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Our Pandemic Year: Virtual public events started as a necessity, but they’re here to stay

  • Orange selectboard member Aaron Allen, left, and Orange resident Scott Lurgio wave to incoming Orange, N.H., residents for their Town Meeting held at Mascoma Valley Regional High School due to the COVID-19 pandemic in West Canaan, N.H., on Wednesday, March, 10, 2021. Allen was directing people on where to go for the meeting. ( Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Led by physical education teacher Kristina Claflin, Westshire Elementary School second-graders trek out on snowshoes at the school on Wednesday, March 3, in West Fairlee, Vt. It was the first time many of the students have been on snowshoes. This year's 24th annual VerShare Snowshoe-a-thon has been virtual. Students at the school are sponsored to do loops for the fundraiser, which supports VerShare's Children's Activity Fund. Many of the community nonprofit's fundraisers, like their cabaret, Vershire Day and others, have been halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. ( Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • A few minutes before it is time to start, volunteers Rita Temple Brooks, second from left, Miranda Clemson and Lynne Fitzhugh check in with one another before distributing 35 boxes of food to area residents on Friday, Feb. 26, 2021, in Fairlee, Vt. Nando Jaramillo, left, is ready with meals from the Moon and Stars food truck, made available through Upper Valley Everyone Eats. Every Friday, HELP@fairleevt.org distributes food to anyone in the Upper Valley in need during the COVID-19 pandemic. ( Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • The Orange Town Meeting starts with the Pledge of Allegiance on Wednesday, March 10, 2021, in West Canaan, N.H. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the town held their floor meeting at the Mascoma Valley Regional High School. Selectboard Chairwoman Dorothy Heinrichs and Moderator Dan Hazelton face the flag. About 20 residents were at the meeting held at the high school to be able to maintain social distancing. ( Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Vershire Elementary School second-grader Daniel Wright-Swaine adjusts his snowshoes for the VerShare Snowshoe-a-thon at the school on Wednesday, March 3, 2021 in West Fairlee, Vt. Students at the school were participating by doing loops at the school for the fundraiser, which supports the VerShare Children's Activity Fund. ( Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Rita Temple Brooks, left, and Lynne Fitzhugh, both of Fairlee, Vt., load boxes of food into cars on Friday, Feb. 26, 2021, in Fairlee. Every Friday, volunteers from HELP@fairleevt.org distribute food to anyone in need during the COVID-19 pandemic. ( Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 3/13/2021 10:50:07 PM
Modified: 3/14/2021 11:44:21 AM

The Rev. Josh Moore sat down to his computer early on the morning of March 14, 2020, hit “record” on the camera and broke the news to his congregation that the United Church of South Royalton, aka the Red Door Church, would close its doors for two weeks.

A day earlier, the governors of both Vermont and New Hampshire declared states of emergency to help contain the COVID-19 pandemic that had arrived in the Twin States earlier that month.

At the time, New Hampshire had just six known cases of the virus and Vermont had two. But, Moore said, closing the church could help protect the elderly and people most susceptible to serious illness.

“Because the doors of our buildings have closed, it does not mean the ministry of the Gospel has ceased,” Moore told parishioners in a four-minute video posted to Facebook. “We are still here. I am still at my post. I am ready to serve.”

He then added that the church would broadcast its services live online that Sunday.

That livestream was the first of dozens that Moore and those at the church would host as the pandemic dragged on, cases rose and that two-week window to reopen the church was pushed back through the summer.

The South Royalton congregation wasn’t the only group forced to adjust to a world where public events were discouraged and once-common acts of going to religious services, seeing a show or even visiting family transitioned to a virtual setting.

Municipal meetings, concerts and even the Upper Valley’s largest charity event, the Prouty, all went online this past year as part of a trend that some predict will remain — at least in some form — even as the virus subsides.

Although Moore stressed that in-person activities would remain a priority, he said the church’s online presence is here to stay.

“We’ve invested a good bit of time and energy into all of that,” he said. “We’re not just going to roll it all back.”

Since the Red Door Church first closed its doors a year ago, Moore has faithfully posted full services online. He’s also expanded its mobile liturgy program, offering materials to those worshiping from home, and worked with church elders to make sure congregants are regularly in touch.

Those efforts have helped keep people who otherwise might feel isolated to stay connected, even after in-person services started back up in August, Moore said.

