By Andy Zipser
WALNUT HILLS CAMPGROUND AND RV PARK
It has been three months, more or less, since the world got turned upside down, three months into which we’ve packed a lifetime of education about the human condition. Economic collapse, a resurgence of anger and anguish about systemic racism, threats of martial law — even the weather has conspired to shake up the status quo. When was the last June night in Virginia when we had to turn on the heat?
‘One would-be camper, on being told he’d have to wear a mask in our store, declared that he’d find somewhere else to take his business.’
Yet for all that, it’s the way people are responding to the pandemic that alarms me the most. Three months in, and the world seems divided between those who seem oblivious to its life-threatening potential and those who feel in mortal danger at every turn.
One would-be camper, on being told he’d have to wear a mask in our store, declared that he’d find somewhere else to take his business. All businesses in Virginia are under an executive order requiring face coverings, so either that camper was heading out of state or was counting on finding a campground where the staff would ignore his non-compliance, rather than possibly force a confrontation. I suspect it was the latter.
Indeed, time and again we have arrivals strolling in who act shocked — shocked! — when told they can’t come in without a face covering. Most readily relent, but not so with one of our more pugnacious monthly campers, who month after month ignores the bold MUST WEAR MASK sign on our door as she walks in to pay her electric bill — and, month after month, lectures our staff that they could take her payment in less time than it takes them to ask her to go back outside so they can take the payment through a side door.
At the other extreme there’s our gardener, an elderly woman whose aesthetic sensibilities and love for the soil are on abundant and flattering display at our campground. She works alone and in the early morning hours, before most people are stirring, and so would seem ideally placed to continue her beloved labors without fear or apprehension — and yet she hasn’t otherwise left her home in more than three months, avoiding starvation only through the kindness of church members who bring her food. “I just need to be still,” she responds to my telephoned entreaties that she get out and about.
This dichotomy is evident on a national level, of course. Even as a massive Trump campaign rally is scheduled for Tulsa, the U.S. and Canada are extending to late July the ban on cross-border non-essential travel that was set to expire tomorrow. The Sunbelt states have been reopening at a steady clip in recent weeks, apparently without regard for what’s actually happening on the ground in terms of coronavirus spread — and, no surprise, those same states are now seeing an upswing in infections and deaths. Cognitive dissonance is rampant.
Public opinion, untethered to any consistent direction from the powers-that-be, consequently has been on a roller-coaster ride. Asked by Destination Analysts, a polling company used by the travel industry, about their expectations for the severity of the coronavirus situation in the next month, respondents thought it would get “worse” or “much worse” from early March to early April, got increasingly more optimistic through most of May—then went into a steep pessimistic decline in early June. “Expectations about the virus’ course have dampened and some travelers that thought they would take trips this year have walked that back for now,” the U.S. Travel Association (USTA) observed this past week.
‘The problem for campgrounds like ours is that we’re bursting at the seams. Every weekend has been like Memorial Day, with campers eager to get away from their domestic prisons.’
One of the key factors in that reversal, emphasized by USTA in bold face: Poor “pandemic etiquette” behavior by others, with 61% of American travelers saying such behavior would make a given destination less desirable. Which, among other things, brings us back to face masks. And more.
The problem for campgrounds like ours is that we’re bursting at the seams. Every weekend has been like Memorial Day, with campers eager to get away from their domestic prisons. Anecdotally, we’re seeing a huge surge in first-timers: people who just bought an RV, or are renting one, or have borrowed one from friends or family. Others are reporting a similar phenomenon: RVshare, a peer-to-peer RV rental company, reported a 650% increase in business in mid-May compared to last year. Publications of every sort, from local dailies to the Wall Street Journal, have reported on the allure of vacationing in a self-contained bubble that can travel throughout the country at a time of historically low gas prices.
AND WHEN THEY GET HERE, they want to be unfettered by the rules that have circumscribed their lives at home. They don’t want to be smothered by face coverings. They want the swimming pool to be open — even though day-time highs have only been in the 70s — and they don’t mind telling us that we need to give them what they want. They jostle each other in the store and passing each other, and see the apparent disregard their neighbors have for the rules we patiently spell out, and pretty soon it’s hard to remember that the country is still being stalked by a deadly disease.
Here in Virginia we’re still in “phase two,” with phase three — initially thought to be announced this past week — now on hold. Still, I expect the state will take that next step within the next week to 10 days — and when it does, I doubt we’ll be stepping with it. I’m pretty sure our swimming pool will remain closed for the year — and we’ll be happy to refer campers who want one to another local campground. I’m pretty sure we’ll continue to limit groups far below the 50 now allowed under phase two — and several hundred under phase three. We’re going to continue to insist on face coverings in our office and store.
We’ll continue to insist on good pandemic etiquette because the pandemic hasn’t gone away, regardless of what our governor might conclude. Unfortunately, we’ll have to do so without hiding behind his executive orders — which is ironic, given our distress two months ago when he abruptly banned short-term campground stays. He was wrong then, and in my view will be wrong now if he moves to phase three any time soon. But my sense is that we’re looking at many, many months before we get to anything that resembles “normal.”
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