Monday, June 22, 2020

The Coronavirus in Kansas: The First 100 Days

[Cross-posted to Wichita Story]

This past Saturday was more than just the summer solstice, the longest day of the year and the official start of summer (astronomically speaking, if not calendrically). It also marked the 100th day since the coronavirus pandemic formally began in Kansas, with Governor Kelly having issued her state of emergency order, in response to the first covid-19 death in the state, on March 12th. Wichita and Sedgwick County began to follow suit the same day, and just as USD 259 students were beginning their spring break, our long Covd Spring started.

Now, our Covid Spring has become a Covid Summer. What’s different, what’s the same, and what, if anything, has been learned? I have some thoughts about how the panic, uncertainty, and defensiveness which the pandemic brought out in too many of us unfortunately undermined the priority which our elected leaders ought to have given to the need for responsible deliberation during this season on increasing distrust. Maybe that couldn’t have been avoided, especially given that this is an election year. Still, have we done any better locally, as a city or a collection of neighborhoods?

It's easy to think: no, we haven't. Social media is rampant with fights, accusations, and counter-accusations over who is or isn't wearing a mask, or following social distancing guidelines, or spreading conspiratorial nonsense rather than taking seriously the best recommendations out there. The Sedgwick County Commission has waded into these fights, largely dividing itself along party lines, getting called out by Governor Kelly, Mayor Brandon Whipple,  and local observers for their lack of seriousness, and often treating their long-suffering health official, Dr. Garold Minns, as a bit of a punching bag. While various restricts are still formally being "advised," they aren't really in place in any substantive sense any longer--not unless residents themselves put them there.

Which some do! There are many businesses across the city that do a very good job making it clear to their employees--by both policy and example--that health precautions must be followed. There are some that even take the harder (but probably even more necessary step) of keeping their places of business, where people gather, as contagion-free as possible, requiring shoppers and buyers to wear a mask if they intend to come inside. (Watermark Books & Cafe, the city's premier general independent bookstore and a long-time neighborhood gather spot in East Wichita, is exemplary in this regard.) Most, unfortunately, aren't going that far. Thus does the information about where precautionary practices are widely embraced, thus creating new local norms, and where they aren't, get passed through word of mouth and Facebook and Twitter. (Super-concerned about staying virus free while needing to do some shopping for home and yard repairs? Stick with Menard's and Lowe's; watch out for Home Depot and Ace Hardware. Or conversely, filling oppressed by the mask and the judgment who feel it entails, all while needing to support your local farmers market? The downtown market, rather than the Kansas Grown market at the Sedgwick County Extension Center, is probably the better bet.)

But the way we've collectively and probably insufficiently responded to health warnings and contagion restrictions is really only one small part of our covid-19 story, and maybe not even the most revealing. As so many of us have struggled, some with greater success than others, to deal with social, financial, and familial changes as businesses and schools and churches were closed or shifted online, what can we see?

I don't know, obviously: I'm just one person. But for whatever it's worth, I can say the following (and I know, from conversations with others, that I'm not the only one who can say it):

--While walking our dog morning and night, as my family has done for years, we have consistently run into more individuals and groups--sometimes families with children, sometimes couples, sometimes solo walkers--taking their animals out than I can ever remember seeing before, in all the six springs and summers we've had our pet.

--While biking to work and around the city, as I have ever since we moved here in 2006, I've seen more cyclists, in more parts of the city (bumping into people I know from across Wichita on bike paths out west where I live no longer surprises me), biking together or singly, than I can ever remember before.

--As a longtime gardener, I've always kept an eye and ear out for other local gardeners, looking and listening for what I can learn from them. This year, I've seen and learned out more new gardens going in, and more local people seeking (and offering!) information about those gardens, than I have in any previous growing season.

--And beyond all of that, I've lost count of the number of informal gatherings, of chairs set up on driveways and in cul-de-sacs, that I've seen become regular and predictable around our neighborhood, with people hanging out and talking and drinking from cans kept in a cooler, during the warm (and now usually hot) evenings of May and June, every weekend or sometimes even every night.

There are easy, even cynical, explanations for much for much of this, of course. The bars were closed, so of course people would go knock back beers on their suburban sidewalks! The pandemic began with shortages in the stores, shortages that many fear (with good reason) will return, so of course everyone who had ever told themselves that they ought to plant a garden finally was impelled to do so! And of course everyone, stuck at home and with the YMCAs closed, was desperate to get outside, to get into shape, etc. We're just responding to our environment, that's all--meaning that, as Wichita returns to a normal summer, or finds a new kind of summer normal, that all the changes I and others have observed, whatever their reality (as opposed to their merely anecdotal nature) will slip away. And of course, maybe I'm just fooling myself in thinking that what I'm seeing is at all representative of Wichita in the first place.

Maybe all that is the case. But I hope--and I would expect many others similarly hope--that the reverse is true. Maybe this spring really may have taught us some things; maybe it really did introduce, however subtly, some real concerns about sustainability and simplicity into the lives of many. Maybe what we've seen, when we turn away from the too-often frustrating slowness and suspicion and paranoia of too many of those with the responsibility of making decisions for us all in city hall and the state legislature, can be held on to as a hopeful sign. Yes, the months to come, as the economic costs of the coronavirus in Kansas grind us down ever further, are not going to be easy. But maybe this summer will also be a time when we can double-down on our personal and neighborhood accomplishments, and let those hopes lead us through the next 100 days, and beyond. It's a possibility, anyway.

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