Community Pain Points in the time of COVID

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Big blue dots are carefully placed six feet apart on the floor of my neighborhood cafe, Big Dog Coffee. As I stood on a dot waiting for my order, I said to the owner, Nikolay, that I look forward to the day that I can come back and sit. He responded with a sigh, saying, “I try not to think about it.”

It was then that I realized that something that’s a little bit painful to me is probably immensely painful for him, and not just financially. I miss spending time at Big Dog. So many times over the last two months I’ve walked past what is typically a bright and cheery spot and felt a twinge of loss. I’ve always enjoyed seeing people through the front windows, reading, writing, and chattering away well into the evening. Big Dog remains open, of course, but life and business are different right now.

As for Nikolay and his family, I can imagine that they miss the satisfaction of their daily interactions with the regulars and the hum of activity in their normally lively coffee shop. What they are experiencing, what I am, and what you are probably feeling are pain points and a sense of loss.

If you’ve been to one of my community workshops, you’ve probably heard me talk about the pain points that tend to be present in trail communities. So often, those who are looking to the “trail town” model are seeking to cure what ails their communities. Trails can be an antidote to pain points like loss of industry, missed economic opportunities, and a fizzled sense of place. This pandemic has introduced a new set of pain points for us to navigate.

I have a lot of thoughts (and questions) around how trail communities – how any community – will recover from the pandemic. But in this moment, I simply want to acknowledge what a difficult time this has been for people. Have you heard of the Ring Theory for grief – the one that tells us to “Comfort in and dump out”? I find myself wondering how it applies to the pandemic. Certainly, those who have been sick or have lost loved ones and those on the frontlines of the crisis are at or near the center of the ring. But draw a different set of rings and your local small business owner might be at the center. There have been a lot of losses and it’s okay to acknowledge them.

As for the new community pain points, some are less obvious than the crushing economic loss that trail businesses and trail communities are experiencing. Consider the following:

  • Missing old routines and bright spots like a lively café or stopping to chat with your local bike shop owner. If the coffee shop example resonates with you, did you know there are websites and apps, like Coffitivity, that produce the ambient sounds of cafes and other comforting places? I’m listening as I type this.
  • “Pandemic pause” delaying projects that matter to you and your group – whether that’s trail maintenance or improvement projects in town. Spring is usually a time to get going on projects and get ready for the trail season.
  • The simple act of gathering as a community – for community planning discussions, maple festivals, movies in the park, or whatever it is that typically brings your town together. One of my greatest hopes is that we will gather with purpose when we start to get together again. I’d love to see deepened connections and more inclusive gatherings.
  • For those of you located along destination trails, meeting and interacting with visiting trail users. Those kinds of connections are fun and uplifting, and having people from other places scooting around your town adds a sense of vibrancy.

Do any of these apply to you and your community? Have I missed any others? Let me know in the comments and take good care in these challenging times.

UPDATE: This post was written in May 2020, pretty early into the pandemic. I have since published Deciding on Trails: 7 Practices of Healthy Trail Towns. In the book, I write more extensively about pain points and have also included a chapter on the pandemic’s impact on trail communities.