By Kiara Candelaria
©2020 Community Associations Institute
THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC disrupted every facet of life in no time. Events large and small were canceled, mass public gatherings were restricted, and many businesses and government offices moved their services online.
Daily routines and meetups with friends and family also were upended, and many were left wondering what a reality of prolonged social distancing would look like.
Despite the uncertainty caused by the pandemic, community outreach has increased even as neighbors maintain physical distance from each other. A Nextdoor Insight Series report released in March found an increase in community group conversations about helping with grocery and prescription pickups, informing others on the status of essential supplies, supporting those who had been laid off, and ideas to spread joy and come together virtually.
Community associations stepped up to develop innovative ways to increase community spirit while observing social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic. The communities featured below have facilitated support between residents, backed initiatives to assist healthcare workers and small businesses, and organized activities to provide moments of levity.
Hilton Head Plantation Property Owners' Association
Hilton Head, S.C.
AS EASTER APPROACHED, the community management staff at Hilton Head Plantation Property Owners' Association in Hilton Head, S.C., found themselves with bags full of plastic eggs and pounds of candy—purchased in advance of the springtime celebration.
Like many other associations across the country, Hilton Head Plantation took measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and encourage the approximately 10,000 residents to observe social distancing. These steps included closing down amenities such as its tennis courts (then reopening them with restrictions in early May), limiting beach access, and canceling events and activities that would gather large crowds.
With the annual Easter weekend festivities being one of those losses, T. Peter Kristian, CMCA, LSM, PCAM, Hilton Head Plantation's general manager, was approached by his staff with an idea: The association would assemble the Easter eggs and baskets, sell them to residents, and deliver them to doorsteps. The Easter Bunny would make the drop-offs, and residents could take a photo with the character while standing 6 feet apart.
The effort was a hit. Kristian says the community accepted about 170 orders—half of them for adults. He recalls one woman who bought 10 baskets to deliver to every neighbor in her cul-de-sac. She did not order a basket for herself and preferred to catch the reaction of her neighbors.
“We also did a virtual Easter egg hunt, where we invited residents to draw an egg, put in on the window or somewhere on their property, and give us their address so kids and their parents could either walk or drive to find all these Easter eggs and take pictures of them," says Kristian, a CAI past president.
The large-scale community has kept residents entertained a few other ways too, including chalk drawing on sidewalks and streets, pointing them to the collection of about 1,000 donated paperback books at the community library, or making household chores into a competition on social media.
Hilton Head Plantation residents also have come together to help the community beyond its nearly 4,000 acres.
Hilton Head's economy—which is reliant on tourism—was hard hit, but restaurants remained open for food pickup or delivery. Kristian encouraged residents to share their favorite restaurants along with contact information to place food orders; the list was distributed to the community so residents could support local businesses. In addition, the Hilton Head Plantation Women's Club has sponsored numerous food-and-fund drives to benefit the Deep Well Project, a social services organization in South Carolina.
For the graduating class of 2020, the association was approached by local high school principals about putting up yard signs on the front lawns of students' homes. A restriction in the community prohibits those types of signs, but the architectural review board granted an exception..
“It gives (the 30 high school seniors living in the association) some modest recognition," says Kristian. “They probably weren't going to be able to physically walk down the aisle to mark that milestone in their lives."
WindyBush Homeowners Association
WHEN CASES OF COVID-19 began increasing in the U.S., WindyBush Homeowners Association, like many small communities, had an advantage: no amenities or shared common areas that needed to be closed. “Everybody sort of knew (to observe social distancing) because of all the news," says Audrey Harris, board secretary of the 140-townhome community in Langhorne, Pa.
Having to keep apart made get-togethers look a bit different, but neighbors have enjoyed each other's company just the same. Harris says residents at Windy- Bush are mostly older adults, many who have lived in the community since it was built in the mid-1980s. “Being a community where the majority of residents have grown up with one another, there are a lot of close friendships," she observes.
It was from one of those close friendships where the idea of organizing a socially distanced happy hour was formed. The idea was shared with the board and announced as a community-wide event. Residents were encouraged to gather on their front lawns with their favorite alcoholic or nonalcoholic drink and interact with neighbors while maintaining physical distance, says Harris.
Not only did the happy hour have a high turnout, it was an opportunity for a woman who had recently moved into the community to introduce herself to her new neighbors. Harris said she started asking everyone's name and writing down their contact information on a small note-book. “She really got a feel for the neighborhood and met people that she otherwise would not have met until the annual meeting in September," she notes. In addition to the happy hours, Harris said that neighbors have been engaging with each other more frequently than they had before the COVID-19 pandemic. “Some of the smaller groups have added neighbors whom they may not have spoken to each day," she adds. “It's definitely encouraged more of a community spirit."
REACHING OUT TO those in need and strengthening connections are part of the culture at Harvest, a 1,200-acre large-scale community under development in Argyle, Texas. And while in-person gatherings were put to a halt, that hasn't stopped its 6,000 residents from coming together—at least figuratively.
Residents have donated money, food, snacks, and water to staff at hospitals and clinics in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. One resident started a community project to sew face masks, donating more than 5,500 to healthcare workers in mid- April, says Page Austin, Harvest's lifestyle manager.
Neighbors also are stepping up to help one another by picking up groceries, offering toilet paper and other supplies that have become difficult to find in local stores, and helping with yard work. Austin notes that a neighbor mowed the lawn of a couple in the community who are both nurses as a way to thank them for their work, and residents who are teachers have been helping parents with schooling their children at home.
Harvest, being developed by Dallas- based Hillwood Communities, is anchored by commercial and community farms. It is the Dallas-Fort Worth area's first “agrihood"—a growing trend of communities in the U.S. that offer a farm-totable lifestyle.
