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Flattening the curve
Two of Savannah’s event organizers discuss their decisions to cancel
Archival shot of a previous Flannery O'Connor birthday march

As you undoubtedly have noticed, either from social media or from our shortened event listings this week, there’s not a whole lot happening in Savannah right now.

In the interest of public safety, the CDC recommends social distancing to help keep coronavirus from spreading. Essentially, that means staying home as often as possible, limiting touch, and staying three to six feet away from other people.

As a result, many organizations and event planners in our town have chosen to cancel or reschedule their events. While I’d argue they’re making the absolutely correct decision, it makes things a bit tricky for us as an events newspaper, as Jim writes in his editor’s note this week.

Originally, I’d planned to sit down with Cody Shelley, manager of the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home Foundation, to talk about their upcoming birthday party for Flannery.

But coronavirus had other plans for us: Shelley had to cancel the parade, plus two other events, the day before our meeting. She suspended operations of the home just hours after we talked.

“It’s a very tough situation, but it’s much more important to keep people safe,” Shelley says. “We are lucky enough that we have this dedicated space and we can reschedule things.”

I was interested in hearing Shelley’s thought process for this decision.

“The vast majority of our volunteer docents are 65 plus,” says Shelley. “That is the thrust of our decision-making, the unknown factor that any of us could be sharing it and coming into contact with it so readily, given the fact that we work with visitors who are coming from other places. And that was really the reason. I’m minimizing my older docents’ contact, but also, I don’t want to invite a bunch of people in when I’ve been around people who are possibly at risk.”

That’s the same rationale that Tania Sammons employed when choosing to cancel her event, “The Woman Behind the Prophet: The Story of Mary Haskell Minis,” which would have taken place Mar. 11 at the Pennsylvania Avenue Resources Center.

That event was one of the first in town to be canceled; Sammons announced the cancellation on Wednesday afternoon, hours before the City of Savannah would cancel all St. Patrick’s Day festivities.

“That morning I thought, ‘Well, should I do this? What should I do?’” remembers Sammons. “I knew the City hadn’t canceled the parade at that point, and I thought, ‘I’m just going to leave it.’”

But then Sammons received an email from a book club friend who worked at St. Joseph’s.

“This doctor in the book club shared that they’ve seen a lot of respiratory cases, but have no idea if it was coronavirus because they had no tests,” shares Sammons. “She was advocating for social distancing, even for a small group like a book club, because she knows that it’s probably here based on the cases that she’s seen. She pointed out that there are so many tourists and international students, there are people traveling in and out of Savannah all the time, and it’s just very likely that it’s here.”

After Sammons read about flattening the curve and some firsthand accounts from Italy, and knowing that many of her attendees at the talk would be elderly, she made the choice, independently, to cancel the event.

“I just couldn’t in good conscience—there would be no way to know if they got it at this event, but for me, this is low hanging fruit. I can give this talk another time,” says Sammons.

Both Sammons and Shelley made the choice based on their demographic and out of a responsibility to the greater good. And both these situations are unique because Shelley and Sammons have the flexibility required to reschedule these events fairly easily. A large part of that is due to their community-oriented nature.

“We’ve had a lot of feedback on social media saying, ‘This is such a bummer, but the right thing to do right now,’ and that’s very nice to hear,” says Shelley. “Our events are geared for the community. They are not for the visitors to Savannah. Our events are very much community events, so the impact is within the folks that support us. It’s that crowd that’s impacted when we cancel. It was a really hard decision—we had a two-hour board meeting Wednesday night to discuss. We don’t want to put people at unnecessary risk.”

“It’s a pain!” Sammons concurs. “One of my favorite things in spring is watching the NCAA basketball tournament, and I’m so bummed. This is a huge disruption in our lives, how we live.”

While both Shelley and Sammons report positive feedback and support for their choices, you’d be hard pressed to find that unanimous support on social media, which is even more divisive and vitriolic than usual. (Pro tip: there is a Google Chrome extension called Shut Up that disables comment sections for all websites. You’re welcome.)

Plenty of people on social media are in strong opposition to event cancellations, crowing that it feeds into mass hysteria. I wondered what Shelley would have to say to them.

“I would tell them to read the personal accounts of doctors in Italy right now,” says Shelley firmly, “who are having to make life and death decisions about who gets to survive because their resources are so limited because the virus was not contained early enough. That’s what I would say to them.”

These are uncertain times that, as Sammons points out, come on the heels of an already stressful environment.

“It just feels like we’ve been bombarded,” says Sammons. “Here in Savannah, we have hurricanes, but this is worldwide. All the stuff, regardless of what side you’re on politically, the whole political upheaval over the past four years. And this is external stress on top of regular stresses people have in their lives. It’s just so much. And we’ve got to give each other a break here somehow.”

Things are changing rapidly. By the time this issue goes to print, there will almost certainly have been another breaking news story. There are steps we can take to look out for each other, be it washing your hands or canceling an event. The caution we exercise now could make a huge difference. Let’s give each other a break.

I implore you: stay home if you are able, log off social media for a little bit, and please, please, wash your hands.