CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Cristina Bolling/ Charlotte Observer) - If ever Charlotte needed a relief valve for its citizenry, it was this past week. And in a 98-acre spot in the center of the city, thousands found one at Freedom Park.
At a time where every aspect of life in Charlotte has changed due to the spread of the novel coronavirus, being outside — in any natural setting — was a good reminder that some things stay constant. The coming of spring. Fresh air and sunshine.
And while public congregating in close proximity is out in Charlotte and across the nation, experts say enjoying city parks — while keeping safe distances from strangers — is good, even healthy.
Retired educator Fred Norchi, 69, cast his fishing line into the lake Friday like he always does, but he did so with a different mindset.
“It puts things in perspective — one day at a time, one smile at a time,” Norchi said. “What’s interesting is, I don’t think I’ve heard about murders or killings lately.
“Maybe people are just getting down to the nature a little bit,” he said, checking his line. “Everyone seems to be in a good spirit here.”
He’d barely gotten those words out, when up walked a stranger in an oxford shirt and jeans, who called out to Norchi: “My girlfriend just called me, she said she found some toilet paper! I said, ‘Where are you? And she said, ‘Gastonia!’ ”
The two men laughed.
“Commercial-grade toilet paper is available on Amazon,” Norchi offered.
“A box of Kleenex works too,” quipped the man in the oxford shirt, and he went on his way.
Such exchanges between strangers, while brief, are even more treasured these days.
Freedom Park’s grassy hills were heavily populated Friday, but with enough space between bodies to respect the six-feet-apart guidelines.
Groups did yoga together. Men and women sprayed each other with sunscreen, the wind carrying it away before it could hit their bodies.
A group of nine friends in their 20s spread out on blankets as if on the beach, their books and sunscreen and lunches were out as well as their hand-sanitizer. All nine have been left temporarily jobless due to coronavirus.
Five of them are baristas or in management positions at the local coffee chain Not Just Coffee, which closed indefinitely on Tuesday. One was a missionary whose planned return to Denmark this coming week is on hold. Another is a wedding photographer dealing with a spate of postponements.
Some have side hustles that they’ll try to ramp up to pay the bills. But on Friday, they were checking in with each other and letting the sun act as a calming agent.
“I’m taking a couple of days off to just breathe,” said Jacob Morgan, a manager at Not Just Coffee.
A.C. Lee, the missionary, was not feeling sorry for herself: “There’s so much going on for people who have a lot more at risk so it puts it in perspective. There are families who are just trying to get through, day to day.”
Under the band shelter in the park’s center, Travis Guillory and his two sons rode doughnuts on their bikes. Guillory is a reflective guy by nature, and a pandemic is only heightening his sense of soaking in the here-and-now.
“This is a good reminder — stop and take a good look at everything. Stop and look at the beauty of things. Breathe it in.”
His sons, 8-year-old Roman and 10-year-old Colton, looked as though they’d heard those words before.
“In times like this you have to realize that the world’s not ending,” Guillory said. “We all know what the cons are — sickness — but the pros are that people will use better hygiene, and this is teaching us how to deal with being alone. People will get in better shape, because there’s nothing else to do but work out.”
Relaxing in hammocks, Megan and Joseph Barron had biked over from their 850-square-foot Dilworth apartment to get some fresh air and exercise.
Their original weekend plans had been big ones: They’d have family visit for the first time since relocating from Minnesota in November. They were going to do it up big, with trips to Carowinds, the Whitewater Center and the Billy Graham Library.
Yes, the disappointment felt heavy.
But after talking to family stuck in Minnesota quarantine, a silver lining appeared: “We’re thankful we can go outside,” Joseph Barron said, leaning back in his hammock, “and do something like this.”