Updated May 14
10 lives, interrupted
The voices of Americans searching for survival and reinvention amid an economic collapse
A college senior anxious about graduating into a recession.
A salon owner who has found a strategy to survive.
An owner who hopes to make it to her ice cream shop’s sixth anniversary.
Cara Briggs Farmer
A sculpture artist who took a grocery store job to pay the bills.
A mother of three furloughed from her hotel housekeeping job.
A home health aide facing the risks of work while caring for young children.
A personal trainer making plastic face shields to reopen his business.
A restaurant operations manager forced to close his business who is now feeding the needy.
A travel company owner determined to keep her business afloat.
A veteran without a job for the first time in 60 years.
An artist wakes before 4 a.m. to report to her new job at a grocery store. A restaurant manager tearfully lays off his staff and gives away meals. A personal trainer begins making his own plastic face shields.
These Americans are among 10 people whose journeys The Washington Post will follow over the coming months, as they and millions of others navigate the trail of economic devastation the coronavirus pandemic has left in its wake. They are telling their stories to Post reporters, and The Post is publishing excerpts, edited only for length, from those conversations. Updates will come monthly.
Click on the thumbnails to explore any one of their stories, or scroll through to see how a tapestry of America is facing down the crisis.
‘I don’t know how to plan’
Graduating college senior • Baltimore • 21
The reality that I might be graduating into a recession is terrifying. A lot of people I know have had trouble applying to jobs, have been furloughed and laid off. A lot of friends are now unemployed. My graduation ceremony was officially canceled. My semester was officially moved to online.
I’ve been interning this year, and thankfully it was already a remote position, but the internship finishes in May. I’ve had a summer job lined up, and I’m supposed to go out to Wyoming to work on a ranch. It’s a hospitality ranch and obviously travel and tourism is so impacted right now, but things are set to continue as normal. My goal had been to continue traveling and applying to fellowships and teaching programs. But with all of the uncertainty right now, it just doesn’t sound like a secure long-term plan, and I’m thinking it’s probably better to try to find a job.
It’s a weird time to be Asian American. I have gotten some really strange comments from neighbors and strangers. One of my neighbors called it the “Chinese virus.” Another person made me so uncomfortable saying, “You poor Asian, you guys just have it so hard right now.”
My mental health has gotten a lot worse recently. I’ve been seeing a therapist. That’s a whole other part of this journey that’s been kind of scary.
I don’t know what the world is going to look like when this is all over, if it’s over. I don’t know how to plan. Nobody can plan anything anymore. First it was really bleak, and now it’s still bleak, but it’s also just blank. It’s just like this big, blurry question mark in my head.
May 4: ‘Somebody made a mistake’
It’s not 100 percent official yet, but 99 percent: I have a job! So that’s an exciting development. Not having graduation, and having my second semester just kind of fizzle, I feel like somebody made a mistake somewhere and I’m not actually an adult yet.
I don’t understand how I’m going to be working as a full-time employee in my childhood bedroom. Normally there’s a little more fanfare from the transition, going from college student to real adult. I don’t feel like I’m ready.
‘Asking everyone to purchase gift cards.’
Owner of a hair salon • Alexandria, Va. • 38
I’m from a family of hairstylists. My family, they either do hair or you’re in the military. I decided to go with doing hair. I first got my feel for it in my aunt’s salon when I was about 5. I’ve pretty much worked at a hair salon all my life.
I have been in business for about two years. I initially didn’t have a lot of cancellations, but then, about two weeks before the mandated closures, I started to get many.
My very first client that canceled sent me the money for her haircut and it gave me the idea that if I do have to shut down, I can get [my clients] to purchase a gift card. Then I can pay my rent for maybe a month or so. I ended up asking everyone to purchase gift cards, which a lot of people were very kind to do.
I decided I was not going to do in-home visits only because I’m not able to regulate the sanitation and the disinfection in other folks’ houses. I haven’t actually applied for any loans because I really don’t want to have to owe anyone. I’m hoping that with the Cares Act, we’ll get a grant and some relief.
