Columbus' COVID year

Andy Downing
adowning@columbusalive.com
Pearl Morgan of Columbus joins others who gathered at the Statehouse asking Gov. Mike DeWine to release more nonviolent inmates across the state to keep prisoners safer during the pandemic.

Prior to February, the words “coronavirus” and “COVID” had never appeared on theAlive website. A recent search of the terms, though, returned 460 results for coronavirus and 509 for COVID a tally that grows with every passing day.

Early on, mentions of the virus appearedmostly in news blogs, particularly as Gov. Mike DeWine moved toward a statewide shutdown. Quickly, though, it bled into every aspect of our coverage,from music and artsto dining and beyond.

As the pandemic continued to spread through the early spring, it closed schools and universities, including the Columbus College of Art and Design (CCAD),which pivoted to an online learning model.Independent movie theaters also moved their offerings online, weathering the extended closures better than the large chains. Even community spaces like Zora’s House had to pivot to the web, which founder LC Johnson said strengthened the idea thatZora’s House was more than just a building.

Other facilities were unable to adapt, most notablythe state’s already overpopulated prison system, where conditions were ill-suited social distancing, which led to massive viral spikes.

“It’s a tremendous issue on a number of fronts. Obviously, these folks are prisoners, but they still have the right to be safe, and the right to be protected,” said Ian Friedman, president of the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association. “The most troubling part for me is that, while concerns about the jail have been surfacing, a lot of folks in the community seem to discount the problem because the victims are prisoners. ... The folks who are contracting this [virus] were not subjected to death sentences, and should not have one imposed because we didn’t have enough resources.”

With the shift in editorial focus, there were numerous times throughout the year when we felt more like a business publication, particularly as we wrote about bars and restaurants grappling withthe complexities of the CARES Act,the high cost of third-party delivery services,flagging sales and the challenges inherent inwalking the line between protecting public health and remaining economically viable

Early in the pandemic,Tigertree temporarily closed its doors, anticipating a post-COVID return. Those hopes were dashed in July whenthe retailer decided to close for good. The early closure acted as something of the canary in the coal mine, and in the months since these closures have continued unabated, hitting the restaurant (you’ll be missed,Ambrose and Eve) and retail industries particularly hard.

“Running a business in a pandemic, you’re trying to make decisions that are best for the business and best for the community, which often feel at odds. ... It made me feel I had some heavy decisions to make on my own, versus being guided by leaders,” said Glean owner Dawn McCombs,who closed her Short North shop in November, pivoting to an online-only model. “If you’re asking people not to go out except for essentials, but you’re telling people that they can go to work, that poses a really interesting and complex situation for a retail business owner, or a restaurant owner, or any type of business where they’re interacting with the public.”

These concepts became a recurring theme in our interviews with small business owners, many of whom stumped forstronger mask regulations,questioned the ethics of remaining open in a pandemic andcited a lack of leadership on the virus at both the state and federal levels. 

“I don’t look to leaders anymore because they don’t lead. They just talk,” said Homestead Beer Co. CEO Joe Wilson, who hoped DeWine would issue a broader shutdown order as coronavirus numbers spiked in the fall. “When leadership fails, be your own leader.”

Here atAlive, we tried to offer readers tips on continuing to safelysupport indie book sellers andrecord shops. We also maintained a running list of restaurants offering takeout, some of which,like Service Bar, had not offered carry-out previous to the pandemic.

Prior to this pivot, Service Bar Chef Avishar Barua said that he tended to focus on minutiae when assembling a dinner plate, obsessing over the sourcing of ingredients and the continual refinement of process (witness the painstaking, three-day undertakingrequired to bring the eatery’s famed fries to the plate). While quality still remains key, Barua embraces a much simpler motivation these days. “Now it’s more like, if you leave here happy, then we’re happy,” he said. “Anytime I add anything more than that, it gets complicated.”

Frankly, this isn't a bad mindset to adopt as we prepare to finally put 2020 in the rearview.