This Austinite Is Still Planting Flags In His Yard For Every Texan Who’s Died From COVID-19
Austin resident Shane Reilly hasn’t mowed his lawn in eight months.
But the grass isn’t growing much anyway. It doesn’t get much sunlight these days. The corner lot on Burbank Street in Central Austin’s Brentwood neighborhood overflows with marking flags – the brightly colored plastic ones used on worksites to designate where a utility might go.
Reilly isn’t preparing for any upcoming construction. The flags are a memorial. Since May, he’s planted one for every Texan who has died from COVID-19. Frustrated by people who weren’t taking the pandemic seriously, Reilly wanted to get their attention.
“Numbers are an abstract thing,” he said. “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?”
It’s now December, and Texas has lost more than 24,000 people to COVID-19, second only to New York, where more than 35,000 have died. Reilly's planted more than 20,000 flags so far. He’s still going, trying to keep up. A hand-painted sign above the flags notes how many Texans have been lost to the disease. On Thursday afternoon, it read 23,821.
“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’s son, a junior in high school, is immunocompromised, so when Reilly first learned about COVID-19, he knew he would need to take it seriously – staying home as much as possible, wearing masks, washing his hands often.
He was upset to see people cluster in groups on the walking trail near his house or not wearing masks in public. An artist, Reilly thought something visual would help people understand the gravity of the situation.
“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. “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.’”
“I'm just the caretaker of it. This seems to belong to everyone who has lost somebody or who knows somebody who has lost somebody."
It wasn’t long before people started to see the project as more of a memorial than a work of art. Reilly began receiving letters from people he’d never met, encouraging him to keep going. He also started getting donations of flags and cash to help him buy more.
People have traveled from around the city to see it up close. One day over the summer, Reilly saw a young boy and his grandparents visit the yard.
“The little boy stands back and he’s looking really sad and leaning on his grandfather,” he 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.’”
Reilly says the project doesn’t really belong to him 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.”
As the deaths continue to rise, Reilly is looking for a larger, more permanent home for the project. He started a GoFundMe in October to raise money for the endeavor and is hoping to get it placed somewhere with plenty of visibility, like outside 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.”
For now, Reilly keeps planting. The flags wrap around his house, impossible to miss when you drive down Burbank Street. The response has been largely positive, he says. One neighbor even offered up their lawn to provide more space.
Several months into the project, he still makes an effort to recognize what each flag represents, but it’s not always easy.
“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. 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?”
Some of the flags have endured a lot – rain, summer heat, cold nights. And several are completely faded, bright red turned to white.
“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.”