Year of Fear, Chapter 25: What will ‘normal’ mean after COVID-19?

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In a year filled with disappointing cancellations, the one that may have stung the most here in McKeesport was the cancellation of International Village.

The three-day food and music festival was created in 1960 as part of an “Old Home Week” celebration to lure people downtown. The first “International Village” was a modest affair, with food vendors representing ten of the nationalities that emigrated to Western Pennsylvania in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: Greek, Polish, Ukrainian, Serbian, Hungarian, Italian, Croatian, Romanian, Irish, and Jewish.

Old Home Week didn’t return in 1961, but “International Village” did, now representing fifteen nationalities. The event shifted to Renziehausen Park, which could better accommodate parking and crowds. Folk dancing and ethnic music became a big part of the event. By 1965, the Pittsburgh Press reported that International Village was “drawing enough attention to challenge the city’s steel mills as its hallmark,” with an estimated sixty thousand visitors over three days.

Even after the collapse of Pittsburgh’s steel industry and the resulting economic decline of McKeesport in the 1980s, International Village remained a point of pride. A few years ago, the city expanded the event again, adding craft booths, vendors, carnival games for kids, and demonstrations by the McKeesport Senior High School robotics club, the McKeesport Police K-9 unit, and others. If Memorial Day marks the unofficial beginning of summer, for generations of McKeesport schoolchildren (including me), International Village has marked its unofficial end.

International Village has been there throughout the hard times––until the covid-19 pandemic. With Pennsylvania officials prohibiting all outdoor gatherings of more than 250 people, McKeesport officials considered staging a very small event, with no entertainment and take-out food only. But in June, McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko announced International Village was cancelled after the church groups who form the backbone of the festival said they didn’t want to participate. “The vast majority of them weren’t interested in having the village this year in any way, shape or form,” he said. “They’re concerned about covid-19 and concerned about having volunteers at their booths.”

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For about ten years, our community non-profit news website, Tube City Online, offered live streaming coverage of International Village. Our planning each year includes lining up sponsors to pay for the webcast, repairing broken equipment, and scrounging replacements. It may be a blessing that this year’s festival has been cancelled, because the stress of keeping our other operations online during the pandemic is wearing all of us a bit thin. Our freelance writers are struggling to find different ways to report the same story over and over again—things are cancelled, people are stuck at home, covid-19 cases continue rising. At our internet radio station, a popular Wednesday night rock show hosted by Eric and Judy Wisniewski, “The Electric Crush,” dropped live in-studio performances by local and touring bands. Another host, who does a bluegrass show, was forced to self-isolate for fourteen days after being exposed to the virus. 

Some municipalities have resumed in-person public meetings, but most are still holding them electronically, which—as more than one of our writers has lamented—makes follow-up questions difficult, if not impossible. A lot of those questions lately have revolved around the planned reopening of local schools in a few weeks. Several districts announced that all classes will be conducted over the internet, at least for the first nine weeks of the school year. As of now, McKeesport Area School District is giving parents the option of sending their kids either in-person or taking classes online.

Almost every parent, teacher, and school bus driver I know thinks that holding in-person classes is going to be difficult while the pandemic continues to rage and while so many people—for political and ideological reasons—refuse to wear face masks or practice social distancing. And the parents and teachers I know also agree that once the virus hits any school, it will race through classrooms, and children will bring it home to their parents and grandparents. All of the usual maladies—from chicken pox and norovirus to mononucleosis and lice—wreak havoc on elementary and high schools. It’s inconceivable that covid-19 won’t do the same.

Yet here in Pennsylvania and across the country, we’re pressing forward. In late July, the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association, which sanctions school sports, announced the fall schedule would continue as planned. On the one hand, this was predictable: In Western Pennsylvania, high school football is our second-largest religion after Roman Catholicism. This is the region, after all, that produced Mike Ditka, Dan Marino, Tony Dorsett, Joe Namath, Joe Montana, Johnny Unitas, George Blanda and literally scores of other high-profile college and professional football players and coaches. On Friday nights in September and October, Pittsburgh TV stations lead their 11pm newscasts with high school football highlights and send their helicopters to cover games.

