COVID-19 claimed another event on Friday, this time Lincoln High School Homecoming.
Officials with the Vincennes Community School Corp. on Friday announced that this year’s event, previously scheduled for Sept. 25, has been canceled amid rising cases of the novel coronavirus in Knox County.
VCSC officials, in a press release issued Friday afternoon, said the announcement was made “with a heavy heart.”
“This decision was not taken lightly,” the press release states. “With the restrictions on spectators and activities at high school sporting events, recommendations to avoid large gatherings, a large percentage of our classes already canceling reunions, and an increasing COVID-19 caseload in Knox County, we knew we would not be able to celebrate Homecoming the way we like to.”
Gov. Eric Holcomb’s current COVID-19 restrictions prohibit gatherings of any more than 250 people, and a statewide mask mandate remains in effect.
“While this is not an announcement we wanted to make, we know this is the best decision for our community, our school, and our classmates,” the press release goes on to state. “Lincoln Homecoming is special, and it is special because of all the unique individuals that share a connection to the high school we all love.”
VCSC representatives went on to announce a date for the 2021 Homecoming celebration; those festivities have been set for Sept. 17, 2021.
“So we encourage classes that would be celebrating this year to celebrate with us next year,” the press release said.
The school corporation is planning a student-focused Homecoming event to follow the varsity boys basketball game set for Feb. 12.
“We plan on having many of the similar school-themed events so that our current students can enjoy this experience and, hopefully, make memories along the way,” according to the press release.
The county’s COVID-19 caseload increased by nine on Friday; that’s following the largest single-day jump recorded Thursday when cases jumped by nearly 40.
Of the nine new cases — which is closer to what the daily average increase has been over the last two weeks — county health officer Dr. Alan Stewart said another five are amongst employees at Lodge of the Wabash, a local nursing home in the midst of an outbreak.
But Stewart, too, stressed that most of those who have tested positive at the Lodge are not experiencing any symptoms.
“Currently, we’re working hard with the Lodge to get it out of there,” Stewart said of local health officials. “They were doing so well. They were doing all the right things.
“I feel really bad for them.”
The county, as of Friday, had 88 active cases; five were being treated in the hospital.
Knox County has recorded three COVID-19-related deaths so far.
Indiana recorded 1,050 new confirmed cases of the coronavirus on Friday as well as 13 more deaths.
The statewide 7-day infection rate is at 7.5%; Knox County’s is double that at 15.5%.
So far, Indiana has had 84,317 total confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus; among them there have been 2,992 deaths.
There have been five confirmed cases at Lincoln High School but none in the last few days; those students are set to be released from quarantine and return to school next week, VCSC officials said.
North Knox remains at three cases — two at the Intermediate School and one at the Jr. Sr. High School — and South Knox has had two students and one teacher test positive at the Middle High School.
Stewart commended the schools’ response to COVID-19 since returning to classes earlier this month.
“All of our schools are doing fine so far,” he said. “I’m meeting with them regularly, tightening programs to be sure they’re all doing it the same. I’m communicating with the nurses.
“Really, there’s not much going on for all the numbers. We had a relatively calm day on Friday. We just have to keep going, see if our numbers go down.”
Stewart has continued to encourage people to wear masks when out in public and to practice social distancing. And he is encouraging everyone to cancel large-scale events.
Area residents are being asked to help shine a light on a few of the county’s unsung heroes, specifically those in the food service industry.
United Way of Knox County is sponsoring the Unsung Heroes Recognition Contest and are requesting submissions of the county’s best servers and food delivery drivers, which will then be entered into a weekly drawing.
They are taking nominations through Oct. 23.
Each week, United Way officials will select one name — at random — from the submissions, and the winning service worker will receive $250 cash.
Local United Way director Mark Hill said he read about a similar contest happening in another county and thought it was a feasible way to do something positive locally.
Lacey Lane, administrative assistant for United Way of Knox County, said that while they realize many residents are struggling economically as a direct result of COVID-19, she and Hill decided to focus this specific award on people who must subsist primarily off of the tips they make as servers or drivers.
Lane added that $2.13 per hour — the required minimum wage in Indiana for a server — isn’t a livable wage, so wait staff have to rely on tips to make ends meet.
In the midst of a pandemic, some servers have seen their shifts cut short and number of tables reduced, while also facing some patrons who are less than understanding about things like servers wearing face masks.
Hill said this contest at United Way is about “awarding people who have been dealing with the public at a difficult time.”
