Why Crozet: Essential Workers Continue to Serve

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Who are these masked men? Firefighters Doug Gernert and Butch Snead and Fire Chief Gary Dillon model masks made by the community. The mask campaign was organized by Elizabeth Fineman, and joined by Beth White, Anne Geraty, Regan Harper and Jannemieke Keener, who together donated 83 masks.

This article is fifth in a series.

It’s important, where we live and why, and the pandemic has caused many of us to take note of the people here as well as the geographic and cultural benefits. While much of the area isolates, others—considered essential—leave home every day not knowing where the virus might be, or who might carry it. 

Crozet community supports its volunteers

Crozet firefighters are more available than usual. That’s because more of them are staying home, said Chief Gary Dillon. “We do have some cases where members live with someone who’s especially at risk,” he said, “so of course we let them know if there’s any possible exposure to the virus.”

Dillon said the fire crews typically help out the rescue squads in certain non-fire situations: blocking traffic while rescue workers tend to the injured, breaking down doors in medical emergencies, and assisting whenever extra manpower helps keep the public and victims safe. In cases involving communicable illness, the firefighters have had extensive training. Once on the scene, there’s a protocol involved, where a designated safety officer leads them step-by-step through the proper way to put on and take off their gloves and masks. 

The possibility of exposure adds to the stress for those ensuring public safety. Dillon said every inch of every fire truck is disinfected after each call. The trucks go out on a typical call with just three men, keeping their distance. On the scene of a fire, the team leader tries to be the only one communicating with those already on the scene, and he as well as the men are wearing masks. Typically, they also have protective headgear and heavy gloves and coveralls. “If for some reason they don’t have gloves, they disinfect their hands immediately with wipes,” he said. 

There’s another stress for the crew, Dillon said. “We all miss the camaraderie.” Early on, the big meeting room was turned into a bunk room, with two beds set on either end of the immense space. The former bunk room now serves one person. The nightly duty chores and checklists continue, but are done with fewer people, each observing social distancing. Meetings are held via Zoom, and there are no group meals. 

Fire Chief Gary Dillon sanitizes a truck: “We all miss the camaraderie.”

Dillon said the community has made sure they have everything they need. The rescue squad supplies them with surgical masks to be used in the line of duty. Private citizens as well as Silverback Distillery have dropped off sanitizer. Recently, a group of supporters sewed 83 masks, enabling most volunteers to have at least two when they’re out and about in the community. 

He’s grateful, Dillon said. He expects crashes to be down as fewer people are driving, although the wind has whipped up several brush fires lately to keep the crew busy. One neighbor dropped off cupcakes; another day someone brought by popcorn. 

“Still,” Dillon said, “I’m ready for this to be over.”

Filling orders is one way to protect people

Alicia Schmertzler, a lifelong Crozet resident and teacher, wondered what to do when her school (Stone-Robinson near Charlottesville) closed. “I was eligible for unemployment,” she said, “but I really wanted to do something, especially if it could help.” She saw that the Crozet Market was looking for people to fill orders for pick up and delivery, and she applied. “I was hired the next day,” she said. “So many people were reluctant to do their shopping in person, and I feel like I am doing something to protect them.”

Alicia Schmertzler filling orders at the Crozet Market: “I’m young and healthy and I can do it.”

Schmertzler wears a mask, as do other employees, and observes strict safety precautions. She said she was alarmed at the carelessness of some shoppers: “It scares me,” she said, “not for myself. I’m young and healthy and I can do it, but I worry that they’ll expose others who may be in worse health.” She knows there are many, many more who are worried about exposure from the sheer volume of orders she fills each day. “I usually work from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. five or six days a week,” she says. “You kind of get to know people from their orders.”

She’s glad that she’s been able to provide people with necessities while they’re shut in, and she’s overwhelmed by the gratitude shown by the people she’s served. “We’ve had people send us pizza anonymously and a couple of people have sent us gift cards for restaurants,” she said. 

Schmertzler said she’s a little puzzled by the things people have bought in such numbers that the market regularly runs out: “Unsalted butter and yeast,” she said, “but we’ve always had toilet paper and paper towels. 

Staff fills the gap left by missing family members

Aly Howse is sales and marketing director for RoseWood Assisted Living in Charlottesville, and she says it’s not her, but the 50 or so personal care aides she works with who are the real heroes during this crisis. Many of them had part-time jobs that since have disappeared, but one of them, Rebecca Lamb, had a second job, also essential. “She worked at a convenience store, Howse explained, “but she knew that amount of contact put our people in danger, so she chose us.” Howse had her own mother move in with her at the beginning and limits her contacts to her household and to those at work.

Howse grew up in Crozet and attended Henley and Western. Following the example of her mother, she chose to work with the elderly and also to return to Crozet. “I realized there weren’t a lot of people like me choosing this,” she said. She and her co-workers care for those with physical challenges and with Alzheimer’s Disease and other forms of dementia. Except for emergency admissions, the home has been closed to outside visitors since March 14, and employees are screened in several ways each day, including a temperature reading. 

The last six weeks of her job have looked very different from the last two years, she said. She’s aware of the challenges faced by families needing to make the difficult transition at a time when they’re unable to visit in person. She’s also been helping families arrange home health care to help delay a move right now. 

RoseWood Village personal care aide Rebecca Lamb with resident Barbara Pugh: “They’re the real heroes.”

“We’re lucky that we don’t have any cases,” Howse said. “But the aides are scared. Everyone’s scared.” Adding to her sense of urgency and that of the aides and med techs is knowing that they’re the only ones the residents see from day to day. “So we all take extra time, talk with them a little longer, set up FaceTime visits.” Recently she arranged a conversation between a lady and her husband who had been separated for six weeks while he recovered in a rehabilitation unit. “They were so happy,” she said. Still, I look forward to the day where I can give all the families and residents at RoseWood Village great big hugs.”

Families do the best they can to communicate their love without contact, standing outside the windows or making signs. The families understand that, although it’s hard for them, it’s also hard for the staff, many of them leaving their own loved ones. They drop off donuts, or lunch, she said. “It’s the little things that keep you moving forward.” 

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