The COVID-19 crisis has crippled the sense of community in places like Houston, where schools and churches are closed and so are dining rooms and bars. Social distancing is necessary to slow the spread of the upper-respiratory disease but also makes people anti-social, because citizens have been ordered to stay in their homes most of the time and steer clear of others because they might be sick or carrying the new strain of coronavirus.
In the Woodland Heights neighborhood, however, residents are using creativity to stay connected.
Borrowing an idea she got from her sister-in-law in Chicago, Tracy Smith put together a “Shamrock Hunt” in the Northwest Houston community on March 17, which was St. Patrick’s Day. She and her four children asked neighbors to attach images of shamrocks to windows that face their streets, and then kids walked or rode their bicycles around the neighborhood and counted as many as they could.
Smith said her kids ventured out March 19, because they were hampered by ear infections two days earlier, and still saw shamrocks on 89 homes.
“This thing that we love about living in the Heights is the community,” Smith said. “We’re missing it so much right now that it seemed like the perfect way to sort of be reaching out to each other. We can see these little messages and know we’re all in this together.”
Because last week’s event went over so well, an officer with the Woodland Heights Civic Association is expanding on it. Melissa Sternfels, the association’s vice president of deed restriction enforcement, organized the “Great Rainbow Hunt” this week and plans to hold a “Sunshine Hunt” and “Flower Hunt” the following weeks.
Following the format of the “Shamrock Hunt,” residents were asked to attach rainbow images to their front windows on Tuesday, and the rainbow hunt was held the next day. There will be a search for sunshine images the following Wednesday and flower images the Wednesday after that.
For each upcoming event, Sternfels said she plans to leave care packages on her front porch so kids can get a toy or treat after completing their hunt. She said she might also leave out beers for the parents.
“It’s just a fun activity in the afternoon,” Sternfels said. “We’re going to do that weekly until the coronavirus pandemic at least subsides or we at least get back to life as usual again.”
With the number of COVID-19 cases climbing in the Houston area, local government and health officials issued a stay-at-home, work-safe order on Tuesday, meaning citizens must stay at home except for essential reasons and only essential businesses are permitted to operate. But parks remain open and people are allowed to go outside to exercise as long as they maintain a distance of at least 6 feet from each other.
Rafael Lemaitre, a spokesperson for Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, said last week that people should be “very careful” when venturing out, because even those who feel healthy could be infected with COVID-19 and spread the disease to others. Families have been ordered to avoid gathering in groups with other families.
“If folks want to walk down sidewalks and look for things as part of a walk around the neighborhood, that should be OK as long as they’re not making contact and maintaining social distance between themselves and other folks,” Lemaitre said. “It’s good for (kids) to be outside and get exercise as long as they’re not coming in close proximity to other schoolchildren and other family units.”
Sternfels said Woodland Heights residents are doing other things to stay connected without getting too close to each other. Families have been drawing and writing messages in colorful chalk on their sidewalks and driveways, and some are hanging Christmas lights to brighten spirits.
Sternfels said some in the community also are engaging in “street porch parties” in which they stay on their front porches or driveways and talk to neighbors who are doing the same. Several residents were out walking and cycling Monday afternoon, with many some visiting the Norhill Esplanade.
“You have all the space here so that you can walk around and not run into anybody,” said Woodland Heights resident Ward Pennebaker, who went for a walk with his wife. “I think people are going stir crazy.”
In addition to the weekly hunts, in which people can paint, print or sculpt images of rainbows, suns and flowers, Sternfels said she’s also organizing a “photo safari” in which residents search for a list of recognizable things around the neighborhood, take photos of them and then submit those photos along with the corresponding addresses. Whoever photographs all the places first will receive a gift certificate to a local restaurant, Sternfels said.
“I think it gives us a little sense of humanity and makes us feel like a neighborhood,” Sternfels said. “Even though we can’t be together, we can share something together.”
Sternfels said she hopes the events in Woodland Heights inspire other neighborhoods as they cope with the effects of COVID-19. She said those with questions about the events and how to organize them can email email@example.com.
The spread of the disease has caused people all over the country and the world to limit physical contact with each other, but they can still connect with other.
“I think it’s great for each of our little communities to start doing things like this,” Sternfels said.