In what could be viewed as the most ironic of circumstances, 2021 is ending the same way it began: surging COVID-19 cases proving the coronavirus pandemic is still in control.
Amid the gloom — between then and now — there were days, weeks and months where hope encapsulated many in the Dan River Region.
The reason? Vaccines emerged. The shots of protection received joyous approvals to those who stepped up early to — as the cliché goes — roll up their sleeves with an eye toward returning to normal life. (Or something close to it).
Those same vaccines, scarce at first, also created points of frustration with a priority list of who should receive the first dose.
Amid a roller coaster ride of record COVID-19 deaths to a brief period where shedding face masks was approved by national medical professionals, the pandemic was — and still is — the dominating newsmaker of the year and ranks ahead of all others for the Register & Bee’s top 10 stories of 2021.
1: Coronavirus pandemic
It all started in January with surging cases driven by holiday gatherings. The peak was reached around Jan. 12 when Danville and Pittsylvania County were averaging about 119 new COVID-19 infections per day.
But by Jan. 23 there was another historic moment: the first community vaccination clinic was staged at Averett University where about 1,000 people received their first dose.
“This beats a ventilator any day,” June Milam, of Hurt, told a Register & Bee reporter. “It was very important for me. I’m just happy to be able to get it, to get scheduled and be here.”
Milam, retired from teaching full time, still serves as a substitute in Pittsylvania County Schools.
By March, a community vaccine clinic was established at the former J.C. Penney department store at Danville Mall with a lofty goal of 3,000 shots a day that was never reached. At first, walk-ins were accepted because the demand was so low, but that eventually ceased after people from other health districts — including college students in Charlottesville — made the trek to Danville when they heard doors were open for anyone who wanted a vaccine.
That clinic eventually morphed into the pop-up variety as vaccines made their way to doctor’s offices and pharmacies, bringing the life-saving inoculations within easy reach.
As more shots flowed into arms, cases dwindled. And just as swiftly as COVID-19 restrictions ushered in a lockdown-style life in March 2020, a move in mid-May by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lifted the yearlong gloom-and-doom cloud covering Virginia and the Dan River Region.
The guidance that vaccinated individuals could shed face masks — in the majority of settings — sent a spiraling shockwave essentially meaning a return to normal was no longer just a reachable goal in the future. Instead, the pre-pandemic lifestyle was back in the snap-of-a-finger.
A few days later, Virginia officially lifted its mask mandate, and Gov. Ralph Northam set May 28 as the day all other COVID-19 capacity restrictions would be removed, citing plummeting caseloads and a continued flow of vaccines into the arms of Virginians.
It would be a joyous time indeed as infection rates reached all-time lows and the overall outlook brightened. That optimism was short-lived when the delta variant reached the region in early August, sending cases and hospitalizations soaring once again.
With delta, a worrying trend emerged: Sovah Health was seeing younger patients — otherwise healthy — die of COVID-19.
And while mandates were a thing of the past, the CDC reversed course and recommended everyone put the face coverings on again in areas of high or substantial transmission, citing its daily color-coded map. Danville and Pittsylvania County moved into the high-risk area where it remains today.
As that wave waned officials — at the time — felt confident the worst was likely over. But in late November, another variant — this one named omicron — emerged. Week-by-week forecasts grew more dire for what was in store. On Wednesday, Virginia set a new record for infections and the seven-day rolling average eclipsed the January wave.
No. 2: Rocking out in Pittsylvania County
The Blue Ridge Rock Festival brought the largest crowd to Pittsylvania County — about 33,000 people — over a four-day run in September. It also set the stage for a lot of controversy.
When it was proposed, nearby residents weren’t thrilled with the idea that thousands of music lovers would make their way to a rural part of the county. After revising ordinances that hadn’t been changed in more than 30 years, Pittsylvania County officials approved the history-making event.
The four-day festivities kicked off Sept. 9, backing up traffic along U.S. 29 in Blairs. On the first day of the event, it took about 20 to 30 minutes for a Register & Bee reporter to get from the exit onto northbound U.S. 29 to R & L Smith Road, which leads to Carson Lester Lane and the Blue Ridge Amphitheater.
After being overwhelmed by the thousands of fans arriving for the Blue Ridge Rock Festival, the promoter pivoted and turned all operations outside of the event gates over to Pittsylvania County, ultimately leading to what officials termed as a “flawless” affair.
Pittsylvania County billed the promoter more than $337,000 for that event and a smaller one that preceded it.
No. 3: Plans revealed for Danville casino
In November, officials with Caesars Entertainment revealed the plans for the $500 million resort coming to the Schoolfield area.
Renderings for the casino that’ll be built on a former Dan River Inc. site feature three iconic smokestacks in the design. A hotel will include about 500 rooms with a spa, pool and fitness area. The casino will have 1,400 slot machines and table games along with a live poker room. About 900 new construction jobs will be filled and nearly 1,300 operational positions will be available at the facility.
