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Our new socially distanced Saturday morning outdoor market has an alligator greeting shoppers. In better days he worked the pool as a floatie, but now the inflatable reptile has been deployed in the war on coronavirus. At full capacity, he’s precisely six feet long, sporting a cheerful sign directing those heading toward spring lettuce and turnips to stay at least that far apart.
I live in a city with a thriving local restaurant scene, growth above the national average, and an economy that depends in part on outside visitors—and smallholder farmers nearby. All that has shut down with the stay-at-home orders necessitated by the coronavirus.
Further, Asheville, N.C., sits amid a region dominated by national parks, government-owned forests, and mountains. Farmland is scarce, valuable, and constantly sought after by outside developers. Close-in farmland partly helped by land conservancies is the lifeblood of a foodie town. Asheville has a top-rated culinary arts schools and five recently named James Beard chefs. Yet our city is small enough we count them as neighbors and friends.
So the COVID-19-era market is a small Band-Aid over a gaping economic wound. But it’s also a larger-than-life symbol of what local efforts can accomplish in the face of a pandemic. The 100 or so farmers who operate the city’s multiple tailgate markets quickly adapted to comply with restrictions. They moved the Saturday market, normally packed into several blocks, to sprawling parking lots of a (closed) community college.
There volunteers regulate the flow of traffic, and vendors set up with lots of space between them. A limited number of shoppers enter, with only one shopper at a time approaching each table. Produce and other goods come bundled or wrapped in parcels, and shoppers are instructed to touch only what they aim to buy. Helping to keep it all moving and socially distanced: no payment transactions. Purchases are on an honor system, no receipts even, and shoppers go online later to pay.
Sellers are happy because they are moving goods that otherwise would be going to waste. Buyers are too. What’s not to like about shopping in the open sunshine these days? And the chance to recognize neighbors and friends behind fabric masks?
I ran into a friend from church I’ve dearly missed. We both had tears running into our masks as we talked (six feet apart), we were so glad to see each other. And, as she said, “I’m fine at home, but when I go out I’m just overwhelmed by how everything has changed.”
Everything has changed. And the market—with its friendly atmosphere and attention to details protecting us from one another—is a reminder we can adapt, too. Everything about the new market is a compromise. It meets no one’s old expectations, yet surpasses the new alternative: not having one at all.
I love the stories of people choosing innovation over irritation. The “rice ATMs” of Vietnam where volunteers squirt hand sanitizer before people fill their bags. The Guardian Angels of New York, who ride the subways handing out food, water, and care packages to the city’s homeless. And the Italians who borrow the old Neapolitan custom, lowering food baskets from their quarantined balconies to the needy waiting in the street below.
These fit the times we are living through better than the talk-show rabble rousers, more ably than the protesters in Wisconsin, Michigan, and elsewhere. I’m embarrassed for the well-turned middle-class Americans demanding their rights in a time of national emergency. Keep your powder dry, folks, we are early in this game. Local, state, and federal officials have their hands full, if you haven’t noticed, and each of us will have a gripe before it’s all over.
Also, none of us are experts at this, and that’s why those of us who are well need all the kindness and cheer we can muster for the sick and needy. As the marquee at the empty Nitehawk Cinema in New York reads, “Be excellent to each other.”