How We Quarantine
How friends, family, even complete strangers have found ways to be in each other's lives.
JUNE 14, 2020
How We Quarantine
Relationships during COVID-19
For months, our lives have been defined by separation. We communicate through windows, over screens, shielded in masks. But even though we’ve physically distanced ourselves, isolation hasn’t meant disconnection. Whether it’s a teacher trying to encourage a student on Zoom, two sisters making daily visits to their mother outside her nursing home, an online community fabricating PPE in their living rooms, or an apartment complex that has become its own self-sustaining bubble, people have found ways to still be in one another’s lives.
Animation by Daniel Barreto
By ROSE ANDERSEN
Photographs By MICHELLE GROSKOPF
Quinton Bunche in Apartment #9 ran out of quarters. His wife, Christina Butz, was due home from her shift as a respiratory therapist at Cedars-Sinai in West Los Angeles, and her scrubs would need to go in the wash. Christina was worried about bringing the virus home, so she changed clothes in the car. Quarantined at home with their infant daughter, Ever, Quinton texted his neighbors Kerri and Andy Appleton in #22: We are out of change. Could you go find some quarters? The Appletons stage houses for a living, but the pandemic had slowed their business. Hold tight, they responded. A short time later, a roll of quarters appeared at Quinton’s door.
The complex, located in the Sherman Oaks neighborhood, is comprised of two buildings, 12 units apiece, facing a courtyard with a swimming pool and a garden tucked in the back. Built in the 1950s, the complex is, aesthetically, one of many like it in Los Angeles. It’s a delicate ecosystem that recalibrates every time someone moves in or out. When the lockdown began, four residents headed back to their family homes, but the rest formed an impromptu mutual-aid society whose lingua franca is small gestures.
The Appletons’ closest friends in the complex are Kendall Draper and Ashley Kelly in #21. The two couples used to host each other for dinner or drinks. In the pandemic, they trade soup or groceries so that Ashley, who is at risk for complications from the coronavirus, can avoid the grocery store. Kendall has been here since 2005, longer than most of the tenants. Normally, he organizes summer pool parties and communal gardening projects and wrangles holiday decorations. Their work — providing telephone and internet service to small businesses — has largely dried up, so they’re staying busy helping others. As baby Ever’s first birthday approached on April 19, Kendall and Ashley knew that plans for a building-wide party had to be scrapped. Instead, Ashley baked a lemon-blueberry cake, and neighbors taped up “Happy Birthday” signs in their windows.
In this way, the life of the complex goes on — governed by its particular version of social-distancing rules. Some evenings, Andy holds court over the fire pit. Andy is an English ex-pat, standing at 6-foot-4. His voice booms across the yard. As he tells his stories, people pull down their masks to chat. Kendall cranks the music in their apartment to provide a soundtrack. Folks linger a bit too close to one another, especially after a few drinks.
Several weeks after Ever turned 1, Inger Anderson left #3 on her way to the grocery store. Inger works as an assistant for a celebrity she’d rather not name. They were supposed to travel to Paris and Tulum together, but those trips were canceled. As Inger walked past #9, she heard Ever crying. Inger’s kids are grown, but she guessed — correctly — that Ever was teething. At the store, she picked up a pineapple and left it on the parents’ doorstep with instructions: Remove the core and refrigerate. The cold fruit offered much-needed relief.
One day this spring, Kerri and Andy dropped off banana bread at #18, which is where my husband, Josh, and I have lived since summer 2019. This March, I was at Costco when I suddenly felt hot and inexplicably exhausted; a few weeks later, I tested positive for COVID-19. I am the only one in the complex on total lockdown. We leave the windows open most of the time, and one afternoon, I heard Andy and Kerri yelling my name. When I looked outside, I saw that they had chalked “Get Well Soon” under our window.
On the days when I felt strong enough, I would chat with my neighbors through the screen. Inger and I discovered that we are both recovering addicts. On April 16, I opened our door and found a bouquet of circus roses. Inger had remembered my sober anniversary. Twelve years, 4,383 days ago, I had my last drink. Some years on this anniversary, I have dinner with friends; other years, I go to an AA meeting and collect a chip. This year, I’m grateful that we were surrounded by people who were keeping us healthy.
As told to Jaeah Lee
Barbara Johnson Hopper moved from Alabama to Northern California in 1981 with her family. They settled in Moraga and later in Oakland, where, for nearly 40 years, she worked as a real estate agent, ran several community organizations, and made dinner every night. On March 26, 2020, she became one of the first people to die in Alameda County after contracting COVID-19. Like countless others who have lost their lives to the pandemic, Barbara succumbed just a few days after checking into the hospital, as her family prayed for her recovery from home. She was 81. More than 350 people gathered for her memorial, which was livestreamed. “My mom had a servant spirit about her, even in death,” her daughter, Adriane Hopper Williams, said. “For a lot of people in our circle, she was the first person to put a face on the coronavirus. She was the wake-up call.” We asked Adriane to share her mother’s memory.
When I was 11, my mom asked me to recite a poem that I had written. It was before there was a holiday in Martin Luther King Jr.’s name. There was a campaign in the black community to make it a holiday, which is what Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday” was all about, and I had written a poem in that vein. My mom wanted me to recite it at the NAACP’s big annual gala, in front of hundreds of people. I understood the expectation. “When you walk out of this house, you take your family with you,” she often said. It was her way of pulling the best out of everyone. I just remember thinking, But this is what you guys do! I’m scared to death! So my mom made me a deal: “All right. I’ll get you those Sasson jeans if you just recite the poem.” She always knew how to get things done.
My mom was a class act, the one who was there with a Scripture or a word to encourage someone. She was always looking to improve herself. In high school, she was chosen to go on a tour of Europe as a student ambassador, which was a big deal back then as an African American girl. She was very much a lady who made sure your skirt didn’t cup your behind.
My parents met in Milwaukee, where she grew up, at a house party in 1960. My dad was a young medical intern working at the county hospital. My mom was working her first job after college, where she’d majored in social work. As the story goes, after my dad saw my mom, he walked into the kitchen, found my grandmother, and said, “Hello. My name is Dr. Cornelius Hopper, and I’m going to marry your daughter.”
They moved to Tuskegee, Alabama, with my two brothers in 1971, the year I was born. My dad was recruited to work as the medical director of what was then Tuskegee’s only hospital. Tensions still ran high after Civil Rights, and my parents really wanted to do their part by working with the historically black college there. Tuskegee needed more doctors, so when my dad would try to recruit them, my mom would host a party and introduce them to other doctors, their wives and families, then drive them around and go, These are the neighborhoods you could move into, and look at this house, and that house. That’s how she got into real estate and started her own company.
My mom always had these ideas. She felt the public schools were not good enough for her children, so she leased a property that had once been a slave plantation and converted it into an alternative school. One year, she got a bunch of families to pool their money together and buy an 80-acre plot with lakes all around. They called it Heritage Hills, a subdivision where every street was named after an African American historical figure. My parents were among the first to build a home there.
At one point, they partly owned the radio station WBIL, which helped launch the Commodores, who were all students from Tuskegee. Their music was always playing in our house, and Earth, Wind & Fire. After school, my brothers and I would go to my mom’s real estate office. My brothers would mop the floors and take out the trash while I did my homework. I’ll never forget the day my mom called me into her office and surprised me with Lionel Richie. I just sat there and could not get a word out. On my seventh birthday, she had me go watch him record “Three Times a Lady.”
We moved to the Bay Area after my father was recruited to become the vice president of health affairs for the University of California system — the first black person to hold the position. After we moved, my mom stopped working for a bit to take care of us. I had such great lunches during that time. It was a culture shock to move from an all-black town to an all-white one, where people are like, “Hey, can I touch your hair?” My brothers used to get pulled over by the cops every weekend, it seemed, and my dad would have to go to the police station to remind them, “These are my sons.” What saved us was Jack & Jill — my mother helped start the African American youth organization’s local chapter — and our church.
