SAN DIEGO — At 7:59 p.m. Monday, the intersection of State and Beech streets in Little Italy was eerily quiet, save for the gentle drumming of a light rainfall. Then, at the stroke of 8, it began.
Whoops of joy, clanging cowbells, loud music, bursts of firecrackers, whistles, gongs and singing poured down from the balconies and apartment windows above. By 8:02 p.m., it was over.
Every night for the past week or so, San Diegans have begun embracing an evening ritual that started in Europe in mid-March, then spread to the U.S. a week later. Originally launched in northern Italy to thank the exhausted health care workers tending to COVID-19 patients, the evening cheers have taken on added significance for local celebrants.
Sean Murray, who lives on the 21st floor of an apartment building at Pacific Highway and Broadway downtown, said he and his husband, Bill Schmidt, look forward all day to the brief, cacophonous celebrations, which are accompanied by flashing lights in the apartment buildings that surround them.
“It reminds me of the book ‘Horton Hears a Who!” said Murray, who co-founded Cygnet Theatre with Schmidt in 2003. In the 1954 children’s book by Dr. Seuss, a tiny city of people living inside a dust speck desperately seek contact with the outside world by shouting the words “We are here!” over and over.
“I stand up here and look down at the streets and there’s not a single person in view. Then at 8 o’clock, you hear all these voices coming out. It’s like they’re saying, ‘We are here, we are here, we are all together here.’ This is such a unique situation and it feels like people are affirming each other. On top of this, it started when people were thanking first responders. People are able to go out and cheer because these people are out there saving our lives. It’s profoundly amazing.”
The first reports of nightly cheering were in Italy, not long after March 9, when it became the first Western country to issue strict stay-at-home orders to slow the spread of the virus. By March 15, nightly cheers had spread to France, Spain, Israel and the Netherlands. It’s believed the 8 p.m. time was initially chosen because that was when health care workers made a shift change and could hear the cheers on their way to or from work.
On March 21, hospital networks in the United States began putting out a call for the public to support U.S. health care workers by standing on their balconies to clap at 8 p.m. Five days later, Seattle’s official arts and culture blog encouraged the public to share their nightly celebrations on social media sites with the hashtag #makeajoyfulnoise, which is a line from Psalm 100 in the Bible. That sparked a wave of posts on social media that began spreading the events nationwide.
On March 27, the tradition officially arrived in New York City, the epicenter of the outbreak in the U.S. The two-minute #ClapBecauseWeCare initiative, held each night at 7 p.m., honors the tireless efforts of all essential workers in the city.
Former San Diego resident Frankie Moran, a talent agent who now lives in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, said the nightly cheers are an emotional release for residents who have spent weeks cooped up in tiny apartments, many like his own, without a balcony or yard.
“As life for most of us slows to a crawl, I’ve found myself being a lot more appreciative of the essential workers that keep this city running during a pandemic,” said Moran, 41. “Gathering remotely as a city to show support for all of them is important, and the 7 p.m. daily appointment is, for many of us, one of the only semblances of a normal schedule. We can’t even necessarily see most of our neighbors, but to hear the applause reminds us that we are not alone, that we’re all in this together.”
Inspired by Instagram videos recorded in New York and elsewhere, San Diego residents started doing their own celebrations last week. Sydney Prather, a professional photographer who lives with her wife, Alyssa Douglas, in East Village, has been posting Instagram videos of the cheering, which started up in her apartment tower at 8 p.m. Saturday.
“We were watching TV and paused when he heard it. We walked outside and started cheering with everyone else. Some people howl, some clap, some whistle and some are flickering their lights. I’ve been howling and flickering,” Prather said. “It’s nice to see that we can all unite for something like this.”
Maria DeSantis, a New York native who lives in North Park, is part of a group of about 20 neighbors in and around the Parkside Apartments on Florida Street who come out on the street each night at 7 p.m. for one minute of merry-making. On Monday evening, the group, all wearing face masks and practicing social-distancing guidelines, assembled quickly and joyfully banged on pots, skillets and tambourines for precisely 60 seconds. After a round of goodbyes, they headed back indoors.
DeSantis said not everyone in the neighborhood may enjoy the racket, but hopefully they appreciate the spirit in which it’s being done.
“Maybe I’m too New York, but I think it’s a great way to express gratitude,” she said.
On the streets of East Village at 8 p.m. Monday, the raucous celebration began with the toot of a car horn that set off several car alarms. Residents banged on pots and pans, flickered their apartment lights and waved flashing cellphone lights in the air.
A few people walking outside pulled out their phones and turned them toward the sky, taking in the scene from the apartment towers above. About six minutes into the commotion, a resident started blaring “I Can See Clearly Now” by Johnny Nash. As that came to a close, another turned up the volume on Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin.’”
As the music faded out around 8:10 p.m., people standing on their balconies began filtering back indoors. One resident shouted out to no one in particular: “See you all tomorrow night.” Without missing a beat, a neighbor replied, “Same time. Same place.”
(San Diego Union-Tribune photographer and videographer Sam Hodgson contributed to this report.)
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