Chris Ohl — Dr. Christopher Ohl, infectious diseases expert at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center to the rest of the world — laughed out loud at an unexpected and slightly inappropriate greeting.
He was standing inside Ken’s Bike Shop — a customer, he’d come by at the owner’s request to make sure the virus precautions they’d taken were sound — when another customer walked in and recognized him.
I know you. … You’re the face of the coronavirus in Forsyth County!
What else could he do?
“Ugh. That billboard,” the good doctor said referring to an enormous outdoor sign next to the hospital.
The conversation then turned serious. Shop mechanics can’t build bikes fast enough; local parks are full-to-bursting most days. Persistent rumors had been swirling that local officials might follow the state’s lead in closing some busy green spaces and that’d be bad for business.
“I was just talking to them about that,” Ohl said. “They won’t. They can’t.”
Not now, not with record crowds enjoying all they have to offer. But darker days could be around the next bend in the path.
Packed to the gills
For all the reasons you’d expect, going to a park to ride a new bike, power walk or just sit in the sun is one of the safer things a stir-crazy person can do.
Provided, of course, the common-sense guidelines we all know by heart are followed. Don’t go if you feel ill, keep a safe distance if you’re not ill and wash your hands when you’re done.
Sunshine is the best disinfectant — particularly for the 6-inches between the ears — and plenty of locals grasp that.
Parking lots at either end of Salem Lake, which has a 7-mile path encircling it, are crammed full most afternoons. Families ride with small children on training wheels and trikes.
Strollers and unhurried picnickers crowd the pathways. Bored teens, a few enveloped in telltale clouds of smoke, pop out of the woods in odd places. Cautious seniors people-watch from the wooden benches placed around the loop.
Parks (and the greenways leading into them) have neither turnstiles nor admission fees. Staff with the city’s Recreation and Parks Department can’t provide exact usage statistics. Administrators can only estimate and ground-level maintenance workers make informed guesses that usage may be at an all-time high.
“There really isn’t a good way to tell other than how much trash and debris are left on greenways and parks due to heavy use,” wrote William Royston, the director of Recreation and Parks in an e-mail. “With so many ways to access green spaces throughout the City, it’ll be difficult for us to tell.”
Increased usage — along with the spike in visibility — is, for the most part, a bright spot during dark days. More people getting outside should be a good thing for the community and an advertisement for the good things public money (and judicious investments) can accomplish.
“It’s just beautiful,” said Joe Browder, a 61-year-old Lexington resident while having a snack at a stone picnic table on the greenway behind Reynolds Park Golf Course. “I’d never been before. I’m glad I came.”
Since his car needed service in Winston-Salem, Browder decided to take advantage of his waiting time to spin the sand-and-dirt loop around Salem Lake. He realized that, like everything else these days, his trip carried a risk. But it was far outweighed by the reward.
“People seem to be keeping a safe distance,” he said. “And as far as the (bike ride), some of the corners were sandy so I was riding real safely. Some of those ambulance guys pick up 50 people in the last week, and nobody wants to end up in the back of one.”
Just beyond the natural beauty, in city offices and work-at-home stations, city budget types are busy making contingency plans.
Stay-at-home orders and the shuttering of businesses will take a big bite out of budgets. Tax collections are way down, and that eats into the revenue that flows back to cities after being collected by the state.
“Right now, we are developing a budget assuming the country will be in a deep recession for at least the remainder of 2020,” wrote Ben Rowe, an assistant city manager, in an e-mail. “Sales taxes, occupancy taxes (i.e. hotel/motel taxes), and property taxes are the primary revenues that we are monitoring.”
Loss in income, in city budgets the same as in households, means belt-tightening. You and I might cut out such extras as eating take-out or Hulu subscriptions; municipalities often turn to recreation and parks first.
Clean drinking water, working sewers, garbage pickup and public safety have to take priority.
The real pain likely won’t be felt for months; sales tax collections are distributed to counties and cities quarterly. “There is a lag in the reporting by three months. … We may not get a real sense of the decline until the September quarterly distribution,” Rowe wrote.
In the meantime, budget writers are busy working on different models that may well involve cuts in services. Specifics are not yet available.
“We don’t know the magnitude at this point, but it could be worse than the budget deficits during the Great Recession,” Rowe wrote.
If — or when — that comes to pass, any cuts or reduction in services could be felt most acutely in parks and greenspaces that have so far offered solace, fresh air and needed opportunity for social interaction, albeit at safe physical distancing.
“They won’t. They can’t,” Doc Ohl said earlier this month about shutting down parks.
Cuts to parks, whether maintenance or operations, would be yet another cruel side effect of the coronavirus. A bright spot in the darkness of pandemic flickers.