Eventually, my mom got back into real estate. There was also ballet, jazz, tennis club, swim club, playing my flute on Sunday mornings at church. I can’t even name it all. We were often running up against the clock, like, Are we going to make it on time? Sometimes we’d eat dinner at 6, sometimes at 9, because my mom was balancing showing a house or having to do a contract. But it was important to her to make a fresh meal every night — pot roast, lamb chops, lasagna. During Dungeness crab season, she made this dish called Frogmore stew, a seafood boil with corn, potatoes, sausage, and this incredible broth. She always wore her apron and glasses in the kitchen, with a cookbook open in case she needed to peek at a recipe. My friends sometimes joked that we were like The Cosby Show. Every meal was our time to stop the world and be a family.
My mother kind of lived in the shadow of her husband. But in her own right, she was a badass. After I had kids and understood what it meant for her to do all she did and balance having children she fed on a regular basis, I asked her, “How did you do it?” One time, I literally got on my knees and bowed down, and she just chuckled.
The ongoing joke for the past 20 years was that she was retiring from real estate, and this was going to be her last house. We’d always be like, Yeah, right. At 81, she still went to two bridge club events every week or so, one of which she started, and attended lectures with my dad and their friends. One year, she convinced a group at church to read the Bible together from beginning to end, then travel to Jerusalem. She spearheaded the whole thing and even brought in special speakers.
My mom was a matriarch, a giver, correcting in her love, like, “Did you get that thank-you note out to Mrs. Boggan?” She was the woman who found time to pull articles out of magazines or newspapers, buy books, a little necklace I might like, some music. She sent me a care package four times a year since I was 17. Sometimes, I would get a book with the pages earmarked and highlighted with little notes that she had written to me. When my dad told the exterminator that she had passed, he cried and said, “She made me a cake the last time I was here.”
Before our last Christmas together, my mom sent me a list of the gifts she was getting for the kids, wanting to make sure there were no duplicates. For my son, she bought this little watch that could take pictures. While I was shopping at the last minute, I grabbed a bunch of stocking stuffers with Toy Story on them, and I just happened to grab this little watch. When he opened the presents on Christmas morning, my son was more attracted to the cheaper one that I got than the one my mom gave him. It really hurt her feelings. I tried to explain that I would never purposely try to one-up her. That’s not who I am. But the bigger point for her was that she had written me something, and I just breezed by it. It really checked me, made me look at myself and say, Slow down. I promised her, “From this point forward, it is my duty that you know how much I love you and honor you and respect you. I’m going to work hard for that.”
By Katie Engelhart
Photographed remotely By Isadora Kosofsky
Lots of people visited the nursing home, but the sisters stood out because whenever they came to sit outside their mother’s window in the evening, they stayed for hours and hours, and then they came back the next morning. They always brought things with them. A doughnut. A breakfast sandwich with egg and cheese. Shepherd’s pie. Enchiladas. The nursing home was under quarantine by then, but the sisters were still allowed to drop off food at the entrance and have it delivered to their mother’s room. After they did, they would sit outside and eat their own meal alongside her, separated by a pane of glass. They came for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
On the other side of the window, Susan Hailey, 76 years old, COVID-19 positive, would sit up in her narrow hospital bed and look out at the world. As she ate, she would watch all the photographers, taking pictures of the building, and the pack of reporters, who first arrived in Kirkland, Washington, in late February, after residents at the Life Care Center nursing home started getting sick and dying. They stayed through March when, for a brief sliver of time (those were the early days), the suburban facility accounted for more than half of all known coronavirus deaths in the country. It seemed like a hellscape then. America’s viral ground zero. All those old, frail bodies, defenseless and exposed. But, of course, it got worse. Susan watched the crowd outside swell as the death toll inside rose: past 10, past 20, past 30, until by March 23, at least 37 deaths could be traced back to the nursing home, and more than two-thirds of its residents were infected.
All that month, pictures of the Life Care Center and its sealed-off, glassed-in residents were published and shared on the internet. Many featured visiting relatives who were no longer allowed inside but showed up anyway. There was the photo of Lori Spencer, with her right hand pressing hard onto the window of her mother, Judie’s room. There was the one of 88-year-old Dorothy Campbell, all hunched over and tiny in her enormous plaid overcoat, staring through the glass at her husband of more than 60 years — and Eugene Campbell, 89 years old, staring right back at her with his mouth agape. There was the one of Katherine Kempf, shouting through the window to her father’s nurse: “Why don’t you cover his legs up?” In retrospect, these were among the first examples of an emerging photojournalistic genre, born out of the pandemic: images of loving families separated by windowpanes.
It took a while for Susan to realize that she had lost her sense of taste — an early expression of COVID-19 — because food at the nursing home was so bland on the best of days. “Put a little spice in it,” she used to beg. Only in early March did Susan finally concede that her chest felt “heavy.” When she tested positive for the virus, one of her daughters, Carmen Gray, drove to the nursing home to deliver the news in person. It was 10 p.m. She stood in the dark and called the phone beside her bed and told her through the window.
Everything around Susan turned quiet and strange. At some point, the nurses started wearing masks. Then, the door to her room was closed and stayed closed. Susan was left inside with her roommate, who used to cry aloud — even scream, sometimes — because she was afraid of being alone. “We talked several times a day,” Susan said. “She wanted to bounce ideas off me. But then she got this coughing thing one night.” She was one of the first to die. So was Susan’s “lovely, lovely” friend Loretta, who wore bright-colored dresses and kept hyacinth flowers in her room.
Carmen and her sister, Bridget Parkhill, started dropping off home-cooked meals in an effort to coax their mother’s indifferent appetite and ate alongside her to keep track of how much she was consuming and whether she was drinking enough water. But then Susan got better, and the sisters kept coming. Soon, they were spending three or four hours a day outside the window. Susan had raised her daughters as a single mother. This, they thought, was the least they could do for her. They hated the idea of Susan passing an entire day and seeing only mask-covered faces. “So many relatives just show up on Sundays,” Bridget said. “They act like it’s such a burden.”
When it was cold, the women brought blankets. When it rained, they brought thick paper bags to sit on and then leaned their bodies in, toward the window, to get a bit of shelter from an awning. From where they sat, they could see ambulances coming and going. “I think it’s really important for her mental health,” Bridget said. “You think about prisoners who are in solitary confinement and what happens to their psyches over time.”
Some days, Susan was as lucid as ever. Her daughters would call her from outside, and they would talk for a while. Carmen and Bridget would explain how this thing called the “coronavirus” was spreading across America. Mostly, though, they talked about the grandkids and the great-grandkids. About the husbands and the dogs. About everything and nothing. Carmen described the plants that were growing in her garden. Bridget talked about her son, who has autism and had trouble understanding why his Nana wasn’t coming over to make him grilled-cheese sandwiches. On good days, Susan would crack dirty jokes and eat her meals with so much gusto that she sometimes forgot her daughters were there at all. The sisters learned not to visit at 10 a.m. or at 7 p.m. because at those times, they would be competing for attention with Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy.
Other days, Susan seemed out of it. Once, she told Carmen that she had just been for a long walk outside and that the sun had felt so good on her face, when really, she hadn’t been outside for weeks. Carmen didn’t bother to correct her. Another time, Susan swore up and down that Bridget had come into her room and fallen asleep on a chair and then morphed into her dead mother. On the bad days, Carmen and Bridget would tap on Susan’s window to get her attention. They would shout for her to pick up the phone and rest it beside her so that she could at least hear their voices while they talked to each other — and also to put pillows under her feet, so that her legs would be more comfortable.
It was funny, they all agreed, how they could talk and talk and still have things to say, after all these weeks of talking. (The three women confirmed, independently, that they were not tired of one another and did not find their conversations boring.) Carmen, who was often accused by the family of wearing rose-colored glasses, thought the whole insane experience was bringing them closer. Bridget wasn’t sure if “closer” was the right word, but she thought they were gaining “a new understanding” of their relationship. On occasion, Susan even managed to surprise her daughters. One day, someone at the nursing home asked Susan whether she had “survivor’s guilt.” She startled Carmen and Bridget by getting angry. She said she didn’t have time for survivor’s guilt.
