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PHOTOS: A Summer Of Community, Despite Social Distance

Nat Hilton (left) and Jessica Harmon came out to see the drumline and drill team in West Philadelphia.
Hannah Yoon for NPR
Nat Hilton (left) and Jessica Harmon came out to see the drumline and drill team in West Philadelphia.

What a strange summer it's been.

All across the United States and beyond, people have changed their daily routines to stay safe during the coronavirus pandemic. An anxious spring spent under lockdown in many parts of the U.S. turned into a summer of continued virtual meetings, financial stress and isolation — along with pent-up desire to seek relief in whatever ways we could. So, plastic partitions went up, town hall meetings moved to football fields, National Parks became even more popular, and indoor movie dates shifted to film nights beneath the stars.

In other words, Americans got creative. Everyday routines and important ceremonies continued around the U.S., but with a very different look.


With the season drawing to a close, NPR asked photographers to remind us what America has looked like during this summer of social distancing.

Escapes To Nature And Fresh Air

In Phoenix, freelance photographer Ash Ponders spent time at the Salt River in mid-August, a 200-mile waterway on the edge of town that drew locals eager to swim, fish, or go tubing in the sweltering summer months. Though professional tubing operations halted because of the pandemic, the river remained an outdoor escape.

"Everyone had masks in their pockets," Ponders recalls. When people saw others at the river, "they'd don them ahead of time."

Ponders spoke with a group of friends who had lugged inner tubes and snacks to the river on a Friday night just to watch the sunset. Jacob Willeford, one of the friends, said spending time near the water was better than what he'd be doing otherwise, "sitting at home; furloughed."

When photographer Chona Kasinger visited a blueberry-picking farm in the Snohomish River Valley outside of Seattle in August, she found field attendants guiding visitors to rows of berry bushes loaded with ripe fruit. The guides were responsible for ensuring that, even on a farm, people remained 6 feet apart and kept their masks on.


This year, Mountainview Blueberry Farm set up designated hand-washing stations, provided sanitized berry baskets, and had customers purchase their berry hauls from clerks stationed behind plastic partitions. Despite the changes to the picking protocol, Keith Stocker, one of the owners, says the farm was as busy as it's ever been.

Kasinger spoke to one group of friends who hadn't seen each other in six months, but arranged to meet to go berry picking — from a safe distance.

"They were just stoked to be able to be together in what they felt was a safe environment," she remembers.

Celebrations And Milestones Get A Socially Distanced Spin

Summer always brings important milestones: graduations, weddings and family reunions. Keeping 6 feet apart meant rethinking the logistics of many well-established rituals this year.

Graduating seniors at Lincoln High School in Des Moines arrived at staggered times over the course of a week in mid-June to receive their diplomas. They were each allowed two guests, who watched them cross an empty stage before the new grads posed for photos.

"Parents frequently looked to the floor for clues on where to stand," recalls Olivia Sun, a visual journalist at the Des Moines Register who covered the event. "There was no restless buzz of graduates waiting to begin a final summer with childhood friends." Without the festivities that usually accompany graduation, the weeklong event felt "more like a streamlined appointment than a celebration," Sun says.

A Sense Of Community Preserved

In Philadelphia, photographer Hannah Yoon found Positive Movement, a drumline group, had moved their music and rehearsals outside to be safer. The decision had an unintended effect, giving neighbors — including those confined to home — the opportunity to hear and see the music on the street.

Tony Royster, who started Positive Movement, says the team has been performing since 2014, but expanded their schedule this summer to include drive-by birthday and graduation parties as a way to continue to entertain and lift the community's spirits.

"We heard the drumline from outside the window and had to come check it out," resident Jessica Harmon said on a weeknight in early August when Positive Movement performed as the opening act ahead of an outdoor movie. "We had no idea there would be a movie night set up right across the street," Harmon says.

She ended up staying to watch the film with others in her neighborhood.

Nehad Khader, who works with the Scribe Video Center, which puts on the movie nights, says that need for human connection among neighbors was especially profound this summer. The center has hosted outdoor screenings for over two decades. This year, Khader says, every movie night reached maximum capacity.

Friends Nathan Grace, Hana Chamoun, and Anna McCarthy showed up to watch, too. Chamoun, a graduate student and part-time bartender, is now taking virtual classes and relying on unemployment to make ends meet. The past few months have reminded her of the timelessness of summers in elementary school, she says. For Chamoun and her friends, the outdoor event was a welcome chance to escape indoor life and see each other in a safe way.

It was "a sweet treat," McCarthy says. A summer sweetness that transcended even a pandemic.

Photographers Ash Ponders in Phoenix, Chona Kasinger in Seattle, Olivia Sun in Des Moines, and Hannah Yoon in Philadelphia contributed reporting to this story.

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