RICHMOND, Va– Since the early weeks of March 2020, the world has collectively begun to adopt a wholly new zeitgeist of how to protect and respect one another; social distancing. As per recommendations made by the CDC towards reducing the spread of COVID-19, wearing masks is “in” and shaking hands is “out”.
Gov. Ralph Northam signed Executive Order 55 on Mar. 30, which called for a temporary stay at home order after having already declared a state of emergency on Mar. 12. Despite this, getting out of the house remains important to many residents, making it difficult for certain businesses and organizations to draw a line between what should and shouldn’t be changed.
The Public Information Manager for Richmond Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities, Tamara Jenkins, says that parks are open for limited enjoyment.
“It’s more a matter of reminding folks of all the signage we’ve put out to –unless they live with you– maintain social distancing of at least six feet,” Jenkins said. “If you’re out taking pictures on the Potterfield Bridge, don’t linger there too long. If you’re out on the trails, single file as you pass other folks.”
Richmond PRCF recently closed off the Manchester Climbing Wall as an additional necessary limitation on certain facilities around the city, according to an official Facebook post. The previous PRCF closures includes dog parks, athletic fields/courts, community/administrative structures, skate parks, playgrounds and the cancellation of all department-sponsored programs.
“If we’re going to be able to slow and flatten the curve, and hopefully open back up sooner, we need to follow social distancing practices,” Jenkins said.
Northam also declared a temporary shutter of all non-essential businesses on Mar. 15 in amendment to Executive Order 53, which initially ordered a cessation of all Virginia K-12 schools and banning of public gatherings of 10 or more. Many businesses deemed non-essential have temporarily ceased operations altogether in response to Northam’s recommendations, particularly those that rely on large public gatherings, such as live music venues, movie theaters and museums.
Businesses of such a model face unique struggles in overcoming the challenges COVID-19 has created. A poll conducted by ColleenDilenshnider.com found that performance-based cultural entities (such as music venues or movie theaters) seem to face a greater array of needed alterations than exhibit based entities (such as museums or zoos) before most customers would return. In general, 87.9% of respondents were unwilling to visit either type of entity until a vaccine for COVID-19 is developed.
Patrick Pankratz is a recent graduate of VCU’s music school who yearns to be able to attend a public performance based experience.
“I really miss going to movie theaters,” Pankratz said. “But, to me it’s more the fact that concerts aren’t going to be planned for the foreseeable future. There’s a bunch of artists who have been releasing music but won’t be able to go on tour.”
Some local venues have attempted ways at grappling with these newfound difficulties that have been brought on by the governor’s recommendations. The Broadberry Entertainment Group, which owns multiple live music venues in RVA like the Broadberry and the Camel, is streaming performances online. Cheekily named “Couchella”, the event streams noteworthy performances from the past six years live on Facebook.
Several museums have also begun offering virtual content, such as the Science Museum of Virginia, to provide K-12 students with STEM based learning experiences that can be done entirely from home. According to SMV’s Manager of Communication and Curiosity, Jennifer Guild, the museum has begun working with several local school systems and partner organizations to provide more online learning experiences.
“We have a great relationship with the schools that we work with,” Guild said. “Everybody has been really understanding in the sense that everybody has had to make big adjustments.”
SMV now frequently uploads videos to YouTube, like a timelapse of the Lyrids Meteor Shower or a live cow’s eye dissection. SMV also has a STEM blog for young readers to more easily understand tricky topics in the field, as well as how STEM topics can be applied to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Museums that have closed also face new complications due to their reliance on large gatherings and hand-on exhibits. Guild believes the pandemic only further highlights the importance of having a thorough sanitation policy.
“We have always had a very rigorous cleaning procedure,” Guild said. “The reality is that the SMV is a very hands-on and experiential museum, and we have always been very aware of that fact”
Guild also believes the curious nature of the pandemic has reinforced solidarity in the Richmond museum community, as well as how vital the community is to the city. “We all understand that we are in this together, and we are doing a lot to make sure that everybody is on the same page.”
However, some residents are not on the same page. The Apr. 22 “Re-Open Virginia” protest saw hundreds of residents circling Capitol Square in their vehicles, blaring car horns for nearly three hours. Meanwhile, state delegates and senators convened under a tent outside of the Capitol building in an attempt to mitigate any possible transmission of COVID-19. Chip Lauterbach, a reporter for VCU Capital News Service, provided live coverage on Twitter.
It is unknown exactly how many protesters participated, but Lauderbach estimates a sizeable body of participants. “I would say anywhere between 300 and 500, but a lot of those cars were packed with people,” Lauterbach said.
According to Lauderbach, the protest did not see many counter protestors.
“We all want the economy to open up and get things rolling again. But the main thing is it’s not safe yet — it’s too early,” Lauterbach said, recalling some of the arguments made by a counter protesting doctor.
The debate over whether or not social distancing helps curtail the spread of a virus is generally in support of its effectiveness. Meanwhile, Virginia’s curve of infection is beginning to flatten. Despite this, the Richmond protest came during a national wave of other protests, with Michigan now seeing a second wave of protests on Thursday in response to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s request to extend the declared state of emergency.
“Believe it or not, social distancing is working,” Lauterbach said. “I think people get the numbers skewed and get afraid because of places like New York. Everybody is looking at these big cities and thinking this is going to go on forever, but really the way a lot of states are doing things is actually working.”
But, recent tracking of cell phone data by the University of Maryland’s transportation institute shows that Virginia residents have recently been leaving the house more often. As of April 30, Virginia ranks 14th out of all 50 states on UMD’s list of states with the best adherence to social distancing policies. Arlington County has the highest of stay-at-home rates (53%) and Richmond appears to have the lowest (35%).
Although the risk of severe illness may be different for everyone, the CDC maintains that anyone can carry and spread COVID-19.
“Everyone has a role to play in slowing the spread and protecting themselves, their family, and their community,” the CDC said in a FAQ article on social distancing.