The Home Front
A week of social isolation, seen through the eyes of 14 Washingtonians
To slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, Washington, D.C. has been told to slow down. Stay at home, if work allows. Keep a safe distance from one another until it’s safe.
It’s a simple mandate, but it’s changed everyone’s way of living. Every aspect of life and every person in D.C. and its surrounding areas have been impacted. The degree of impact depends on countless factors like health status, job, and income.
How are you feeling? What are you doing? City Paper asked these questions of 14 individuals to get an idea of how people keep going during a pandemic. We also asked them to send us a few pictures of what their lives look like these days. These people are single parents, grandparents, or lovers. Some are defined by their jobs. Others are trying to remember that they are not their jobs, especially when job security exists only for a select few in these times.
The ordinariness of everyday life, even in extraordinary times, brings comforts. A teacher will still see her students, even if it’s through FaceTime, and a family will still worship without going to church. The virus is omnipresent, but even a nervous woman can still enjoy a good panda video.
This is just the first week of many; no one knows when this crisis will end. But what’s more frightening than the virus is its lasting effects. The individuals interviewed wonder what the city will be like for workers and their families when everyone can finally leave their homes again. They are all learning to balance the reasonableness of hope and the reality of survival.
“They all could say ‘coronavirus,’” Clare Berke says of her 5-year-old son and 3-year-old twin girls. Her kids understand that this word means school is closed and that they can’t visit their grandparents in Ohio. Berke’s son knows that people can get very sick because of coronavirus so he should cover his mouth when he coughs and stay away from groups of people, even his friends. The twins don’t quite understand as much, but they know that coronavirus is why their birthday party on Friday was canceled.
The last good day was Thursday, March 19, Berke says, because it felt “normal.” She took her kids to the National Arboretum, where her son rode his scooter and they explored nature on an unseasonably warm day. For a moment, no one was thinking about the global pandemic and its consequences. Five days later, the Arboretum closed indefinitely.
“We are probably doing it all wrong,” says Berke about social distancing. “It’s too crazy to stay in the house with three children, 5 and under. It would just be impossible. I don’t know what we would do. They already almost kill each other and fight.”
On March 24, Benjamin Banneker Academic High School returned to school and Berke returned to teaching English to her 100 students. Now, however, she’ll do it online. “It’s sort of a mess,” says Berke. Every teacher is doing something different. Some are deciding to set up virtual lessons, others aren’t. Students can submit assignments on various platforms.
Her twins went to daycare but her son stayed home while she and her husband, who’s also a teacher, figured out distance education. To give one another space, Berke worked on her laptop in the basement while her son watched TV nearby and her husband taught upstairs. When her son used Zoom for the first time to video chat with his classmates, Berke got a call. She had to tap out of motherly duties and her husband tapped in.
This period requires a lot of moving around to avoid getting in one another’s way. It also requires a lot of group chats. Too many for comfort.
Remote teaching is harder than expected. It’s not that the staff of Mary McLeod Bethune Day Academy Public Charter School did not prepare. They did. It’s just been challenging for Isha Jordan to transition from face-to-face learning to online. Now she needs to be available all day to answer administrative emails and teach individual students. All the while, Jordan is also taking care of her 1-year-old, Wale.
Jordan, who’s a single parent and teaches fifth, sixth, and seventh graders, would typically drop off her son with a babysitter. But now that we’re in the midst of a pandemic, Jordan is choosing to have Wale stay at home. He’ll sit in a highchair next to her as she types on her laptop, or he’ll watch the “Baby Shark” dance for the umpteenth time. When the baby naps, Jordan can really focus. If all else fails, Wale will just join Jordan as she FaceTimes a student. That is, if she can get a hold of her students.
During the first week of distance education, March 16 to 20, Jordan was only able to video chat five of her 13 students. She was able to connect with all but two of them, even if it was just by text message. Jordan works with special education students and would typically pull them out of class and work with them one-on-one. She’d help these students with class assignments, their reading, and math work. Since she can’t do that anymore, she’s had to incessantly call or rely on Instagram and friends to reach them. She’ll also phone parents. Some students are having technical difficulties. Others just aren’t ready to work yet.
This is just the beginning. Class will take place remotely until at least April 27.
“It’s insane to be out of school for so long,” says Jordan. “Of course we have to be safe … if we take the proper steps and precautions, hopefully we can make things go back to normal and people can go out again and we can actually live our lives.”
The pandemic got real for Rajah Caruth when his high school, School Without Walls, temporarily closed on March 9 because a staff member was exposed to the coronavirus.
