Updated August 13

10 lives, interrupted

The voices of Americans searching for survival and reinvention amid an economic collapse

Chloe Bates

A college senior anxious about graduating into a recession.

Alanea Manuel

A salon owner unsure about the future of her business

Erika Thomas

An ice cream shop owner who hopes her dream will survive.

Cara Briggs Farmer

A sculpture artist who took a grocery store job to pay the bills.

Larrilou Carumba

A mother of three furloughed from her hotel housekeeping job.

Sonya Roper

A home health aide facing the risks of work while caring for young children.

Mick Stewart

A personal trainer making plastic face shields to reopen his business.

Mazhar Chughtai

An operations manager who is struggling to reopen his restaurant.

Diane Sphar

A travel company owner determined to keep her business afloat.

William Hensel

A veteran without a job for the first time in 60 years.

These Americans are among 10 people whose journeys The Washington Post has followed since April, as they and millions of others have navigated 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.

These stories have reflected the many ways the pandemic has ravaged America. A furloughed hotel housekeeper is facing her fourth month of unemployment and fears losing her health care. A manager reopened his restaurant, only to find that customers weren’t coming back. After being laid off at 74, one veteran worries he may never find a job again. Several have lost loved ones during the pandemic.

As states have rushed to reopen, these stories show how the pandemic is continuing to shape every aspect of Americans’ daily lives.

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.

Chloe Bates

Graduating college senior • Baltimore • 21

Chloe Bates at her home. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post) (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)


‘I don’t know how to plan’

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’

Bates works in her childhood bedroom. (Lida Bates) (Photo by Lida Bates/Photo by Chloe Bates)

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.

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May 18

‘The one bright spot in all of the chaos’

Bates poses for graduation photos. (Lida Bates) (Photo by Lida Bates/Photo by Chloe Bates)

I went back to my apartment for the first time since I moved out in March. One of my roommates had recently moved out, and it was sad seeing it so empty and undecorated and all of the doors closed. I have so many positive memories of just being in that space. Being there and moving out was really emotionally upsetting.

Taking graduation photos was a whole adventure. I didn’t buy any graduation stuff. I asked all my photographer friends if they could [shoot portraits]. No one could. So I just said, “Okay, Mom, I’m going to stage the photo and then you just press the button!”

This was a Saturday and it was a beautiful day out. There were lines at all the spots to take photos, and a camaraderie because we’re all in the same boat. Whenever I would finish at a spot and leave, I’d be like, “Goodbye guys! Congratulations!” And they’d say it back.

I’m getting excited about Wyoming. I’ll be there until October as a horse wrangler on a guest ranch. I’m going with one of my friends from college. We’re going to be living together in a log cabin at the edge of a 17-mile dirt road. It literally could not be more remote. I start my job when I get back.

There’s a lot I’m worried about. Being home, even while I’ve been having a hard time, has been helpful because my mom is so supportive, so I’m scared to be away from that support system. But on the other hand, I’m hoping it’ll be a reprieve from all of the stress.

My friends are all so stressed about their own situations. This [job] is the one bright spot in all of the chaos, but it’s weird because it feels taboo to talk about. I have this one thing I’m excited about, but the subject is so sore for a lot of people.

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June 3

‘I don’t feel fully comfortable with the reopening’

Now that your community or state is reopening, what are you comfortable doing?

I’m not comfortable doing anything other than what I was doing during quarantine because I don’t feel fully comfortable with the reopening, even if it’s phased out. The only activity I would add would be more outdoors stuff — more hiking, horseback riding, etc. I’m not ready to go shopping or out to restaurants.

How have you been affected by the protests following the killing of George Floyd?

I’m livid that this country still has so much injustice and hatred, saddened that I can’t be on the front lines, anxious about the future of our democracy and security, and grieving for my Black friends and their Black communities. I can’t do a whole lot to contribute where I currently am, and I’m struggling to accept that.

What do you value now more than ever?

