Our COVID Pandemic Story

By Hatton Weeks, Rotarian
Vice President and General Manager, KAIT
July 2022

In order to continue meeting and serving the community, the Rotary Club of Jonesboro became ‘remotary’ during the beginning of COVID-19 pandemic. The club met 99 times either virtually online via Zoom or a hybrid of online and in person.

Brian Rega was the club president when the pandemic started.

“When we were meeting during the Zoom Marty Allen was the one who called it Remotary,” Rega said.

“Remotely” as in Rotary and remote. The made-up word coined for the remote meetings became the saving grace for keeping the Rotary Club of Jonesboro together.

As the pandemic took hold of the world, everyone realized in-person meetings were not an option. The CDC recommended no meetings of more than 25 people. In March 2020, the club postponed two meetings as businesses and schools closed.

“By the 31st I reached out to Sam (Hummelstein) and asked how can we do this via Zoom. Sam solved all of our problems,” Rega said.

Sam Hummelstein, a long-time Rotarian and the club’s resident technical expert jumped into action.

“They had just canceled (Rotary) district conference and the district (6150) took that money and put it to a multi-user Zoom account so all the clubs could share it,” said Hummelstein.

Within weeks, the club was meeting virtually via Zoom, even holding a “cocktail hour” with a Rotarian from Australia joining in. Club leaders were finding ways to meet and connect in a very uncertain time. Not everyone was on board with the meetings.

Rega recalls, “I got a lot of advice from some of the members for canceling the meetings saying we were overreacting by canceling the meetings. Everyone has an opinion, but we were doing what we thought was important to keep all our members safe.”

For Rega and the club’s board, they were worried about its future.

“I was hopeful that we could keep it together. I didn’t want to see it die on my watch.”

However, he reminds everyone it’s the club’s members that make it strong.

“With a hundred-year history, we’ve been through a lot, so we can do this. This is just another turn.”

This turn did include some bumps in the road. The technology, new to a lot of members, was a learning curve. Phrases such as “please mute your line” and “you’re still muted” became commonplace as well as provided some light-hearted banter.

The summer of 2020 saw new club president Gary Higgins facing the same challenge: keeping the club together.

Virtual meeting attendance suffered during the first two years of the pandemic. Pre-COVID19 in-person attendance averaged 50%. Virtual attendance drew half as many members. Membership also dropped by over 25%. Rotary Clubs across the district suffered too. At least two clubs in District 6150 dissolved.

Higgins said, “I felt like the most important thing at that time was that if we were going to stay online was to try and have as good a program as we could have.”

As the pandemic progressed, so did the fight against it. Vaccines along with safety measures like masks and limiting large groups helped ease the virus’ spread. The club began discussing how to do in-person meetings. The St. Bernards Auditorium had been the club’s home for decades, but it was not available. Once the facility was reopened it was used as a vaccine clinic.

Club member Craig Pomrenke, who is the General Manager of the Embassy Suites approached the club with an offer to use their space for free as long as it paid for food. The idea was a win-win as it allowed the club a meeting space and provided the hotel staff with work.

Higgins recalled, “it provided a way for those who didn’t feel comfortable a way to participate. In the end, I still think we kept the total number of folks with some on Zoom and some in person.”

Higgins spent his entire tenure with his club meeting either virtually or a combination of virtual and in-person.

The summer of 2021 ushered in Gary Clark as the club’s next president. He faced a different challenge. Even though the virus was keeping the world handcuffed, Clark was getting pressure from some members to cancel the Zoom meeting option. Clark held his ground.

Clark remembers, “Gary (Higgins) and I talked about it in our transition period that once we had our hybrid meetings that once it got down to five or six (online) that we would shut it off. We didn’t. We hung on and it wasn’t long until Omicron. It was good that we were still doing that.”

The Omicron variant surge in early 2022 sent members back to Zoom as many did not feel comfortable gathering in person. Infections dropped late in the winter of 2022 and the world began to open back up. Only a handful of people were attending virtually so the club made the decision to end the virtual or Zoom option.

“People are being responsive and coming back out of the bomb shelter,” Clark said.

Meeting attendance numbers began to rise again. Soon, there was talk of returning to the St. Bernards Auditorium.

“It was very exciting. When we talked to almost everybody, about 95% of the people I talked to were excited. We were the first organization to sign up to come back to the auditorium,” Clark recalled.

While some members did not want to leave the hotel, other members consider the auditorium home.

Clark mentioned, “we have been in the auditorium for decades. And for many members, this is where they came into the club. It’s been a part of who we are.”

Meeting in the auditorium brought back old faces and a few new ones. The club has been adding new members nearly every month.

The Coronavirus pandemic showed the club’s strength and leadership through uncertain times. Whether it was finding a way to meet, or educating members on new technology, the Rotary Club of Jonesboro persevered.

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