“This isn’t just something overseas,” he says matter-of-factly. “It’s actually affecting our everyday lives.”
His school, like all other DC Public Schools, is closed until at least April 27. It’s unclear what happens to prom or graduation. His future plans have also been delayed. He aspires to be a professional NASCAR racer and all his races, including his long-awaited debut, have been postponed or canceled. These days, his races are strictly virtual and take place on his gaming console.
“I guess it’s a pretty bad deal but it could always be worse,” says Caruth, “so you just got to deal with it.”
He’s been heeding the advice of infectious disease experts and practicing social distancing. He’s only left his house to go to the grocery store or hang in his backyard. Caruth is living his life almost entirely online. His races, classwork, and friendships are all still continuing thanks to technology. He started remote learning March 23 and says it was “pretty chill.” He only has four classes and doesn’t need to call into any of them. The challenge will be doing this for another month or so and dealing with isolation and boredom.
When he tries to predict where this is all heading, Caruth can’t help but think about apocalyptic movies. He has nothing else to compare it to, so 2012, War of the Worlds, and I Am Legend will have to do. Even so, Caruth feels as fine as can be expected.
“To be honest, I don’t really get nervous about anything. Like I’ll get butterflies before races,” says Caruth. “To have that directly be impacted by this has opened my eyes to the fact that this is really serious. But you just got to adapt and be wary and not do anything stupid.”
Paula Stern can’t help but compare the potential of this catastrophe to past ones like the Holocaust and the Great Depression. She has a personal connection to each event: She’s Jewish, and her parents survived the Great Depression with practically nothing. Both historical events resulted in the loss of lives and businesses, and she believes the consequences of this pandemic will be similar, if not worse.
Paul doesn’t share his wife’s comparisons. He looks to other great public health crises like the Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and London’s Great Plague of 1665. Given that the health system has matured a lot since then, he’s more optimistic about the outcomes of this pandemic.
Paula and Paul can’t help but worry for their children—their son and his family in New York and their daughter and her family in Maine. New York City is the epicenter for the virus in the U.S. and their son can’t leave his place in Manhattan to go to the grocery store without bumping into people. Their daughter, a pediatrician, volunteered to administer COVID-19 tests. Waiting at home for their daughter, who’s screened at least two positive cases, are their 2-year-old and 7-month-old grandchildren.
“Anybody who’s looking at the newspapers or the television or something like that is going to be nervous,” says Paul. “If you are not nervous there’s something wrong with your nervous system.”
“We have our concerns,” says Paula. “But Paul and I are comfortable.”
They are quick to recognize their privilege. They meet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s at-risk category because of their ages, but they are quick to downplay that because they are otherwise healthy. Time under self-quarantine for them has meant swimming, sculpting, gardening, and writing. There have been some interruptions to daily living, but mostly they’re getting by with the help of neighbors who volunteer to get them groceries. Their real concern is for the future and the economic devastation facing their kin and people around the globe.
Genesis Lemus’ mother, Ana, hasn’t worked for more than a week. Ana usually sells tacos, atole de elote, mangos, and other treats from a cart in front of the Bank of America in Columbia Heights. Ana stopped selling March 11 because she worried she would get infected with COVID-19. If she gets sick, no one will be able to take care of Lemus and her 9-year-old brother. Ana is a single mother.
“It was a hard decision,” says Lemus. “Every time we sell, we plan ahead.”
Lemus and her mom are close and she helps her mother with all aspects of the cart, from finances to food preparation. They’re a team. Since her mother stopped vending, Lemus knows it’s been difficult to budget for everyday necessities.
The family receives food and cash assistance from the government, but it is not enough. Ana can’t even apply for unemployment benefits because her cart couldn’t acquire all the right permits before COVID-19. The regulatory nightmare makes Ana part of D.C.’s informal economy. She tried to get another job but she can’t find other work when so many businesses are shutting down right now. Lemus wishes the local government would provide more aid.
“Not only for us, but a lot of people need more,” she says. Other street vendors are hurting and so are their customers. Lemus and her mother have heard from customers who they’ve gotten to know over the years that have lost their jobs due to the pandemic.
It’s been an emotional time, so the 15-year-old has begun journaling. She and her family have also found solace in their faith. The ban on mass gatherings means her church is closed, so instead the family will listen to services online on their tablet.
All she can really do right now is continue to do her homework, help her mom with her little brother, and stay healthy.
“At the end of the day, we are going to come through it. We’ve been through tough situations,” Lemus says. “If we stick together, we know it’ll pass.”
