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LIVE LOCAL: Gwenyfar warns against getting lost in the COVID-19 fog

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Tammi Paccini operates Folks Café on Princess Street during the pandemic, keeping a sense of neighborhood normalcy for patrons. Photo by Gwenyfar Rohler


“I’m going to walk down to Folks and pick up lunch; just let me put on a bra and a pair of shoes.”

I held up a hand to forestall any arguments from Jock. We both knew if Jock didn’t show up for an entire day at Folks Café, Juan and Tammi Paccini would be in a state of agitation—and possibly show up on our front porch. Right then, Jock was in no condition to walk the block-and-a-half there, despite his insistence to the contrary.

The evening before Jock had fallen in the alley while catching Hilda, the canine love light. Our neighbor, Gordon, rescued them both. Now on crutches, Jock was admitting, finally, how much the foot/ankle actually hurt.

So, I was off to see Juan and Tammi and pick up lunch.

Located on 12th and Princess streets, Folks Café is the hub of our neighborhood. The idea we might lose Folks—that they might not survive the COVID shutdown—is too awful to contemplate. In an increasingly fragmented and divided world, Folks Café is a true multicultural meeting ground in a neighborhood that includes Section 8 housing, gentrified blocks and industrial mixed-use projects. It is also Jock’s office: He eats three meals a day there, in addition to taking two or three coffee breaks. Juan and Tammi are convinced I don’t know how to cook.

Sure enough, when I walked up to the newly erected takeout window at the front door, Tammi handed me a business card from someone who was looking for Jock.

Walking home, greeting neighbors and waving, I contemplated two isolated ideas connected in my head: our incredible neighborhood and the strange fog of the COVID-19 shutdown. Three blocks in the other direction from our house, on the corner of 17th and Princess, is Cedric Harrison’s office for Support the Port, in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church’s Ormand Center. Support the Port has teamed up with PPEople Brigade to provide free face shields for those who need them. (They also have HEPA filter face masks for purchase on their website).

Cedric’s work in and around the Wilmington area is ubiquitous, but perhaps what he is most well-known for is the “Wilmington in Color” coloring books. The two-part series features people and locations significant to local African American history. During the pandemic, Support the Port has made both books available free for download to print and color.

They also offer a simple chart of organizations that help with food, diapers and healthcare during this time. The landing page on their website is clear, easy-to-use, complete with contact phone numbers. Looking at the chart is a good reminder not to forget the needs of others. For me that looks like diapers. As a person who has never had an infant in her life, I tend to forget diapers are a key, ongoing expense for many people. At a time like this, that hurdle alone can seem insurmountable without help. This is part of why people like Cedric are so important: They create a bridge of information between those in need and the resources necessary to make it to the other side. (No surprise Support the Port logo features the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge.)

I look at the two buildings bookending our immediate few blocks. I couldn’t imagine trying to find a way through this COVID-19 fog without them. Neither business can solve the big, overarching problems of the pandemic: They can’t get tests and vaccines made and distributed. Both still are essential to the fabric that weaves together our lives and makes community survival possible and desirable.

I have never understood survival for survival’s sake. There has to be something that makes life worth living—be it art or humanity.

In Folks Café there is a handmade sign on an American flag that says, “We The People will Defeat the COVID-19.” Of course, in COVID-19, we the people face a public health crisis of a horrifying scale. We also face the economic terror of not being able to work or pay bills. This is especially true for those who own businesses because it is not just their families they are looking out for but their employees’ as well.

And here’s the other thing: All of our concerns that existed before COVID-19 are still there. It is one of the strangest facets of grief I face. My world feels like it is ending as I grieve a loss, but events continue apace regardless. We still have a county commission that has declared war on its constituents, a community-owned hospital up for sale, a public transit crisis, the Project Grace plan to make the main branch of the public library a lobby for high-end apartments, and water that is not safe to drink. Our state government is still doing everything possible to keep people of color from voting or having equal representation in government—and this is a major election year.

It is so hard to remember all of that when a trip to the grocery store has become something you have to make a battle plan for face masks, hand sanitizer, gloves, etc. Trying to figure out how to get Jock’s ankle X-rayed was more involved than getting him ready to get on a plane to Africa. But, for all the fog and fear, we are operating in right now, the powers that be continue to move forward.

How is it possible the proposed sale of New Hanover Regional Medical Center has not been put on hold? If nothing else, one has to wonder how New Hanover Regional Medical Center’s president and CEO, John Gizdic, has any time for this proposed sale. Shouldn’t every waking moment be devoted to COVID-19? Shouldn’t he be preparing resources at the hospital, finding supplies, and coordinating with the CDC, New Hanover County Health Department, and the health departments from surrounding counties—working to ensure the best possible support and conditions for staff on the front lines? We can’t get enough test kits to get an accurate reading of our population. Yet, somehow, we are ready to give up on our hospital?

The Save Our Hospital Group made a public statement that the financial position of the hospital has changed since the outbreak of COVID-19. For example, with the addition of federally pledged relief money, the deal is not the same deal offered four months ago. As any broker will tell you, it is perceived value you are paying for when you purchase a business and its associated real estate. Right now, the perceived value of the hospital in this community should be priceless.

One of the arguments early on in this charade is we simply can’t afford both rising healthcare costs and to care for patients without insurance. Mind you, we can still afford executive-level salaries for Gizdic and others. More so, they will continue to get paid when the hospital is sold to faceless executives far away. At least Gizdic lives and spends some of that money here.

But if there is one takeaway from the past six weeks, it is this: We must provide healthcare to the poorest among us. If we don’t, the ripple effects will impact all of us. Those ripples, which in the current situation can be so hard to remember or pick out, are monumental right now. We keep saying “when this is over” or “when we return to normal.” The fear is, while we are trying to survive this, the world we love will disappear.

I have faith and trust in the Cedrics and Tammis of the world, but they need the rest of us to stay involved, too. Thank you to everyone who makes this place so wonderful. Even in the COVID-19 fog, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else or with any other group.

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