Separated by a few states, R. Allen Bolar regularly touches base and calls his father, a doctor who lives in a small town in Minnesota that’s at least 2,000 miles from Bolar’s new home in Bakersfield.

Yet since the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, which has dramatically altered people’s lives, shifting them into their homes and away from their workplaces, favorite restaurants, and routine gatherings of friends and family, Bolar, a proud dad himself, noticed that he and his father were having more frequent — and longer — conversations.

“We’ve been talking every single night for an hour,” said Bolar, who teaches political science at Bakersfield College. “It’s not something he and I had been doing.”

Aside from that, Bolar has found himself waving and chatting — from a safe distance, of course — with his neighbors more. He’s even noticed the activity on his Nextdoor app, where people usually spread the word of criminal activity or neighborly disagreements in their neck of the woods, has mostly turned community-oriented and supportive in nature, from “people who are making masks” and giving them to those who need them or to those offering to run errands “for anyone who can’t go to the grocery store because they’re older and they feel vulnerable.”

“I would say that’s very nice to see,” Bolar said. “In a sense, it’s bringing people together.”

And coming together is something that many locals seek as they follow stay-at-home orders or limit their physical distance around their usual circles of family, friends, work, school and hobbies.

Through this unexpected phase, residents are finding new ways to connect and reestablish bonds with those close at heart.

Many are embracing new ways to communicate. They have fallen in love with cooking and nature again, experimenting with new dishes or taking walks with their “quaranteams” — groups of people who have chosen to quarantine together during this period. Instacart, the U.S. Postal Service and UPS, as well as Uber Eats and GrubHub, have become the new go-tos for many lately.

Such transformation reminds communication expert Talita Pruett of the term “alone together,” coined in 2012 by Sherry Turkle, an MIT professor who specializes in how technology is transforming relationships.

“I think the term perfectly describes our interaction with others during the pandemic,” said Pruett, who teaches communications at BC. “I have heard tales of grandparents doing lunch dates with their grandkids across the country (and sometimes just across the street). Other stories of co-workers holding virtual happy hours, families playing Scrabble on Zoom and friends doing Sunday night watch parties on Facebook. Ultimately, all forms of mediated communication aim to simulate face-to-face communication. Though they are the ‘next best thing’ right now, they cannot replace the richness of face-to-face human interaction. Something as simple and meaningful as a hug is impossibly replicated through mediated communication.

“On the positive side, being in isolation has given many people the opportunity to connect with family and friends that live far. Personally, in the 13 years I have lived in the U.S., I have never felt closer to my family of origin, who lives in Brazil. I hope that when the pandemic is over, all of us will be more mindful of the importance of human connection and more intentional in our interactions with others.”

For now, Bakersfield has discovered new ways to intentionally connect with its community.

When local frontline health workers saw a shortage of face masks, volunteers — in partnership with organizations such as Adventist Health Bakersfield Foundation — jumped into action, sewing countless masks for those in need. Adventist Health Bakersfield Foundation also organized a local 48-hour virtual endurance race to benefit families affected by COVID-19. Stockdale Tile covered the food tab and delivered it in droves for workers at Bakersfield Memorial and Adventist Health Bakersfield hospitals. Aera Energy donated $100,000 to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Kern County to care for children of essential workers, calling out the community to match. Bakersfield attorney and landlord Dennis Beaver waived April’s rent for his tenants. And given that Kern County is the heart of agriculture, locals joined in on the viral “appreciation caravans” by heading to the fields in Lamont where organizers Jose Reyes, Brenda Ruiz and Susie Brock, as well as Rubio’s Coastal Grill, Victor’s Mexican Grill and others, showed up to applaud essential farmworkers, according to local news reports.

Front-yard signs with phrases such as “Everything is Going to be Okay” and “Hope Is Not Canceled” have popped up in Bakersfield neighborhoods.

These are just a small sampling of how the community has come together in unity in an unfamiliar, at times surreal, time.

But where do we go from here? What can we expect over the next year or beyond COVID-19?

For one, the need for community partnerships will continue at various levels. For example, local health care facilities have found ways to support nursing students as they work toward completing their educational program and local lawmakers are also looking at ways to benefit the community, said Cindy Collier, nursing professor and acting director of the BC Student Health and Wellness Center.

