Editorial: Public events can finally return safely

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 27, 2022

It’s time to start thinking about the impact of the virus differently for public gatherings.

Whether people have listened or not, we’ve collectively learned in the previous two years how to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 — masks, vaccinations, social distancing, washing hands and gathering outdoors when community spread is high.

For nearly two years, organizers and event attendees alike have watched case counts to determine whether events are safe, usually canceling, going virtual or moving to drive-thru formats whenever there’s a spike. In addition to straight cancellations, organizers of events such as Pops at the Post have rescheduled only to cancel later.

It’s fair to quibble with specific cancellations, but they’ve collectively been the right thing to do in order to guard against unnecessary hospitalizations and deaths. Depending on future variants and because Rowan County has already lost far too many people to COVID-19, there may be a time where cancellations or logistical changes are prudent. The omicron variant showed its possible for variants to shatter all previous expectations for community spread.

But the lack of community connection also has torn at already frayed threads that hold Salisbury and Rowan County together. A strong community is much more than a collection of people who live within a geographical boundary, and simple in-person interactions with acquaintances, strangers and longtime friends matter more than we realize. Humans are social creatures.

When people — perhaps a large crowd — gather Monday to pray for Ukraine in Bell Tower Green, they may leave spiritually and emotionally fulfilled. People may leave the Cheerwine Festival in May — the first in-person rendition since the start of the pandemic — with full stomachs and full hearts.

The Salisbury City Council has accomplished business by holding virtual meetings for most of the previous two years, but there are nonverbal cues and actions that influence council action and public opinion. It’s important that someone can show up at the prescribed time to City Hall and tell his or her elected officials about a community issue. No technological equipment required.

An omicron-induced spike is more than a month old. Local and statewide case numbers are approaching levels seen just before the delta variant spike in late summer. To guard against community spread, it’s easy enough to require masks indoors and reduce indoor capacity as needed. People should not be strangers to wearing masks, which remain mandatory in some settings.

Not everyone is raring to hold signs up on the Square or march through town proclaiming what’s best, but there are plenty of Salisburians and Rowan Countians who are eager to breathe in some fresh Piedmont air with a few thousand of their neighbors or leave Zoom links in the past and attend public meetings in person.

Because tens of thousands of Rowan Countians have been vaccinated and, perhaps, contracted COVID-19, too, post-omicron sentiments will be changed even among the most cautious earlier in the pandemic. A growing number of people have gotten a booster shot. Anyone else has received ample time to take protective measures against the virus. There are treatment methods such as monoclonal antibodies for those who remain opposed to vaccinations and ways to protect those who are more vulnerable than most for a severe case of COVID-19.

The changed sentiment is evident by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changing its mask guidance Friday to say the number of cases in a community no longer dictate whether masks should be worn indoors. People should instead use new COVID-related hospital admissions, the percentage of beds occupied by COVID patients in addition to new cases per capita. Rowan County remains among the communities where masks are recommended, but that’s not the case in a majority of American counties.

Particularly in our current moment, nonprofits, civic groups, local governments, institutions and other event organizers should plan for the return of in-person signature events if they weren’t already.