Woeful in Wise: Business as usual foiled once again as COVID surge 2.0 continues

Local Coronavirus Coverage

Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of stories on COVID-19’s current impact in Southwest Virginia. As in many rural parts of the country, the area has lower vaccination rates than more urban parts of the state.

WISE COUNTY, Va. (WJHL) – From shutdowns to blowout sales to adjusting when necessary — COVID-19 caused many businesses, offices and classrooms to look a little different in Wise County over the past year-and-a-half.

While some businesses were making lemonade out of the lemons life handed them, they say those lemons eventually ran out.

“We had a really really good year last year,” Iron Works Cycling co-owner Bobby Bloomer told News Channel 11.

The Big Stone Gap shop capitalized on the fact that so many people turned to outdoor activities during COVID’s early months.

“Everybody wanted to be outside, it was, you know a lot of stimulus money out there, and we did really well but now it’s just everything’s dried up. It’s been really tough.”

That’s because the raw product for Bloomer and partner Lorenzo Rodriguez’s “lemonade” ran dry.

“Unfortunately, we sold everything we had basically and haven’t been able to get a new bike in almost a year now.”

Iron Works Cycles co-owner Bobby Bloomer said sales were great at his Big Stone Gap, Va. shop last year — until COVID-caused supply chain issues left him unable to get new bikes.

“It’s just a supply chain issue,” Bloomer said. “All the parts have to come in and somewhere along the way, there’s some problems with that, shipping containers, COVID, not been able to unload them, load them, get them on to get them through customs.

“It’s hurt everything, it is COVID. We’ve never had a problem in the past.”

Down the road from Bloomer’s cycling shop is Litton’s Uptown Bridal and Formalwear – the popular formal dress store his mother, Carolyn Bloomer, owned. She died of COVID during the winter surge, so his sister now opens by appointment only.

“I mean it’s sad, it hurts our community, it hurts all the businesses,” Bloomer said of the virus’s broad impacts. “A lot of people are struggling”

The changes are also impacting people who are furthering their educations in hopes of getting a good job. Ron Vicars, Mountain Empire Community College’s vice president for financial and administrative services, said the pandemic’s impacts continue to be felt at the school.

Mountain Empire Community College in Big Stone Gap, Va. has utilized online services to continue to keep students “in the classroom” while the pandemic has forced them out of it.

“We have a large portion of our industrial arts which (include) welding, CDL (commercial driving), power lineman, all of those are very important workforce programs,” Vicars said.

“It’s kind of hard to do tele-instruction climbing up a pole. So we definitely encourage them to come in person to do that, but there’s a lot of arts and sciences, a lot of the other courses that we provide are doing those by online instruction.”

One day-to-day area of life in which remote operations can create issues is the justice system. Wise County Commonwealth’s Attorney Chuck Slemp said.

“Our system is built upon in-person confrontation of witnesses,” Slemp said. “Therefore, doing things by Zoom might not satisfy the constitutional requirements that are set forth in our founding documents and so it’s a very interesting time and a very difficult time.”

Slemp said the county has seen an unprecedented backlog of cases, with prosecutors “working three times as hard just to move our normal docket.”

That movement continues to be stymied on a regular basis as community spread has remained more than twice the state average during the delta variant surge.

“Every single week, there’s somebody else who either as a witness can’t show up for court because they’re positive, or somebody came to court anyway, positive, and then the whole system has to shut down or at least be quarantined,” Slemp said.

Wise County Commonwealth’s Attorney Chuck Slemp’s office.

“We’ve had to make decisions like how we’re going to try to staff at certain points in order to have certain people because we’ve got to function regardless,” Slemp said. “So make sure that half of our staff doesn’t expose the other half of our staff — it’s a very challenging time.”

Slemp said what his office is experiencing is a microcosm of how business is functioning in the entire area.

“Obviously, we want this to be over with so that we can get back to life as we know it,” he said. “Everybody wants to be able to go to the ballgames and the concerts and the sporting events or whatever it is that you do.”

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