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Scene Through the Lens | Sept. 21, 2020

Inquirer staff photographer Tom Gralish’s weekly visual exploration of our region.

Photographer Tom Gralish looks back at six mothns of COVID-19 images: Window displays are a longstanding tradition in South Philadelphia and now many reflect our coronavirus era. A home on South 13th Street is photographed May 18, 2020.
Photographer Tom Gralish looks back at six mothns of COVID-19 images: Window displays are a longstanding tradition in South Philadelphia and now many reflect our coronavirus era. A home on South 13th Street is photographed May 18, 2020.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Some Pennsylvanians living here before I arrived remember when they first heard about the Three Mile Island accident in 1979. Since then there have been many “where were you” moments : MOVE (both the 1985 bombing and the 1978 shootout; 1985′s Live Aid concert; the Million Woman March in 1997; the 2000 and 2016 national conventions; Pope Francis' 2015 visit; and the Eagles' Super Bowl win .

But in the arc of history, all those milestones likely will pale in comparison to the current coronavirus pandemic in terms of impact. As it’s been six months from when we thought things might get back to “normal” 'in a few weeks, I’ve gathered a few photos I’ve taken since the shutdown orders of early March.

At one of my very first coronavirus assignments I was watching Mayor Kenney during the City Hall news conference following confirmation of the city’s first COVID-19 case. This was in pre-mask-wearing times, but well after we all knew not to touch our faces. It’s really hard to break a habit that most of us didn’t even know we had. Six months later, it is still difficult.

I was in South Carolina for its presidential primary in late February. It was one of the last non-coronavirus stories I would cover out of town.

The surprise winner in S.C., former Vice President Joe Biden, and his wife Jill made a last-minute stop in Philadelphia March 10 at the National Constitution Center, after he swept four primaries and canceled his election-night rally in Cleveland due to the coronavirus. There were no cheering supporters, just media and staffers and some volunteers . It was a strange way to mark the day that it became clear Biden would win the Democratic nomination. He would go on to spend the next few months in Delaware, following social distancing guidelines with all early campaign events, fund-raisers and more, taking place virtually from his home in Wilmington.

With over 135,000 interments every year at 136 Veterans Affairs national cemeteries, most Americans probably have witnessed a burial with military honors. The solemn folding of the flag into a tight triangle, the sharp salutes of a uniformed honor guard, a volley of rifle shots and a lone bugler playing the somber notes of “Taps” give deceased veterans a dignified send-off.

That all stopped in March. But at VA cemeteries like Washington Crossing in Bucks County, the burials continue. Immediate family members — limited to no more than 10 people practicing social distancing — are allowed to view the burial. But many deceased veterans are interred with the cemetery staff as the only witnesses to honor their service.

Someday, after the pandemic subsides, a grateful nation will, once again, be able to display its appreciation. The VA has said that families will be able to return later to have a ceremony with full military honors.

Among other unintended consequences of the pandemic: All those face masks, disinfectant wipes, and latex gloves being flushed down toilets creates clogs, blockages and damages infrastructure. The Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority (CCMUA) treats 58 million gallons of sewage every day at its treatment plant on the South Camden Waterfront, and usually have one clogged pump every week. At the beginning of the stay-at-home order, it had three a day.

I have been taking photographs in Philadelphia as well as in New Jersey and the suburbs during the coronavirus. The visual contrasts are more striking in the once-teeming streets of Center City, but I tried to document more subtle scenes of the crisis.

In June, when the Philly region was transitioning into the new “yellow” phase of the pandemic, with swimming pools, zoos and salons and barbershops allowed to reopen, I looked back the “old” yellow phase we had just endured.

Finally, over the past few months I have been collecting different images of the ubiquitous “six-foot social distancing” signs. I don’t seek them out, but between photo assignments I am always looking. And in these times, it is a good way to keep six-foot safe. And sane.

Since 1998, a black-and-white photo has appeared every Monday in staff photographer Tom Gralish’s photo column in The Inquirer’s local news section. Here are the most recent, in color:

» SEE MORE: Previous blogs and Twenty years of a photo column