Everywhere around Central Texas are signs of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Businesses display notices about indefinite closures. Schools post about their closures on marquees outside. Parks have COVID-19 warnings around basketball hoops and bags covering barbecue grills. Hospitals and doctors offices display new visitor rules and screening procedures to get into the buildings.
Among all the warnings and closures, however, Central Texas neighbors are sharing other kinds of signs. Sometimes it’s lyrics written in chalk on the sidewalk. Sometimes it’s a word painted on rocks or a humorous message delivered through lawn decorations. Sometimes it’s a teddy bear sitting on a front porch or a message written in tape on a window.
Jessica Bess started seeing her South Austin Maple Run neighbors put out their Christmas lights, and she thought: Why not put out the Halloween skeletons? Each week, she designs a new scene with her skeletons and a message. One: "If you see kids crying outside and picking weeds, they’re on a field trip." Another: "Waiting for toilet paper be like," complete with a box of Corona beer.
Bess has been told by neighbors that they have changed their walking routes to make sure they stop by, and she’s seen folks stop to take a selfie with her display.
"The reactions are our favorite part," she says. "Our living room windows look out to the set up, so we get to see the parents laughing. Kids stop on their bikes to see what’s new."
People are walking around more as families and the teddy bear hunt has spread throughout Central Texas neighborhoods. On daily walks, kids go looking for bears in their neighbors’ windows.
Ann Hudspeth found her childhood teddy bear deep in her closet and put it in the window of her Gracywoods house in north Austin.
"I never thought he would become so useful again!" she said.
Kim Williams put out her small flock of plastic flamingos outside her south Austin home, she says, "to give the kids something fun to find on their walks."
In the Rancho Alto neighborhood in South Austin, the neighborhood association came up with different things for people to display. It was shamrocks for St. Patrick’s Day and jokes for April Fools Day. Other days featured silly faces, animals or flowers.
Because not everyone has a window you can see from the sidewalk, people decorated doors as well as created decorations in chalk, Bryna Boehle says. "I also set up garden lights in my front yard for a ’lil cheer for our evening walkers," she says.
Sometimes the fun is coming to the neighbors. On nights when it’s not raining, Joe Elliott and his family create a parade, wearing inflatable costumes and blasting upbeat music. Their Westside Preserve neighbors in Cedar Park look forward to the almost nightly event.
It started because their house has become crowded. There’s Joe, his, wife, Ramona, and their two middle-schoolers and a high-schooler. They also had two family friends staying with them when the stay at home order happened, as well as Joe Elliott’s 80-year-old mom. They wondered if they went on their nightly family walk, would anyone believe they were one family following social distancing rules?
They joked: "We should all walk in hazmat suits," Elliott says.
They did have a hazmat suit of sorts. Two Halloweens ago, Elliott dressed in an inflatable Minion costume, which looked like a lawn display, and jumped out and scared the kids.
The family dared each other to walk around in that. But they took it a step further. They went online and looked for more inflatable costumes. Now they have three aliens, a Mr. Potato Head, a Buzz Lightyear, and a non-inflatable Jessie, all from "Toy Story."
Elliott walks behind the inflatables with music, the dog, and duct tape and batteries in case of inflatable emergency. They have even pushed his mom in her wheelchair while she carries an inflatable dinosaur.
They are like the ice cream truck, he says. You hear the music, and you come outside. And, yes, they have a special playlist filled with happy or even ironic songs like "Can’t Stop the Feeling," "Can’t Touch This" and "Don’t Stand So Close to Me."
People stand on their porches, pull out their cameras, smile and laugh. Neighbors have done the macarena to the music.
"It is super ridiculous," Elliott says. "But people enjoy it, too.
"It's one-part bonding for our family and something we can all do together to give back in our own way. It's definitely a tension reliever for us, and it’s hopeful."
Their neighbors post on the Nextdoor app to ask when are they going to do it again.
More folks are spreading hope. Across Central Texas, messages written in sidewalk chalk have sprung up: Beatles lyrics "Good Day Sunshine," and "There Will Be an Answer, Let It Be" in North Austin. "Thank you, Postal Woman" by mailboxes in Round Rock. "Get Up Every Morning and Think I Can Do This!" in Senna Hills off Bee Cave Road.
Sometimes kids create hopscotch courts or obstacle courses in chalks for others to complete. Sometimes they write personal messages for their friends on driveways.
Then there are the mysterious painted rocks with messages that have shown up in neighborhoods: "Smile," "Love," "Be Kind" and "Plant Hope" (on a rock that was painted to look like a strawberry).
Brook Rogers and her 8-year-old daughter, Maleah, were painting rocks and leaving them throughout their Pflugerville neighborhood. People would pick them up and take them.
Then Rogers had a different idea. She’s a balloon artist and watched all her bookings for spring get canceled. First she did a Facebook Live video for all the kids in the neighborhood and made balloon animals by requests for the kids celebrating March and April birthdays.
Then she tapped her stockpile of balloons and set up fun balloon displays outside her house. First it was a giant doughnut with the sign "DoNut Worry. Be Happy." Next was a giant carrot, basket and Easter Bunny for Easter. She asked the neighbors to come by, take a picture and leave a painted rock in the basket.
It’s like they are all a part of the sculpture, she says, when they bring their rocks.
She plans on building a different display each week. She sees neighbors coming by and taking pictures and asking "What are you going to do next?"
"The neighbors loved it so much," she says. "We get so excited; they get so excited, too."