Commentary: Cape community delivers services during pandemic

By Jen Mason

Much as violent storms sometimes reveal long-buried shipwrecks along Delaware’s coast, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light uncomfortable truths about the state’s largest and fastest-growing county.

Jen Mason

Mention of the state’s seashore invariably recalls images of pristine beaches, comfortable homes, charming shops and — in normal summers — bars, restaurants, hotels and rental properties filled with seasonal visitors.

But behind this picture of pleasure and prosperity lie serious social needs that existed long before the coronavirus outbreak and which — unless addressed in a comprehensive, well-coordinated manner — will endure long after the virus is gone.

Those needs are closer to the affluent beach communities than many recognize. In the Cape Henlopen School District, which includes Lewes, Rehoboth Beach and neighboring communities, one in five students comes from a low-income family.

As the pandemic erupted in March, more than 70 businesses, chambers of commerce, educators, faith communities, health care providers, nonprofit organizations, public libraries and public officials formed the Cape Community Coordination for COVID-19 (CCC4COVID) coalition. The partners’ goal was to identify urgent needs and establish connections between those with requirements and those with resources, ensuring that essential services are delivered to fellow Delawareans as efficiently as possible.

Among other initiatives, coalition members provided personal protective equipment for health care providers and first responders; improved the efficiency of food distribution; collected and distributed personal hygiene and household cleaning supplies not eligible for purchase with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits; and coordinated distribution of tablets and laptops to support distance learning for students.

Satisfying as such outcomes may be, the coalition’s volunteer members encountered gut-wrenching stories of personal need involving hunger, homelessness, isolation and the inability to readily access medical care.

Coalition members also came to the troubling realization that these and other critical social needs in Sussex County aren’t new phenomenon arising from the pandemic.

Consider these facts, all documented before the COVID-19 outbreak:

• Nearly one-third of working residents in Sussex County has an annual income at or less than $20,000 in a state where the poverty level is $16,920 for a family of two. A married restaurant worker and cashier each earning near minimum wage cannot meet the living wage threshold of $40,456, as estimated by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

• Delaware’s cost-of-living index is more than 7% above the national average, driven by necessities including groceries, housing, utilities and transportation.

• 13% of Sussex County families qualify for and receive SNAP benefits, even though 88% of those households have at least one member working.

• 18% of families do not have broadband internet access at home, many because it’s unaffordable. And 7% live in areas with no broadband infrastructure at all.

• Nearly one-third of the county’s residents experience three or more of 12 social vulnerability risk factors. These include significant disability or health condition, no health insurance, unemployment or poverty-level income, and persons over age 65 living alone.

Business closures necessitated by the pandemic unquestionably have made the lives of many of our fellow Delawareans all the more challenging.

More than half of all Sussex County residents work for small businesses, many in shore communities.

According to the Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach Chamber of Commerce, mid-July weekend hotel occupancy in those communities was down 44% from the same period a year earlier. Although data are not yet available from official sources, it’s obvious that retail shops, service businesses, bars and restaurants suffered corresponding losses in both revenue and employment.

The poverty and other systemic social challenges that exist in Sussex County won’t diminish any time soon. If anything, they are likely to worsen, as deferred rent and utility payments come due, as enhanced unemployment benefits expire and as unemployment remains high.

The CCC4COVID coalition knows the future is filled with unknowns.

But we are certain that a vaccine won’t eliminate multiple social and economic needs that existed in our community long before the pandemic’s arrival. We also know that many of us can be part of the solution to both chronic challenges and the community’s resiliency in the face of future crises.

How?

If you’re among those who’ve moved here to enjoy a comfortable retirement by the sea or enjoy the area’s many pleasures as a regular visitor or the owner of a second home, lend your time and talent as a volunteer with one of the many local nonprofit organizations dedicated to helping others. You can find a list of coalition partners at ccc4covid.org.

Even better, make a financial contribution to the nonprofit of your choice to help them continue their vital work. (CCC4COVID itself neither raises nor distributes funds.)

Use the “Partner Sign-Up” button on our website to get involved as we continue to coordinate responses to the ongoing pandemic and consider options to ensure that the community is able to respond nimbly to future natural disasters or public health crises.

Patronize local small businesses that are struggling to survive. Many have adopted curbside pickup or delivery options that make shopping safe and easier than ever.

And, during this election season, be sure to ask candidates for office about their plans to address the social needs in our community.

If there are silver linings to be found within the coronavirus cloud, one is that the current situation revealed the urgent social needs that exist within our community. These needs cannot be ignored, and a comprehensive solution will require the coordinated response of an even larger coalition that includes elected officials and agencies at all levels of government.

Another positive is the willingness of thousands of our neighbors to help out, whether by sewing masks or by donating food and working to get it onto the tables of those in need.

And, perhaps most importantly, we’ve learned that we can make our individual efforts more effective when we work together. All benefit when our entire community becomes stronger and more resilient, providing confidence that we will be better able to weather whatever challenges come our way.

Jen Mason, convener of the CCC4COVID coalition, is an independent business owner in Lewes.