Proponents of resuming in-person school activities cite the need for kids to socialize with one another and the communal benefits of learning together as a group. Football fans argue that if students don’t play this fall, they won’t be recruited by universities for scholarships. For many poor families in the Monongahela Valley, sports scholarships remain one of the two avenues to a college degree that doesn’t involve going into tens of thousands of dollars of debt. (The other is enlisting in the armed services.)

The PIAA is reportedly reconsidering the decision to begin fall athletics after Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf recommended that schools postpone all contact sports until January. Wolf’s recommendation—not an order, a recommendation—set off a new wave of vitriol on social media and talk radio about “government tyranny” and “hysteria.” On Twitter, Paul Zeise, a sports columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and talk-show host on KDKA-FM, railed, “‘Flatten the curve to save hospitals!!!’ has now become ‘lock everyone up and shut everything down until there are zero cases of covid-19!!’” Another KDKA-FM host, Colin Dunlap, said people who want to cancel fall sports are “scared to death of their own shadow.”

The covid-19 deniers are extremely vocal and strident, but they also seem to be in the minority. One friend who has a nine-year-old stepdaughter is not optimistic about the prospect of sending her and her fellow pupils back to classrooms. “By the third week in September, most open schools will be closed again due to outbreaks, and sports will be cancelled,” he predicted recently on Facebook. “Hopefully it won’t result in too many dead kids. But does this really surprise anyone in a nation that has pretty much decided that school shootings are a way of life and children’s lives are expendable?”

For much of the twentieth century in places such as McKeesport, manufacturing jobs paid wages that were high enough to allow one parent to stay home each day. These days, most parents here need to go back to work, which means something needs to be done with their kids. Ready or not, that “something” means going back to classrooms. In poor communities like ours, where seventy-four percent of students are eligible for free school lunches (compared to forty-four percent across Pennsylvania), the hot breakfast and lunch served in the cafeterias might be the healthiest two meals those kids get each day.

The situation is further complicated by America’s privatized, often sketchy infrastructure. We have a hard time getting a reliable internet signal for our International Village broadcasts each year because the two largest broadband providers in the Pittsburgh area—Comcast and Verizon—don’t prioritize service to low-income communities such as McKeesport. 

So even if a parent is able to stay home with their school age child, many families lack the high-speed broadband necessary to support applications such as Zoom and Google Classrooms. School districts are distributing 4G Wi-Fi hotspots to families and turning up the signals on their own Wi-Fi networks to provide some access, but it’s a patchwork effort at best.

The pandemic is exposing the weak foundation of the current American way of life in places such as McKeesport, including utilities that function more for the benefit of shareholders than customers; school districts that are overwhelmed trying to plug gaps in the social-services network; and families who are always one or two paychecks away from calamity. It’s also providing evidence that the concept of collective action—necessary for a functional democracy—has been undermined by years of rhetoric that has prioritized individual needs and wants over the common good.

Yes, I’m tired of wearing face masks, too. I want to have big, noisy, crowded events like International Village again. (I’d be content just having a date night with my wife that involves us leaving the house.) And although I don’t have kids in school, I understand how important (and fun) hometown high school and college sports are.

I want to get back to our normal routines. But as Americans continue to stumble through this pandemic, we really need to think hard about what we consider normal. Much of what we accept isn’t tolerated in other industrialized countries. If our “normal” wasn’t so good in the first place, should we really be trying to return to it?

PREVIOUSLY: To school or not to school—a burning question

This project is supported by a gift from the Delacorte Center for Magazine Journalism Fund at The New York Community Trust.

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Jason Togyer is a lifelong resident of the Monongahela River valley area of Pittsburgh. He and his wife, Denise, live just outside McKeesport. The founder of Tube City Online, a non-profit news website and Internet radio station, Togyer also serves as communications manager for a regional community development agency and previously worked as a magazine editor at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, and as a reporter for the Washington, Pennsylvania Observer-Reporter, McKeesport Daily News, and Greensburg and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.