Virus Outbreak Virginia

Rachel, Janice and Ken Wilke, of Front Yard Friend, pose with a display their business assembled in front of Chesapeake Regional Medical Center on April 6 in Chesapeake, Va. Owner Janice Wilke says she decided to put up the signs honoring health care workers after another customer opted to pay it forward instead of receiving a refunded order.

CHESAPEAKE, Va. — Under the cloak of darkness on April 5, the signs were delivered to Chesapeake Regional Medical Center. Signs with emoji faces — some smiling, others covered in surgical masks — were skewered into the lawn facing the main drag. Other signs in the shape of red hearts were posted nearby along with clip art images of doctors and nurses.

Behind the images, in big yellow letters, read the phrase: Heroes work here.

The message along Battlefield Boulevard was meant to surprise the healthcare workers whose field has been besieged across the globe by the deadly coronavirus pandemic. With 77 known cases of coronavirus, Chesapeake is among the cities across the country who’ve seen the impact firsthand.

“It made my morning,” Stephanie Cribb, a nurse who’s worked at the hospital for 12 years, said. “It’s all I’ve been talking about this morning. It was so beautiful and gave me chills knowing people are thinking about us like that.”

Cribb didn’t know who put the signs up, but she wanted to say thank you.

Those thanks go to Janice Wilke, a Chesapeake resident who runs Front Yard Friends from her home. The small business owner has had the lawn decorating business for the last 17 years.

Usually, they’re busiest from April through September, especially around high school graduation.

“We have a saying,” said Janice’s husband, Ken, who helps out with graphic design, “grad week is our Black Friday.”

But with Virginians staying at home, ordered to avoid large groups, Front Yard Friends is in the middle of a new heyday.

The cancellation of birthday celebrations, wedding anniversaries and retirement parties are leaving those stuck at home looking for ways to mark the special occasions.

Wilke says there’s been an uptick in calls since last week, and they’ve been steadily doing 15 to 20 yards a night. With the help of family, they deliver signs to all of Hampton Roads and as far as Smithfield and northern North Carolina. So while graduation only lasts a week, the small business is thriving, and they hope it lasts for weeks to come.

In recent days, they’ve done signs for birthdays for people ages 5 to 92, retirements and homecomings for military personnel, complete with eagles and American flags. They put the signs up after 9 p.m. so it can be a surprise.

For one birthday party, the sign read: “Corona stinks” with several emojis around it.

Norfolk resident Joyce Jones has been using the business for years to celebrate family birthdays and anniversaries. She had Wilke put up “Pray for America” signs in her front yard in response to the virus.

The first weekend of April was her granddaughter’s 23rd birthday. Jones had forgotten but called Wilke to put up signs at her granddaughter’s Moyock, North Carolina, home just in time.

“It helps keep your spirit up,” Jones said. “We need it now, don’t we?”

Wilke says her phone has been ringing non-stop and she has plans to do more than a dozen yards the night of April 6 for birthday surprises. Later Monday, she put up signs at the Virginia Beach city jail — her daughter, Rachel, who helps out, is a sheriff’s deputy. They also have plans to do another hospital.

Wilke and her husband are aware they’re business is doing well at a time when others aren’t. Across the street from the Chesapeake hospital, she pointed to a chain restaurant’s parking lot empty of cars shortly before lunchtime.

That they’re doing OK carries some guilt, but they know they’re helping families mark special days.

“We’re just happy we can go out and spread smiles,” Rachel Wilke said.

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