Susan didn’t mind the journalists and photographers outside the nursing home, though she wished her hair looked a little nicer. Mostly, she was sick of looking out at the world but not being able to touch it. She had come to the Life Care Center in November for just a few weeks of rehab after a knee surgery. The idea had been that she would get better quickly and that as soon as she could climb a dozen steps on her own, she would move into the second floor of Carmen’s house. But then everything went awry. First, she got an infection. Then she fell and shattered her ankle. Then she got a sore on her foot that wouldn’t heal, though it had been weeks and weeks. “They come in, and they put salve on it. They put other things on it. But it just doesn’t help. I cannot take a step without it hurting. I know that sounds kind of out of this world, but it’s true.” She declined, as they say.
Now, she wanted out in a bad way. She wanted the “exit strategy” her daughters had promised her when she first entered the nursing home. She was aching to leave. Itching to leave. To see what life was like outside her window.
As told to Lauren Markham
Photographs by Chanell Stone
Eliana Yosief is among the millions of American kids whose school year was transformed into a massive experiment in distance learning. Eliana, who is 7, lives in Oakland with her mom and two younger sisters, Abby and Mia. The family arrived in the U.S. last September after living in political exile from their native Eritrea. In November, Eliana started first grade at Montclair Elementary School.
Her mother, Ruta, had worried about her eldest daughter. While the family was in Uganda, Eliana’s father was injured in an accident that left him temporarily unable to recognize his family. Eliana was so distraught, she refused to attend school. Even after her father regained his memory, she asked to stay home every day.
But in Oakland, Eliana took to her class. Her teacher, Tara Kaur Singh, helped Eliana and her family get settled — making sure she had books, school supplies, and connections with other families for play dates. Then came March. Eliana’s dad had traveled to Uganda before the pandemic and couldn’t return to the U.S. School was shut down. Now, Tara is at home with her own two children, figuring out how to translate a first-grade curriculum to Zoom. Instead of trying to teach academic concepts to a screenfull of highly distracted students or expecting parents to manage homeschooling, Tara is mostly focused on providing Eliana and her classmates with a sense of normalcy.
eliana You know I had three schools: two in Uganda and Montclair Elementary School in Oakland. The most best one is Montclair Elementary School. Because there is chocolate milk. It is super-duper cool and icy. Today, I’m in the first-grade class. I have 19 friends. There is 19 of them! Let me tell you all their names. One is Zoe. One is Aidan. One is Elias. One is Julian, Soriyah, Alex, Sebastian, Sienna, Leo, wait, oh yeah, Mia. I love Issa. [Eliana continues to name her classmates, counting them out on her fingers one by one.] That’s all of them. And the last one is me! I’m in first grade, so that’s why I’m working too hard, a lot, a thousand times. My sister Abby, she likes the school. She wants to also come there. She doesn’t know all my friends’ names, but she loves them. Why do you like school, Abby?
abby I want to make more friends!
eliana She wants to make a thousand more friends.
Zoom is the call where we just talk to our friends. Here, this is my computer. It’s from Montclair Elementary School! I always open it. Then it asks me my email, and I know my email. Then I have to put in my phone number. Oh, I mean my password. I’m good at it because I watched my mom do it. I was spying on her so I could learn to do it myself.
Ms. Singh says we should share something on the Zoom and show our friends what we have. I have a super-duper cool blue-and-white Elsa castle. Look, it has a kitchen! I also have a superhero bike. It always moves when I’m sitting on it.
I like Ms. Singh because she’s always so kind. I play with my friends, but sometimes when my friends don’t play with me or I’m shy, Ms. Singh plays with me. Ms. Singh is a good drawer. She has lots of toys and games, like blocks and Legos. But you have to choose one at a time.
When me and my sisters are bored, we watch TV for a little bit. When we’re done, we eat breakfast, play outside. Sometimes there are magical things! Magic things are not real. Only sometimes. Then I get to call my classmates and Ms. Singh. Then I do my computer, and when we’re done, I can watch TV or play. I was doing too much work on my computer. It was too much! It made me tired. I had to take a rest.
My baby sister is very naughty, so I help my mom a lot. Do you know there’s coronavirus? So we wear masks. Some people always don’t listen and don’t wear masks, and then they are going to get sick and go to the hospital.
My dad is going to come but is taking super-duper longer. We are waiting thousands of years. But he didn’t come! Because of the coronavirus. I miss his face a thousand-million ways.
When school is open, we’re going to have a family picnic. A big family welcome! You can bring your family and see your friends! I asked Ms. Singh, “Don’t forget to ask the class to bring snacks.”
By Chris Colin
Photograph by Carlos Chavarría
Mindful of my late-night mental health one evening early in this ordeal, I clicked open a mere 16 tabs, each detailing different ways a healthy 40-something might abruptly succumb to COVID-19 and leave his kids fatherless. It was Thursday or Monday or Wednesday. Already I felt low, having pregamed via somber Zoom with an ER doc friend. He was bleary and wired, a shellshocked emissary from our near future rattling around in a borrowed RV, where he wouldn’t spread to his wife and daughters what he surely soon would have. Another friend was struggling to breathe in Brooklyn, another in Berlin. A friend of a friend, in her 30s, had died on her kitchen floor. What will happen? Much of my work had vaporized. Everything was uncertain. I finished my light reading — stochastic-transmission dynamic models, dire economic forecasts, instructions on updating one’s will — and climbed into bed. The house did its end-of-day ticking. Before drifting off, I mentally composed a pair of just-in-case letters to my children.
The next morning, I awoke to observe that Casper, my 7-year-old, seemed to be experiencing something intense, too. He’s a sweet, perpetually moving child with several missing teeth and a little ferret body. He had yet to articulate any feelings about all that was going on around him — the sober tones on NPR, the murmurs about no treatment. I sat down with him on the bunk bed he shares with his 11-year-old sister, Cora.
“Something on your mind?” I asked.
“Will we —” he paused, the words elusive.
“Go on. It’s OK.”
“Will we get to play Minecraft today? Because we didn’t get to do it on Saturday because we had to go on that walk.”
For families lucky enough to have dodged infection these past few months, keeping it that way has, of course, been the central focus. But like a planet with two suns, parents must also tend to that other central focus, the mental well-being of our children. Given that we warp our kids in the best of times, it’s anyone’s guess what’s happening to their operating systems now. Our own well-being changes by the hour.
Four or two or three weeks passed. This strange new reality no longer felt like a bad dream; now, it was life before the coronavirus that seemed dreamlike, gauzy. Rules and order had given way to loose aspirations in our home — probably we should eat lunch? Screen time went unmonitored, outfits unchanged. My amazing bespoke PE program lasted a day; R.I.P., musical math jumping jacks. Morning became evening. Cora was on her fourth Hunger Games listen. Casper no longer wore clothes and at night slept on the floor in a nest of blankets and books and bread crusts and god knows what else.
My wife, Amy, and I had legitimate reasons for taking our hands off the wheel. The wheel no longer worked. We didn’t have the slightest idea what the future would look like. Or what would become of the country and our jobs and our loved ones. Or how much we should worry about Casper’s asthma or Cora not marking the end of elementary school with her friends. Meanwhile, our children were struggling with uncertainties of their own: Do you need to pass Go to get your $200, or is landing on it sufficient?
As with all parents, the coronavirus has introduced Amy and me to our children anew. We spend 24 hours a day, seven days a week with them, in alternately heightened and deadened states. We catch it all. No percentage of their emotional or intellectual experience is soaked up by friends, teachers, grandparents, or the generally absorbent qualities of the outside world.
Historically, Cora has trafficked in a droll but chipper self-possession to Casper’s monkey-like presence. She’s a precise glue-gunner of cardboard cities, an unpreachy vegetarian, and so he idolizes her. But he also idolizes soccer, and playing with his friends, and climbing on his friends.
