Workers on front lines stay strong during crisis

Firefighter/paramedic Dave Gomez attaches a heart monitor to firefighter/EMT Daniel Moore during a Villages Public Safety COVID-19 training exercise.

Sumter County Sheriff’s Master Deputy Kevin Osborn continues patrolling, but now follows social distancing guidelines. Diane Zentko, a fourth-grade teacher at The Villages Charter School, continues teaching, but now does it online. Alisha Brown, one of the owners of Brown’s Country Market, continues selling groceries, but now delivers. The presence of COVID-19 has changed the shape of the nation’s workforce. Restaurants’ dining rooms have closed to the public, as have schools and other business. However, many in The Villages community are still reporting to work at a variety of professions, committed to staying connected to residents amid the pandemic and recent statewide stay-at-home order.

Law enforcement

For law enforcement, protecting and serving now means more than just keeping the public safe from criminals.

Today, it means protecting the public from themselves, knowing person-to-person contact favors the spread of COVID-19, said Lt. Henry Rains of the Fruitland Park Police Department.

“There are certain aspects of this virus that have changed law enforcement,” he said. “It’s just going to be one of those things we will learn from.”

While some aspects of the job have changed because of social distancing guidelines, some remain the same. For instance, police and deputies will continue patrolling the streets and responding to calls related to violent crime.

When Villagers see a patrol car, they feel safer in their community — even during a pandemic, said Sumter County Sheriff’s Villages District Lt. Robert Siemer.

“We’re doing our part to help any way we can,” he said.

Sometimes, that includes directing traffic at the drive-thru COVID-19 testing site at The Villages Polo Club.

Sheriff’s deputies, at times wearing face masks, asked the motorists if they had an appointment. The masks, Siemer said, are for when deputies are in a situation where they may be at risk of COVID-19 exposure.

For law enforcement officers, the biggest change to their jobs has been the way they respond to calls, needing to follow social distancing guidelines.

Those changes, Siemer said, include dispatchers asking non-emergency callers if they have flu-like symptoms and doing more business outside of people’s homes.

Rains said that, for his department, if a call can be handled over the phone, it will be. 

“Say, for example, you have a business and there’s a disagreement,” he said. “The officer will call them and give info on how to resolve their problem over the phone.”

Osborn, who works with the sheriff’s office’s patrol division, thinks if people know they’re around in a time of need, it makes them feel more secure.

“They feel they will be taken care of,” Osborn said. “I try to make people feel like they’re not a number.”

Firefighters

Like law enforcement, firefighters are still on the front lines. While The Villages Public Safety Department firefighters are taking special precautions like wearing protective equipment, their jobs haven’t changed much, Fire Chief Edmund Cain said.

Dispatchers will ask callers screening questions, such as if they’re experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and if they’ve traveled outside the U.S. Responding firefighters will rescreen the person when they get on scene as a safety precaution.

When the call does not involve a life-threatening emergency, only one firefighter will come to the door to treat the person and transport if necessary, Cain said.

“If the patient’s in critical condition, we’ll send more staff in,” he said. “But (using one firefighter in non-emergency calls) lessens our chance of exposing the rest of our staff to the virus.”

On Thursday, it still felt “somewhat normal” for Lt. Eric Williamson to come to work at Station 44. He wasn’t sure if that would change with increased COVID-19 testing and the stay at home order.

He did note that Villagers aren’t visiting because the fire stations are on lockdown and closed to the public. Prior to COVID-19, Villagers would often come and give firefighters food.

Right now, Williamson simply plans to help the community while keeping the public and himself safe.

“Anywhere in the world you go, the fire department is a pillar of society,” Williamson said.

At Lake County Fire Rescue each fire station has only one unit going out on calls unless more are needed. Visitors aren’t allowed at the stations, including family members, and non-emergency responsibilities, like smoke detector checks, have been halted.

Crews that go on a call that is a possible COVID-19 case are to contact Fire Chief James Dickerson, who alerts the health department to get the patient tested.

There is no drop in service and every call is being taken seriously, Dickerson said.