Between retail [hair product sales], the gift cards and the grant, I think that’s really the only way I’m going to be able to survive. The state of Virginia will be shut down until June. We can reopen [as soon as] May 8th. I’m happy to get back to work, however, I am a bit nervous. I feel like there should be further protection for us — the same way they’re doing it for nurses and other workers. We are allowed to go back to work, but folks are going to be afraid to come back in.
May 11: ‘I’m trying to stay positive’
I did receive my check, and I took half of it and put it towards my credit. I was trying to pay down my credit from just opening my business. The other half, I put away for my [salon] rent. I’m trying to stay positive, but things are really looking bleak as far as reopening. I just don’t really feel safe. I’ve already sent out an email to my clients and they’re all in agreement. I have been in tears from the support that I’ve been getting from my clients. There’s no better gratitude.
‘The closest thing I could relate to was the 1929 crash.’
Ice cream shop owner • Denver • 42
[Coronavirus really hit me] the day the mayor of Denver said no in-house dining in restaurants. I was standing in the Denver Central Market where there’s 11 different restaurants, all huge giants in the Colorado food scene.
The closest thing I could relate to was the 1929 crash: You have this image of bankers on ledges, making the decision to jump. Now I realize it was never about the money, but about the community. I remember seeing the managers as they looked at the staff, wondering how they could tell them they no longer had jobs.
Now, the complete uncertainty is most stressful. We pared everyone down, so we have one person at the shop at a time. We’re a scoop shop, and 10 percent of our business was pints. Now 100 percent of our business is pints. We’re trying to shift and pivot, but we’re faced with supply chains being clogged up.
We are going to apply for any assistance that we are eligible for. We bank with two banks. One is Wells Fargo and their rollout was a complete mess. They stopped accepting people into their queue almost immediately. When it was announced that they had run out of money, I know it was a really heartbreaking day for thousands of small-business owners. Luckily, we also bank with a regional bank, FirstBank, and just received the information that our PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] loan had been approved.
Now, we are on to-go and delivery. My hope is that we can start establishing some normalcy and calmness so that my staff isn’t stressed-out.
Our six-year anniversary is May 15th and I want to celebrate that. It was so much work to get to where we are today.
May 6: ‘Back in start-up mode’
Things are crazy. We are back in start-up mode. We are still closed for in-house dining, and all people inside any buildings must have a mask on.
This will be the first time where customers and guests are required to wear a mask as well. I’m nervous because it seems that wearing a mask has become political. We’ve made it as lighthearted as we could. I took out my crayons and drew Rosie the Riveter with a mask holding an ice cream cone.
We did receive our PPP, and we used that for payroll, and we used that for April rent. For our stimulus check, our personal ones that we’ve received, we spent them on groceries, on our utilities. Just keeping up with our normal household bills.
‘Not going to wait for a rescue.’
Cara Briggs Farmer
Sculpture artist • Marion, Iowa • 45
September is go time. I’m doing shows, I’m taking on submissions for art patrons, and then things slow down through the winter, and February and March is when my bank account is dwindling. My shows started canceling. And this massive public art project I’m working on just stalled.
So I just decided: I am not going to wait for a rescue. I got a grocery store job because they were hiring. Now, I go in at 4 a.m. to fill online orders for four to five hours. Then I come back to my studio and crash for a couple hours because I don’t want to disrupt my wife’s day to sleep.
I have a couple of small projects going on right now. I want to keep those going. I’m ready to do this for a year. Because if the economy stays in the toilet and people are not in a position to buy, I think my business is going to get canceled. Realistically, I’m prepared to just make this my new normal.
Working in a grocery store is not only helping me make a living, but it also makes me feel like I’m doing something. Both of my grandfathers fought the Nazis. The least I can do right now is go work in a grocery store.
Four years ago, there was this 1,200-square-foot commercial property that became available in the business district. I was working part time as a pastry chef. But it needed a lot of work so I quit my job. I did renovations for six months, and three years ago, I opened my gallery.
I’ll be damned if we’re going to lose this building over a pandemic. If working in a grocery store at 4 a.m. means the bills are paid and we get to keep it, I’ll do it.
