While people were staying physically distant during the early days of the pandemic, we reached out to find out how they were coping. Sacramentans have managed to keep some businesses and education going through online meetings and classrooms. Additionally, they took to social media as they tried to cope with it all and come to terms with the new normal.
As the new year got underway, news reports out of China chronicled the emergence of a contagious new respiratory virus. We watched the news and saw the step-by-step closure of the huge city of Wuhan and of Hubei province, and the imposition of increasingly stringent restrictions on the movements and actions of hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens outside the hot zone.
At the time, most people in the United States either seemed to believe it was a “Chinese problem” or that it was somehow a distraction. Of course, it wasn’t.
Just weeks later, America itself has emerged as a hot zone. There are tens of thousands of cases in the United States as I write this on Monday, March 23, at 8:25 a.m. By the time you open your magazine to read this, it’s entirely possible there will be 1 million or more cases nationally.
March was the month in which America finally came to terms with the unprecedented crisis that the world was facing: As the federal government dithered, one state after the next began shutting down nonessential businesses, closed down schools and ordered as many residents as possible to stay at home. It felt like a creeping apocalypse.
In Northern California, counties began shutting down in the second week of the month. By the middle of the month, Gov. Gavin Newsom extended the stay-at-home rules to the entire state, warned that schools would likely not open again for the rest of the academic year, and suggested that we should be prepared for several months of living an isolated, socially spaced reality. For those of us not deemed “essential,” many of whom faced a sudden loss of employment and of income, our public activities were reduced to brief, and increasingly frightening, runs to the grocery store or the pharmacy, to the occasional drive to nowhere, to doctors’ visits and walks around city blocks and parks. If we were paying attention on those walks, we would have noticed the silence in the skies, the eerie lack of airplanes overhead.
All of us, “essential” and “nonessential” alike, began to learn new social dances and new, intuitive methods of estimating risk. In our heads, we began calculating when we had to veer off the sidewalk and into the street to avoid by six feet an oncoming pedestrian; we worked out how to greet a neighbor sitting on their stoop while maintaining a germ-safe distance. We began using video conferencing sites as our primary method of visual interaction with friends, with family, with colleagues. In short, at speed we all began to reinvent how we interacted with others and with our environment.
Here, in their own words, are the stories of Sacramentans from the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cellist, pianist and music teacher
Interviewed March 22
There’s four of us in the family. My husband, Richard, and I are both cellists. Our two daughters are home. Our oldest has special needs. She’s going through an agitated time and she’s nonverbal. So it’s an increased challenge. The only people we’re allowing into the house are the two nurses who work with her. Our 13-year-old is super self-reliant; she’s adapting pretty well, calling friends on FaceTime. My husband plays cello with the San Francisco Symphony. He was supposed to be in Europe. Instead, he’s home, cooking and shopping and helping with the girls. I teach three-and-a-half days a week. Those days pass as before, though the days are longer because of the logistics of teaching over FaceTime. For once in my life, I’m extremely grateful for technology, because that’s our income right now. When I’m not teaching, my family is spending more time together—cooking, playing games, going on walks, bike riding. We watch escape movies, some Netflix. Both [her younger daughter] and I are taking virtual Spanish classes. We’ve been doing social-distancing happy hours in our neighborhood.
I have six concerts I was slated to play in the next few months, and they’ve all been canceled. At first, I was just leaving my cello in its case unless I was teaching. Then I read about the Italians singing from their balconies, so I’ve been playing outside on our front porch and front yard with Richard; we’ve been playing duets. Yesterday, I traveled up the street playing my cello. I started playing Bach. An older lady was out with her walker. I went up there, not too close. People started gathering. I played an hour and a half. It was really lovely. I felt so fortunate it was something I could contribute.
Retired nurse, former national president of PeriAnesthesia Nurses Association of California
Interviewed March 23
I’m over 65; we’re supposed to stay at home. My son knows I volunteer for things. He said, ‘Are you going to go back to work or take care of yourself?’ I’m a clinical instructor at UC Davis, advanced cardiac life support. I’m not teaching right now, because they’re trying to move everything to an electronic format. I also go with teams of plastic surgeons throughout the world, and we provide free reconstructive surgery. I was in Kathmandu in December, working in a burn unit. We had a call last night; all of our trips are on hold for the next few months. Our teams are not traveling. I teach a lot of CPR and first aid to nonprofits in the community. My last class was a week ago yesterday.
If the call went out for retired nurses to return to work, would you?
It would depend on what they are requesting. I’m a former Army nurse; I was activated in ’03 for the Gulf War. I stayed in the U.S., worked with Special Forces medics; did a lot of biological, nuclear, chemical training. Frontline, my areas of specialty are postoperative. So it would depend what they would ask me to do. I could go in and do reverse isolation and infection control procedures. I could see myself volunteering for that if the situation became critical enough. I was in the military—you step up and do what you need to do.
What do you most miss about normal times?
