‘Like it never existed’: Despite relentless COVID-19 surge, social life near normal in Delaware

Cases and hospitalizations are at a seven-month high in Delaware, but that’s not keeping down crowds at festivals, sports contests, and other events.

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Thousands of people were at the Brandywine Arts Festival over the weekend

Thousands of people were at the Brandywine Arts Festival over the weekend. (Courtesy of festival)

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The past weekend was a study in contrasts across Delaware.

Thousands of people strolled through a Wilmington park for two days, perusing and buying paintings, jewelry, and pottery as the Brandywine Arts Festival returned after being canceled last year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Football fans packed the stands at high school and college games. Diners flooded to restaurants and bars, especially at the downstate beaches, where the summer season is wrapping up. Customers descended on malls and department stores.

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The home stands were full at Salesianum School's football game in Wilmington
The home stands were full at Salesianum School’s football game in Wilmington. (State of Delaware)

Yet few wore face masks while enjoying social and sporting events or shopping, even as COVID-19 continues its two month-plus tear across the state and more and more of the infected are hospitalized.

The University of Delaware has a vaccination and mask mandate on campus, but that couldn’t prevent an outbreak that sent hundreds of students to quarantine facilities. Beebe Medical Center in Lewes announced that the surge has led them to suspend elective surgeries starting Tuesday.

Despite the relentless resurgence – cases and hospitalizations are at seven-month highs though few patients are dying – the Carney administration has shown no signs of reinstituting coronavirus restrictions that limited crowds, especially indoors. The only remaining statewide emergency order is one which mandates mask-wearing for students, staffers, and visitors to public and private K-12 schools, which are fully open for the first time in 18 months.

More entertainment venues are also reopening, with different levels of mediation measures against community spread. Starting this month, for example, The Grand Opera House and its affiliated venues in Wilmington are emerging from a lengthy shutdown with a full slate of events. Attendees must wear masks and show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours.

The Grand has a full slate of events starting this month, with strict safety protocols in place
The Grand has a full slate of events starting this month, with strict safety protocols in place. (Mark Eichmann/WHYY)

And this week, Delaware Shakespeare will hold four outdoor performances of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Wilmington’s Rodney Square. Attendees will be “strongly encouraged” to wear masks, an official said.

Gov. John Carney hasn’t made any recent public comments about the current situation – life essentially back to normal during a lengthy surge. The average number of daily cases in the past week was 460 — 23 times higher than early June. In addition, 266 people are currently hospitalized — up from just 14 on June 26. Forty of the people getting inpatient treatment are in critical condition.

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Asked by WHYY News for his perspective, the governor would not agree to an interview, but instead issued a brief statement that again urged residents to get vaccinated.

“These vaccines are extremely safe and effective at preventing serious illness and hospitalization, even against variants,’’ Carney said in a written statement. “Getting more folks vaccinated is how we will keep kids safe, keep students in their classrooms learning, and keep rebuilding our economy.”

To date, 77% of Delaware adults are at least partially vaccinated. But barely half of eligible children ages 12 to 17 and adults 18 to 34 have received at least one shot.

That’s distressing to Barry Schlecker, who organizes the annual arts festival that took place Saturday and Sunday, drawing about 10,000 people and hundreds more dogs to Brandywine Park. He said he didn’t mind holding an outdoor event, and many artists said it was their best show ever as far as sales.

Schlecker had pondered an indoor event in late November or early December for artists and craftspeople to showcase and sell their wares to holiday shoppers, but says it’s too risky considering the current state of the pandemic.

“Now I think I’m discouraged for even considering” an indoor show, Schlecker said. “I wouldn’t run a show I wouldn’t go to. … I don’t want to be one of those hot spots that everybody’s going to blame three months from now. It’s just scary right now.”

Schlecker blames the unvaccinated, who account for about 80% of the state’s cases and hospitalizations in recent weeks. The 81-year-old event organizer also has a harsh message for those who won’t get themselves or their children inoculated with either Pfizer, Moderna, or Johnson & Johnson vaccines.

“Shame on you,’’ Schlecker said. “I mean, I’m hearing people are taking horse medicine” to treat COVID-19. “I don’t want to get too political, but I’m so tired of the B.S. about not trusting doctors. … As my mother would say, ‘This is ridiculous.’”

‘Life goes on amidst the pandemic’ resurgence

Mike Loughery, who lives north of Wilmington with his 88-year-old mother and his children, agrees. He’s vaccinated and trying to live his life. He goes to his grade-school daughter’s volleyball games and school open houses, where he wears a mask, and to Blue Rocks baseball games, where he doesn’t wear one and says the crowds have been relatively small.

At this recent Immaculate Heart of Mary volleyball game, players, officials and spectators wore masks as required by Gov. Carney's order
At this recent Immaculate Heart of Mary volleyball game, players, officials, and spectators wore masks as required by Gov. Carney’s order. (Courtesy of Mike Loughery)

“Life goes on amidst this pandemic, like it never existed,’” Loughery said, noting that he’s often mystified when he’s out and about and no one else is wearing a mask, even indoors. “The traffic is back to normal. There’s concerts, there’s full stadiums. And it concerns me a little bit that we’re not fully sure that this delta variant is not going to break out and totally create this mass havoc again.”

Loughery said he doesn’t want to be around unvaccinated people who don’t wear masks, putting him at risk of getting reinfected — he had a mild case of COVID-19 in January — and then putting his mother or children in jeopardy.

Nor can he fathom why some people would sacrifice their livelihood rather than get the vaccine. For example, some nurses at Christiana Hospital have said they would rather be fired than get the shots, which would be their fate starting Sept. 21 under a new requirement by Christiana Care.

“I’m not going to risk the financial well-being of my family over a shot where most people who get the shot are okay,” said Loughery, a freelance communications consultant.

Dr. Rick Hong, medical director for the state Division of Public Health, joined Carney in encouraging vaccinations. He also wants people to follow U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and “wear a mask in crowded outdoor settings and for activities involving close contact with others who you cannot be sure are fully vaccinated.” He also urges “wearing a mask in indoor public settings.”

Other measures Hong recommends include regular testing, especially if people have “attended gatherings where people were in close contact and vaccination status of others is unknown, particularly if the gathering was indoors.”

The current lengthy spike, advisories from medical authorities, and policies of others in the live entertainment industry led The Grand to institute its strict protocols, executive director Mark Fields said.

Those restrictions “kind of acknowledge the fact that not everybody has the same approach to this,’’ Fields said.

“We put these requirements in place consistent with what other performing arts centers are doing — it’s what Broadway is doing — with the idea that our primary responsibility here is to protect our patrons, our artists, our volunteers and our staff. This is the way that we can do that.”

Fields said he doesn’t expect lots of sellouts this season, but said advance sales have surpassed $350,000 already – evidence of a strong desire among the public to see live music, comedy, ballet, and theater.

“So that seems okay,’’ Fields said. “Can’t really benchmark it against anything because we don’t have a prior season where we had a pandemic involved. But we’re encouraged by the anecdotal response we’re getting and the fact that we’re selling tickets every day and that people are telling us they want to come back.”

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