201231ind PandemicYIR

The Oak Hill Tavern in North Kingstown was among a number of local restaurants that voluntarily closed for business back in mid-March as the coronavirus pandemic came to Southern Rhode Island. Not surprisingly, COVID-19 was the top story in our area for 2020.

Yes, 2020 intimidated us, but didn’t beat us.

Pandemics don’t come very often – thankfully – but as the world has seen, they bring life to its knees in many ways.  

And so it happened in South County that vast changes invaded everyday life. Even with devastating hurricanes in the last 100 years delivering destruction all around here, COVID-19’s sweep remains broader, stronger and perhaps much longer lasting.

Yet, people in these local communities refused to be cornered by a contagious and ravaging disease that left vulnerable people feeling helpless and others just managing to cope with rapid changes in their lives.

“We learned that working together can keep us from dying and we learned that cooperation may be the only thing that can save humanity from extinction,” said Robert Zarnetske, South Kingstown town manager in a recent interview with The Independent.

Kate Brewster, executive director of the Jonnycake Center for Hope in South Kingstown’s Peace Dale section, agreed.

“Our community has always been generous. They donate funds, food, clothing, holiday gifts, and time. A lot of it,” she said.

Although a daunting time, it may also be remembered when South County communities surrounded by a pandemic darkness glimmered with inspiration, hope, resilience and — most of all — the commitment of residents to each other.


Many Changes

COVID-19 was like a thief breaking through the security of a safe home. Communities across the region in mid-March faced an emerging problem, a harbinger of the pandemic.

Restrictions came almost overnight and started to impose on everyday activities of residents. They began to erode the underlying economic system that supported communities and the businesses in them.

For example, the South Kingstown Town Council in an unusual emergency meeting late on a mid-March Sunday afternoon agreed to slash restaurants’ capacity crowds — a feature of St. Patrick’s Day revelry — fearing crowded restaurants would make a bad situation explode.

Soon after, as the first documented case of the coronavirus appeared in South County Health, medical officials and medical staff started preparing for more positive cases in the community.

In just days, the coronavirus also began upending the local economy, the work of non-profit groups and function of government agencies, leaving everyone wondering what the future holds for them as working from home became the norm.

Having already monitored the disease spread overseas, Ocean State Job Lot officials in North Kingstown focused early on the novel coronavirus coming to the United States.

This move helped the company meet initial waves of consumer demand that could have swamped its 140 stores in nine states.

Storm clouds gathered over South County’s future, growing darker when businesses started to expect losses in spring and summer tourism, both keeping the local economy afloat.

Gov. Gina Raimondo closed schools, limited business hours and customers allowed inside, and placed armed state police officers and the Rhode Island National Guard at state borders.

While ostensibly there to tell people about quarantining if coming from out-of-state, a more subtle message got nationwide attention. Officials wanted to dissuade out-of-state travelers from settling in Rhode Island where COVID-19 was spreading less rapidly than in other nearby states.

She also imposed many customer limitations on businesses and issued stay-at-home guidance unless for necessary food and provisions. Fear and frustration began rolling in like angry waves from tides in the nearby Atlantic Ocean.

Dr. Joseph C. DiSano, a South Kingstown dentist, said he never expected that suddenly — in a matter of just days —his entire staff would disappear along with most of his patients. He never expected a virus would be the cause.


Adapting to a Pandemic

It became clear the virus wasn’t going away quickly. The challenge was new and the virus unforgiving. Rather than remain mired in paralysis, community leaders soon emerged as models for adapting.

Easter approached and local clergy around South County began planning services and messages using online technology, which many never tried before to bring worship to their flocks.

Funeral homes faced curtailed celebrations of lives and mourning of deaths since only a few people could partake.

“It’s so sad to sit there and I used to say to the families my whole life ‘What can I do for you? Anything you want?’ Now I have to tell them what they can and can’t do,” said David Nardolillo, co-owner of Nardolillo Funeral Home in Narragansett.

Livestreaming of selected portions of wakes popped up as a way for mourners to seek a “virtual visit” by seeing the mourners or hearing the service, but without open casket views.  