Now, they dwell in a hermetically deranged sphere of craft projects and petty disputes. Absent her friend group, Cora indoctrinates her brother into the world of word games, podcasts, and other cerebral matters. Absent his physical friendships, Casper climbs doorways and dances around the kitchen. We played soccer at the local blacktop till they closed it; his soccer coach is experimenting with Zoom soccer, something I can scarcely watch. They still see friends a bit — socially distant walks or morning laps around the block with the kids across the street. But, increasingly, they’re content to do less. There’s a specific heartbreak to seeing your child in a sleeping bag under the dining table at noon.
No need to be scared, Amy and I told them in the beginning. We’re just taking extra-good care of our health for a while. We hadn’t wanted to terrify them; they just needed to understand roughly what was up. I braced for anxious follow-up questions, but none came.
“Does that … make sense?” I asked, fishingly.
Cora shrugged. “Yes?”
I looked over at her brother.
“Do you want to ask us anything about that?”
But already he’d taken his cue from her, and I received another shrug.
I was hearing similar reports from other parents of school-age children. These same creatures who could otherwise latch onto the most outlandish fears — here, a realistic and frankly scarier thing was upending their world, and the matter barely seemed to register. I ran into an old friend recently, walking on the hill at the center of our neighborhood. She burst into tears within 30 seconds. Her kids’ beloved former teacher in Brooklyn had just died from COVID-19. My friend had been gutted by the news, but her kids hadn’t really had a big reaction. More upsetting, for one of them, anyway, had been some frustrations with her longtime dance class.
Maybe children that age avoid sitting with the most unpleasant feelings, my friend speculated. Or maybe dance-class frustrations are an expression of something deeper. Or maybe kids just haven’t been alive long enough to know how truly strange all of this is. I mentioned the child-development texts I’d been reading — how, by and large, children under 12 or so lack the capacity for abstract thought. As a result, formulations about an invisible virus simply can’t pack the punch of immediate feelings: It’s fun to watch TV during dinner. I want to see my friends now. I’m bored. I miss my teachers. Will we get to play Minecraft today?
Whatever the explanation, a weird schism ends up separating parents from the beings they’re so focused on protecting. I spend my days imagining the ways my kids’ lives will be utterly transformed by the ripples from this event, while the kids themselves exist in the realm of what’s right in front of them. At one point, unnerved by this disconnect, I couldn’t resist laying it on a little thicker. Did Cora understand the implications of this mask shortage? Did Casper get that this was different from the common cold? Partly, I was being practical: I wanted better compliance around the 6-foot edict. But at another level, I wanted them to appreciate what was happening, at least a little, to be slightly on the same dark page.
Otherwise, the most terrible thing to happen to Casper lately had been when he stripped naked, climbed the Japanese maple out back, and might or might not have been seen by our neighbor Michael. How was this question so vexing to the boy? I mean, of course Michael saw him.
One drizzly afternoon, when the house had gotten too small and the headlines on my phone too awful, we piled into the car and headed toward a fancy neighborhood a few miles away. If the kids remember one thing from this period, it will undoubtedly be the forced marches we subjected them to on glum days. But their objections this time were modest, and after a few minutes, Casper started singing one of his nonsense songs. Nobody was really listening — something about spider machines and Thomas Jefferson — but my ears pricked up at the mention of the coronavirus. “We’ll just take you to the doctor if you get it,” the boy sang in cheerful falsetto. “BUT THE DOCTORS MIGHT HAVE IT, TOO,” he replied to himself in a low growl. It caught us off guard — we honestly hadn’t known how much the world had penetrated his mind, much less that his mind had imagined that dark scenario. Amy and I glanced at each other, and in the rearview, I saw that Cora saw us do so.
But then we pulled up in the fancy neighborhood, all wide lawns and tasteful security signs. We walked in the rain for over an hour. The stakes of the pandemic had, for months, been reducing life to its essence, boiling off the rest. I begin and end my days immersed in the profoundest of possibilities; it is the job of the parent. But our other job is to forget all that and get down on the ground. Partway into our walk, the rain let up. The trees were wet and black, and Cora suggested we play an old favorite game of ours, where you pick your perfect house but can’t change your mind if you see a better one later. When that was done, she deigned to climb on Casper’s back, and he squealed with a kind of delight I hadn’t heard in months. Time will pass, and the world and all its capriciousness will catch up soon enough. But not for now.
An uncle of mine once knew a pilot who’d landed his plane on an aircraft carrier, only to discover that the arresting wire designed to snag his tail hook had been calibrated for the wrong weight; instead of stopping the plane, the cable snapped. As my uncle told it, the pilot kept rolling toward the bow of the ship until he reached the end, and then he rolled right off into the ocean. Slowly sinking under the waves, he was about to pop the canopy when he realized the ship had started to pass directly over him. So he just sat there, looking up through the glass as three and a half city blocks of ship passed overhead. What would happen? It’s the simple question at the heart of everything. When he finally saw the propellers go by, he popped the canopy and swam to the surface.
By Brooke Jarvis
Illustration by Hoi Chan
The gorillas like to watch.
So says Martin Ramirez, an animal curator of Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo, which is home to nine western lowland gorillas. They often come to the two-way viewing window in their enclosure to see what is happening on the other side. One young gorilla in particular, a 4-year-old named Yola, seems fascinated by the window — or, more accurately, by the kids she sometimes sees through it. “Whenever there’s a child there, she’ll come over, and she’ll interact with it,” said Ramirez. He’s frequently seen her mimicking children, following their hand gestures with her own.
Starting on March 12, there were no more kids at the window. In an effort to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus in Washington state, the zoo closed and stayed closed. Ramirez soon noticed that the gorillas, as well as the orangutans, were congregating at the viewing windows, peering out, as though looking for the people who used to be there. “They were recognizing that something was different,” he said. As time passed, they seemed to get more used to the absence of people. Remarkably used to it, for zoo animals. One day, passing the window, he saw a gorilla startle at the mere sight of him.
In zoos around the world, keepers reported that some of their charges appeared to be affected, in varying ways, by the sudden quiet. Social animals like primates and macaws seemed to miss visitors. In Edinburgh, chimpanzees also searched their empty windows, while chimps at the Oakland Zoo looked so lonely that keepers made a point of having lunch near their exhibit and showing them videos on their phones. (Other animals, meanwhile, gave the impression they might be welcoming the break. In Hong Kong, a pair of pandas that had failed to mate for ten years finally got in the mood while their zoo was closed for the pandemic.) At the Woodland Park Zoo, keepers worried about a particularly social orangutan named Melati, so they hung streamers and pictures on her exhibit’s viewing window: photos of other animals pulled from magazines, images of planets, even a map of the zoo where she lives. They changed them out often, both for the novelty and because they didn’t really know what might interest her.
Inside zoos, humans are used to thinking of themselves as observers in an essentially one-way relationship. The animals are in exhibits, like art at a museum. Researchers have studied the effects, on visitors, of encountering zoo animals. (Does it make us more empathetic to animals, more interested in conservation?) Over time, that study has begun to go the other way: What effect does seeing and hearing human visitors have on the animals?
Researchers have tried to analyze how zoo-animal behavior changes depending on our presence. They’ve tracked how crowds affect the pacing of lion-tailed macaques, the aggression of jaguars, the grazing of ungulates, and whether penguins swim below the water or at its surface. They’ve tested gorillas’ cortisol levels and measured the temperature of their nasal passages with infrared sensors. Adult orangutans, it was noted, “used available paper sacks to cover their heads more during periods of high visitor density.”
The emerging consensus is that many zoo animals are clearly aware of, and affected by, their observers, but that we observers are not well qualified to make sense of their reactions. Which changed behaviors are signs of “enrichment” — a chance for animals living dull, captive lives to respond naturally to new stimuli? Which are signs that we’re stressing them out? How can we really know what we mean to each other?
“Visitors can have either negative, neutral, or positive impacts on zoo-animal behavior and welfare,” summarized one pair of researchers, adding that the difference depends “on an animal’s perception of the interaction.”