Early this summer, Hill was named the C. James McCormick Community Leader of the Year by the Knox County Chamber of Commerce. As the recipient of the McCormick Award, Hill could choose a nonprofit organization to receive a onetime donation of $2,500.
Naturally, he chose United Way.
While originally considering using the extra funding for some of the organization’s marketing needs, Hill decided the Unsung Heroes Contest was the better route.
“We simply wanted to do something for the under-appreciated front line workers — the unsung heroes all around us,” he said.
Already the contest is receiving a lot of interest, with more than 50 names of food delivery drivers and servers submitted thus far — some of them more than once, Lane said.
“Some of the names have been duplicated quite a few times, so you can tell which servers really go above and beyond for all their customers,” she said.
Though some individuals have already had their names submitted multiple times, Lane said to spread the wealth, each person is only eligible for the $250 prize once.
Too, she said, “that amount of money really can make a difference in somebody’s life.”
Locals who have positive experiences with excellent servers or food delivery drivers, are encouraged to submit that person’s name for the Unsung Heroes Award.
To enter the individual into the contest, simply text their name and place of employment to 812-899-1109.
Knox County Circuit Court Judge Sherry Gregg-Gilmore carefully lowers herself into the high-backed wood chair, her slight frame visible behind a large piece of Plexiglass, and takes a long look toward the back of the empty room.
A courtroom once packed with people now has its wooden pews blocked off with yellow caution tape.
Tables once piled high with legal briefs and motions are now stocked with hand sanitizer and masks.
“It looks like a cross between a crime scene and an ER in here, doesn’t it?” she said with a smile, her eyes squinting behind black-rimmed glasses.
After adjourning a ten-minute child support and custody hearing, Gilmore sits down and opens her day planner, pointing to the row of Post-it notes affixed to that day’s date.
The little yellow pieces of paper are filled with additional hearings that have been added to the judge’s already busy schedule.
“Every week is like this now,” she said.
The arrival of COVID-19 this spring closed down communities — and their courthouses with them — across the state for two months; there is now a backlog of cases waiting to be heard.
And though court is now officially back in session, like everything else, there is an uneasy new normal.
Without spectators in the gallery or jurors in the box, the quiet of the large courtroom feels oppressive.
Large Plexiglass pieces now create barriers between attorneys and their clients, and the handful of people in the room are masked, making communication difficult.
Though many proceedings have returned to the courtroom, visitors are still prohibited and much now depends on technology to keep the wheels of justice in motion.
Jail inmates, who can wave their right to be present in person, are now typically linked with Gilmore remotely via a television screen.
And, just this week, Knox County acquired a Zoom account from the Indiana Supreme Court to allow for live streaming of court proceedings.
“The public is entitled to view court proceedings, and we know we have to preserve the integrity of that,” said Gilmore.
Knox County’s Chief Public Defender Bryan Jewel said while the new technology is working, not being in the same space as a client has proven challenging in this new COVID world.
“On the criminal defense side, we couldn’t go into the jails to talk to clients for quite awhile,” he said.
While Jewel can make appointments and contact inmates on a non-recording phone line inside the jail, it’s not quite the same, he admits, as sitting down with a client in-person.
“But the sheriff has been agreeable and very cooperative with my clients — at least we can talk to people when we need to talk to them,” he said.
As Knox County prepares next month to possibly seat its first jury trial since COVID-19 stopped the process in early spring, both attorneys and judges have other concerns.
“The masks,” Jewel said. “It’s a bizarre thing to ask prospective jurors or witnesses questions and not be able to see their faces.
“So it will be hard to judge,” he said.
It’s a sentiment echoed by Gilmore, though neither are sure what can be done about it as masks are a necessary part of safely returning to the courtroom. They’re also mandated as part of an executive order handed down by Gov. Eric Holcomb.
Yet another concern will be having an adequate jury pool.
Though Gilmore and Jewel agree that many people have legitimate hardships or health concerns that should prevent them from serving on a jury — and therefore possibly be exposed to the novel coronavirus — there is also worry that COVID-19 might offer an unnecessary loophole to those willing to take advantage of it.
“Most people don’t want to be on a jury under normal circumstances, Jewel said, “so I can see a lot of people using (the coronavirus) as a way out.”
While no new jury trials are being scheduled until 2021, those that were already slated — and then postponed as a result of the coronavirus — will resume this fall.
Jury trials, too, will look very strange to anyone familiar with the usual scene.
The tentative plan for Knox County courts will be to spread jurors across the pews in the gallery as opposed to having them shoulder-to-shoulder in the standard jury box at the front of the courtroom.
Witnesses will then deliver their testimony from the jury box.
