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My COVID-19 Point of View: What Life Is Like in Highspire, Pennsylvania

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What’s happening in Highspire, Pennsylvania: I am Christina Irene, a 40-year-old woman (she/her/hers) who lives in Highspire, PA, five miles outside capital city Harrisburg. I live with fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, osteoarthritis, degenerative disc disease,and irritable bowel syndrome. I am an author and professional speaker on the topic of invisible disabilities, and I created “Splat,” a new way for us to communicate about our hidden conditions. I love to travel with my 12-year-old “free puppy” who also has arthritis. In my community, my leadership positions include being the chairperson of the Highspire Borough Municipal Authority and I am an elected official on the Highspire Borough Council.

Our state is back up to about 1,000 new cases a day and the governor fears it’s worsening. The most new cases in a day were 1,989 on April 9 and we haven’t come back to that level yet. Our state was the first to mandate wearing masks in businesses in April, and now they are required in all public spaces. The mandates and actions of Governor Wolf and Secretary of Health, Dr. Rachel Levine, have been highly controversial and divisive in Pennsylvania, including the red-yellow-green phasing of reopening, which many municipalities and even state legislators opposed, wanting to hasten reopening ahead of the governor’s phases. Just last week, the governor issued an order to close live entertainment venues that had just recently reopened and also to close all bars that don’t serve food. 

The Borough of Highspire has just over 2,000 residents and our official stat on COVID-19 cases is “1 to 4.” I’ve heard of two people who were sick with it. Both happen to live on my block. 

We are in Dauphin County (along with capital Harrisburg), which ranks usually sixth in PA as far as cases, new cases, and deaths, depending on which date range you look at. That is out of 67 counties. So we’re “just under the top five” you might say.

My observations about masks: People are mostly wearing masks in public spaces, such as the stores, gas station shops and the laundry mat. Some people walk or bicycle with them. Others don’t. There is a divide in my community as I’m seeing elsewhere: some think they’re necessary for safety, others say they’re ineffective and unnecessary. I witnessed a woman my age throwing a tantrum in a parking lot at a grocery outlet the next town over; she was cussing and screaming at an adult and children with her because she was upset about having to wear a mask in the store.

My experience out of the house: Restaurants and bars in my town at first offered take-out food only. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania actually changed their liquor law to allow open containers so bars could sell mixed drinks to-go. Liquor stores in PA are state-run and were shut down for a time. People were getting creative for a while in ways to acquire alcohol, but we’re mostly back to normal now. PA has unusual liquor laws to begin with. A few weeks ago, our town’s main bar, Champion’s, opened for outdoor dining and both our bars (Champion’s and the Stadium Club) became fully open, but with “limited capacity” (50% capacity). I ate on the patio of a bar once but still don’t feel comfortable dining inside. They’re definitely not as crowded, not just because of capacity limitations, but because there’s no bingo night, no trivia night, no weekly blues jam, no karaoke, no bands. As of last week, the restaurants and bars in PA must reduce from 50% capacity to 25% capacity and it seems diners must sit at tables and can no longer sit at the bar. Bartenders who work in our town are very frustrated right now.

A restaurant

We have two stores in town that sell groceries. There is an old little grocery store and deli, Chubb’s Market, which I can walk to and I love it. Back in late March and early April, when shelves were cleared at stores all around the Harrisburg area, Chubb’s seemed untouched. They even had their normal stock of toilet paper, and it was sold out everywhere! The little market still is the same, except now the family who owns it wear masks and there is a plexiglass shield at the cash register. The other store that has groceries is Dollar General. I pulled into the parking lot twice, but both times it was so incredibly crowded, I left and went elsewhere to shop. 

a small grocery store

As chairperson of the municipal authority, I can report that there has not been much of a change in sewer flow at our plant. We also treat sewage from a neighboring community, and businesses there aren’t fully operational so our flow has actually decreased some. Elsewhere in the greater Harrisburg area, utilities have been impacted by so many people working from home, but we don’t seem to have a significant change as far as people being home or not. We have a lot of retirees and essential blue-collar workers in our community who continue to stay home and continue to go to work, respectively. There is no change in number of delinquent sewer payments due to the pandemic.

My health: I manage my conditions on my own with nutrition, rest and exercise. That pandemic has totally changed my ability to manage my conditions because it put me out of business. I worked hard for five years to be self-employed so I could have the flexible schedule and accommodating workspace that help me keep my symptoms at bay. Due to all the shutdowns, especially colleges, and also their budget cuts, my once-thriving business as a speaker is now barely a handful of bookings. I’ve had to find a full-time job on top of trying to bring my business back to life, and my fibromyalgia is constantly flaring up. My new job kindly accommodates me with a standing desk, because I have a sitting disability, but it has been extremely difficult for my arthritis, degenerative disc disease and chronic fatigue. I’ve not had any exercise routine since I’m now working the full-time job, still working on my business, serving on community boards and losing more time than ever to being super fatigued. I have yet to find a way to balance and manage the pain and feel OK, but I’m certainly trying. It’s like I became disabled all over again and I’ve got to work through all the processes of grieving, coping, adapting and self-caring again.

My quality of life: Losing my business has been devastating. I worry about the future. I worry about when or if I’ll ever get my business back to where it was. I’m tired all the time and I’m sad a lot, because I know I’m just one of countless people significantly adversely affected by this. But I’m grateful that I did find a job, that I am working, that I am paying my bills and I’m doing my best in the remaining moments of each day to continue with my mission to educate, support and inspire in the realm of hidden disabilities with my blog, with the couple virtual speaking gigs I have coming up and in my everyday interactions.

My unique COVID-19 moment: There is a team of plant thieves in our town. People digging out mature plants from people’s gardens and stealing garden decor. I call them the Highspire Plant Pirates. It’s not happening anywhere else that I know of. The police believe they are landscapers because they are being very selective about what they take, and I think this is caused by COVID-19 because I think they are yet another business adversely impacted by the pandemic and taking desperate measures to keep their business profitable. 

I was one of their victims. They stole one of my mature azalea bushes in full pink bloom and I was so very sad. I just wasn’t emotionally able to take another loss, even just a plant. But my story has a happy ending. Four people who heard about what happened gifted me with new plants for my garden, including three new azalea bushes, a lilac bush, irises and a few other things I can’t name. I now am into gardening, when I never was before, and I have an adorable, beautiful little back yard that I’ve named the Gratitude Garden. It is where I sit and know — fully and intimately — Hope.

My hopes for the future: I hope to see people getting along better. I want to see businesses survive the pandemic. I want people to survive it. Every individual. I want it gone. I really hope to have my business back to full swing within the next two years. I know it’ll take some time, but I’m going to do everything I can to get it there. 

I’m trying not to look forward to things that I can’t know when they’ll happen. Right now, I’m looking forward to my next speaking engagement, which is a keynote speech and a breakout session at a virtual conference called Endless Possibilities, hosted by a non-profit in Wisconsin, WI-FACETS. It’s August 7.

Local resources: 

Originally published: July 27, 2020
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