At least twice a week, a dinner bell rang to call children exploring the great outdoors back home and adults in their houses to the community dinner at the Heartwood Cohousing community in Bayfield.
That was before COVID-19 shuttered communal events.
The community dinners might be on hold, but Maria Miller, who moved into Heartwood about a month ago, said the feeling of a tight-knit bunch has not left Heartwood.
“We are physically distancing, but not socially distancing,” Miller said.
Community members, who live in 24 condo-style homes, still meet outside but sit 6 feet apart from each other for happy hour, or to chat in the evenings.
Sandy Thomson, one of the founding members of the community, said there has been an increase in interest in Heartwood since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“People are slowing down and reconsidering what they want out of life,” Thomson said.
In February, Heartwood had five new people look into living spaces on the website. In June, it had 16 people. The number of new Instagram followers also doubled in that period. Between March and the end of June, 15 people contacted Heartwood to schedule a visit to see one of the houses for sale.
Benefits of community livingMany of those interested in moving to Heartwood are from major cities, which is “not as safe a place anymore” with the global pandemic, Thomson said. In Heartwood, if an elderly person needs to go shopping but is nervous about contracting COVID-19, neighbors will do it for that person.
Heartwood also has greenhouses and a garden where residents grow their own food, which “seems to be a big draw,” Thomson said.
The community is providing food security not just for its residents, but the larger community as well. The produce from Heartwood is free for residents, but they leave donations and extra food for Pine River Shares, a nonprofit food share program in Bayfield.
“Just looking out the window and seeing someone you know and care about makes you feel less isolated,” Thomson said.
Heartwood has not had any confirmed cases of COVID-19, though one woman fell ill and tested negative twice. Another sick family isolated in their house in case it was COVID-19, Thomson said.
“We really care about our neighbors here, and we don’t want to give it to anyone else here,” Thomson said. When residents are in an indoor space together, they mostly wear masks, she said.
Miller said she wanted her son to grow up with less time in front of a television screen and more time playing outdoors on the 365 acres of open space Heartwood has to offer. She gives him and the other kids he plays with walkie talkies, so they hide from each other and space out across the gardens.
“Loneliness is a virus all itself,” Miller said.
Fear and anxiety about the COVID-19 pandemic, in addition to isolation to avoid spreading and contracting the virus, has had detrimental effects on mental health, particularly in spread-out, rural areas with few mental health support resources and spotty access to internet.
Miller lived in a house in Bayfield for seven years before moving to the Heartwood Cohousing community. In that time period, Miller said she never got to know her neighbors, and couldn’t count on them if “there was something I needed beyond a cup of sugar.”
“Now, I have a dozen choices if I need someone to watch my child,” Miller said about the community at Heartwood.
After about a month of living with the Heartwood community, Miller said she knows her neighbors well and trusts them.
Miller moved into her house during the COVID-19 pandemic, and at least 12 Heartwood community members with masks and gloves helped Miller move furniture in the heat.
“We all lift each other up during this really difficult, depressing time,” Miller said.
She is a social studies and science teacher at Bayfield Primary School, which has her “always thinking about community,” Miller said.
By exploring the outdoors instead of watching television, Miller said her son is gaining critical thinking experience that some kids are lacking. When schools shut down because of COVID-19, Miller and her son spent more one-on-one time together.
“Social skills and play are the most important things, and to take that away from kids is a really bad thing,” Miller said.
Precautions during COVID-19Heartwood’s common areas were closed to visitors until July 1, including the common house, meditation yurts, hiking trails and hot tub. Now, those facilities are open and deep cleaned regularly.
Residents could have visitors at their individual homes.
Claire Ninde, spokeswoman for San Juan Basin Public Health, said the agency appreciates Heartwood’s efforts to reduce social contacts, even when it’s an important part of their lifestyle.
Miller said there is a common misconception that Heartwood is a commune, but it isn’t.
“There are people from all walks of life, careers and religious beliefs that support each other as neighbors,” Miller said. “I wish I could magically give that to everyone right now.”