“We can’t stop what we do every day because of the pandemic,” Dickerson said. “We still have to answer the calls to serve.”

Teachers

Zentko misses seeing her students in person. When schools closed due to COVID-19, Zentko, like other teachers nationwide, began teaching students online.

“I am a teacher who enjoys being in the classroom working side-by-side with the students,” Zentko said. “I want to be there for them to encourage, help, support, and guide them. The hardest part for me is not being with my students every day.”

Zentko has used technology for some of her lessons, but not to where she has to use it completely just to communicate to her students.

“It has definitely been an adjustment. I have been learning right along with my students,” she said. “I am getting pretty good at using Google classroom and hangouts.”

Online learning has become easier for her and her students as they continue using it.

Richard Drass, who teaches AP computer science, data development, web development and programming essentials at The Villages Charter School, thought online learning would be a challenge, but it has gone better than he expected.

Being well-versed in computer science has helped. The challenge was using the technology with his students, who have done well embracing it, he said.

There are some elements missing for Drass. He can’t see everyone’s computers at once to see if they have any trouble. Each student has to let him know. There’s no one-on-one interaction to assist students, but Drass is able to control a student’s computer and help them that way.

He’s hosting meetings online to work with students one-on-one in the mornings and afternoons, just like he used to in person. It’s not the same, but a good substitute for now, he said.

Restaurants and Grocery

Restaurant and grocery workers are taking on more responsibilities in light of the pandemic.

Before COVID-19 hit, Claire Lynch worked as a catering coordinator for McAlister’s Deli in Brownwood Paddock Square and wasn’t seen in the restaurant.

“Now I’m in the restaurant more than ever,” Lynch said.

She is one of the assistant managers overseeing a small number of people. Her tasks change from day-to-day, preparing food in the kitchen one day and helping guests at the front the next.

The owners, she said, have been nothing but kind to her.

“They’ve always had my back, so I like having their back in a situation helping the community, because right now they need us more than ever,” Lynch said.

Grocery stores are seeing more demand, whether they’re big chains or smaller operations. Brown’s Country Market in Oxford is open and providing groceries like pork and Amish butters, meats, jams, and jellies.

The market has been overwhelmed with customers. They are still able to enter the location, and delivery and curbside pickup also are being offered.

Only about three employees are working, including Brown.

To make up for the increase in demand, Brown has been working more roles, from helping at the front to delivering food and stocking shelves.

Delivering food to people’s homes in the area and seeing people who can’t go out specifically for health reasons has hit home for Brown. Helping those people has been helping her.

“It just makes these 20 hour days all worth it,” she said.

Retailers

With the recent stay-at-home order, local retailers have changed their businesses so they can keep delivering to their customers while keeping themselves and others safe.

The owners of Edible Arrangements, Becky Pilipow and Rachelle Neck, continue to make edible arrangements, cookies, cheesecakes and other treats to send to customers. They’ve also started to sell boxes of fruits and vegetables. 

The amount of customers has slowed down. With only Neck and Pilipow working at the location, the workload has increased for them, but they keep going, delivering items for those who can’t leave their homes.

Even with DeSantis’ executive order telling people to stay home for 30 days, Pilipow and Neck are considered an essential business as far as they know, Pilipow said.

“We’re going to stay open until they come to us and tell us we have to close,” she said.

Chaloupka has closed her stores, Christine’s in Brownwood and Lime Light Boutique in Lake Sumter Landing, to the public, but is still allowing customers to shop virtually.

To her knowledge, even with the stay-at-home order, business owners are able to go into their stores, Chaloupka said.

She is the only one working at both stores sharing items available to customers by shopping with them through FaceTime. Someone calls either store and, if Chaloupka is available, she will take them on a virtual tour and show them all the items. She takes down what they want to buy and delivers their purchases to their doors.

Times like this are when a community needs to pull together, she said.

“I feel that whatever I can do to bring a bright spot to someone’s day, even when we’re going through this, is important,” Chaloupka said.

Staff Writer Summer Jarro can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5404, or summer.jarro@thevillagesmedia.com. Senior writer Michael Salerno can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5369, or michael.salerno@thevillagesmedia.com.