May 7: ‘Busy in the studio’
We have not received our federal stimulus payment yet, but I was approved for an emergency grant from the Iowa Arts Council. It’s a $1,000 grant to be used for my business expenses. That basically covers my business bills for about a month.
We also worked with the local law office recently to have our wills drawn up. But then to balance that out, I’ve got us a $20 secondhand unicycle. You can’t be cranky on a unicycle.
I’ve also gotten busy in the studio. I have one public art project in the works for Iowa City; I have two private commissions for large pieces and I’m collaborating with a local textile artist. Most years I would be going into arts festival season right now. But these are for people who are basically building at-home sculpture parks. Now is a great time to buy art because it’s beautiful. It’s inspiring. It reminds you of the finer aspects of life.
‘Suddenly my schedule became zero.’
Furloughed housekeeper • San Leandro, Calif. • 47
I usually worked 40 hours a week [at a San Francisco Marriott]. But going into the week of March 8th, I had a two-day schedule. Suddenly my schedule became zero.
The following day, I applied for unemployment. It keeps on crashing. Finally, I was able to submit it with a phone.
My major expenses are the rent for my house with my sister. I have a car. I have insurance. I have credit card debt. Plus my daughter is in college.
Two years ago I was evicted from my apartment. I went to my sister and asked her if she can accommodate me. I am occupying one of the rooms — the four of us. I’m a single mom, I have three kids. My sister has twins. There are four in her family and my mother lives there too. So now we are nine.
It’s kind of hard, especially now because everybody’s in the house and doing virtual classes. My kids stay in our room. Two of them are in the bed and one of them is on the floor.
We had a dialogue with the company and the union. It should be the workers first, not anything else. Not their profits or anything.
I am one of the union leaders of Unite Here Local 2.
I have health care right now, but I don’t know if I will have health care after September if I don’t work enough hours. I don’t know when I will go back to work.
In this pandemic, we are not OK.
It’s not good for me to work right now. I’m protecting my kids. I’m protecting my mom. I cannot afford to be sick — I’m the only one they have. Their father died 10 years ago, so they are afraid for me to get sick.
This story has been updated to include the name of Carumba’s employer and union.
May 11: ‘It’s not only the paycheck. It’s the health care.’
[For my grocery shopping,] I go to an Asian store, Union City. In that particular store, I can use my food stamps. I buy mostly vegetables and meat, because the kids don’t eat that much vegetables.
I make some Filipino food. I usually cook sinigang. Sometimes, soup with a lot of vegetables and Filipino beefsteak. It's like beef with a lot of onions and potatoes with soy sauce. My kids love that.
I received [a stimulus check] around the week of April 15. I received $2,200. I have three kids but my other kid is already 21, so she is not included in the stimulus. I’m also getting unemployment. Right now, I can pay my bills. What I get from unemployment is the same amount I would get from Marriott. But later on, [if my unemployment is lowered] and I don’t have a schedule, it will not be easy. There’s a 90 percent chance that I still won’t have a job until September. If I don’t have hours, I might lose my health care. For me, it’s not only the paycheck. It’s the health care.
‘I don’t think people are paying attention.’
Home health aide • High Point, N.C. • 51
For nurses, we’re putting ourselves at risk. Most of our clients are on Medicaid or they’re veterans. PPE [personal protective equipment] is also a factor — not having enough masks and gloves to work. You have to go in and bathe them, help with personal hygiene. We’re exposing ourselves daily.
The health-care workers at my pay grade are really overlooked. I don’t think people are paying attention to what we’re faced with on a daily basis.
I’m back in the office making about 16 hours a week. I got paranoid working with one of my clients. She had someone else living with her who kept going out into the population, putting my client and me at risk, so I’m not working with that client anymore. My hours have been cut by more than half. I’m very concerned about the light bills and rent.
I have three children, ages 3, 7 and 11. Two are my grandchildren, and then the little boy, he is the brother of my granddaughter. I took them in to keep them out of foster care.
The school gave the children laptops to do their work from home, and they gave them workbooks they can work in for a couple of weeks. I don’t have Internet in my home but have a hotspot on my phone. It was weeks before they could even log on. I’m concerned especially with the 7-year-old getting behind in his lessons, because he needed an evaluation for children who may have some learning disabilities.