A few decades ago, zookeepers weren’t much interested in talking about an individual animal’s perceptions. They didn’t even like to tell the public about animals’ names or personalities, said Ramirez: “For years, we’d be telling people, ‘This is a tiger. They’re endangered. We’ve got to save them.’ ” But it didn’t seem to be creating much cross-species empathy. So, said Ramirez, zoos started opening up, with a new approach that was more like, “This is Boomie. He’s our male tiger. He really enjoys napping and fishing.” (The Woodland Park Zoo’s website now offers a quiz to find out which gorilla shares your personality. When I took it, I was informed I matched with Yola’s mother: “Like Nadiri, you are diplomatic and are often the glue that keeps your friend group chillaxing.”) “We want people to care. We want people to fall in love with these individuals,” said Rick Schwartz, the wildlife ambassador for San Diego Zoo Global. “If that means that they have a name that people can call them, and they know their story and their history, it allows us to bridge that gap.”
As the world was shut down, wilder animals, too, seemed to notice our absence. People shared photos of animals exploring the places we vacated: sheep at a McDonald’s drive-thru in Wales, lions napping on empty roads in South Africa, sika deer trotting down the streets of a quiet Japanese city, baby foxes emerging from under a boardwalk in Toronto. Many of us may have been unaware that we are living so near these animals, but now we see that they were always aware of us. Our absence and presence move in tandem. We’ve been connected all along.
By Jamie Feldmar
Photographs By Andres Gonzalez
Early Friday morning, a little after dawn, Kong Thao arrives at his family’s 30-acre farm in Fresno, California. His mother and two brothers, who live on-site, are already at work picking. The day’s task: to harvest the fields of produce, originally destined for some of the most celebrated restaurants in Southern California, and package them into hundreds of cardboard boxes for home cooks. Additional reinforcements arrive that afternoon in the form of two of Thao’s sisters, a nurse and a student who grew up on the farm but long ago left the family business. They bring their husbands and children, and together, they sort piles of hollow-stemmed Chinese water spinach and purple-tinted amaranth greens into household-size portions and divide the snap peas, usually delivered by the boatload, into 1-pound baggies. The kids line and pack cardboard cartons — fueled, occasionally, by Laotian stew prepared by Thao’s mother. By midnight, the siblings finish loading the trucks, which Thao and his brothers drive overnight to Los Angeles. They’ll spend a weekend fanning out across the empty streets, distributing produce boxes to pickup points.
The farm was founded in 1988 by Thao’s parents, Laotian refugees who moved to the Central Valley and started planting some of the Southeast Asian vegetables they ate back home. Today, the farm grows more than 300 items, but chefs prize its more unusual offerings: bitter melon tendrils, Thai shallots, sprouting Romanesco. Even before Kong Thao became the farm’s public face, his family was building a loyal following on the produce-obsessed chef circuit in Southern California; before the pandemic, restaurants made up 70 percent of its sales. When Jeremy Fox, chef-owner of Rustic Canyon and Birdie G’s in Santa Monica, wanted elegant but hard-to-find bolting cauliflower for a photo shoot, he went to Thao. When Evan Funke, chef-owner of the Italian restaurant Felix in Venice, smuggled seeds back from Rome for a chile that tastes like pepperoni, he pleaded with Thao to try growing some.
Then everything shuttered. In mid-March, restaurants were forced to cease all dine-in operations overnight. The week the shutdown went into effect, Thao’s sales plummeted 60 percent. “We have crops in the ground that we’ve committed to for almost a year — purchasing seeds, tending to them,” Thao said. He found himself at the brink of the peak season, with fields full of perfectly tender yu choy and snap peas that had nowhere to go.
Chefs, producers, and suppliers up and down the food-distribution chain scrambled to adapt their business models. Some restaurants pivoted into marketplaces, selling pantry items and dry goods from their suppliers along with prepared foods from their kitchens. Specialty vendors like Santa Monica Seafood, which previously sold wholesale to restaurants, started offering wild king crab legs and lobster tails directly to consumers. County Line Harvest, a farm in the Coachella Valley, used its Instagram to ask for help distributing thousands of pounds of vegetables it could no longer sell to restaurants; it soon teamed up with a local bakery to deliver boxes of produce and bread to residents across Southern California. Meanwhile, farmers at large operations — dairymen and growers throughout California and the U.S. who cater to bulk buyers like restaurant chains, schools, or employee cafeterias — didn’t have the advantage of agility. Many had no choice but to dump thousands of gallons of fresh milk into manure pits or to dig enormous ditches to bury vegetables.
For the Thao family farm, creating a prepacked produce box, similar to a CSA, seemed like the fastest solution. Thao could sell the boxes to his restaurant clients who were operating as grocers, creating sales for both, or he could sell them directly to customers to be picked up at farmers markets. Thao’s network of chefs stepped up immediately. Ten restaurant owners placed orders for dozens of boxes and started promoting them on social media, while one, Josef Centeno, who had already closed his Asian-Italian restaurant, Orsa & Winston, offered to let Thao use his storefront as a pickup location. “I’m not making any money on this,” Centeno said. “Kong and I have been friends a long time, and I just wanted to help him get the boxes going.”
“I was nervous that no one would want a box,” said Thao. But by 11 a.m. on the first day, one chef had sold out. “He called me up asking for more. Then I started to feel better.”
Every week since, Thao has sprinted to expand and improve upon his makeshift system. Although the farm has made up 60 to 70 percent of its usual business through sales of the produce box, the amount of effort it requires — logistically, physically, and mentally — isn’t sustainable long-term. Among the new challenges Thao faces is a constant onslaught of questions from customers, most of whom reach out to him via social media. “I’ve never had so many direct messages in my life,” he says. They want to know when and where their boxes will be available (Thao posts weekly info on his Instagram), how to pay (Venmo), and what to do with produce unfamiliar to them (“People want to know why there are no carrots and potatoes in the box. Well, we don’t grow carrots and potatoes”). There hasn’t been time to fine-tune the process of handling orders, which Thao keeps track of with a handwritten list: “I’m sure there’s a better way, but I’m so overwhelmed that I don’t really have time to figure out another system.”
He admits that part of his hesitation to overhaul his systems comes from his hope that this is all a temporary blip — that the world, and the food world, will return to some version of normal soon. “If I knew we had to keep this up for the next four years,” he says, “I would completely change everything.”
On a Sunday morning, in an otherwise deserted downtown Los Angeles, Thao pulls up to Orsa & Winston in his white truck. Throughout the morning, cars drive up one by one and pop open their trunks for Thao. Once pickups wind down, Centeno arrives and asks Thao how he’s liking his new hand-dyed face mask (Centeno made one for everyone in Thao’s family). “Man, we both need haircuts,” he says. The farmer and the chef stand in the shadow of the restaurant for a few minutes, catching up.
As told to Emily Gogolak
Photographs By Jessica Chou
Ramona Hogue and Mark Livingston are long-haul truck drivers. The pair have a combined 62 years on the road, but for the past five years, six days a week, their shared home has been a two-axle truck with a bunk in the back. Ramona lives 90 miles northeast of Los Angeles in Apple Valley with her family; Mark lives in Lake Elsinore, 80 miles due south, with his. They work for a company specializing in LTL (“less-than-truckload,” trucker for “miscellany”), which they transport up and down the 1,000-mile stretch of Interstate 5 between Bloomington, California, and Portland, Oregon. Every ten hours or so, they switch turns at the wheel. Whoever isn’t driving is usually sleeping, so the truck almost never stops rolling.
Truck drivers are among the essential workers keeping the country running, and they’re among the few crossing state lines to do so. Long-haul trucking is often thought of as a solitary profession, but time-critical shipments often fall to team drivers like Ramona and Mark. This spring, as they pulled doubles (two trailers) carrying pneumatic tools, industrial cleaners, mattresses, medical supplies, and batteries on I-5, they reflected on navigating their own proximity during a pandemic.
