benefits, such as the work-search mandate, were waived by the state for the time being, so as many people as possible could get help.

The state established its own grant program to help businesses and created a training and certification program for workers.

The Delaware Department of Labor experienced issues processing unemployment applications and setting up the expanded programs, citing the sheer volume of calls and emails and a lack of guidance from Washington. In response, the agency brought in extra people to handle questions and applications from the public.

Many business owners and advocates urged the government to provide cash assistance to help companies deal with the shutdown and declining revenues. A large number also expressed outrage over being shut down and, when allowed to reopen, having to operate with limits.

It’s unknown exactly how many companies have closed permanently due to the virus, but while the full toll probably won’t be clear for years, it’s already too late for some.

“There are jobs right now that are permanently lost,” University of Delaware economics professor Jim Butkiewicz said over the summer. “Restaurants are permanently closed.”

In particular, small businesses, especially those in hospitality or related industries, have been devastated.

“If Delaware’s robust labor recovery plateaus due to a reduction in federal aid and a substantial portion of temporary unemployed workers become permanently unemployed, it will be vital to support them with expanded workforce development programs and greater access to training so they can transition into new professions and re-enter the workforce,” the Pandemic Resurgence Advisory Committee’s report states.

“Going forward, businesses and the state government will have to work closely together to bolster consumer sentiment through clear and consistent messaging.”

More information on unemployment assistance and business relief can be found at dol.delaware.gov and business.delaware.gov.

Legislative and judicial impact

On break since late January, lawmakers were scheduled to return to Dover to conduct business March 17. After the first coronavirus case was announced, however, the session was postponed a week and then canceled indefinitely.

Because the state constitution requires the General Assembly to approve a spending plan, lawmakers eventually returned in late May, holding their session online for the first time in state history. Despite concerns from some Republicans about the precautions being both unconstitutional and unnecessary, neither the Senate nor the House met in person after January.

While June is normally a hectic whirlwind of a month, especially in even-numbered years as lawmakers scramble to pass their preferred legislative proposals before the measures die after July 1, this one was unlike any in living memory. Working over Zoom, lawmakers focused almost entirely on the budget bills, COVID-19 relief and a few racial justice measures prompted by the May killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Ultimately, despite a big drop in revenue, the General Assembly passed a budget without cutting services or state employee pay or hours. The operating budget, the largest in state history, totals $4.52 billion, a jump of 1.6%, while the $708 million capital budget marks an 18% drop from the fiscal year ended June 30.

Gov. Carney had proposed spending $4.63 billion on operating costs and $893 million on construction, maintenance and related services in January.

Expected revenues dropped compared to the start of the year, but the hit to the current fiscal year was less than first expected. The fiscal year starting July 1, 2021, could be a different story, however.

The full Legislature generally meets about 45 times a year. In 2020, lawmakers were set to meet on 43 days spread out over almost six months. Instead, they gathered in person nine times, while also convening virtually on nine occasions.

High-profile bills dealing with subjects like marijuana legalization, reinstitution of capital punishment and gun control saw no action this year, meaning supporters will have to wait until at least 2021. Although all those controversial proposals still had stiff hurdles to overcome, no one could have predicted at the beginning of 2020 that the bills would not even get a chance.

The judicial branch responded to the virus by closing courthouses and shifting many services online at first, operating under special rules for the past seven months. Some hearings and nonjury trials resumed in June after several months of the court facilities being closed, and jury trials should begin again this month.

As time has gone on, anger and frustration over the restrictions have grown. The past seven months have seen a variety of protests, with early rallies focused on reopening small business, while more recent ones have urged the state to fully open schools.

Myriad Delawareans, most of whom lean to the right, have called for an end to many or even all the COVID-19 limitations, protesting that they are unneeded. The lockdown figures to be the main issue in many of next month’s electoral contests, chiefly the gubernatorial race.

Whether the Republican Party can channel that resentment into victory (Democrats control most offices in the state) will be determined Nov. 3.

In addition to the stipulations placed on businesses and other entities, Republicans have sharply criticized a vote-by-mail law established by the General Assembly. The state GOP unsuccessfully challenged the statute in court, while private individuals, including the Republican nominee for governor, have sued the state government over COVID-19 rules.

Gov. Carney has been painted as a would-be dictator by some of his most extreme opponents. But for his part, the governor has repeatedly described the economy as being intertwined with public health, stating the process will be governed by science. There is no firm timetable for when more restrictions might be removed.

“We won’t turn the lights back on or move the dimmer switch up a day too soon or a day too late, but we will err on the side of making sure that people are safe and secure, making sure that we’re following the science, that we have the tools we need to test, to isolate and to track,” he said.


Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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