We had two very close family members die. That was a very trying time for our family — not to be able to get together and do a proper funeral. There’s the limit of 10 people, so to account for the funeral home staff, seven people could view the body and then come back out. There’s just so much happening at one time.
May 4: ‘I can’t afford it’
We’re looking at $400 a month [in utility bills] because someone’s here all day now: running water, watching TV. I have to go to work, and I can’t control how much they’re using.
I haven’t even been able to use my air conditioner. It’s hot in here. I’m burning up right now, but I’m not going to turn it on because I can’t afford it. I’m going to have to get some fans or something.
We stay up as late as we can so we can sit on the patio until it’s time to go to bed. It’s not safe to keep our windows open where we live.
‘Down to about five online clients.’
Personal trainer • Houston • 53
The early part of this year was phenomenal, business-wise. There were a lot of New Year’s resolutions and a lot of excitement about getting back into shape. Then I had a client that got sick with covid. That’s when it all kind of just shut down, right after that.
I had between 40 and 50 clients and now I’m down to about five online clients and all we talk about is diet. I’m lucky because I have no overhead. But all the trainers at 24 Hour Fitness, LA Fitness and those other gyms, they’re not so lucky. I talked to one guy the other day and he’s in the bread line with his wife.
I know there’s a couple of clients that are going to come in to train [when we reopen]. But the stream that I had before is not going to be there. I was charging $60 a session when I first began training 20 years ago. Then I had to lower it to $30 for last seven years. When the clients come back, I’ll probably come down to about $20 or $25 a session.
I considered applying for one of the small business loans, but I socked away a hell of a lot of cash. And I put an ad on Craigslist and may get some new clients. The ad used the word disinfected gym and a lot of people responded. But my gym has always been disinfected.
The governor has decided he would do a soft opening May 1. After talking to all my clients, they were clamoring for me to open, even before. I am going to have masks. I have made a couple of face shields with plastic. When you walk into the door of the gym, you’re going to have to have hand sanitizer. I will probably have my thermometer down here.
I think we’re much safer at my place than anywhere else. I will be back working and I am happy about it.
May 7: ‘More clients now than I’ve had in years’
It’s crazy. I have more clients now than I’ve had in years. Due to social distancing, they don’t want to go back to the gym. I had seven [clients] on May 1 in my little bitty gym and I have two more next week.
It has been exhausting, but it has been really, really good too.
I got $1,200 from the government and put it in the bank. I think I’m probably going to use it to buy another piece of equipment.
‘We learned that the SBA was out of money.’
Restaurant operations manager • Springfield, Va. • 58
I am a partner in a restaurant called Sapphire Tysons. The restaurant serves fine-dining, Indian, Pakistani food. I’m in charge of administration, hiring and marketing and oversee the operation.
When the office community decided to shut down around our restaurant, our revenue dropped to 10 percent. We tried to do carryout and after that was not very successful, we decided to close the restaurant temporarily.
Two of our staff members, they were our main chefs, said, ‘Let’s stay open, we know it’s difficult. You don’t have to pay us.’ I had tears in my eyes when I heard that. I told them that we had to close. They were all shocked, some of them started crying.
We cooked food for the entire staff for a week and gave them any salary due. We applied for the payroll protection loan. Wells Fargo has been very ineffective and we haven’t heard back. I saw a small credit union bank, opened a bank account and finally submitted a package. Then we learned that the SBA [Small Business Administration] was out of money. If we don’t get the relief, I’m not sure if we’ll be able to open the restaurant back up again.
Personally, it’s been very difficult. I had a meeting with my family to say we can’t order things that normally would be essential. It didn’t go well with the kids. Our mortgage is deferred but they want it back the following month.
After we shut down, we decided to provide free meals to the homeless. I know it’s a tough time, but there are people struggling more than us.
I’m optimistic and I think that we will all come back. My biggest fear is that the government is making a lot of promises. Are they going to be able to deliver?
May 5: ‘I have a lot of lives that are depending on me’
We have not received [our stimulus checks] because apparently we are on the mailing list. We received $1,000 per employee, which is close to $10,000, from the SBA. We are waiting for SBA to approve the [PPP] package.
