By Calvin Pynn, contributor
In a normal year, the Virginia Mennonite Relief Sale would have packed out the Rockingham County Fairgrounds with people admiring handwoven quilts, handcrafted furniture and other items auctioned off over the weekend. While some attendees still came by to look at those items last weekend, the bleachers – typically filled with several thousand people – were empty.
Instead, the 54th annual Relief Sale’s bids were placed online, said chair Dave Rush.
“If you estimate the seating area, you can usually fit 4,000-5,000 people, [and] we definitely didn’t have that many people online,” Rush said.
While it’s difficult to estimate how many of that typical crowd actually bids on items, Rush said 285 bidders signed up for this year’s online auction. Regardless, it didn’t seem to have dampened the results.
“The prices were pretty much the same as what we would have gotten at the live auction,” Rush said. “There were probably fewer vendors, not a ton more, but we had the good support of people online.”
This year’s auction netted nearly $90,000 of a total of $266,500 that the 2020 Relief Sale has pulled in so far. As has happened to most other events this year, COVID-19 pushed what’s traditionally a large community gathering online. Despite a satisfying auction result, Rush said something was still missing this year.
“People love the event, and they use it as a sort of a big home gathering to get together,” Rush said. “A lot of times, it brings together a lot of different people from conservative and liberal Mennonite churches together, and we weren’t working together in person as much, but we were still united in supporting this cause.”
The new Zoom normal
Virtual meetings quickly became the norm in the workplace and the classroom early in the pandemic. Many other community events, like the Relief Sale have gone online as well – and now, half a year into this massive shift, the novelty has worn off for many.
Brian Bolton, pastor of Shalom Mennonite Congregation, has noticed an ebb and flow of attendance for Sunday services.
“We definitely had the highest level of participation in the spring when COVID was new and everyone was seeking connection and meaning amidst the changes,” Bolton said.
The usual summer lull in attendance went as anticipated, he said. And come fall, even as attendance started rising again, Bolton said he’s seen fewer people logging on than in the spring.
“There are a good number of folks who are just ‘Zoomed out,’ and some with children who just can’t make it work for them,” Bolton said. “We are starting to plan some smaller in-person gatherings knowing that online worship just isn’t working for some, but I get the sense that many people, especially families with children, are stretched as far as they can stretch with time and the stress of making life work under COVID.”
Conversation about “Zoom Fatigue” began just months into the pandemic, as various social scientists, including those from Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, explained in a Wall Street Journal article from May. As a disruption to instinctual forms of human communication, stress related to constantly attending virtual events was also rooted in the dread associated with constantly seeing an image of oneself, lack of real-time feedback, and an inability to read body language.
Those stressors have become routine, and factor into planning virtual alternatives for local events that would otherwise involve crowds. Karen Lawrence, outreach consultant for the Harrisonburg International Festival, said that’s something her team considered when organizing this year’s edition.
“Because this grassroots event has always focused on food, live entertainment, and face-to-face interactions, I believe I speak for the team in saying that we expected that the participation numbers would be significantly lower for a virtual event,” Lawrence said. “Some people I talked to couldn’t fathom how it was even possible.”
The Harrisonburg International Festival typically brings more than 8,000 people downtown, in addition to hundreds of participants and volunteers. This year, it was held entirely online, with content constantly being shared on the festival’s website and Facebook page from September 12-20.
Lawrence said she felt it turned out well, despite the obvious challenges, and was worth the risk for the sake of the event itself.
“We felt that it was important to continue to provide visibility and voice to the many small businesses, community groups, and nonprofits that depend on the event each year to make valuable connections,” Lawrence said. “We got some really great content ranging from performances, interviews, articles, and videos, which told me that people were still excited about participating.”
Hard numbers hard to come by
Still, attendance is hard to gauge for many virtual events, and Lawrence is still in the process of determining how many people engaged with this year’s festival. And even when software like Zoom provides headcounts, Bolton said determining church attendance has not been as simple as counting the number of logins, especially when broadcasting over different platforms.
“We can’t always know how many people are present in each connection, whether a whole family, a couple, or just one person,” Bolton said. “Some weeks a volunteer tries to count who they can see, but even then there are people connecting by phone and YouTube.”
That has also been the case for Harrisonburg’s City Council meetings, which are offered via livestream on the City’s website and on public access television. According to City Spokesperson Michael Parks, there is no way to accurately count the number of viewers.
However, that has not slowed public engagement, as a screened call line has been opened for public comments during meetings. Despite some occasional technical difficulties, Parks said, feedback has been mostly positive.
“All in all, it’s been very successful if you judge it solely by the amount of public comment we receive on public hearings and at the end of each meeting,” Parks said. “I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but from helping answer those calls during meetings I can say that we are still hearing from many residents on important topics, and we took extra steps to make sure people could still take part in these meetings while avoiding the “Zoom-bombing” and other pitfalls some other communities have faced.”
Some contingency plans might stick around for the long haul
The abrupt transition to social interaction that’s occurred this year in Harrisonburg and across the world has allowed event organizers and community leaders to think outside the box. Even when in-person gatherings will be permitted again, Rush said holding the Relief Sale’s auction online would remain an option for providing wider access to the event.
“Some people in a live auction with a couple of thousand people there are very reluctant to hold up their number and bid, so some people very much enjoyed the online auction where they could kind of do it at the comfort of their home without much pressure,” Rush said. “So next year, I think we’re going to try incorporating the online and live auctions at the same time.”
Lawrence said this year’s virtual International Festival has prompted organizers to consider using the online format to keep the festival going year-round.
“In addition to hopefully continuing the physical festival in 2021, it is our intention to transition this virtual event into a regularly updated, year-round digital platform for finding all things international in the region,” Lawrence said. “We are in the process of completing the planning and securing the funding to develop an enhanced website with more information about international entrepreneurs, cultural events, community activities, business opportunities, and an online marketplace.”
When it comes to more regular events, such as services at Shalom Mennonite, Bolton said that while some people are more receptive to the virtual format than others, everyone still finds a way to participate.
“We receive lots of appreciative feedback for our efforts to keep the online service going,” Bolton said There are quite a few folks getting together in person in small groups in outdoor spaces, so I think people are also organically figuring out what works for them.”
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