Things to do in Larimer
Mural in Larimer. Photo by Erika Gidley

With schools closed and so many people now working from home due to the threat of COVID-19, Comcast is making WiFi hotspots available for free to anyone across the U.S. It’s one of many companies and groups helping others during these uncertain times.

Comcast says its WiFi is open to anyone for the next 60 days.

“During this extraordinary time, it is vital that as many Americans as possible stay connected to the internet — for education, work and personal health reasons,” Comcast Cable CEO Dave Watson said in a statement.

Schools were just the start. Restaurants and bars were next. In fact, closings, cancellations and announcements from state and local officials are frequently updated, sometimes before they even take effect.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto announced Friday that all gatherings of 250 people or more would be prohibited starting today. On Sunday, that order was revised to ban gatherings of 50 or more people.

The Allegheny County Health Department also called for a voluntary 14-day closure of all non-essential businesses in the county, starting today. Museums and cultural centers are closed and hundreds of events are canceled.

Helping hands

But even as people are encouraged to stay at home and maintain a social distance, there are signs everywhere that organizations and neighbors are looking out for each other.

Pittsburgh Public Schools activated an emergency response plan, ensuring that grab-and-go meals will be distributed at all 54 school locations from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. through Friday. Keystone Oaks is doing the same thing. St. John Lutheran Chruch in Carnegie will hand out free bag lunches this week.

Lawrenceville United is signing up “buddies” to check on elderly residents. And the Hebrew Free Loan Association in Squirrel Hill is offering interest-free loans of up to $5,000 for people affected by the pandemic.

Entrepreneur Kit Mueller has organized a GoFundMe drive for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank that exceeded its $5,000 goal in two days.

The Sharpsburg Neighborhood Organization and Roots of Faith are conducting a needs assessment of residents and small businesses to learn about their needs and help connect them to resources that can help.

Students at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon offered mutual aid forms on Reddit to help other students with needs such as food, transportation and housing. They also put out a resource guide.

CivicScience CEO John Dick and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban are reimbursing employees who eat at locally owned restaurants.

(If you know of someone or group who is helping others, let us know!)

Where to go for help

The Allegheny County Health Department has a resource page that includes information about COVID-19. It also has a link with information for residents and another link with information for specific groups, such as health care providers, businesses and nonprofits, and travelers.

If you have concerns about coronavirus or believe you or someone in your family may have been exposed, you should contact your doctor. If you don’t have one, call the Allegheny County Health Department at 412-687-2243. If you need immediate help, call 911.

If you feel anxious or overwhelmed because of coronavirus, you can call Resolve Crisis Services, at 888-796-8226, which offers 24-hour crisis counseling, support and referral services.

Joleen Chiaverini, outreach and disaster response coordinator for Allegheny County, says the staff at Resolve will provide referrals and help people find the assistance they need. “If someone needs immediate help, we have a mobile crisis response team that will go to someone’s home and provide them assistance on-site,” she says.

Residents who may simply need someone to talk to may call the Peer Support & Advocacy Network at 866-661-9726, where they can receive emotional support. “If someone can’t sleep or feels lonely or isolated, they are there to listen,” Chiaverini says.

Life at home

For many families in the Pittsburgh area, closing schools made the threat of COVID-19 very real. So in addition to the stress and anxiety of the public health issue, parents also must now deal with having children at home when they normally would be in school.

Elizabeth Reitz, a child psychologist who runs Strong Foundations Psychological Associates in Scott, says parents need to be open with their children about the coronavirus. But they need to be mindful of their own concerns.

“Anxiety is the most transmittable negative emotion between a parent and child,” she says. “That’s what kids really pick up on.”

She encourages parents to focus on the positive. “Yes, it’s a serious thing, but you tell them, we are all working as a family and as a nation to handle this. We can handle it, we got it. There are teams of researchers working on solutions right now.“ 

Reitz says it’s also important for families to stick to their routines as much as possible, whether it’s having dinner or some activity the family does. “Any change in routine can be hard on kids,” she says.

Health officials are discouraging people from gathering in large areas, so many attractions around Pittsburgh are now closed, including the Children’s MuseumNational Aviary and Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium. Reitz says parents will have to get creative to find something for kids to do.

“You might ask them if they want to learn about something new,” she says. “Or just get them involved, like putting together a shopping list of things you may need.”

Jeff Magill, manager of emergency preparedness at UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital, says social distancing and other safeguarding measures can take a toll. 

“These social distancing recommendations and quarantine policies are necessary public health protocols, and crucial to protecting our health and safety, but they can really break up our routines, which we know can increase our stress levels.” 

He acknowledges that people want to stay aware of the latest developments, but cautions against overdoing it. 

“It can be tempting to get glued to the news, but that may only increase anxiety. Set limits to the amount of news coverage you watch, read and listen to. Activities like reading, watching movies and doing at-home exercises, such as yoga, can be a healthy and calming distraction throughout a quarantine.” 

Matt Smith is a long-time journalist who worked for 26 years as a reporter and editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He enjoys craft beers, Irish music, the Grateful Dead, bad puns and good roller coasters. He and his wife, Clare Ansberry, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal., have two sons, Pete and Eli.