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More shots given as virus rages in Halifax

Coworking space at Innovation Hub offered to public beginning in February

Virus gets in way of Mecklenburg classroom return plan


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Tasks at hand / October 15, 2020
At a time when most of us are frustrated and upset and angry on a regular basis — there’s no shortage of material to stew over — it serves no purpose to play the part of the Town Scoldilocks, telling everyone else what they’ve been doing wrong throughout this miserable pandemic. That doesn’t mean people shouldn’t be given a heads-up about the 20-car pileup straight ahead before they plow their bandwagon smack into it.

Earlier this week, the News & Record reported on a surge of COVID-19 cases at our two local golf courses, Halifax County Country Club and Green’s Folly. Predictably, the phones lit up early Monday morning. That’s when we got our daily — strike that, monthly — fill of hurt and upset from people who wanted to know why we published the story. It’s a fair question. So let’s answer it.

First, it wasn’t intended as some kind of statement against our two golf clubs. I’ve swung a club at both (duck!) and truly think our small community is fortunate to have not one but two excellent golf venues to call our own. I have friends who are members of both clubs. I know for a fact that many of them have been extremely careful and conscientious about protecting themselves, their families and others from the spread of the virus. After all this is over, nothing would make me happier than to see both golf courses, and every other part of Halifax County, emerge stronger than ever. I’m sure most everybody feels the same way.

Our reporting sure as heck wasn’t meant to harm a place that may have suffered some collateral damage from the piece: First Baptist Church Weekday School. A classroom there was exposed to a person who has tested positive for COVID-19 and little children are now in quarantine. Any other questions about why exactly this has been such a dreadful year? As best as we’ve been able to establish, the pre-school got dragged into this matter unwittingly, and certainly through no fault of the families who send their children there or the school’s director, Mary Tucker Irby, who by all accounts has worked diligently to provide a safe and welcoming environment. The same goes for the church leadership. Not only would I not hesitate to send my own children there, my wife and I actually did so when our kids were very young. The church school is another cherished aspect of life in South Boston and Halifax County. I have no doubt that First Baptist Weekday School will continue to shine long into the future, providing essential educational and day care services — and lots of love — for our very youngest children and their families.

The backdrop for what’s going on here — pandemic fatigue followed by further woes coping with the pandemic — was expressed in the very first paragraph of the article: “Fears among public health officials that people are letting down their guard against the coronavirus are borne out by the growing number of cases nationwide — with the U.S. back up to more than 50,000 new cases daily for the first time since mid-August.” Our lead article Monday was a Halifax County story that is being replicated everywhere else in the country. People are tired of masking up and staying at home and depriving themselves of the lives they enjoyed before this disaster struck. Who wants to be the first to cast the stone of blame at your stressed-out neighbor?

So, to return to the original question: Why publish the story? Why put the community through the wringer and subject members of the golf courses and pre-school to a diet of rumor, speculation and potentially nasty blowback? The answer just so happens to be the entire point of our business: The public has a right to know. Sometimes reporters throw around that phrase reflexively, as the ready-made answer to every question, but in talking about the spread of a pathogen that is directly responsible for more than 215,000 deaths in the U.S., the public absolutely has the right to know.

That’s it. There’s no more. There’s no malice, no back-stabbing, no agenda other than the reason provided above. We respect people’s privacy — you will not read the names of those who have contracted the virus in these pages, unless people choose to speak openly about their experiences — but when we learn of a spreader event in the community, we are duty-bound to report it. We could be talking about my own birthday party. It wouldn’t matter.

Early on in this pandemic, I had long conversations, each leading to a newspaper piece, with two people who lost loved ones to COVID-19. The first was a South Hill woman whose husband died of the disease, in what was almost surely the first recorded death in the three-county area of the Southside Health District (Halifax, Mecklenburg, Brunswick. The piece was first published in our sister paper, The Mecklenburg Sun, and later ran in these pages.) The woman got sick, too, but recovered, but her reasonably healthy and active husband, a 73-year-old house painter, died. The second interview was with a Clarksville woman, not much older than I am, who lost her mother after she contracted the virus in a nursing home. Since those early days, most of us have come to know people in the community who’ve died of COVID-19. Justyce Reid of South Boston, the youngest person claimed by this scourge, was a gentle and delightful soul who was loved deeply by those who knew her from all the activities she took part in at school and within the community — dance, cheerleading, Special Olympics, church and the list goes on. In talking with those who’ve suffered most from this disease, the message is always the same: Please, take this thing seriously. Wear a mask. Social distance. At least protect others if you aren’t worried about your own health. As the saying goes, it costs nothing to be kind.

It can cost a lot when people are sloppy or thoughtless or just don’t give a damn. Two of the three of those do not quite deserve a rain of hellfire — who hasn’t left their mask at home or in the car? — and as for the third group, the people who think they’re making a statement on behalf of freedom or liberty or whatever rattles their minds, all you can say here is that scorn is a poor strategy for getting people to actually change their ways. It’s unfortunate but it is what it is.

The Washington Post published an excellent op-ed this week that, in part, read like a mea culpa on this score: “We’re public health experts. We need to do a better job of talking to conservatives.” (Washington Post, Monday. Oct. 12.) The authors, Lindsey J. Leininger and Harold Pollack, are professors in the public health field at Dartmouth and the University of Chicago, respectively. I was struck by these passages from their piece:

We cannot allow the public health enterprise to become estranged from conservative America. We can do better, starting with a reaffirmation that our shared values are more important than what sets us apart. No one wants their parents or grandparents to become sick from covid-19. Diabetes, substance-use disorders and cancer strike across every political line. The public health watchwords to do “nothing about us without us” apply just as surely within conservative religious communities as they do anywhere else ....

Most Republicans support mask-wearing and other protective measures. The social capital and deep traditions of service within religious communities are powerful public health assets, as are defining conservative values of personal responsibility. Longtime Bush adviser Karen Hughes, for example, champions mask-wearing on precisely those grounds. Rather than assuming we know best how to promote protective measures and behaviors, we who work in public health should always look to successful messengers for these ideas within the communities we hope to persuade.

Our training reminds us that winning people, through relationships and engagement, is more important than winning arguments on Twitter or cable TV. We must build and sustain these relationships for the long haul. In the fight against covid-19, and beyond, we’re going to need them.

Here in our own community, battles fought on Facebook would be better laid to rest in favor of greater conversation about the consequences that ensue when the coronavirus is allowed to spread. Many people, for instance, would really, really like to have their children back in school. The School Board was supposed to meet tonight to discuss a possible timetable for the phased return of student groups to the classroom. That conversation won’t happen for at least 12 more days after an outbreak of the virus surfaced at the HCPS Central Office, prompting Superintendent of Schools Mark Lineburg to postpone the board meeting to Oct. 26. It’s too early to tell if the Central Office outbreak is connected to the troubles of our local golfing community, but what is certain is that community spread is ongoing and it all starts somewhere. It’s really up to all of us to do all we can to keep the threat under control — no matter how inconvenient or tiring the task may be.

I’m no scientist, but I firmly believe we could knock out 85 percent of this problem with a universal commitment to simple measures such as mask-wearing, social distancing and the like. A return to semi-normalcy is happening elsewhere in the world, from Taiwan to Germany to New Zealand to Canada, but here in the U.S., we can’t seem to avoid the temptation to step on the rakes that lie in our path. Sure, a good deal of the problem is the result from abysmal leadership at various levels of government in responding to the pandemic. But a good part of that response is within our power to control. For the love of neighbor and community, we need to find that power, and apply it for the good of all.

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