“I don’t know what I’ll do,” said Superior Court I Judge Gara Lee, noting that the new setup will leave her looking at the backs of witnesses, attorneys and their clients.
“I might just roam around the courtroom a little bit or something,” she said with a laugh, “or maybe set up a chair in the back of the room.”
All trials, too, will be held in the larger Circuit Court. Other, simultaneous hearings will be moved to another courtroom.
And though Lee finds ways to laugh through the challenges presented by COVID-19, she takes very seriously the significant impact the pandemic, and subsequent isolation, has had on children.
Even in the early days of the virus she had to weigh the risks it presented against the risks of a child in a vulnerable situation.
“Some hearings were essential and had to happen,” Lee said. “When children are involved and in need of services, the need for those hearings outweighed the risk of not having those hearings because of COVID.”
Before the coronavirus brought the world to a screeching halt, Lee helped begin a Family Recovery Court program, which she describes as similar to the county’s drug court program, which is operated out of Superior Court II.
“But this is for people who are involved with (the Department of Child Services) and have had their kids removed,” she said.
The new program provides support and the necessary structure to keep those individuals from returning to the system again later.
“Take away that structure and people will sometimes fumble,” Lee said.
When the virus shuttered the doors of businesses, schools and courtrooms in March, it also took away in-person options for Narcotics Anonymous meetings, groups and treatment programs.
Family Recovery Court will see its first graduation in September, and though Lee is clearly proud of those who will finish the program, she says before COVID hit, more than 75% of participants were excelling.
After the virus closed doors, that number quickly dropped below 50%.
“Eventually we got things switched over to Zoom meetings, but Zoom is not the same as in-person. It’s just not the same,” Lee said.
As a judge who presides over a number of child welfare cases, Lee must steel herself to wade through sometimes unimaginable details of abuse and neglect.
But as she describes the loneliness and fear many children have faced — particularly when living in abusive households — her heart clearly shows.
“School may be the only time they get the appropriate supervision and the care that they need because they’re not getting it at home,” she said.
“I don’t think we will know the full impact of this on kids for a long time.”
Editor Jenny McNeece contributed to this report.
County elected officials may pursue their first-ever comprehensive plan.
Knox County Commissioner Trent Hinkle announced this week during the commissioners’ regular meeting that he is working with Loogootee-based Southern Indiana Development Commission on a grant application that, if successful, would secure the necessary funds to move forward with a 10-year development plan.
The grant opportunity, Hinkle explained, is through the state’s Office of Community and Rural Affairs. Applications are limited to $50,000 — a 10% local match would be necessary — but Hinkle said that’s in line with other cost estimates he’s sought in the past for such comprehensive plans.
“So how comprehensive are we talking?” asked commissioner Tim Ellerman.
And that, Hinkle replied, would be up to the county.
“This will simply be a blue print for the county going forward,” Hinkle said. “It would outline the projects we want to undertake, could be all kinds of different things.
“It could be moving community corrections, transforming that space into a county space. Really, anything we want.”
Constructing a new community corrections facility adjacent to the Knox County Jail was part of recent recommendation made by RQAW, a local architectural firm, following a jail study, but county officials haven’t taken back up discussions of the proposed $32 million expansion project in weeks.
Comprehensive plans like this, however, aren’t a new concept.
The City of Vincennes has pursued several over the years as having an updated comprehensive plan is often necessary to be eligible for grant opportunities.
Officials in Vincennes, Knox County and Bicknell, for instance, had to pull out of the race to be named the state’s first region-focused Stellar Community in the fall of 2018 largely because the county didn’t have a comprehensive plan.
“Vincennes, Bicknell, they have their own plans,” Hinkle said. “And I think we’d like to have ours work to tie them all together.
“The whole purpose,” he said, “is so we can go out and apply for money for projects. This is a gateway, a pipeline to the money.”
Commission president Kellie Streeter, too, pointed to the absence of a comprehensive plan as the reason local elected officials had to drop out of the race for Stellar, which opens up a multitude of other grant opportunities for everything from quality of place initiatives to infrastructure repair.
One of the projects the county hoped to do if successful in that program is to extend the city’s Riverwalk all the way out to Ouabache Trails Park.
“But without a plan like this, without something on paper saying we want to do that, they won’t give us any money,” she said.
“They won’t even talk to you,” Hinkle reiterated.
The grant application, Hinkle added, is due Oct. 15.
It will, however, require a survey of a number of county residents as a requirement is that a certain percentage of the county’s population meet low-to-moderate income guidelines.