Produce from the farms and residents' gardens, as well as canned goods, are being donated to the North Texas Food Bank. A group of residents has been organizing the donation collections and drop-offs, notes Austin.
To keep residents engaged, Austin created— and has updated—a digital activity calendar that includes exercise classes, cooking lessons, remote meetings for different clubs, and virtual activities for children such as book readings, arts and crafts, and field trips.
In addition, residents have been encouraged to spend time outdoors while observing social distancing. The community's trails remain open. Residents with children are going on “zoofaris" to spot stuffed animals placed in windows or on front porches, and some families are demonstrating their creative side by painting decorative rocks or writing messages on pavement with chalk.
Austin has been diligently promoting events and opportunities on the community's social media platforms. She has spotlighted neighbors who are essential workers and shared photos of families spending time on their front porches. She also has sent handwritten notes to residents who have celebrated personal milestones— all as a way to keep community spirit up during the pandemic.
“Keeping social media active, sharing what our neighbors are doing, and planning virtual events has helped keep everyone connected and strengthened our community bond," she says.
Bozman Farm Estates
SOCIAL MEDIA has been an asset for Bozman Farm Estates, a community under development in Wylie, Texas. The increased connectivity has allowed Barbara Thomas, CMCA, the master-planned association's general manager, to set up virtual activities, including daily challenges, bingo nights, and baking classes on Facebook Live.
Although the playgrounds, picnic areas, and pool will remain closed until it's safe, residents also have been encouraged to spend time outside and walk around the community's trails and green spaces—and have fun while doing so.
For example, Thomas says that some residents wrote messages in chalk with exercise challenges (such as completing a number of jumping jacks until reaching the next driveway) to make the walks more entertaining. Another resident organized an entire month of window scavenger hunts that included spotting items such as fireworks, stuffed animals, Easter eggs, and jokes for April Fools.
The community also began doing birthday parades. Residents decorated their cars and drove them around the neighborhood in celebration. Some of the parades included fire trucks, police cars, and residents with costumes riding along on bikes and scooters.
Thomas praised residents for their support and patience during the pandemic and for practicing social distancing. She says these activities have brought out the community's 4,000 residents from their small pockets of neighborhoods. They've been especially helpful for new homeowners.
“I feel like these events have really helped keep up morale," says Thomas. “The residents have respected the restrictions that we've had to put in place and have absolutely risen to the occasion in terms of being kind to each other and thinking of ways to make the best out of the situation."
Four Seasons at Historic Virginia
FOUR SEASONS at Historic Virginia, a 55-and-older community in Dumfries, Va., closed its tennis and pickleball courts and clubhouse, which includes a gym, indoor pool, and other rooms where residents socialize on March 20.
“Our clubhouse is usually very busy with more than 40 interest groups, 13 committees, and daily exercise classes, and we could not enforce the social distancing requirements," says Ruth Ogilvie, Four Seasons' board president.
In between keeping residents informed with guidance from health and government officials about the coronavirus and other community updates, Ogilvie says the board rolled out virtual exercise classes for the community's 1,430 residents.
The board set up a dedicated Facebook group to host the classes, which were given by instructors already familiar with Four Seasons, streamed live on Facebook over five weekdays, and could be revisited as recordings. Ogilvie notes that more than 100 residents on average take advantage of the exercise classes each day.
“We have learned that many of the virtual participants have never been to any classes at the clubhouse. They joined the group to be able to participate in class at any time of the day that works for them," she says.
Carillon at Heatherstone Homeowners Association
Beach Park, Ill.
LIKE MANY OTHER community associations, Carillon at Heatherstone Homeowners Association in Beach Park, Ill., decided to close its clubhouse and discontinue all activities at its 55-and-older community of 173 townhouses and single-family homes. Cheryl Laffredi, CMCA, AMS, Carillon's executive administrator, says it was hard for many of the residents, and they started coming up with ideas to give them an opportunity to socialize.
Carillon's board started a daily checkin where residents could open their garage doors and take a moment to talk to each other or share if they were having issues. This has evolved into groups of residents visiting each other across the street, standing on driveways to observe social distancing. “Many residents have connected with neighbors they never would have before COVID-19," says Laffredi.
To keep residents entertained, Carillon organized a weekly book and puzzle exchange in the clubhouse parking lot.
They also decorated their mailboxes and left notes inside to thank their postal worker. They were planning to do something similar with the garbage collectors.
Residents also organized an initiative to sew face masks to send around the community and donate to healthcare workers in local hospitals, says Laffredi.
Village Place Townhomes
IN LATE MARCH, some residents at Village Place Townhomes began placing heart-shaped papers on their windows, front doors, and hanging baskets to show support to everyone in the 229-townhome community in Houston.
One resident took photos and posted them on the association's Facebook page. “That made more people put up hearts and start posting them (online)," says Sandra Berry, a Village Place board member. This sparked the idea of a neighborhood- wide scavenger hunt for parents and their children while out on walks.
It's been one of the ways that the association's residents have built rapport during the pandemic. They've also had happy hours in the courtyard where they maintain physical distance, and they didn't let the lack of a proper Easter celebration keep them from putting up decorations in their homes. Berry says residents also have been helping each other with grocery runs, and one homeowner sewed more than 700 face masks to provide to neighbors.
A resident whose daughter turned 1 year old in early May had a birthday parade. “She loves people and she loves dogs ... so (her mother) put her in a princess dress and sat outside with her, and everyone paraded around with their dogs. Some wore Halloween costumes," says Berry.
She notes that before COVID-19, most people in the community kept to themselves. She is happy to see the increased togetherness. “It's the kind of thing that we would have never had before (the COVID-19 pandemic)," she adds. “I'm very proud of the spirit that our community is putting forth."
Kiara Candelaria is the associate editor of Common Ground™ magazine.
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