Ramona We live in tight quarters for six days. A bathroom with a bathtub is about the size of a truck cab. Our seats sit 2 feet away from each other. We have a curtain between the bed and the seats, but they’re roughly 3 feet apart. There’s no way we’re 6 feet away from each other at any point.
mark Our truck is our home and our office, and we’ve been having problems because our management’s idea of clean is not our idea of clean. We went to our bosses and said, “Look, you guys gotta clean the trucks.” I talked to the people in the shop, and they said, “Well, what’s clean and sanitary?” I said, “You’re asking me?”
Ramona They ended up changing their cleaning protocols, and there’s been a difference. They’re spraying the trucks down with bleach water. But I have a different standard of cleanliness. We’re a slip-seat operation — another team will get in my truck and use it while I’m on my 24 hours off. Every time I get behind the wheel, I’ll wear my mask and spend an hour sanitizing. I wipe everything down with Clorox wipes or spray everything with Lysol. If I don’t have that, I make a rubbing-alcohol mix. When I go to sleep, I spray everything in the bed, too. But I just heard that they’re going to give us designated trucks, so another team won’t be using ours.
mark Ramona is OCD. I help her clean the truck, but I don’t get in her way — she goes nuts on me. She’s constantly cleaning, and I tell her, “Just don’t spray my food with Lysol.”
Ramona I’m a cancer survivor. In 2010, I was diagnosed with stage 4 Non-Hodgkin lymphoma. June 2011 was my last chemo treatment, and I went to work the next month bald. When you don’t have an immune system, you take the precautions to clean your environment.
mark Ramona packs her food, but I’m a forager. I eat at truck stops or places that are truck-friendly. But a lot of places won’t let truck drivers in. Even McDonald’s has locked up their lobby. At some truck stops, they have a bunch of stuff piled in front of their counters to keep you 6 feet away.
Ramona Mark drives me crazy. He’s a nice guy and a good driver, but he is very particular, and he does not like to differ from his routine. Now we’re required to wear masks, and he’s all like, “I’m not going to wear a mask because they’re making me.” I’ve been sewing masks, and I gave them away to other drivers. They’re afraid. We’re touching fuel pumps that have been touched by other drivers. We drive through the almond orchards, and the bees smack the windshield. You’ve gotta clean your windshield, so you’re touching the squeegees.
mark I’ve started wearing a balaclava for a mask. People look at me like I’m gonna rob the store. When we were on a break in Oregon, Ramona and I found some gloves for my daughter at Costco. She works as a pharmacy technician, and she’s diabetic. My wife and I are concerned about her.
Ramona I’m grateful to be working, to have the ability to pay my bills right now. My son works in the oil fields in Oklahoma. His company lost their last contract, and they’re having him work one week on, two weeks off. My daughters work in factories. One of them works at Dr Pepper, which shut down, and she hasn’t gone back to work. The other had a back injury and just resumed work at Plastipak. As long as I’m working, I can help them, but our company just did a voluntary layoff. Freight’s slowing way down. My husband just took a voluntary layoff from his work. He was driving a California-Utah route.
mark Ramona spends more time with me than my wife ever does. Sometimes people will tease Scott, Ramona’s husband, about it. You just have to tell people to knock it off. The most important cargo is your partner because they’re in the back, and whatever you do is going to directly affect them.
Ramona It isn’t easy to be a boy-girl team. For a couple of years, I did team with one of my best friends, and it was like Thelma and Louise. We’d have ten-hour layovers in Chicago, so we’d go get our nails done and go shopping. When we had to go through Kentucky, heck, they’ve got outlet centers there like nobody’s business. And I drove team with the man who is now my husband, but we didn’t start dating till after that — there are rules you’ve gotta follow.
mark Ramona is all about running. She wants to make money. When she approached me about driving together, I said, “Sure, as long as you want to work.” Team driving pays more, and management leaves you alone when you’re gone. I couldn’t tell you a lot of things about Ramona because I don’t ask. I figure if she wants to tell me, she’ll tell me.
Ramona Mark’s got a lot of experience and more than 2 million miles accident-free. That’s why I teamed up with him. He’s lead seat on the truck, so I’ve got to follow what he says. He’s always making fun of my country music, and I just roll with it. Driving with him pays well, and this pandemic is gonna be what it’s gonna be. I can’t stop making a living.
By Julian Brave Noisecat
Artwork by Sarah Biscarra Dilley
When the quarantine began, Tiny Rosales wanted to find a way to keep the people dancing. Tiny, a tribal citizen of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, an Ojibwe community in Belcourt, North Dakota, is an old-style jingle-dress dancer. As the story generally goes, the jingle-dress dance originated during the Spanish flu of 1918-1919, when an Ojibwe girl had fallen deathly ill. Her father, desperate to save her life, had a dream about a dance and a dress lined with cones made from the lids of snuff cans. The next morning, he sewed the dress from his dream and taught his daughter the steps to the dance. The girl wore the dress at a ceremony, but by then, she was too weak to stand. As her father sang the first jingle-dress songs, the girl’s strength began to return, and by the end of the night, she was dancing around the circle, her feet sliding across the ground. The cones on her dress clanged, syncopated against the rhythm of the drum and soft like summer rain: sh-sh-sh-sh. The Ojibwe say the sound healed the girl and her people.
The jingle-dress dance began to spread, first among the Ojibwe and then among other tribes that adopted it as part of pan-Indian powwow celebrations. Even when the Bureau of Indian Affairs took steps to restrict and outlaw Native American ceremonies, which it believed to be the devil’s work, the Ojibwe performed the dance. In the 1920s, Ojibwe women transformed flapper outfits into jingle dresses. During the protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016, women performed the dance in front of police roadblocks and armored vehicles. More recently, jingle-dress dancers held a ceremony at the intersection of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis, where police killed George Floyd. Today, it’s among the most popular dances on the contemporary powwow circuit.
Tiny travels that circuit with her husband and six children, competing at powwows throughout the U.S. and Canada. When she dances, she stays true to the original style, with her hands planted on hips as her feet slide to the beat. At these powwows, dancers wear their finest regalia: feathers, beads, porcupine quills, and fabrics sewn into designs that are specific to every dance, tribe, and person. In a circle surrounded by drum groups, spectators, food vendors, and craft booths, they compete, judged by the quality of their outfits as well as their footwork. Dancers and singers often describe powwow as a way of life, a way of connecting people with their traditions and with one another. “That feeling you get when you dance,” Tiny told me, “it’s something beautiful.”
This summer, Tiny had hoped to host a coming-out ceremony, a giveaway and dance competition, to bring her 2-year-old son, Arley, into the circle at the Turtle Mountain tribe’s annual Labor Day celebration. But then came social distancing, so Tiny and her husband, Hector, decided to have an online competition to mark their son’s first dance steps instead. In a post announcing the winners, Tiny shared a video of Arley dressed in a little beaded vest, bandolier bag, and cowboy hat, bouncing to the rhythm of a drum played from a speaker in her backyard. “Go, Arley! Dance, dance, dance!” she cheered off-camera.
The Rosaleses weren’t the only ones to take the powwow online. The week before Tiny hosted Arley’s contest, Whitney Rencountre of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, along with Stephanie Hebert of the Mi’kmaq and Dan Simonds of the Mashantucket Pequot, started a Facebook group called Social Distance Powwow. “Because of COVID-19, a lot of opportunities have been lost, and everyone is sitting at home and going through some difficult times,” Rencountre said. “We figured we would bring that powwow spirit: the good feeling of being around family and friends to share these songs and dances.” Hundreds of dancers and singers have posted videos.
On the Tonawanda Seneca reservation in upstate New York, the Parker family from the Snipe and Turtle clans shot a video of themselves stomping, sliding, and spinning in their living room to Haudenosaunee social dance tunes, which reference the animals of their creation stories. Rod Ivan FirstStrike of the Blackfeet Nation in Browning, Montana, sponsored a competition in which he asked participants to submit videos of themselves completing a jump-rope workout before strutting their best prairie chicken, a dance that imitates the mating ritual of the sage grouse. Tiny’s daughter Genesis posted a video of herself skipping and spinning to the beat of the women’s fancy shawl dance as her father trotted her horse around her.
