The emergence of the coronavirus in early 2020 was a prelude to dark days for the Rio Grande Valley that no one could have ever predicted.
In December 2019, COVID-19 in Wuhan, China, was a problem happening half a world away that many Americans selfishly believed would impact a few thousand lives, dominate the headlines for a few weeks, and quietly fade away.
That’s what had always happened until, one day, it didn’t.
The state’s robust economy came to a screeching halt in the waning days of March, forcing many businesses to close and families to lock themselves away in self-isolation.
Byron Lewis, CEO of Edwards Abstract & Title in Edinburg, said they realized early on that they needed to have effective policies in place for both inside and outside the office.
Those included practices such as wearing face coverings, disinfecting work areas or public spaces hourly, and requiring employees to stay in their work areas. Still, employees were afraid.
“Initially, everyone was concerned, but by May, we had a routine where we were able to make it through,” he said.
At the height of the pandemic, there were some isolated cases of coronavirus among the staff members, all of which were related to being around family members.
Lewis offered his employees two weeks of paid time off to recover from the virus, and once they received a negative test result, they were able to return to work, he said.
“We never closed for a day during the pandemic because we planned ahead, and we were careful,” Lewis said.
When the vaccines were rolled out in early 2021, Lewis urged his employees to take care of themselves and get vaccinated. He offered four hours of paid time off to staff members who went for the first round of the vaccination and required them to provide proof of vaccination when they returned to work.
Chad Nunnery, owner and CEO of Composite Access Products in McAllen, was returning from a vacation in March 2020 when everything was closing down.
To put the minds of staff members at ease, he worked from home for two weeks and relied on Zoom meetings to conduct training seminars and communicate with staff members.
Meanwhile, staff members implemented the now-common practices of social distancing, using hand sanitizers, and wearing PPE — and also eliminated outside visits by customers.
“We did all the things we were supposed to do, and it didn’t hit us too hard,” Nunnery said.
Composite Access Products, which opened in 2015, had never experienced a period when they were not setting records for profitability — until the second quarter of 2020, when the company’s sales force was unable to travel to trade shows and so many major metropolitan areas were closed.
“That first quarter when COVID hit us was the first one in four years we haven’t experienced rapid growth,” Nunnery said.
The unexpected outcome of the COVID-19 pandemic came from the innovation of the sales force, some of whom found innovative ways to make the sale and keep demand high, which helped the company bounce back.
“The good reps stopped talking about COVID, while the bad reps blamed COVID,” he said.
Nunnery added that while Composite Access Products’ sales force will continue to rely on face-to-face contact, primarily at trade shows, they are implementing concepts such as a new educational video produced by the local PBS affiliate and a new 60-second commercial.
Unlike office or manufacturing industries, service industries saw and experienced COVID-19 from a personal perspective.
Amanda Esquivel, who owns and operates a Chick-fil-A franchise in Brownsville, saw the impact COVID-19 was having on her staff members and her community.
“When this first happened, we closed down our dining room,” she said. “Our employees … were scared and kind of unsure. There was just this feeling of unease.”
To adhere to the restrictions and ensure employees had a safe working environment, Chick-fil-A implemented curbside delivery to customers who didn’t want to use the drive-thru services and implemented a shift policy to keep as many people on the payroll as possible while ensuring her employees had several days off to monitor any occurrence of coronavirus symptoms and work with the same group of people.
During shifts, employees were not allowed to sit together during breaks. Mask coverings were implemented, and handwashing became even more frequent. Still, some employees were fearful when it came to dealing with the public.
“It was a very awkward time,” she said. “We had those people who came up to me and said, ‘Amanda, I don’t feel comfortable working.’ We worked with those people and told them to take their time and let us know when they are ready. It was a crazy time that we had to overcome.”
Many of her employees conquered that fear and met the challenge head-on, while others who were caring for family members stayed at home.
Things have changed since the early days of the pandemic. Vaccines are more readily available and businesses have begun to reemerge and implement new health and safety policies.
“We were dealing with something that none of us knew,” Esquivel said. “Our community rallied around each other, and we were going to get through this together.”