I vividly remember one of the last conversations I had with Gary Drapcho. We were reflecting on the day’s news and how he had transitioned from being our sports director to turning news stories for us dayside during the pandemic. He looked at me and said “Alex, write everything down – you’re not going to want to forget this.” Consider this a note to my future self of what it all felt like as we moved along – more than two months after everything began. This one’s for you, Gary. Rest easy.
The first time I included the word “coronavirus” in our newscast was in late December, when Wuhan, China was getting battered with the effects of a “strange flu-like illness.” While we watched the rest of the world battle this thing in January and February, the first coronavirus cases to strike Pennsylvania came in early March.
That first day, I asked the weather man on call to help me illustrate where these counties were in relation to Erie (thanks David!). The next week I had created a graphic of my own highlighting counties with the virus. At that point we didn’t know what all was happening beyond a brute illustration of spread.
I think the magnitude of the pandemic hit me about a week later, when the NBA suspended its season March 11. I’m decidedly not a basketball fan, but I’m definitely aware enough to know that this was a huge deal. The NBA was the first league to suspend operations, and I remember the next day making a storyteller template for Gary to break down how leagues were responding to the outbreaks nationwide. On March 17 we moved to a single-anchor show format. On March 18 we added the ability to have people call in using FaceTime for live interviews as we stopped letting people in the building.
On March 19, 2020, our digital manager Doug ran to the control room with a news release from the governor – all non-life-sustaining businesses were being ordered to shut down within two days. We broke the story at the top of our 5 p.m. newscast (the release came through at 4:55 p.m.).
It’s worth noting that in the middle of all of this, the state deemed news organizations “essential life-sustaining businesses.” In a time where things were so, so uncertain – more people turned to local news than they had in years. It was super humbling.
We suspended sports on March 23. On March 24, 2020, Erie county issued a Stay-at-Home order, which was supposed to go into effect at midnight but in my approximation, Gov. Wolf decided “nah” and issued his own order effective for 8 p.m. that night.
The next morning the news director, digital director, assignment editor and I discussed what was possible on the front of moving anchors completely home and producing from home. Some moves were nearly immediate, others not so much.
The rest of March was a blur. At some point in late March or early April we had begun breaking into programming for then-daily briefings from the Pennsylvania Department of Health followed up by Erie County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper. It was through these briefings that we started understanding that the shutdown would be more than just a temporary lockdown. It was during these briefings that names like Dr. Rachel Levine, PEMA Director Randy Padfield and Erie Dept. of Health director Melissa Lyon started entering the newsroom lexicon.
April kept on pace for being as chaotic as March in a lot of ways. Recognizing this, on April 2nd we reformatted the end of every show to allow for 30 seconds at the end of each newscast. We also started bringing live bands in on Fridays to provide some additional levity. It was also on the second that we learned that one of our colleagues had been hospitalized.
April first was the day PA Gov. Tom Wolf issued a statewide stay-at-home order, something we had been subject two for at least a week at this point.
In early April we moved more people home and some people to other parts of the building. That included regularly having one weather person at home and our one evening anchor face-timing in to co-anchor from home. We also launched the “Mobile Newsroom” and “Remote Newsroom” – ways where people could work off-site but still be completely plugged in to what we were doing.
On April 15, we lost our longtime sports anchor Gary Drapcho to a heart condition. He was 63.
That same day, I celebrated (?) my 23rd birthday. Ever thankful for technology, I was able to video-call my parents, aunt, uncle and some close family friends.
Every day at noon, the Pennsylvania Department of Health would drop the county-by-county numbers of cases. I would then translate these cases into a statewide map, then later in the day into a regional map consisting of Pennsylvania, southwestern New York, Western Ohio and the West Virginian panhandle. In all, I stitched together something like 50 of these things until we moved to a more trends-driven approach with slates, OTS slides and graphs.
It was in April that Pennsylvania began to discuss plans to re-open the economy with some restrictions. Our coverage pivoted from purely data and spread-driven to the economic impact on the other side of this.
April brought with it a “Reopen Erie” series of reports focused on how the businesses allowed to resume were adjusting and getting ready for patrons.
With “social distancing” and “amid the coronavirus pandemic” becoming commonplace phrases, so, too did the frustration with when and how we would start re-opening. On May 8th, Erie entered the “Yellow” phase of reopening, which translated to some things reopening and others not.
It was in May that I was finally able to see my grandparents as recreational facilities (read: camp) reopened.
Shortly after retiring the regional and statewide maps, I moved back to maps to plot out where things were reopening. These are largely still used in our newscasts as of late June – when we made the case for Green.
I want to say it was in mid-May that the overall vibe of the pandemic started shifting away from apocalyptic. I’m by no means an epidemiologist or an economist, this is my anecdotal recollection. Reading through my emails dated in May, there’s a definite tonal shift toward a more normal – yet still urgent – demeanor.
I think the vast majority of us at the office realized what “the long haul” feels like. Intellectually, it’s easy to understand that the virus isn’t going away anytime soon. Applying it in real life and in real time is a completely different story.
While this large-scale readjustment was happening, the number of new cases reported daily in Erie County took a turn upward. This was also around the time that Erie County data reporting and Pennsylvania Dept. of Health reporting started to not match.
I truly think this uptick in cases is what kept Erie County in the “yellow” reopening phase for more than a month and a half.
In June, our neighbors to the south and east (Crawford and Warren counties) re-opened to the green reopening phase. The number of new cases in Erie slowly began to flatten out. We began to get even more creative, and as the populace began to emerge, so too did different levels of chaos, crime, and the coronavirus.
For example, on Thursday we reported on the virus, a multi-county multi-jurisdiction manhunt, and the firing of the chief Erie traffic officer for comments characterized by the city as racist that had been made using an official city email account.
Within my newsroom, we reached a few milestone this week: we have actually started newscasts with things other than brute coronavirus numbers. It still impacts every aspect of our lives, but occasionally leading with the impact trumps the brute cause reporting.
Next week, both the weather folks and all anchors will be back in-house. It’s a step forward.
The initial response to the coronavirus was like a breaker box: quickly shutting down large swaths of life to make sure nothing would short out. Bringing everything back on line, however, is a much more complicated process.
COVID-19 isn’t over, not by a long shot. But the initial uncertainty, adjustment and shock of it all appears to have passed. I’m optimistic that there will be an end or at least a semi-normalization moving forward.
So to borrow a phrase I’ve heard at least a hundred times since March: stay calm, stay home, and stay safe out there.