I miss just being with other people. We used to have dinner parties with friends. We have a very interactive neighborhood: Arden Oaks. We have friends whose children are like our grandchildren. I miss doing things with them. We do a lot of things with our church; we have a lot of social outreach. I’ve been working with St. John’s Shelter since the 1980s, preparing dinner once a month. We’re not doing that. Our church also goes to a Navajo reservation in Arizona. I teach school staff there first aid. I teach people how to vaccinate and deworm sheep and goats. Our trip is supposed to be in July; I’m not sure what’s happening with that right now. I miss just being involved in the community. Hopefully we’ll get back to normalcy fairly soon.
Lead host, Mulvaney’s B&L restaurant
Interviewed March 19
I was a recent widow and had retired. I had to go back to work—to be social, to get a paycheck. My rent had gone up way more than my mortgage ever did. Those tips made the difference. Someone who doesn’t have a huge retirement to fall back on goes back in the workforce and is reliant on tips. Now [after the stay-at-home order] I am on my own. Thank God I was living quite frugally.
So what are you doing now that your work has dried up?
You do your spring cleaning earlier, stay inside. You’re not entertaining as much, so you aren’t spending as much. You’re not buying gas to go to work. You tighten your belt. I’m not going to panic, but you go a month without a paycheck and it takes more than six months to pick up and recover. You have to be hopeful, you have to be resilient. I go out; I have an older Lab—he has to go out and be played with. I do a lot of Skype. Reaching out to friends. If I don’t have to be somewhere I don’t. The only place I’ve gone is the CVS drive-up window. Be as conscientious as you can, being around crowds. It changes a lot. I don’t have Netflix. But I’m unpacking my library, a lot of reading. I’m a yoga practitioner; I’ve got to keep up my game. I’m not a panic person; I’m a factual person. I figure I’m in good health, but I don’t want to be a carrier, and I don’t want to be a receiver. This is a time to be proactive, reach out to people, send cards and notes. It will be hard. This initial week is something you wrap your head around. Three weeks from now might be a different story.
Server and sommelier
Interviewed March 20
Right now, I have a daughter at college, Sonoma State. I’ve got to work on getting her home and out of a lease there. Right now, we’re just figuring things out. My mom is in Woodland in her 70s; trying to get her to work remotely. And I have three adult kids. And my husband works for himself.
Our goal is to keep a routine, take care of things round the house, exercise, cook, try to stay healthy and keep our immune systems up; that’ll be important. It’s going to be challenging. That feeling of being pent up, not being able to be out. I can feel a level of anxiety rising in me. We’re all pent up together, nervous, uncertain about the future. I’ve had a headache throughout the week—stress related. I’m exercising, walking, trying to get fresh air, and reminding myself we’re doing the best we can with these circumstances, and that it won’t be permanent.
Retired director, Lutheran Office of Public Policy, California
Interviewed on March 22
I find myself quite emotional. Tears have always come easily for me—a little too weird for my family’s comfort, but even easier now. My paternal grandfather died in Pennsylvania in 1919 from the Spanish flu, when my dad was the youngest of three kids, ages 1 to 9. And I had a 29-season career with Cal Fire. My lungs are not what they would be otherwise had I not been in a lot of smoke over the years. I feel like I need to take precautions. I’d love to be out helping at a food bank, but on the other hand I don’t want to become part of the problem, either. I’ve signed up for two FEMA webinars on mental health care for people engaged in responding to the pandemic. I’m not a professional counselor, but it’s to know signs and symptoms of stress, and to be an entry-level first responder for people in crisis.
I’m trying to follow the governor’s and public health orders and stay indoors and in my neighborhood. I see my elderly neighbor walking down the street with her son and dog. I say hi from 30 feet or so. It’s good to see people out, from a distance.
Principal, Sutterville Elementary School
Interviewed March 20
It’s strange. We have deadlines that are ongoing, such as the school plan. However, it doesn’t have the data we were anticipating, because the kids haven’t been in school and statewide testing has been canceled. We were tasked to call each teacher to get baseline data. How do we set up remote learning while ensuring access for all our students? Are there kids who don’t have access to technology who will need to be provided with computers? We have to meet the needs of the children with special needs and English learners. One phone call after another, talking to each of the teachers. I hole up in a bedroom so I don’t have to impose silence on the rest of the house while I’m working.
It’s important at this time to be reassuring to our families and our children. How do we explain to kids what’s going on? We had plans to get together with friends last weekend. We were going to a play, but the theaters were closed. We had a quiet dinner instead. Now, all of that is a no-go also. It’s surreal, surreal to be so isolated. The hugest difference is just not being with children every day. That’s what I feel most dramatically. That contact with children rejuvenates me, hearing what they think, their sense of humor. That’s why I love my job.
Rabbi Mona Alfi
Senior rabbi, Congregation B’nai Israel
Interviewed March 20
Three weeks ago, I was planning how to run services, plan celebrations, holidays. We’ve had to figure out how to make an in-person community connect virtually, with the rules changing every day. In the Jewish tradition, for prayer services to happen we need 10 people to gather together, a minyan. That’s now against the rules. We’ve had to figure out how do it online, purchase licensing, make it accessible, get the technology, make sure older members know how to access it. For bar and bat mitzvahs, we’re doing it by Zoom. The Reform Movement put out a legal dictum saying Zoom is permissible for this time to allow for a prayer quorum. The temple won’t be Zooming Passover, but we’re hoping congregants use technology to stay in touch with each other for the dinner.
