I spotted Illinois in very early March and was looking forward to a good, solid March until COVID-19 and the stay-at-home orders skewered that expectation. I was on the road even less than usual, traffic was way down, and from the governor on down summer residents were being explicitly urged to stay home rather than risk overtaxing our limited-capacity hospital. Still, it was a bummer watching the month draw to a close with only one new sighting on the map . . .
Then yesterday, March 31, I was heading home from a round-the-island supply run, about to make the right turn from the Edgartown Road to Old County, when what should I spy heading in the opposite direction but Nevada.
I was thrilled. Not only does Illinois not have to stand alone, but it’s accompanied by one of the harder-to-get states. Nevada isn’t exactly rare, which is to say that I get it most years, but it’s not as common as Texas or California either.
Speaking of which, I’m wondering where North Carolina and Washington state are keeping themselves . . .
I’d be the last to claim that the license plate game has any redeeming social importance — as a long-ago Martha’s Vineyard Times colleague used to mutter whenever the subject came up, “Get a life!” — but thanks to COVID-19 I did use it as a source in several Facebook posts this past month. How? I’ll try to keep it short:
The year-round Vineyard has a complex, mostly under-examined love/hate relationship with “summer people,” a category that includes second-home owners, regular seasonal visitors, tourists, and pretty much everyone who swells the island’s population from less than 20,000 in the off-season to well over 100,000 in the height of summer. So when rising anxiety about COVID-19 was compounded by stories that summer people were fleeing here to their summer homes, some of the latent hostility spilled onto social media.
On Facebook hostility rarely stays latent for long, and misinformation spreads like, well, a highly contagious virus. (The figurative expression “going viral” didn’t come out of nowhere.) When the two interact, as they inevitably do, things can get ugly pretty fast. Sightings of New York license plates in supermarket parking lots were touted as proof that summer people were swarming to Martha’s Vineyard. The more polite comments on this focused on the hospital. The less polite charged that the incomers were importing COVID-19 to the island, which (presumably) could escape contagion completely if only those people would stay home.
It didn’t help that the first confirmed case of COVID-19 on the Vineyard was a guy from New York who came here to close on a house.
Anyway, I could go on, and probably will in another post, but here’s the license plate connection: I pointed out that I spotted license plates from 25 different states in January, that this was par for the course, and that plates from New York, New Jersey, and all New England states were plentiful all year round. Others backed me up on this, and we tried to inject as much reality-based info into the discussion as possible, noting especially that people come and go from the Vineyard every day all year round, to work, to shop, to visit friends and relatives, etc., etc. Most likely the #1 reason that no one early in the month had tested positive for COVID-19 was that here, just like everywhere else, testing was inadequate and often being limited to those showing symptoms.
I’m still not claiming “great sociopolitical import” (thank you, Janis!) for the license plate game or my inferences from my very non-scientific statistics, but if I got through to some people that not every vehicle on the island in the dead of winter is sporting Massachusetts plates, that’s something.