Protest

Organizer Chad Armstrong (left) leads demonstrators in chants as diners enjoy The Streatery, an outdoor dining event on Fourth Street, on Saturday.

The chevrons on his uniform sleeve indicated that the man was a police corporal. The gooey drips of ice cream running down his hand as he crouched next to a small child in the middle of a sea of downtown diners indicated that he was a dad.

Policing and parenting met pandemic in a brief, idyllic scene that city officials and stakeholders couldn’t possibly have scripted even if they’d tried in the first downtown “Streatery” event.

And for a few blissful moments at least, all was well.

“We’re back to work, and we’re excited for the street seating because we’re going to be close to our sale before,” McKena Thomas, the general manager of Jeffrey Adams restaurant, told a reporter Saturday afternoon just before showtime.

But before planners had the opportunity to declare the experiment a success, a double shot of pandemic reality tossed a measure of cold water into the mix.

Protests Saturday evening and the bleak news that city pools would have to be shut down due to an outbreak certainly were cause for concern.

All is not well

First things first, kudos must be given to city officials who not only listened when downtown restaurateurs asked that a few city blocks be cordoned off to accommodate outdoor dining but acted with rare speed and dexterity to make it happen.

In only a matter of weeks, the plan — modeled after similar programs elsewhere — was hatched, approved by hundreds via modern online petitioning and put into action Saturday.

Barely before cash registers started spinning after several months of phase-out, phase-in slow-roll re-openings came the first reminder that All is Not Well.

About 40 protesters smartly (and peaceably) took advantage of high-visibility opportunity to make themselves heard by marching the crosswalks at the intersection of Fourth and Cherry smack in the middle of the Streatery.

“If you cannot tell us why, this is why we occupy,” goes the chant, a reference to the obstinate refusal of the elected sheriff and district attorney to provide more clarity about the death of John Neville from injuries suffered in the Forsyth County Detention Center.

Prime among many concerns: Why hide the fact of Neville’s death for so long?

Anyone with a pulse can understand the desire to shield Neville’s family from further pain. But sometimes shoring up confidence in public institutions — particularly now and especially when it concerns law enforcement — must be given equal or greater consideration.

Staying silent about a man’s death and the circumstances leading up to it are fair reasons to protest.

Ten demonstrators ultimately were taken into custody without incident by Winston-Salem police for blocking traffic, a clear line in the sand for cops charged with balancing First Amendment rights with public safety.

Notable, too, was the lack of violence and destruction.

Unpleasant position

The Second Reminder started to surface over the weekend when city officials learned that an employee at the Bolton Pool had tested positive for COVID-19. Worse, she (or he) had interactions with other Winston-Salem Recreation and Parks pool staff outside of work.

As of Sunday morning, one other Bolton employee also tested positive.

Uh-oh.

That spread forced officials into the unpleasant position of having to close all city pools until further notice and offer testing to anyone who’s been swimming and feeling squeamish about it.

The fact that there is a baby outbreak — backed by evidence — among pool employees who work outdoors surely must be cause for concern for officials who now have to consider whether to continue closing streets for outdoor dining.

If form holds, contact tracers are just getting started tracing back possible avenues for further exposure.

Anyone care to bet permanent lung damage — or worse — that none of the several hundred asymptomatic diners, strollers and curiosity-seekers who passed through a small, open-air path on Fourth Street hadn’t been to a municipal pool or otherwise exposed?

It’s an unenviable, untenable position for decision makers.

Continue to allow a small ray of hope into a crucial part of the local economy? Or shut it all down for a little while longer?

Weighing risk tolerance against liability is a balancing act, one that might have been made easier months ago.

There are neither easy answers nor quick fixes. The only certainty is that it’s a crying shame public health and economic vitality appear to be in direct opposition.

ssexton@wsjournal.com

336-727-7481

@scottsextonwsj

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