Bunnell: Signs of COVID-19 panic . . . and a community's resilience

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Signs of the times.

“Wash your hands.

“Stay calm.

“Be kind.”

That’s the message this week on the signboard outside Holy Angels Church as the enormity of the COVID-19 pandemic hits even our small corner of the world.

No cases yet in St. T and Elgin. At least, none as of this writing. But the Ontario Health Ministry updates its count twice a day on its website.

And signs are popping up here and there, on doors and signboards and online, reflecting a community’s concern, and response.

I’ve always described St. Thomas and Elgin as a place where we like to double-knot our bootlaces.

It sure was a surprise to see the signs of panic overcoming common sense this week, as shelves at the grocery stores were stripped bare of toilet paper, paper towels, bottled water and foodstuffs.

And, then, increasingly strident signs limiting purchases … until they turned bright red at one store, warning in no uncertain terms that that limit was per family — a prohibition, I guess, on loading up individually by husband and wife and kiddies.


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Curiously, the 11-kilogram bags of flour, and the sugar, were largely untouched.

A People Pal suggested nobody knows what to do with them, any more.

Like COVID-19, panic is contagious, I suppose. Happily, Charmin was back on the shelves to squeeze by the end of the week.

But it’s been a week of surprises, hasn’t it, as a community slowly has shut down. And what was news at the beginning of the week, now is just the new normal. Stores, services, offices all reducing hours, keeping workers at home, or just plain closing up.

For as long as I have written here, the Times-Journal’s community calendar has been a regular feature listing non-profit and charitable events. This week was the first week in memory it consisted solely of closings and cancellations.

And only a partial list.

The Lenten music series at Central United Church has been paused. Central, like many other churches, has closed. (The sign at nearby Knox Presbyterian Church offers online worship.)

Both Port Stanley Festival Theatre and the Elgin Theatre Guild have gone dark. Port, until the end of April. ETG, TDB. Each had calendared a number of events, now cancelled or postponed.

“It really will hurt the pocketbook,” says ETG’s Dave McCormick.

St. Thomas Public Art Centre has locked up. An exhibition of elementary student art may or may not continue later. Portside Gallery, too. Its annual show and sale of miniatures also may be continued. Both exhibitions had just opened.


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St. Thomas and District Horticultural Society will have to wait a little longer for 150th anniversary celebrations. For the third time in its history, the society has suspended activities for public safety. The first time, ironically, was for another pandemic, the Spanish Flu in October, 1918, says secretary Richard Cartwright.

More signs. These out front of bars and restos, now ordered under Ontario’s state-of-emergency declaration Tuesday to shutter except for takeout and delivery. Some offer 10 per cent discounts to keep business going.

Elgin Centre has reduced hours at the mall. Some stores simply have closed.

The crisis comes as Paul Jenkins gets ready for his first day on the job Monday as new president and CEO of the St. Thomas and District Chamber of Commerce.

“It’s a challenge,” Paul observes.

As they have for the rest of us, events have been fast and furious in coming, and Paul still was taking stock as we spoke Thursday morning. He was to meet that afternoon with Tara McCaulay at Elgin Small Business Development Centre to review the various aid programs announced Tuesday and Wednesday by the provincial and federal governments, and talk how to get the word out.

It’s too early to know the full impact of COVID-19 on local small businesses, he says.

“I think the situation is so fluid at the moment, the impact is still to be felt and figured out.”

But don’t be lulled.

“This is a serious situation,” Paul says.

“Our local businesses need – and deserve – as much support as we possibly can provide them.”


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And after this writing, I’m going to stop by my favourite coffee shop to grabba java to go. I wish I could do more for them.

Geez. Even the ReStore has pulled down the blinds.

But there are signs of resilience.

Lynhurst Community Association on Facebook is rallying neighbours to look out for each other, and the elderly. The private Facebook group also is offering activities for children who are out of school during an extended March Break during which many events and attractions have been cancelled.

Meanwhile, a sign on the door of Grace Caf(C) encourages, “NO FEAR.”

The caf(C), which is a social centre as much as a soup kitchen, continued Wednesday to welcome and feed its clients.

Ginny Trepanier says they are working closely with public health to protect volunteers and the community’s less fortunate.

“We are basically sanitizing anything that moves.”

And if they are told to close, they will hand out lunches at the door.

“People are hungry. We can’t just not feed them. That’s not right!”

On Facebook, the caf(C) posts:

“So yes, we r ready for tomorrow , come what may!

“Serving on, praying on & yes!!! We r Canadians! We can do this!!!”

St. Thomas and Elgin Food Bank already has begun giving hampers out the door, to meet need while reducing risk.

And at Inn Out of the Cold, volunteers on Wednesday were preparing 70 suppers for distribution into the community, as well as usual meals for overnighters.

The shelter has suspended sit-down community suppers nightly for anyone in need. The long-running program was a food security initiative which Inn Out of the Cold also said could prevent homelessness forced on people facing a choice between food and rent. Community suppers averaged 45 diners – and fed as many as 70.


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Instead, signs up at the shelter say it’s testing takeout on Wednesday and Friday this week (bring your own bags, please). If successful, they will continue to at least mid-April, when community suppers normally would end for the season, for as long as supplies hold out.

Executive director Lori Fitzgerald says the shelter is doing a public-health assessment on guests (the resource is online), providing education and awareness, practising social distancing, and sanitizing.

“The short, quick answer is we have a full intention of continuing shelter activities as normal.”

Some volunteers, for their good reasons, have removed themselves, Lori says. But an equal number has said, “We’re absolutely in this.”

With closure of Central United, a fundraising concert March 15 by popular local Irish trio Calgorm that would have supported the shelter in part, was cancelled. The shelter is hosted at Central and a back door of the church off the Moore St. parking lot is open for food and clothing and other material donations. There’s a wagon at the bottom of the stairs for drop off. It’s checked frequently.

To make a monetary donation, call 519-933-9895.

* * *

Could there be a bright side?

Well, maybe we won’t have to ask kids at the front door this Halloween what they are.

After the run on TP, I think a lot of trick-or-treaters are going to be wrapped up as mummies. (And probably none of them has even heard of Boris Karloff!)

Hold on.

Will there even be a Halloween?


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Who now knows how long this will last?

There’s no answer to that but I’m sure we’re gonna get through this.

Paul Jenkins says he’s bowled over by community response.

“We’ve been inundated through social media with messages of support and belief what the community can accomplish together.”

It leaves him with a sense of optimism.

“More and more, we live in a great community.”

And that’s a good sign!

* * *

Lastly today, if there’s one good thing that can be said about this week, it’s that winter ended and spring arrived at 11:48 p.m. Thursday.

Wash your hands.

Don’t panic.

And please be very kind. For yourself. And for all the folks in our community.