Morgan Johnson, the daughter of Rulli’s Italian American Resturant owners Sam and Mary Rulli, followed the example of a Niles-based pizza business by creating personal pizza kits for carry out. Her children, Emerson, 11, and Finley, 10, were the first to test out the new family friendly menu item.

ELKHART — In the wake of the travel advisory issued for Elkhart County, area businesses and not-for-profit organizations are using the opportunity to encourage families to spend time together.

Rulli’s Italian Restaurant owner Sam Rulli said the idea for take home pizza packs came from his daughter, Morgan Johnson. Although boasting a bar and dine-in restaurant, Rulli’s in Middlebury is known for its carry-out menu, which has been exploding during the coronavirus restaurant closure, he said.

Rulli said his daughter discovered another pizza restaurant in Niles, Michigan, offering a similar opportunity. Johnson posted the idea to Facebook and calls began rushing into the Middlebury and Elkhart locations.

“We had two employees all day long doing nothing but making those packs and trying to keep up,” Rulli said.

The pizza packs come with four store-made dough balls, sauce made at the restaurant, cheese and even pepperoni. It’s the same ingredients used at the restaurant, only customers don’t leave with a pizza. Instead, they leave with the ingredients to make a Rulli’s Pizza at home with their families.

“This is giving the kids something to do, and what I really like is that it’s reconnecting families sitting down at the table and eating together, showing off the food that they cooked themselves,” Rulli said. “I’m a restaurant owner so I’m happy people go out, but I think it’s fantastic when people can eat together as a family. We try once a week to eat together as a family with my daughter and the grandkids.”

On Thursday, the first day offering these new packs, Rulli said the restaurant sold nearly 160 between the two locations.

“We’re selling multiple kits because mom and dad are making their own pizzas, too,” he said. “It’s genuinely a family activity for all of them. It’s not just for kids. My own grandkids, they love to sit down and make their own (pizza).”

Wellfield on Facebook

Families are stuck with a lot of time together right now, thanks to school closures and travel advisories. Organizations normally geared at getting them into the community haven’t given up yet. They’ve just changed their setups to accommodate the current climate.

At Wellfield Botanic Gardens, executive director Eric Garton had really hoped to keep the gardens open during the pandemic, even adding a new program to the schedule called, “Spring Fever Days.”

“I’m more worried about when they say ‘essential travel only,’” he said. “While I would argue that nature travel is an important thing, I wouldn’t argue over safety that it’s necessary to be here versus going out in our backyard.”

Garton made the difficult decision to close down the gardens over the weekend, but he’s got a plan to keep would-be visitors engaged. Last week, Garton experimented with virtual garden tours through Facebook Live.

“I did test one and immediately had more viewers in two minutes than I think I’ve ever had on a Facebook Live stream,” he said.

Garton added that having the opportunity will help to tell the story of Wellfield Botanic. Since regular admission to the gardens is $8 for non-member adults, but Facebook Live is free, the closure and subsequent streaming will allow people who aren’t ready to pay for admission an opportunity to experience the facility.

“I think (the gardens are) going to waste without people seeing (them),” Garton said.

With over a dozen unique gardens to show off, Garton believes he’ll have plenty of content for his Facebook Live tours until he’s comfortable with the general public returning to Wellfield Botanic Gardens.

“I know gardens are doing more online, but it’s such a weird medium for us because we’re so used to being outside,” he said. “There’s a lot of nature centers and museums that have things you can download and do at home but they’re not really things we push too much because we want people to come.”

Museum virtual tours

Now that people are being encouraged not to come, museums, too, are coming up with creative solutions.

The Ruthmere Museum in 2018 upgraded its virtual tour system to an app called PocketSights. It’s coming in handy now that museums all over the county are closed.

“With the way things are going right now I don’t know what May is going to bring,” said Ruthmere executive director Bill Firstenberger.

Normal opening day for the Ruthmere Museum is April, but PocketSights helps them remain available to the public year round by offerng virtual tours of not only their grounds but many historical sites and museums all over the county. It also provides talking points and historical information for all sites available from the comfort of their vehicle. Tours can also be done from home.

“This is a great resource of an activity that people can do in their cars driving around the county,” he said. The tours can be found at http://ruthmere.org/TourElkhart.org.

The Ruthmere Museum isn’t opening at its regularly scheduled time this season due to the outbreak, but a new book club is still finding opportunities to keep people involved.

In February, the book club was launched with a first meeting scheduled for last week. Due to coronavirus, it had to be postponed, but organizers came up with a way to keep the program going virtually through Goodreads.

“The nice thing about online discussion groups for book clubs, we don’t have to limit the number of participants,” he said. The Ruthmere Book Club reads both fiction and nonfiction books and meets every month to discuss them, now online.

Happy trails

The Elkhart County Parks Department is also striving to keep families engaged.

“Our trails and most of our parking lots are still open (for now) for folks who need to take a walk, hike or run to relieve mental stress and exercise,” said director Ronda Decaire. “We stress that people use social distancing, even in open spaces. We recommend you come as an individual or family to take a walk, but avoid social gatherings, playgrounds, play dates, picnics, and anything that would group folks together in one area.”

For those who aren’t interested in meandering the trails, interpretation staff have lined up activities on social media to keep folks engaged.

“Right now the Elkhart County Historical Museum is hosting a ‘Collection Tournament,’ where it has chosen the Top 16 items in the Historical Society’s collection,” Decaire said. “Through social media engagement they are engaging the community to vote on which object is the favorite.”

Naturalist staff have also posted a scavenger hunt through the Elkhart County Parks Facebook Page, for people to do in parks or backyards.

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