“A lot of people that live here in the community are unable to come for one reason or another and it’s hard to see them,” he said, adding that many seniors still aren’t comfortable attending a socially distanced service.

The Lebanon Opera House, which on a busy night could fill parking lots surrounding its downtown venue, went through a similar “identity crisis” as the pandemic began, according to executive director Joe Clifford.

The 800-seat theater announced on March 13 last year that its doors would close because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I think so much of what we do at the Opera House is putting people together in a communal setting,” Clifford said.

But once the immediate work of rescheduling, refunding tickets and canceling events was complete, he said, officials finally came around to the idea that digital concerts could be a “decent substitute.”

Clifford said the first experiments were with the LOH on Location program that used to be held at the First Congregational Church across the green. An online version means artists from all over, and not just those willing to come to Lebanon, could participate.

“I think it’s an interesting time because artists are just so hungry to perform and get back to work,” Clifford said. “This is just a sort of small way that we can get money in the pockets of artists but also give our audiences some moments of connection, even though it’s through a screen.”

Virtual events “will be part of our toolkit going forward,” he said, adding that an online presence might help reach audiences who can no longer drive or make it to a traditional concert.

People who can’t find time in their busy lives to attend an event or are unable to commute were on the minds of Lebanon officials even before the pandemic. The $6.7 million City Hall renovation that wrapped up in the fall was intended to include technology that would allow people to watch meetings online.

However, the virus sped up those plans as Gov. Chris Sununu’s executive orders allowed for meetings to move online using teleconferencing software. Now, almost every community in the Upper Valley uses Zoom or similar programs to connect government officials with constituents.

Getting to a level of computer literacy — on the part of both those running and those watching meetings — wasn’t without hiccups.

In April, a Vermont Senate Committee on Agriculture held by videoconferencing software was hacked by someone who streamed a pornographic video and used a racial slur. Hartford and Royalton also saw incidents of what’s been called “Zoombombing.”

In Lebanon, the city switched between services to avoid rhetoric made in online comment sections that would accompany its livestreams.

“We were already going down this road but we were certainly not prepared to be having live meetings,” Lebanon City Manager Shaun Mulholland recalled. “I don’t want anybody to get that misconception. We were not ready to do that. We had to make that change very quickly.”

Still, he said, more people are now able to see local government in action. Before the pandemic, a room of 40 people at City Hall for a City Council or Planning Board meeting was considered crowded. Now, the city has regularly seen virtual attendance top 100, potentially providing a model for increased participation.

Not everyone is on board with expanding the use of remote meetings. The Republican-controlled New Hampshire House has shot down requests to hold remote sessions and a committee last week voted down a proposal to continue allowing remote access to hearings once the pandemic ends.

However, Donna Girot, the outgoing executive director of CATV, said the move to online meetings is a sea change for transparency and accountability.

“I think there’s a democratization here of government meetings,” said Girot, who has worked alongside videographers to televise and stream government meetings in several Upper Valley towns. “Basically, people who are handicapped, who would have to watch a meeting two days later, can now be in that meeting.”

She predicted that live and streaming meetings will be here to stay long after the pandemic. It’s good for citizens and also inexpensive for most communities, who pool resources with CATV, Girot said.

New technology and the ability to host virtual events also benefited some charities that rely on gatherings to fund their efforts.

For instance, the Prouty announced in April that its annual fundraiser, usually held on a single day in July, would go virtual because the usual 4,000 participants drawn to the event couldn’t safely congregate at the Richmond Middle School.

Instead, organizers planned a six-week “virtual” Prouty where cyclists, runners, rowers, golfers, hikers, walkers and anyone else could meet their commitment, send proof of completion and raise money for Norris Cotton Cancer Center.

“There was just so much unknown when you have a fundraising event that relies on an event to happen,” said Jaclynn Rodriguez, the new executive director of Friends of the Norris Cotton Cancer Center. “In a world where you can’t have events, that kind of comes to a screeching halt.”

However, the Prouty’s pivot resulted in about $3 million in donations, about 10% below what the event raised in pre-COVID 2019. Planning is now underway for the Prouty’s 40th anniversary, which will include curbside pickup of shirts, rewards and jerseys as well as a ceremony broadcast online.

At least part of that event will be held virtually, Rodriguez said. But a year into the pandemic, it’s what people have come to expect.

“It’s funny. You used to have to explain it, what it is to participate virtually,” she said. “We no longer have to do that and we never will again.”

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603 -727-3223.




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