Fear is the cheapest room in the house.
I would like to see you living in better conditions.
As Trump’s mismanagement of this virus pandemic requires us locals to forge our own reasonable pathways through it, life as we know it is changing around us, and fast! In this last week I’ve been party to a small but representative conversation with others about postponing our scheduled performance of American Dreams, the reader’s theatre of immigrant stories directed by Sandy Nielson and me. In a flurry of emails and phone calls, the board of the Pacific County Immigrant Support group voted to postpone the event. The April 25 and 26 performances have been cancelled for now. It’s all “wait and see.”
Perhaps like many of you, I’ve been voraciously reading news from all sources trying to put together a picture of this virus and what it may do to and for us. So just a few thoughts based on my understanding of where we are.
The fact that the White House pooh-poohed the virus and its effects early on has left our country in a dangerous position. The fact that test kits were not provided earlier in this process means that we have no idea how widespread the virus is in our country, state or county; and without that information, it is very difficult to prepare for the presumed spike of illnesses that will ensue. Note that the arithmetic of transmission runs something like this: each person with the virus is expected to infect 2.5 others, who in turn infect 2.5 others (unless drastic isolation measures are taken). So how many transmission cycles does it take to get to one million infected? — only 20. And to get to 16 million — 24!
At this point, the most critical question is the capacity of our health systems—availability of testing kits; the number of hospital beds, respirators, medical staff; ICU facilities; etc. — and what can be done to boost those services. (I think you will read about that elsewhere in today’s issue of the Chinook Observer.) The non-technical side of the pandemic is a set of common sense practices that we’ve been encouraged to take: staying home, washing our hands, cleaning surfaces we touch, not touching our faces, and not gathering in groups.
Gov. Jay Inslee, who has been a leader in recognizing the severity of this virus, has recommended no gatherings of larger than 50 people. In Austria officials have said no groups larger than five. And what is the correct spacing for “social distancing:” some say six feet, some say 10. (I’ve been perfecting my elbow-bump.)
There are two obvious reasons for not gathering in groups. First, this may limit the spread of the disease (see above!). The virus in our nation is being spread now by “community transmission” — meaning those affected have not gotten the virus by traveling to a hot spot but rather from someone they’ve come into contact with at home. Now we also know that the virus can likely be spread by a “carrier” who shows no symptoms or signs of the disease (i.e. a fever, dry cough, aching, reduced energy levels, shortness of breath). Yes, younger healthier folks may not be as susceptible to covid-19, but they can unknowingly infect people in more vulnerable populations—our elders (like me!), folks who have some other underlying illness that has compromised their immune systems, or people who do not have access to the suggested preventative measures (the homeless, or others without proper sanitation or running water).
The second reason for not gathering is more complex. This has to do with slowing that “spike” of illnesses that epidemiologists have predicted. Not gathering in groups slows down this spike — some are calling it “flattening the curve” — meaning that the illnesses that do take place are spread over time in such a way that our medical facilities and personnel won’t be overwhelmed.
So the question as you’re deciding whether to head to the bars or restaurants that may still be open, or to events that are still taking place, is not “Is it safe?” but rather “Is it responsible?” Will someone else be endangered by your attendance? We’re all in this together.
Closures, changes and losses
Last week I spoke with people who’ve been considering the difficult decisions to cancel events or close facilities. Carol Newman’s entire KMUN radio show, Arts Live and Local, is based on talking to artists, musicians, and other performers who have an event coming up. How will the virus change what Carol does?
“You know KMUN is in the middle of pledge drive, and we’ve even cancelled that now. The idea of having all these people coming in and out of the station and bringing food — it would be the perfect breeding ground.” Carol says, “At this point I’m hoping to continue my arts show — any linkage helps. If somebody is playing music somewhere or doing some kind of creative work that doesn’t even have an event connected to it, I’d like to talk to them.” Betsy Millard has said their events are cancelled and the Columbia Pacific Heritage Museum is closed for the time being.
“If people want to know what’s closed and what isn’t, they can check our website. Joanne Rideout is recording everything that’s cancelled. As notices come into the KMUN news department, she will post them. For now, I’m just playing it by heart.”
Jennifer Crockett, executive director of the Liberty Theater, says, “We’ve had to make the tough decision to close until late April. It’s been crazy. But the writing was really on the wall. Our ticket sales have been very slow the last few weeks — we were not even halfway where we would normally be for upcoming shows. So we called a meeting of our executive committee and I presented some financials that compared our losses of closing entirely versus limping along. The financial impact was higher if we tried to limp along.”
But it’s not as simple as just locking the theater doors. “Insurance isn’t covering these circumstances, but our booking agency has been super flexible even though they didn’t have the infrastructure to handle the volume of cancellations. We didn’t either—we’ve had to upgrade our software to allow credits for future shows. We have about 4,000 tickets to process individually. We’re hoping some patrons may want to turn their tickets into a donation rather than a future show.”
When asked about the effect on theater staff, Jenn says, “We will absolutely not be laying anyone off. Some donors are stepping up to make sure we don’t need to let staff go. Sen. Betsy Johnson called me right away about the possibility of emergency relief. We’re in contact with some of our foundations to make sure our grant funds are not in danger. We’ll lose $87,000 being closed but we have plans to continue business as usual in May and beyond. We’re hoping for the best. The first weekend in May is when we bus in around 2,200 elementary school students for Astoria School of Ballet. If we have to cancel that, it would be the worst.”
“It’s funny,” Jenn continues, “The day we announced the closure was my birthday. It was scary and heartbreaking, but the capital campaign has strengthened our leadership at the theater. Our board is so much stronger now. Even though this is horrible, we feel like we’re energized, we’re ready.”
Perhaps this virus will open America’s eyes to the need for strong leadership, for creating organizations, systems, and structures that are healthy, lead by managers and politicians who are capable, humane, and skilled at what they do. One hopes that crisis instructs; that after we make it through this by holding together and helping each other, we can make changes that strengthen our nation.