What do you find hardest about all of this?
I have a 12-year-old and a 17-year-old. The 12-year-old is supposed to be graduating sixth grade. My 17-year-old was looking forward to going to camp, doing all the things teenagers are supposed to do. And they can’t do anything. I’m a very social person. It’ll be hard. I like going to Shabbat services on Friday night. I like hugging everyone. Now, when I go to the grocery store, I put my hands in my pocket or cross them on my chest so I don’t touch anyone or anything. I did a funeral last week and couldn’t hug the man who’d lost his brother. It’s one of the most healing things for our souls, to have that contact. And to have it taken away from us when we need it most, a good hug—it’s very hard. However we can do face to face, we need to do it. And humor is very important. It’s a Jewish tool—to laugh in dark times.
Owner, Mulvaney’s B&L
Interviewed March 19
This is hardest of all for hospitality. What do we do on our days off? We go and eat! What do we do when we’re not doing anything? For me, it’s to try and help. But how do you do that while navigating social separation? This is too big for us. If you take 2 million people and put them out of a job, besides ruining the economy you also take 2 million families who now have to figure out how to make it to the next week. So what can we do? I’m talking with friends about best practices and how we move forward. Getting the hospitality industry and employees to volunteer at food banks to backstop for elderly volunteers who have to self-isolate. How do you feed people? That’s what I do for a living. We’re all doing the best we can and hoping we’re doing right by people and well for them.
Graduating senior, C.K. McClatchy High School
Interviewed March 19
I have tried to get outside as much as I can, go on walks and bike rides around the neighborhood. [Normally] I bike to school, six miles each way. I haven’t been able to get the same exercise, that’s for sure. I’ve been inside most of the day, reading books: “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt. I’ve got a few teachers assigning homework—my photography teacher has been assigning projects. My German teacher has been posting lectures and assignments every day. I got out once last week and saw some friends, but since then I haven’t been able to see anybody. I’m worried about it; I’ve been putting the restriction on myself to stay inside. So it’s mostly over FaceTime, virtually. It’s different seeing someone in person as opposed to FaceTime, where they break up and the connection breaks down. I’m sad to have the end of my senior year go out over FaceTime. It’s definitely a pretty sad feeling to know everyone you’ve made relationships with over the past four years at McClatchy—I may not see them again. I had planned to go to prom and was looking forward to it. [Next year] I’m going to BYU, Idaho. I’m hoping to major in communications or art.
Are you spending more time with your family?
I have four siblings. It’s definitely very hectic. Our cousins just left. That was even more hectic. But I was thinking how tough it would be to be an only child, having no one else your age to interact with. We’ve played games, watched a movie last night. We make food together. Yesterday I made scones, so that was fun.
Communications director, legal advocacy organization
Interviewed March 20
I had to start working at home on Monday. I’m constantly on the computer or by my phone. It’s a constant stream—the work, but also my thinking about coronavirus. I don’t get a break unless I take a walk, and then I feel guilty. It’s making me anxious. I follow a lot of wellness people who are talking about the need to slow down. But it’s hard to slow down.
I live in an apartment building. There are four of us. Me and my neighbors have social-distancing events. We have a big porch. I live in midtown; three of my friends live within a block. We go on social-distancing walks. Eating has been a solitary event. What is most isolating is touch. I [used to] hug my friends. It brings home we are social creatures, animals; we’re not yet androids. I’ve started watching “Little Fires Everywhere,” with Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington. I’ve been FaceTiming and texting. My friend got me on Marco Polo—it’s an app; you can communicate in videos to each other, a long chain of video conversations. I’ve got friends around the country, and we’re more in touch than usual. And the thing that’s giving me hope is seeing reports of pollution clearing up. If that wasn’t happening, the anxiety I’d feel would be even more dreadful.
Graduating senior, C.K. McClatchy High School
Interviewed March 19
My life before this was incredibly busy. I play water polo, coach debate, tutor, work at a law firm, swim, play the violin, spend a ton of time with friends. I have a religion class at 6:10 in the morning. I have a lot of human interaction and a lot of moving. I never stop. Being home has been different. I’m missing my friends, but I’m seeing my family more, which is wonderful. We have breakfast and dinner together. I spend a lot more time painting and one-and-a-half hours a day practicing the violin. I’m painting a watercolor sunset; I painted a picture of a world with a starry sky behind it. Lovers Point, in Monterey. I painted a foggy forest.
I feel like I’ve taken a lot for granted. Going to Willie’s with friends. Going to basketball games. The possibility of senior ball and graduation. I was supposed to go to Tahoe with a group of friends next weekend. And my family was going to go on a road trip with our cycles up the coast. But we’re not going to do that anymore. We’ll see how it is, but for now, I’ve definitely found ways to occupy myself.