Restaurant. Sleep. Repeat. That is Adam Greenberg’s schedule now that he’s had to rethink how his 15-month-old restaurant, Coconut Club, does business. He can pause for a moment in between and enjoy seeing his wife or walking their 9-year-old cavapoo. Mostly, he’s busy with the restaurant.
Coconut Club has had to pivot within a week’s time. The vacation-inspired restaurant closed March 15, and just started doing take-out and delivery March 20. It will continue to do so every weekend until it’s safe to eat out again.
“As long as they allow me to show up,” Greenberg says, “I’m going to keep trying.”
Soon, patrons will get a luau kit along with their order to recreate the dining experience. Coconut Club isn’t looking to turn a profit. It’s looking to survive. Its projected sales are zero for the next 10 weeks. Greenberg wrestled with the decision to even offer grab-and-go service, worrying that by doing so, he would encourage people to go outside. Takeout helps pay the two remaining salaried employees (two are already furloughed), and gratuity goes to 12 hourly employees that are stuck at home. This past weekend, Coconut Club did $8,000 in takeout, down 400 percent from what would do in a normal week. The restaurant will certainly be relying more on grants.
Greenberg doesn’t own property. His restaurant is a commercial tenant in its building and he and his wife are residential tenants in their apartment. Coconut Club’s landlord hasn’t deferred or forgiven its rent payments like others have. The landlord is in wait-and-see mode because it has properties all over the country.
“I just don’t think that right now complaining or doing anything other than trying to work on solutions is productive,” he says.
“It’s a lot easier for me to have this attitude when I have nothing to lose,” he says. “The only thing I’d be losing is my restaurant. But even with that said, we are doing it the right way and I feel like if we lose it, we’ve done everything we can to save it.”
You’d think a yoga instructor would have a relatively zen lifestyle, but Michael Hall is a hyper-scheduled person given that he typically teaches upward of 20 classes per week and commutes between two studios, Balance Gym and DC Ashtanga. He owns the latter studio, so he’s busy with paperwork too. It was always challenging to practice yoga for himself.
“I feel good,” Hall says. “While I might have an extroverted personality and I like sharing, yoga is an internal practice.”
Social distancing has reduced the stressors of his own practice, but it’s complicated his business. Yoga is Hall’s source of income. After his studios closed March 13, he had a few “woe is me” days. Balance Gym has paid him to lead a couple of live-streamed classes, but he’s not earning as much as he did before.
“Once I realized ‘hey, we are all in it. There’s nothing you can do about it. It’s time to change your mindset,’” says Hall, “It was like, ‘well it’s time now to start checking in on some other people.’”
When he checked in on his students, he was glad to see them continuing their practices at home. The yogic philosophy is to teach in such a way that students become the masters of their own practice. This moment tests that.
He is concerned about what happens when this is all over. Will people stop going out for yoga? Or will his students—many of them new yoga teachers that are taking financial hits right now—be able to afford class anymore? It’s unclear. In the meantime, Hall is enjoying taking a deep breath.
Nicole Baum and Eliot Payne have been dating for more than two years, but just moved in together in July. Now they’re self-quarantining alongside one another for the foreseeable future.
Both are taking the public health emergency very seriously. Baum has only left the house to go grocery shopping, while Payne has only ventured as far as the backyard. Thinking about the pandemic makes Baum feel anxious, so she started watching live streams of zoo animals to calm down. Payne doesn’t really get anxious, but does miss socializing. “I get energy from being around people,” he says. He made a new friend by FaceTiming with someone he’s only known through social media.
A week in and the couple is off to a solid start. They negotiated space for another, along with their two other roommates, in their four-bedroom apartment. Baum, a teacher, works in the living room at a makeshift standing desk that Payne built. Payne, a lawyer, types on his laptop at the kitchen table after realizing his bedroom wouldn’t work.
“I’m not nervous at all about spending time with Eliot,” says Baum.
“I jokingly sent Nicole tweets about a lot of divorces in China that sprung up. I can’t relate,” says Payne.
“That is very sweet,” Baum replies under her breath.
“This has been the most amount of time I’ve spent in my house,” says Nina Oduro.
These past couple days have been a treat for someone who travels constantly. Despite the circumstances, she’s pleased to have been able to be still. She has a roommate but there’s plenty of space in their apartment for solitude. She’s started journaling to document how she’s felt during such an unprecedented time.
“In better times, I’d like to reflect on what the journey was,” she says.