From my couch in my one-bedroom apartment, I’ve watched dozens of these videos, singing along to the powwow tunes I know. Not so long ago, I traveled the circuit, too; I know Tiny from my dancing days. I grew up with an alcoholic Native father and a white mother in Oakland. Dad left us when I was 6. To keep me tethered to my culture, Mom started taking me down to the Intertribal Friendship House in East Oakland — one of the oldest urban-Indian community centers in the nation. At Thursday drum and dance practice, I learned the songs and steps. I had my coming out when I was 11.
Powwow connected me to a community that I nearly lost when my dad walked out the door, a community rooted in sobriety; the competitions are drug- and alcohol-free. And I was pretty good. In college, I won enough competitions to pay for gas, food, and hotels, with a little bit of money left over. At a New Year’s powwow in British Columbia, I even won a horse. But for the better part of the past decade, my career — and the slow creep of my own drinking habit — kept me from the circle.
A month before the shelter-in-place orders came down, I broke my ankle after mixing a little bit too much sangria with my Sunday night ice hockey league. Watching dancers across Indian country — many of whom I know — while my leg was still wrapped in a boot, I resolved to quit drinking and get back out on the floor once my ankle mends and the virus fades. After all, these dances can heal.
“I had this vision of people wearing ‘Keep the People Dancing’ shirts at powwows when this is all said and done with,” Tiny told me. “Hopefully, you can get out there soon as well.”
As told to Mallika Rao
Photographs By Damien Maloney
In a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco, Claire Vieth and Kasey Geist unpacked their belongings with all the usual hesitations. They’d had some ups and downs, nearly broken up, but were finally in a place to take that next step. Ten days later, they learned that they had to be quarantined together for the foreseeable future.
kasey We’re both a little traditional in the sense that neither of us have lived with a romantic partner before.
claire We almost broke up over Thanksgiving. We ended up just not talking to each other. When we first started dating, he was a certified pothead, which was the one thing that was going to drive us apart. He’s so intelligent, and it just created this cycle of frustration because it was this crutch. He’d go to it whenever he had anxiety or felt unsure, and he wouldn’t do anything that night. Then the next day, he wouldn’t really be himself.
kasey When we almost broke up, I was like, OK, am I going to keep smoking a lot of weed or am I going to be with Claire? For the whole month of December, I didn’t smoke at all.
claire Then he had a health scare that put some things in perspective for me. On top of that, this girl I grew up next door to, her husband passed away very suddenly. It all made me think about how anything can be taken from you in a second. I said, If I enjoy time with this person, I should just move forward when it feels right. So, we started looking at places. We moved in about two months later.
At first, I didn’t know what the quarantine meant. We ordered a desk thinking it was just in case I had to keep working from home. I didn’t realize it meant we’d be together 24/7.
kasey Before we moved in together, we both really loved alone time.
claire I generally worked long days and would go to his house maybe once a week, twice if we were lucky, and then about half of the weekends.
kasey Now that we spend so much time together, it’s almost like an addiction. If one of us is gone, I feel really alone. We still have time apart, kind of, when I shut the door while we work during the day. But we’ve found ways to be alone together. We do a lot more reading in bed, which was never something I did by myself. We’ll still be next to each other, rubbing feet, but reading a book.
claire We never spent this much time together.
kasey There are some things that have changed. We weren’t weird about farting around each other before, but now there’s no censoring. At all. It’s actually kind of funny and disgusting at the same time. If the bathroom fan is on, or if there’s a candle lit, I have to make fun of her.
claire I look at furniture when I’m browsing online — we moved into an unfurnished place. He’s been buying lots of Legos. It brings him happiness, and I’ve figured out how to incorporate it into our living room. I don’t want a giant fire truck on our mantel, but if it’s a beige dinosaur, I can put it next to a pretty bouquet of flowers. I’ve never made a Lego in my life but was forced to do it the other weekend.
kasey When we watch movies, it’s usually a very Claire movie. No sci-fi.
claire He’s someone who has never really cooked for himself. He’d probably do takeout and then be fed at work, and if he was hungry, he would just go to bed hungry. He grew up with a Greek mother who did every single thing for him that he could ever want.
kasey Claire is the messiest cook. I love her cooking, and I’m very thankful she cooks, but it looks like a bomb went off in there.
claire He doesn’t even take a sock off the floor. I’ve been doing my laundry since I was 11 or 12.
kasey Around noon, we’ll have lunch and hang out a little bit. She gets really stressed about work, so at first it was hard to separate work Claire from regular Claire.
claire I woke up this morning thinking about how hard days are going to happen. But it’s been worth it to have this intensive time together. It feels therapeutic. At first, I was like, This is a nightmare. I come from a family where there’s all this planning and scheduling and activity. Vacations are like, cocktails at 5, dinner at 7. You don’t even have time to think if you want to do those things. In quarantine, I’ve realized, sometimes you can get the same result by not going anywhere, which has been a complete mind shift. My alone time was my only time to be “off,” and now I realize that I can be off with Kasey. I didn’t know that was possible.
By Rowan Moore Gerety
Photographs By Arthur Hitchcock
As news of personal-protective-equipment shortages dominated the headlines this spring, Christine Cha, a radiation oncologist in Portland, Oregon, started scouring the internet for information about powered air-purifying respirators. A PAPR — rhymes with “dapper” — is an enclosed hood with a motor that blows a curtain of filtered air over the wearer’s face, keeping viral particles out. PAPRs are not only more protective than N95 masks, they’re also reusable. Every hospital has PAPRs, Christine thought, they just don’t have very many. “If you have 500 health-care workers, and you make 500 PAPRs, you’re good — for a while,” she said.
Just outside of town, Christine’s brother, Eric, an inventor who was riding out the lockdown by developing a hydroponic system to grow vegetables indoors, had noticed PAPRs in TV footage from Taiwan and South Korea. The siblings had already tried their hands at making face shields and felt ready for a more complex challenge. They turned to the internet for expertise and reinforcements.
The coronavirus arrived at a moment when much of the technology necessary to hack medical manufacturing is available to consumers: 3-D printing and the bandwidth to exchange large files, Slack and GitHub to coordinate and document workflow, Facebook to connect people. For the maker community, the PPE crisis was an opportunity to operate on a global scale — sharing designs for masks, gowns, and more; submitting them to the scrutiny of the crowd; and coordinating deliveries to hospitals through platforms like GetUsPPE.org. Megan Ranney, a Rhode Island emergency physician and researcher at Brown University, co-founded GetUsPPE in March; in less than two months, the organization had distributed millions of pieces of donated and homemade PPE to hospitals around the country. “The maker community is not displacing existing manufactured supplies: The supplies just aren’t there,” she said. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, she pointed out, advised health-care workers that even bandannas can serve as protection as a last resort. “Is this an ideal solution?” she asked. “No, the ideal solution didn’t happen, and it’s up to us as individual Americans to pick up the pieces.”
Online, ten DIY face-shield designs now bear the National Institutes of Health’s seal of approval. At some hospitals, administrators even put their staffers to work after-hours with supplies from craft stores.
When Christine made her Facebook profile public and posted about making PPE, she heard from Isabelle Bartter, a software engineer and former EMT in the Johns Landing neighborhood, who wanted to help. Everyone had a particular talent to contribute: Christine had a rich network in Portland’s medical community; Isabelle was well-versed in open-source design; Eric had a lifetime of engineering trial and error to draw on.
Isabelle dove into a Facebook group called Open-Source PAPR, where a maker in Seattle had posted about disinfecting, then deconstructing, a decommissioned PAPR from a local hospital and using it to mock up potential designs for a hood. For the box that would house the fan and filter, Isabelle borrowed from posts in the group, including one design by a mechanic in Kentucky, who was prototyping a PAPR to use in his wood shop.
Isabelle and Eric turned their attention to the mechanical components. Eric struck Isabelle as an engineer’s engineer — direct, concise, efficient — the kind of person who communicated as though he wanted “to avoid an email turning into a meeting.” The two often had the same ideas. When she said she was thinking of trying an air-mattress pump for the PAPR’s blower, he dropped off the one he’d already ordered on Amazon, stopping long enough to say hello from the driveway.
