An Austin, Texas-based artist who has a son with underlying conditions covered his yard with more than 25,000 small flags – one for each COVID-19 death in the Lone Star State – to remind neighbors to take the virus seriously.
Unlike his neighbors, Shane Reilly was adamant about following social distancing guidelines when the lockdown was announced in the spring.
‘Everybody was sort of treating this like a mandatory vacation. We were all baking sourdough.’
Shane Reilly, an artist living in North Austin, Texas, planted a flag in his yard representing every COVID-19 fatality in Texas. On Saturday, the state surpassed the 25,000 death mark
Reilly said he hoped that the display would motivate his neighbors to take the threat of the virus more seriously by practicing social distancing and wearing masks
But Reilly watched in horror as those in his community ignored recommendations to keep physical spacing from one another, avoid gatherings, and wear masks.
He observed how locals gathered in groups on a walking trail near his home while not wearing masks. At the time, the death toll in Texas was around 800. It has since grown to more than 30 times that amount.
Reilly was particularly worried since he has a 17-year-old son who is immunocompromised.
‘I think a lot of this was the fact that if my son gets this, there’s a higher than average chance that he could die from it,’ Reilly said.
That’s why he did as he was told – washed his hands, stayed home as much as possible, and wore masks.
As the death toll in Texas mounted, Reilly now wondered how he could get the attention of his community. Given his background as an artist, he understood how powerful people responded to visuals.
‘Numbers are an abstract thing,’ he told Texas Public Radio.
‘So I thought, OK, I need to put some sort of visual up to say these are real people and these are real things that are happening.
‘How can I show that?’
So he decided to plant a small flag in his front yard for every COVID-19 fatality in Texas.
Reilly (pictured above) said he wanted to protect his 17-year-old son who is immunocompromised and is thus considered to be at elevated risk of being severely ill if he contracted the virus
‘The flag thing was just sort of a reminder to say, “Hey, you guys can do something. It’s not much. It’s not foolproof, but it’s better than doing nothing, so put your masks on and socially distance. And let’s try to stop this thing before it gets worse”.’
According to Johns Hopkins University, the death toll in Texas as of Saturday stood at 25,522 – the second highest in the country only to New York.
As of last Thursday, Reilly said he ran out of room on his yard, which is covered in red, white, and pink flags.
By erecting the display, the message he sought to convey to his neighbors was simple: ‘Don’t kill my kid.’
‘Each one of these flags represents a mom or a husband or somebody’s kid that has died, and these are real, individual people,’ Reilly said.
‘I hope that somebody could look at this and say, “Okay, here’s something I can do to save a life”.’
Reilly also hand-painted a sign that he hung above the flags which gives the COVID-19 death toll.
‘I ran out of room a while ago,’ Reilly said.
‘When I originally started this, I started putting them in rows thinking that would be a more powerful visual, to make nice neat rows of these flags.
‘We’ve gone beyond that, and now I just look for empty spaces where I can stick flags.’
Reilly said that as the death toll has grown, so has the emotional toll.
‘Unfortunately, I have had to build up some sort of callous,’ he said.
‘At one point, when we were around 5,000 people, it was really weighing on me each time I put the flag in.
‘We’re at over 23,000 now.’
He added: ‘I consciously make the effort to recognize that they are a person, but it gets overwhelming and there’s only so much you can carry, you know?’
The growing death count has also forced Reilly to expand the display from his front yard all the way to the grass that wraps his house.
At one point, one neighbor offered their property to provide more space.
While it is unclear if anyone has been moved to observe CDC guidelines as a result of the flag display, Reilly can take solace in the fact that he has made an impact in other ways.
He has received letters from supporters across the country encouraging him to keep planting flags.
Some have even sent donations to help him buy more flags.
As of Sunday, Texas has more than 1.5 million confirmed cases of COVID-19
On Saturday, the state surpassed the 25,000 death mark – the second highest only to New York
This past summer, one young boy and his grandparents traveled to see the yard from another part of Austin.
‘The little boy stands back and he’s looking really sad and leaning on his grandfather,’ Reilly said.
‘The older woman is tearing up and she starts to talk to me afterward.
‘She said, “We’ve been driving around for two days looking for this piece. His mother,” she points to her grandson, “is one of those flags”.’
Over the course of these past few months, Reilly came to the realization that his work of art wasn’t really his anymore.
‘I’m just the caretaker of it,’ he said.
‘This seems to belong to everyone who has lost somebody or who knows somebody who has lost somebody.’
With the statewide death toll continuing to climb, Reilly needs to find a bigger home for the flags. So he started a GoFundMe crowdfunding page in October to solicit donations.
As of Saturday, he has raised nearly $2,200 of the $5,000 total he is seeking.
Reilly hopes that he’ll be able to find a permanent display for the flags, preferably in an area where there is more foot traffic, like near the Capitol.
‘I’m running into some bureaucracy, as everybody does,’ he said.
‘There is a median that I think I can get permission for and it looks onto the state Capitol.
‘And so that’s what I’ve been doing, is trying to find the right agency to get a permit on that.’
Reilly said that what keeps him going is the chance that he could change one person’s mind.
‘I don’t know if it’s going to change anybody’s mind anymore,’ he said.
‘But at least I’m trying to say something, and maybe three or four people look at it and say, “Yeah, I’ll put the mask on.”
‘That’s all you can hope for now.’
Texas on Saturday surpassed 25,000 deaths from the coronavirus pandemic, the second-highest total in the country.
State health officials reported 272 new deaths due to COVID-19.
Cases of COVID-19 and virus-related hospitalizations continue to rise in the state.
On Saturday, the state reported 9,796 people hospitalized with the virus, an increase of nearly 23 per cent over the last month.
Officials reported 12,914 new cases on Saturday.
That comes two days after the state set its one-day record of new cases – 16,864 – on Thursday.
The increase in cases and hospitalizations comes as state health officials announced Friday that Texas will receive 620,000 more doses of COVID-19 vaccines over the next week.
More than 224,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine have already been delivered in Texas.