She finds herself thinking a lot about a recent trip to the grocery store. She was very paranoid and thought twice about picking up produce with her bare hands. The part that stays with her came when she paid for the food. People were cutting one another because the line was so long, even though it was 9 a.m. When Oduro and others spoke up, those that cut either ignored them or scoffed.
“Where are we rushing to? To go back and shut our doors?” asks Oduro. “It really shut down every notion I had that we are in this together.”
Setting aside that one experience, the rest of her days have been spent brainstorming how her business, Dine Diaspora, can live strictly online. Her marketing agency does a lot of in-person events that connect people to African diaspora cuisine. COVID-19 has meant canceling these events. It’s challenging to keep moving forward because Dine Diaspora works with a lot of people in the restaurant industry, an industry that’s collapsing.
“We are working with chefs that don’t have businesses of work to sustain them … so that impacts ours work in marketing their work and profiling their contributions,” she says.
Andre Simmons doesn’t blame the customers for hoarding. He’s worked at the Safeway in Hechinger Mall for 20 years and has never seen anything like it. No toilet paper. No meat. Empty shelves. But he doesn’t fault the people who come in his store looking to raid the canned goods section because the city has never endured anything like this.
“I mean, they are scared,” Simmons says.
Customers do complain about the short supply though. They’ll make smart remarks. But the empty grocery shelves are the customers’ own doing for panic shopping. Safeway’s warehouse had to cut back on its orders just to spread out the inventory.
It’s been an exhausting month for Simmons. He worked eight to 10 hours every day from March 16 through March 23. Given how many people he sees on a daily basis, he’s a bit nervous about catching coronavirus. He is worried for himself and his 12-year-old son. Simmons is a single dad. When he gets home from the store, he’ll help his son do his homework. He’s not trying to spread anything to him in the process, so he does what he can, like washing his hands. But he can’t just not go into work.
“I know if I don’t do it, people don’t eat,” says Simmons. “People still need to keep their immune system strong.”
Although WMATA cleans her bus every night, the driver has to provide her own protective gear, a mask and gloves. She takes extra precautions and disinfects her bus whenever she can with a bleach spray.
She is concerned that she’ll get exposed to the virus and then spread it to her family—her 8 year-old, 16 year-old, husband, and elderly mother. Her mother’s immune system is already compromised; she has a severe respiratory illness.
“If I contract it and give it to her, I’m pretty sure she won’t be able to survive it,” she says of her mother. She asked to not be named in this article due to privacy concerns.
Before she even enters the house, she’ll strip down, put her uniform in a trash bag, immediately wash it, and spray herself with Lysol. Her family understands that she is essential personnel and has to work even when that means putting herself in harm’s way.
“I’ve been doing it for so long that my daughter, she expresses concern but she also knows that this is how Mommy helps provide for the family,” she says.
The first week things started to close, people were still out and about. She could tell by the bags people were carrying that some were leaving the house for non-essential reasons.
“I don’t think people are taking this seriously,” she says with frustration.
Samantha Davis has been spending her time traveling from store to store in search of groceries and toiletries. While others are supposed to be quarantining inside, Davis has been out, helping to create a mutual aid program.
“When there is any type of collective struggle that we are going through, in this case a pandemic, we want to make sure the community has what they need. And we know throughout history that oftentimes even if the government is doing something, it’s often not enough,” says Davis. “And it tends to reach those most marginalized—black communities, brown communities, immigrant communities, young folk, low-income communities—it attempts to reach us last or least.”
Since March 18, Davis and her nonprofit, the Black Swan Academy, along with other volunteers, have been supporting families living in Wards 7 and 8 with items they’ve purchased. Organizers set up mutual aid stations at Anacostia High School, Ballou High School, and H.D. Woodson High School, and have helped roughly 300 households in total.
“It’s not charity. It’s solidarity,” says Davis. “Each and every one of us has a role to play. Each and every one of us can support our neighbors in one way.”
Davis and her team are taking all the precautions they can as they hand out canned goods and other aid. It’s not lost on Davis that everyone is being asked to stay inside for their own health. Even the residents who come by to pick up items express concern for the volunteers, telling them to take care of themselves.
And Davis is. When she’s not working for the mutual aid program, she’s staying at home to limit her exposure to the virus. When she is self-quarantining, she has her dog and regimen—meditation, a walk—to keep her grounded. She knows she needs to preserve her energy because there’s plenty of organizing that’ll be needed in the aftermath of the pandemic.
Story by Amanda Michelle Gomez
Photos courtesy of subjects