With cafes and libraries closed, Americans without internet access are sitting outside them to get free and fast connections.
As the sun set on a recent evening in Rutherfordton, N.C., the author Beth Revis drove her green S.U.V. into the parking lot of a closed elementary school and connected to the building’s free Wi-Fi. Then, for the third time since the coronavirus pandemic had taken hold, she taught a two-hour writing class from her driver’s seat.
Ms. Revis, 38, held a flashlight to her face with one hand. In the other, she held a selfie stick with her smartphone attached, looking at the device to speak to her students.
Getting the internet in her area, about 70 miles west of Charlotte, had always been a headache, Ms. Revis said. “But during the pandemic,” she said, “it has turned from a mild inconvenience to a near impossibility.”
For Ms. Revis and many others across the country, parking lots have been a digital lifeline during the pandemic. Instead of spending hours in restaurants, libraries and cafes, people without fast internet access at home are sitting in lots near schools, libraries and stores that have kept their signals on.
In Ohio, Jon Husted, the lieutenant governor, has directed people to connect to hundreds of nonprofits, libraries and schools across the state. School leaders in Philadelphia and Sacramento have encouraged families to use free hot spots in library and school parking lots, and more than 100 people logged on to the Wi-Fi of one of Omaha’s libraries over three days recently.
Near Topeka, Kan., a steady flow of cars now arrive outside the public library, while other cars cluster near connected bookmobiles parked in lots near a women’s correctional facility and a mobile home park.