“This is a milestone moment,” Danville Mayor Alonzo Jones said at an event showing off the plans. “There is great anticipation and excitement here.”
It’s expected to open in 2023.
No. 4: Iconic White Mill’s new life
In May, developers and city leaders unveiled plans for Danville’s White Mill building, a former facility for Dan River Inc.
In a project with the The Alexander Company and the Danville Industrial Development Authority, 150 apartment units are planned along with 110,000 square feet of commercial space.
In addition, plans include using the canal on the south side of the building as a whitewater feature. The project also will include space in front of the Dan River to extend the Riverwalk Trail. That’ll also include the covered bridge over the Dan River that used to connect the White Mill and Long Mill sites. The goal is to restore the bridge and have it become a pedestrian passage along the trail.
Though inflation has thrown some curve balls, it’s still expected to be complete by 2023, the same time the casino should be finished.
No. 5: Wendell Scott’s family gets trophy
After nearly 60 years, NASCAR presented Wendell Scott’s family a trophycommemorating his 1963 victory in Florida.
The trophy was presented to Frank and Warrick Scott — Wendell’s son and grandson — just before a Cup Series race at Daytona International Speedway on Aug. 28.
Scott was the first Black driver to win a race at NASCAR’s top level with a victory at Speedway Park in Jacksonville, Fla., on Dec. 1, 1963.
He drove his 1962 Chevrolet to first place at the Jacksonville 200, but the race continued for two more laps. That possibly gave another driver who was behind them the opportunity to catch up and take the lead.
A few hours after second-place finisher Buck Baker was announced as the winner, officials notified Scott of a scoring error. He never received the trophy because officials said it has been misplaced.
“He always wanted to get that trophy,” Frank Scott said in August. “He predicted he would get his trophy one day.”
No. 6: Ice storm coats Dan River Region
An ice storm crippled the Dan River Region on Feb. 13, plunging thousands into the dark as trees snapped like twigs, bringing down power lines.
Danville Utilities reported dozens of broken utility poles and calls were coming into the Pittsylvania County 911 center so fast that officials weren’t able to keep up.
Power slowly flowed back on for some, but others had to wait two or more days as crews worked staggered 16-hour shifts.
Even though the area was under a winter storm warning, the intensity caught many by surprise.
No. 7: County reassessment
A process mandated by law to evaluate property values sparked backlash twice in Pittsylvania County.
In February, county leaders officially apologized for a letter sent to residents. The “miscommunication” and “poor editing,” as the county called it, referred to reassessment teams entering homes to perform their duties. In a departure from previous years, Brightminds — the contract company performing the reassessment — was asking property owners to provide details about the interior of homes along with and major renovations or damages since the 2018 reassessment.
That caused a flurry of emails and messages from residents outraged because they believed they were being forced to let the teams inside their homes, which wasn’t the case.
In November, many residents were shocked when they opened a county-sent notice of their new property value and what the tax would be if left unchanged. This led to more backlash and ultimately county leaders were granted a 90-day extension into next year to help sort out the matter. Supervisors are expected to change the tax rate. By doing so, the taxes resident pay likely won’t change even though the values soared.
No. 8: Big broadband boost
Millions of dollars have clicked in this year to help bring high-speed internet to Pittsylvania County.
Earlier this month, the county was awarded $39.5 million that was part of $722 million for 35 projects across the commonwealth.
The county teamed up with private firm RiverStreet Networks to bring internet access to about 12,000 unserved locations in the rural landscape.
“It may be the most important thing that’s happened, certainly in the last 20 years,” Bob Warren, chairman of the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors. said of the internet-access project.
Nearly $40 million in state grant money will help pay to deliver high-speed internet access to thousands of unserved residents in Pittsylvania County.
No. 9: Sales tax issue
Leaders with Danville Public Schools soon will be asking for input from the community to help finalize construction projects that will be funded by the recently passed 1% sales tax.
In November, Danville voters approved a referendum to impose a 1-percentage-point increase in sales tax to help pay for the school projects. A similar measure failed in Pittsylvania County by only 23 votes.
The sales tax will generate an estimated $141 million in revenue over the next 20 years.
Two facilities — George Washington High School and John M. Langston School — are the focus projects and will receive the first attention, a news release reported.
No. 10: Water woes in Chatham
After two major line ruptures this year that disrupted the flow of water in Chatham, a $3.3 million grant is on the way to pay for upgrades to the aging infrastructure.
The money is coming from the Virginia Department of Health and Office of Drinking Water.
It was about 2 p.m. May 29 when Inframark — a company responsible for public works operations in the town of Chatham — discovered a leak that would eventually become “one of the worst” reported.
In February, another water leak also caused a boil water notice for Chatham and Tightsqueeze. Flooding in the Cherrystone Creek caused debris to break a section of a water line belonging to the town of Chatham, Pittsylvania County spokesperson Caleb Ayers said at the time.