Funeral directors said that while cemetery counterparts also had to limit those at graveside burials, these novel approaches challenged funeral care’s decades of tradition, but brought some comfort to families and friends.  

Amid this pandemic pandemonium, cottage pop-up industries saw a moment for action to help others.


Maskmaker, maskmaker, make me a mask

I fear that I’m not up to the task…

In this pandemic it’s easy to see

That we need more PPE

Doctor Fauci, please bring me some good news

I’m grouchy and I’m scared as can be

The CDC now wants us to wear masks

And I am not going to disagree


A parody of the “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” tune from “Fiddler on the Roof” resonated with South County’s growing homespun effort to make hand-crafted masks to cover noses and mouths in the coronavirus fight.

“I feel blessed that so many people want to help out,” said Jessica Pena of South Kingstown and one organizer of “South County Masketeers,” a group of more than 50 volunteers.

Other collections of people, at churches and in non-profit community organizations, made masks when they had yet to be mass-produced for an entire country’s population.

Chambers of Commerce and government officials in Narragansett, South Kingstown and North Kingstown started figuring out ways to help the restaurant, real estate and retail industry.

The clutches of the unabating pandemic started to reach from spring into the profit-rich summer months for these businesses.

In this swirl, trapped senior citizens became homebound-prisoners of coronavirus fears and restrictions. Grocery stores like Belmont market in Wakefield and churches became their lifelines to the outside world.

Belmont’s corps of volunteer delivery crews rode each day through surrounding towns bringing groceries ordered online and putting carefully packaged bags on airplanes and ferries to Block Island.

These were also welcome sights to customers on this small island. Its one store had to curtail service due to a COVID outbreak.

Among the army donating time each week were Tiger Patrick from the South Kingstown Veterans of Foreign Wars, The Narragansett Lions Club, The South Kingstown Elks, South County YMCA, Union Fire District, Southern Rhode Island Volunteers, and Jennifer’s Chocolates at the Wakefield Mall.


Deaths Hit Hard

Deaths soon began to hit hard.

The prospect of them stalked South County residents, especially those with elderly family members in the hospitals or some convalescent or nursing homes.

David Reddington, 53, of Narragansett, was robbed of his last chance to stand by his father’s hospital bed and say “I love you” to the man who raised him, showing him unconditional love as a child and throughout his adult life.

And just weeks later he and his wife, Tara, could not be with her mother, Helen, when she died in a convalescent home.

Betsy Olbrych, 53, of Charlestown, and Sue Davis, 57, also of Narragansett, also said at the time they felt deprived of their opportunities to be with elderly parents in assisted living facilities.

The same happened at North Kingstown’s Scalabrini Villa, especially hit hard shortly after the pandemic started in Rhode Island.

The now spreading disease  and accompanying restrictions made them powerless to help those who had given them so much.

As the initial months passed, Memorial Day soon arrived and invited thoughts of summer. The continuing spread of the virus prompted concerns about fear of disease and business-killing revenue losses if tourists stayed home and Governor Raimondo kept restrictions tight.  

South County’s scene of by-the-ocean summers of seaside vacations, boating, day tripping, Block Island visits, camping and other tourist-attracting activities seemed to fade rapidly.

Town and state officials, however, said they knew this draconian approach would not be sustainable for the public’s acceptance. The political realities set in about needing a game plan.

With warmer weather and more people going outside, COVID positive cases began to decrease and this gave the strategic opportunity to find more accepting approaches to virus control.

Town officials opened beaches, but put restrictions on numbers allowed at this attraction, one of the most heavily visited tourist destinations in the state.

They and state officials also eased regulations to provide more outdoor dining as state health leaders promoted the safety of outdoor dining and recreation while indoor restrictions remained tight.

These helped to recharge South County‘s tourist engine, said many local business owners and tourism officials.

While numbers of tourists and business revenue fell compared to previous years, the feared devastating wipeout never happened.

At the same time of dealing with the pandemic, South County also saw support for Black Lives Matter and local vocal support in the national tide of opposition to police brutality.

In June, nine South Kingstown and Narragansett churches on a Friday night sponsored nine minutes of bell ringing about death, racism and equality. Pastor Fred Evenson of the Peace Dale Congregational Church organized it.

