© 2023 Blue Ridge Public Radio
Blue Ridge Mountains banner background
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
NOTICE - 88.5 WMQS Off Air for Maintenance - NOTICE

Two years of COVID-19 in WNC

Lilly Knoepp/BPR News

Two years ago, the COVID-19 pandemic changed the world that we live in. BPR's Lilly Knoepp looks back on the start of the pandemic – and checks in on where we are today.

One of the most telling changes at BPR from 2020 is in my computer files.

When the pandemic began, I made a folder entitled Coronavirus_3_2020. That folder grew and grew until COVID-19 coverage became a part of our daily work flow.

That folder starts with the rumors of the first positive cases in the region from Macon County to Cherokee County.

As case counts rose, schools closed. “For the past month or so, we knew that it was going to be inevitable that a case was going to be confirmed in Macon County. You know it was a matter of when not if. We’ll deal with it as best we can,” said Macon County School Superintendent Dr. Chris Baldwin in March 2020. School all reopened differently in October 2020.

In 2021 and 2022, school policies were a divisive topic that differed across the region.

Personally, one of the most memorable parts of the start of the pandemic in WNC was covering each county as officials “closed the borders” to those who were not locals. Graham County Commissioner Dale Wiggins pointed out that the closest hospital was 40 minutes away from Robbinsville in Bryson City.

“The lack of medical facilities to treat someone with coronavirus – we don’t have anything here in county to treat people,” said Wiggins in March 2020. Noting the county has one of the highest rates of motorcycle fatalities in the state, Wiggins wanted to deter tourists who might wreck. The Cherohala Skyway and the Tail of the Dragon are famous sections of switchbacks for motorcycles.

Graham County didn’t see its first documented positive COVID-19 case until April 2020. BPR interviewed her about the experience in May.

The town of Andrews also closed its roads to those who were not from the region in March 2020.

Legal expert Norma Houston of the UNC Chapel Hill School of Government told BPR in March 2020 that it is within any municipalities rights to cordon off an area during an emergency.

“Local governments don’t literally close their borders like you might think of with a national border. What cities and counties do have the authority to do is limit ingress and egress into the emergency area,” said Houston. 

While many people were in lockdown, others lacked the information, access and shelter to protect themselves against COVID-19. People experiencing homelessness were one of the populations that were most vulnerable.

The city of Asheville opened a shelter at Harrah’s Cherokee Center Asheville. Meanwhile other counties expanded some services like Jackson County’s HERE program which provides hotel rooms to those in need of housing.

For college students who were sent home to learn virtually the experience of higher education was changed.

For seniors, graduation looked very different – and the future looked uncertain.

In May 2020, BPR spoke with UNC Asheville students in a creative nonfiction class. They wrote prose about their pandemic experiences in each class.

Senior Nathaniel Marshall shared his response: 

“In five years when I look back on quarantine, I will laugh at the tree that swayed and creeped outside my bedroom. The one that in daydreams fell on my room at the most hopeless of times. The trunk would snap as relationships ended on sour notes over the phone. The canopy drooped as I sobbed in the pillow heaving and socially distant. In five years, I’ll wonder if that trunk still hadn’t snapped or if the roots kept hold of the ground.” 

Marshall was one of just three seniors in the class. At the time, Marshall told BPR this season of life wasn’t working out as he expected: “There’s a lot of transition and it feels weird. My lease is up. And I have to find a new place with no income now. And I need to find a job. It’s just kind of a mess.” 

Senior Sarah Lucander was in Davidson during the class. She felt fortunate to have secured a remote job.

 “If I had to move somewhere for a job or that kind of thing - that would be very stressful for me right now,” said Lucander.

Just last month, the UNC System eased masking guidelines causing universities in the system like Western Carolina University to enact the same policies.

After her class in 2020, Lucander shared a song with BPR called, “Carolina Day” which she wrote during lockdown.

“When I look across the lake at the early morning fog, I feel like I’m not alone,” sang Lucander. “There in my kayak no other man to be seen I’m looking up at mama mountain. She’s looking down at me.”

Two years later, BPR checked in with her to hear how post-grad life is going. Lucander shared that she is still working remotely with the same medical company where she was employed at graduation.

“I mean it definitely feels like a blur. It does not feel like two years has gone by at all. And when things were just shut down and we had to just go home a few years ago – it was just so sudden,” said Lucander, now 25-years-old.

She lives with her parents in Davidson, North Carolina and still writes music in her free time.

“Even though I’m very happy with what I do with my job, my ultimate goal is to be a singer songwriter and I had envisioned myself moving to Nashville which is certainly still on my to-do list,” said Lucander. “With all of the stress that has been going on there, I have dug my stress into my music and I think that has been a good thing for me.

Lucander says that her song writing has grown and become more political as she has learned over the last two years. She shared a song called “The Land of the Free” which reflects on the history of America.

“I feel like I was very naïve in a lot of ways. I don’t know how to describe it. I just kind of had a vision of the world and of people and of how everyone interacts and that has really been shaken over the last couple years in different ways, different relationships and friendships. It’s helped me to grow though, as a person," said Lucander.

At this point in the pandemic, she says she is less fearful of COVID, proud of her writing and hopeful for the future.

She shared a re-recorded version of “Carolina Day.” She says it’s much better.

We can’t reflect on the pandemic without remembering the community members we have lost to COVID-19. In BPR’s 13-county listening area, 1,698 people have died as of March 16, 2022, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

"Carolina Day" by Sarah Lucander shared in 2022.
Sarah Lucander sings Carolina Day

Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.