We continued to serve meals to the homeless, and we have served 6,500 hot meals so far. We’ve stopped because I don’t have the funds to continue. It’s been a tough time, but I wanted to serve the community.
In my faith, God says that when there’s a tough time, people have to take care of the people around them, especially the less fortunate ones. I have a lot of lives that are depending on me. I need to keep my spirits high in order to make sure that they continue to feel positive.
‘Am I fearful? Not a bit.’
Owner of a travel company • Cincinnati • 64
I’m a group tour provider. I will typically run 800 group tours a year. Since March, we have now canceled 107 group tours. If we don’t run a tour, we don’t make a penny, so my days have been consisting of writing refund checks. It’s an enormous task to be sure that you can get everybody’s money back.
I had to let all of my team go. I have eight employees in this office. Right now, there’s a cat and myself. We are now looking at July, and as of today, a lot of the July cancellations are starting to come through. I’m one person doing eight jobs right now, and let me tell you, that’s been a little bit overwhelming.
I love what I do. We offer experiences. I think people are going to appreciate the travel experience when they feel ready. And when that happens, I’m going to be there for them. Am I struggling? Yes, I’m struggling. Am I fearful? Not a bit, because I’ve been through challenges and I have a mind-set that I can get through anything. That’s always been my mantra: I will and I can. I’m not going to say we have answers, because we don’t. But I’ve seen every virus out there. I’ve seen SARS, the bird flu, swine flu. I’ve seen 9/11.
I look at every day as a new opportunity. We never set an alarm clock in our house. We set an opportunity clock. I started this company 30 years ago and I’ve always tried to maintain positivity in a world that is so uncharted. In 45 days, our lives have changed dramatically. But as business owners we can maintain the positivity in a life that has been put on pause.
I hope it ends. Right now, I can’t even wear heels on this journey!
May 4: ‘Go out with joy’
Next week I’m going to D.C. for a rally. There’s over 327 motor coach companies across the country bringing their coaches in to show unity.
Washington, D.C., is probably going to be a ghost town, and unless we get these people back on motor coaches that provide billions of dollars to every single entity — from a museum to a gas station to a hotel to a restaurant — then the economy is going to sink.
It’s tough for everybody, and it hurts the more you read. Everybody is going to have to tie their boot strings tighter and tighter and try to make sure they go out with joy.
‘I feel like the dryer when it’s finished with its spin cycle’
Former employee at a car dealership • Webster, Tex. • 74
I’m a 74-year-old who just got let go from a job I’d had for almost 17 years. I worked at an automobile dealership. Most of my life I was a college professor. I think I’ve had a paid job since I was 14.
Not having a job was quite a shock to me. I came into work on a Monday morning. My job was mainly training and recruiting people, and they weren’t going to be doing that for the time being.
I was concerned about the implications for the health and dental insurance I’d been paying for and whether I’d be able to take the 17 days of paid leave I had. The next day I got an email from HR saying, “No, you were terminated, and you have none of those.”
Texas got back to me and approved my unemployment, but then I got another notice from the state saying that they needed me to apply to ask to be paid. I haven’t been able to accomplish that.
I’m also a Vietnam-era veteran and tried to qualify for a particular veterans benefit. It turns out I am too solvent right now to apply.
Physically, I’m doing well. I was the caregiver for my late wife when she was dealing with Alzheimer’s. Katherine passed away about two years ago. Since then, it’s been a new chapter. I’m living in a kind of senior community. I actually walked half a marathon yesterday!
What I would hope for is an opportunity to work. I’ve been working for 60 years, and not having a job, I feel like the dryer when it’s finished with its spin cycle and it’s slowing down. When the spinning finally stops, I would love to be in some situation that I’m actually doing something of value.
May 4: ‘My new personal best’
The [state] workforce and Cares money is still in the wind. I’ve never been able to get ahold of the Texas workforce folks. The way they redirect you, the messages are not consistent.
I’ll be looking for work, but the job market for unemployed 74-year-olds with three postgraduate degrees is not real strong.
As for walking, my new personal best in a day is 17.9 miles!
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