She and others agree that the coronavirus pandemic has reminded locals how frontline public health care workers remain vital in this changing world. At the same time, faced with an unpredictable virus, local and state health officials are adapting and studying ways to improve and strengthen the health care system in the long run. It is a challenge that has faced both the local health care system and nation, said Charles Daramola, a professor and program director of the public health science at Bakersfield College.

Aside from that, staying healthy is vital, and Daramola recommended people look at ways to reduce stress since chronic stress can weaken an immune system. He suggested that people should consider connecting with their spiritual roots, trying meditation or finding new ways to reach out to friends and family.

For many, Collier said the new normal will be finding new ways to greet each other and practicing good medical hygiene that includes regularly washing hands, having respiratory etiquette, staying home or away from others when sick, and understanding the importance of vaccines.

“Viruses have been around forever, but people have sort of taken them for granted not realizing how contagious they are to vulnerable populations,” Collier said.

Other looming ideas will be how local businesses will fare over time. Recently, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that certain retail businesses will be allowed to reopen with curbside pickup and other restrictions, while other experts expect a long, slow process before businesses are operating at a prepandemic stage.

And while the leading oil and agriculture industries are facing economic challenges amid the pandemic, Kern County could see a growth or need in the warehousing and logistics industries, Bolar said. He referred to distribution centers currently in the county, such as Walmart and the new Amazon facility on Merle Haggard Drive. In addition, as the number of delivery requests surge with most families opting to stay indoors, some businesses in those areas may eye centrally located Kern County for future locations.

Meanwhile, creativity abounds. Kaitlin Hulsy, who teaches at California State University, Bakersfield, and Bakersfield College, launched a website called Castle in the Storm in mid-March to focus on writing and personal expression in the time of COVID-19, which has seen a rise in contributions, including from many students.

As residents figure out the new norm during this temporary period, others suggest creating a consistent daily schedule.

“Even if you’re not terribly productive (and it’s fine if you’re not), make sure you have some semblance of a routine. I have managed to keep my pre-COVID-19 sleep schedule,” said Erin Auerbach, a BC journalism professor. “That has been a huge help. I also walk my dog every day and try to eat meals at about the same times. I regularly tend to my small garden and make my bed. Simple tasks give me a sense of normalcy during times that are so far from it.”

Yet, she added: “If you don’t accomplish everything, don’t beat yourself up. When inspiration of any kind strikes, whether it’s to bake, go for a jog, take a virtual yoga class, write or balance your checkbook — just do it. Dive right in. You’ll feel energized after a short period of productive activity.”

And strive for a “balanced diet, get some sunshine and fresh air, and stay positive and optimistic that we will get through it and be better on the other side,” said Sandi Taylor, BC’s athletic director.

It is unclear how long the uncertainty will take to turn certain. The closest semblance people have looked to has been the influenza pandemic of 1918–1919, or the Spanish flu, although the name itself does not define its origin — Neutral Spain just happened to report more about it at its outbreak during World War I. The flu lasted about 18 months.

Bolar says a vaccination is still a distance away.

While dealing with unknowns, many residents are turning to what they know best: kindness.

“I am heartened by all the caring and kindness that I’ve seen,” said David Koeth, a BC art professor and member of the AIGA design association. “So many people are volunteering to help neighbors and friends in myriad ways. My wife, who is a quilter, started sewing masks and offered them to friends and family all over the country via social media. Her last batch will go to the California Veteran’s Home in Chula Vista. Her late father spent his last few years there and they are in need of masks for the residents.”

Auerbach can attest to the “heightened level of considerateness” that others have raised.

“My neighbors and I text each other every so often to make sure everyone is OK,” said Auerbach. “They have offered to give me facemasks. I have baked them pumpkin bread. Even when I’m out shopping, people have mostly gone out of their way to be considerate. The other day, I was leaving Target and a $20 bill fell out of my pocket. I didn’t know it until a driver frantically waived me down to make sure I got it.”

This time will help residents understand what’s most important to them and how to retain those priorities in a post-COVID-19 world.

“We need to think collectively,” Pruett said. “This is especially challenging for individualistic cultures, such as American culture. American citizens are used to having autonomy, freedom and are encouraged to put individual goals ahead of group ones. Now it is the time to reach out for others, to be altruistic. It is good for our community and it is good for us individually. There is a vast body of research that supports the notion that altruistic and pro-social behavior are associated with greater mental and physical well-being.” 

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