Developing a PAPR with a group of relative strangers reminded Isabelle of the camaraderie she’d felt at Standing Rock, where she’d volunteered in the medics and healers tent. “The buzz you have, the insomnia, the mania, creates a very bonding experience,” she said. Some time in April, Eric began signing late-night emails with “Go Team!”
A PAPR requires rigorous testing to make sure there’s enough air pressure that particles can’t get inside the hood; the CDC recommends testing devices with toxins like sulfur and sarin gas. The Portland makers decided to follow the technical specs of existing PAPRs and hoped that an open-source design process would expose flaws. “There’s a thousand eyes on it,” Isabelle said. In the Open-Source PAPR group, the manager of the mechatronics lab at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, offered advice on filter efficiency. An industrial designer in London who makes high-end light fixtures sent tidy, hand-drawn diagrams of wiring circuits. Isabelle called it guerrilla peer review.
Meanwhile, Christine asked the Facebook Open Source Medical Supplies for COVID-19 group about Tyvek housewrap. This polyethylene fabric, used to protect against the elements in home construction, was readily available — could it replace its medical-grade equivalent, which was scarce? Dozens of replies poured in. Hospitals around the country were already turning to Tyvek, as the only protective material available in bulk, for its ability to block moisture. Nothing could be worse than the images of nurses poking armholes through garbage bags.
Christine found two rolls at a Home Depot and called Natasha Gellatly, a friend whose family owns a formalwear shop in Vancouver, Washington. Could she design a hood for the group’s PAPR? For Natasha, a PAPR hood was just another sewing assignment. “You come to us and say, Hey, here’s what I have, and here’s what I want, and we can take you there,” she explained.
In late May, the quartet was on its tenth prototype. Christine had recruited four surgical specialists to test them. The Food and Drug Administration issued emergency guidance, waiving some of its usual regulations on liability for PPE designed to certain specs, but the group also welcomed a fifth member who has experience getting certifications from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a unit within the CDC that performs quality control of PPE.
In the meantime, the collaborators are looking forward to spending time together when the pandemic abates. “We keep telling each other that we’re gonna have to get together once it settles down and have a drink,” Eric said. One unexpected byproduct of the project has been a bit of brother-sister bonding for Christine and Eric. “Usually, in America, you only see your siblings until college,” Christine said.
As told to NICK PACHELLI
Animation By MIWON YOON
Emily and Caitlin met almost 12 years ago at nursing school in Massachusetts and immediately became friends. They went on to work at the same hospital and to join the same volunteer networks for nurses responding to crises. Each calls the other her anchor. In the early days of the pandemic, both flew to Seattle, joining the fleet of doctors and nurses crisscrossing the country to work in hospitals with the greatest need. They’re now entering their fourth month in COVID ICUs. With one or two other nurses, they often carpool to work. Along the way, they talk about everything from reality TV to positioning endotracheal tubes to the emotional toll that only they can understand.
emily I get out of bed in the afternoons and see my face contorted in the mirror — deep creases from the masks and a pinkish cut on the ridge of my nose. I can’t really get my face to look back to normal. I mark the days with emojis in text messages to friends and family.
caitlin Honestly, I’ve completely lost track of the days.
emily As nurses, we were the first to be “checked in on”: You’re so brave. Aren’t you scared? I found that a little strange at first but not anymore. Few among us are OK. I have never felt so mentally unstable. I sometimes wake up nervous, talk to Caitlin and feel invigorated, then I log onto Facebook and feel angry and hopeless. Then I want to just sleep, in disbelief that this is all real. I used to have coping tools. I’d go to a yoga class, get drinks with friends. Those were strategies, but those are gone. Lately, I’m mostly afraid of spending the summer watching a lot of people die — that my eyes are the last someone sees. Then we turn over the bed and repeat.
caitlin Emily and I have always had a weirdly strong bond. I don’t know if it’s just nurses or health-care workers in general, but there’s something about spending several 4 a.m.’s together, losing a patient together, managing a combative patient together, or seeing bizarre things that bonds us all. Our definition of professional boundaries is probably a little more liberal than in most work environments, and the pandemic has brought that out on a grander scale — I left my shift yesterday with 129 new text messages, all from co-workers. The reality is, everyone is hanging on by a delicate thread.
emily You can’t gauge anyone’s mood from underneath several layers of protective equipment, but in our carpool, I can gauge everyone’s mood. The carpool group is where most of the commiserating happens. Sometimes during my shift, I’ll put a hand on my friend’s back as I pass by, tap their shoulder in support, but there’s no hugging, which is really sad.
caitlin We had a patient who was immediately postpartum — she had just had a C-section because she had tested positive. So she was ventilated shortly thereafter and, all of the sudden, totally unprovoked, her oxygen saturation dropped to the 60s. It’s supposed to be 95 to 100. At that level, you can code or end up with a brain injury. We’re only keeping one to three nurses assigned to a room, so when her level dropped, only one nurse was there. But her N95 was outside the room, and she needed to immediately disconnect the ventilator — you must be wearing an N95 mask if you’re going to disconnect a ventilator and basically work in someone’s throat.
So me and two other nurses watched her from outside the room and couldn’t go in because of what we were wearing. We watched the nurse put her hand to her face, turn toward the door, realizing she didn’t have the right mask on, and make a calculation. She then turned back to the patient. Watching her make that decision was just brutal. Someone called the room phone from the hallway so we could all be on speakerphone and offer some moral support.
emily I don’t feel like a nurse anymore because I’m not prepared. It’s the weirdest feeling because I take a lot of pride in how good I am at my job. I’ve thrown up a few times since our floor was converted to a COVID ICU. I also have this nausea and pain and soreness — the deepest soreness I’ve ever felt, like I just climbed a wall for 12 hours and the ligaments at the tips of my fingers are screaming and my feet are tingling. I think I actually broke my finger today, but I’ll deal with that later. I second-guess every feeling, wondering if it’s a symptom, then snap out of it because I figure, Does it matter?
caitlin It’s something you take pride in — being good at this — and then all of the sudden, there’s very little feeling of control. For me, it’s just being so tired. Physical exhaustion on top of emotional exhaustion. It just feels heavy.
emily I’ve never taken advantage of any mental health resources before, but I’ve joined daily texting and teleconference support sessions with a therapist and other frontline workers from other hospitals.
caitlin I will talk to a therapist after this. I’ve been hopping on Zoom calls where about nine other ICU nurses chat about how our deployment is going. It always strikes me as funny that they keep calling it a “deployment.” Everyone on the call was a couple glasses of wine in, and it rapidly devolved into a general debrief of what’s been terrible, what’s been OK. Truly, I think that is the most grounding thing, to talk to people who have done exactly the same thing.
None of us in an ICU are unfamiliar with people dying, and sometimes in an ICU, as horrible as it can sound to other people, someone dying is not the worst thing that can happen to them. But this situation is so different, because they’re all dying of the same thing, and they all die in the same way. It’s just demoralizing. I think we’re going to see an exodus from the health-care industry as a whole. I’m watching it happen to a few co-workers already.
emily I’m nervous about how unprepared the mental-health system is to receive us. Where are the mental-health professionals? How many in this country are trained in mass-casualty trauma therapy for frontline workers? Really, really, really few people do it or are dedicated to it. I can rely on other nurses, but it may be toxic for us to only have each other to call on.
The bottom line for me right now is friendship, whether with Caitlin or other nurses. It’s sometimes asking directly, “How are you handling this?” Other times, it’s allowing each other to talk about dating, celebrities, reality TV. It’s dropping off care packages when one of us swabs positive or is in isolation waiting for results. It’s noticing when someone is in the low swing on the roller coaster and letting them be there but giving them reason to feel like they’ll be swinging up soon. Friendship this morning was gathering in the parking garage after the night shift to tailgate breakfast — laugh, update each other, and make plans to look forward to after all of this.