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Let’s hope virus doesn’t change us for the worse

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I’m not sure what to make of the coronavirus, which some folks prefer to call COVID-19.

On the one hand, it’s tempting to think we’d all be safe from infection if we coughed into the crook of our elbows, sneezed into tissues and washed our hands often and throughly with soap and warm water.

On the other hand, we don’t know all that much about the coronavirus — except that it does appear, at this point, to have a higher mortality rate than the flu, which has killed more than 14,000 Americans this season. So perhaps caution is the better part of valor.

Still, I worry about the affects of the coronavirus on Johnston, both now and in the long term.

I worry especially for our schoolchildren. Technology makes remote learning possible, which is a blessing while schools are closed because the virus, but for our younger children at least, I fear some software program is a poor substitute for a teacher in a brick-and-mortar classroom. I worry especially that children already struggling in their lessons will fall farther behind.

And while we’re on the subject of schoolchildren, let’s pause to applaud the Johnston County public schools for moving quickly to serve grab-and-go meals at 13 school sites around the county. Credit school leaders too for crafting a community delivery plan that will get meals into the hands of even more students.

I worry too about my many friends in the restaurant business. (When you eat out as often as I do — or used to anyway — you get to know quite a few wait staff, bartenders, cooks and so on.) I am particularly fond of the food and folks at Heidi’s, my favorite watering hole and home to great hamburgers and quesadillas. They’re serving takeout, by the way, so give them a try if you haven’t already. In fact, give every local restaurant a try. They could use our help.

But as restaurant owners told us for a story in today’s edition of the Johnstonian News, takeout won’t make up for all of the money lost because of the governor’s ban on sit-down dining. And for the wait staff at Johnston restaurants, takeout doesn’t pay the same kind of tips as sit-down dining.

I stopped by Heidi’s a couple of days after the governor banned dine-in meals to say hey to my friends there. I was there between 3 and 5 p.m., when the restaurant was closed in advance of the 5-8 p.m. dinner service, and the staff was using the downtime to explore jobless benefits from the state. I suspect the same was true of restaurants across Johnston. I wasn’t happy when the governor banned dine-in meals, but give him credit for moving quickly to relax some of the rules for filing for and receiving jobless benefits.

I suppose the coronavirus threat will eventually pass, or perhaps modern medicine will develop a vaccine. I hope either scenario occurs sooner rather than later because I don’t want the virus to force us into some bad habits. I don’t want us, for example, to get in the habit of working from home just because we can.

Technology makes it possible for me to submit stories and photos remotely. It’s true too that the design work for our Smithfield-based print edition gets done at our big-sister paper in Wilson. And if I had to, I could conduct a staff meeting via Facetime or some similar miracle of modern hardware and software. But that’s not the same as sitting around the office bouncing story ideas off of coworkers. Besides, if I’m not in the office, I can’t have one of the doughnuts a coworker brings in on Fridays.

Neither do I want us to get in the habit of eating all of our meals at home. I know we eat primarily to sustain ourselves, but meals are also social gatherings, and I wouldn’t want to lose that. And while I’m not a regular churchgoer, I can’t imagine that a Facebook or YouTube livestream is preferable to a full sanctuary on a Sunday morning.

Johnston County residents have many places in which they routinely gather: churches, schools, restaurants, bars, shopping centers, American Legion posts, high school football stadiums and so on. But because of the coronavirus, we gather these days only in our grocery stores, where we hoard toilet paper of all things.

Let’s not make a habit of that.

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