“This Friday is Juneteenth. I am proposing that we all observe both the commemoration of the day, and the commemoration of George Floyd’s death and the injustices that it symbolizes, by ringing our church bells,” he wrote in an email to other local pastors.

While some local tempers flared over social issues, they also flamed over mask-wearing and social distancing as tensions grew between those wanting a “normal” summer and those backing government lockdowns.

Steve Brophy, owner of Brickley’s Ice Cream on Main Street in Wakefield, said he decided to pull the plug on operations there after some repeated instances of customers verbally abusing young staff enforcing mask-wearing and social distancing rules.

Nonetheless, streets and restaurants overall remained calm in South County while rioting and opposition broke out in other parts of the country.

However, the halcyon days of summer, warm weather and lower virus counts had an end coming. In early September with public schools starting, University of Rhode Island students returning to the area and indoor activities picking up, so, too, did the virus counts in South County.

A new round of restrictions came with mounting fears about catching the virus, which also trickled into Halloween trick-or-treat festivities postponed or winnowed to few door-to-door visitors in local towns.

Meanwhile, unprecedented numbers of voters avoiding polls put huge demands for absentee ballots and early voting on registrars of voters handling various required steps in local, state and federal elections this year.

More than double the usual number of people looking for free Wednesday night dinners at Peace Dale Congregational Church began appearing. This small, but significant sign, showed COVID-19’s harmful effects on households.

By December, with worsening virus numbers in the state, the shared true meaning of Christmas led several area congregations to find some socially-distanced ways to feel their fellowship this year.

It meant continued online services for Christmas, yet some very limited in-person opportunities for a daring few.

As the Year of the Pandemic came to a close, South County Hospital became the billboard for the real antidote to a virus crippling emotions, households, businesses and lives.

It administered the first COVID-19 vaccine in this area in late December and the hospital has continued giving shots to frontline medical staff.

Meanwhile, cases of the virus climb with temperatures dropping outdoors and this brings more people inside despite public health officials’ advice to avoid it. Residents fear this combination will worsen virus spread.

What 2021 May Bring

These residents interviewed also said they hoped that convincing as many people as possible to get the vaccine would be the final battle against it.

A vaccine beckons hope, they pointed out. They said they want a return to a their old lifestyle, but felt it would be stamped now with permanent changes ushered in as part of coping with the pandemic.

Telemedicine, perhaps snow closing days replaced with virtual classes, and the ease of using more online technology, most likely are among the major culture changes here to stay, they said.   

Aaron Robinson, chief operating officer of South County Health and Hospital, agreed with them on the promise of the vaccine.

“After review of the Pfizer vaccine, we believe the vaccine to be safe, highly effective, and a promising turning point in the battle against COVID-19,” he said.

Residents also said that community togetherness also remains strong.

Joe Viele, executive director of the Southern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce, lauded the rush to help last year.

“I will say that I am totally impressed by the can-do attitude of this community. The businesses, especially hospitality, have been severely impacted, They all just got to work and made the best of the situation, focus and determination got us through,” he said.

At Belmont Market, Susan Hoopes, marketing manager, said that the store’s management and employee teams are still rallying to help others, even when quarantining has affected them and put extra burdens on running the store.

“Our hours may be temporarily shorter to the public, but inside many managers are working harder than ever, foregoing their days off,” she said.

At the Jonnycake Center for Hope in Peace Dale, Kate Brewster, executive director, said that those coming into her second-hand clothes store and food pantry are thankful for the help.

“So many Jonnycake members work hard for little pay, experience significant health disparities and chronic illness, and face other barriers to economic and emotional security.  The public health crisis exacerbated all of these issues,” she said.

She said that as her members lost their jobs or stayed home to protect their already fragile health, the community stepped up with more funds, more food, more gifts, and many continued to give their time to volunteer.

“We have witnessed firsthand what this community is capable of withstanding and delivering during a crisis – and it’s nothing short of amazing,” she said.

Bill Seymour is a freelance writer covering news and personality feature stories in Narragansett, North Kingstown and South Kingstown. He can be reached at independent.southcountylife@gmail.com.

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