Herd immunity, transparency in politics, minority solidarity, Black lives, solid friendships and technology. Also, I’ve never been more appreciative of the fact that I can cut my own hair and do my own eyebrows/nails. It’s kept me sane.

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June 22

‘It’s frustrating to feel so excluded from this unprecedented moment’

Bates follows guests on a trail ride at the ranch in Wyoming where she is working as a horse wrangler. (Chloe Bates) (Photo by Chloe Bates/Photo by Chloe Bates)

I’ve been in Wyoming for a month now starting my job as a horse wrangler. … I’m so isolated and secluded at the ranch that it’s easy to block out the outside world, which has been both helpful and stressful. Here, I live and work in close quarters with roughly 20 other people. There are anywhere from five to 30 new guests each week, all of whom have decided that traveling during the pandemic is not their biggest concern. Social distancing just isn’t possible. We follow as many CDC guidelines as possible, but in many ways I get to pretend that I’m sheltered in a bubble. I have no control over whether or not I get sick, which is strangely liberating and good for my mental health but also feels backwards and irresponsible.

But the bubble is weird. It was really hard feeling engaged with the recent momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement from out here, even though I tried every day to educate myself, check in with my friends and make donations or spread information. Still, it’s frustrating to feel so excluded from this unprecedented moment in time that I wish I could be home for to have a much more active role. That confusion is definitely amplified by my being the only minority among the staff at the ranch.

I have no cell service unless I hike to the top of the mountain, the WiFi is unreliable and I have no privacy. … On a more positive note, I love the people that I work with. I’m surrounded by endless nature, beauty and wildlife, and wake up to horses on the front step of my log cabin every morning. I’m right in between two mountain ranges and spend my days riding through truly wild terrain.

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July 20

‘I feel more worried about going out in public’: Chloe interviewed by her friend from college

Tess Bialobrzeski, left, and Bates ready ponies for children at the ranch to ride. (Courtesy of Chloe Bates) (Courtesy of Chloe Bates/Courtesy of Chloe Bates)

Tess Bialobrzeski is one of Chloe’s friends from college. Chloe and Tess are spending the summer as wranglers together on a ranch in Wyoming. Below is a condensed version of their conversation.

Tess: What do you think you’ve learned about yourself during this pandemic?

Chloe: A big thing I’ve learned has been the role of different things in your life, and how you don’t notice it until it’s not really an option anymore. I do well independently. Growing up as an only child with a single mom, you’re alone a lot. I grew up very independent. But I didn’t realize how much I liked being around other people until I wasn’t. That forced me to reflect on a lot of my friendships and how I do or don’t maintain them.

Tess: What struggles have you had to overcome in this pandemic?

Chloe: One thing that has gotten a lot better since I came to the ranch was my mental health. I was already dealing with a bout of depression and anxiety. That was incredibly challenging and difficult. It’s not completely over, but it’s much better now than it was.

Another big struggle has been with my family. My grandmother is 101 and my mom is basically a full-time caretaker for my grandmother even though she also works full time, and they’re both very at risk.

I think another difficult thing about this pandemic that has affected me and everybody is how much attention it has brought to the inequalities in our world. For me, it’s also very challenging being Asian in this pandemic. I remember when I was traveling home in January when the virus really started leaving China. I was going through customs, and I was sick. And I was so scared they wouldn’t let me back in the country because I was sick and Asian. I get comments from my neighbors and comments from strangers.

I feel more worried about going out in public and being harassed, especially going out to Wyoming in the middle of nowhere.

Tess: What do you do differently now that you didn’t do before the pandemic?

I’m trying to be aware of my shortcomings or prejudices or biases. I’ve always carried around hand sanitizer for years, so that’s not different. But being more conscientious, and then also just holding people in my circle more accountable.

Tess: I’m happy to be part of this pandemic with you.

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Alanea Manuel

Owner of a hair salon • Alexandria, Va. • 38

Alanea Manuel in her salon. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post) (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)


‘Asking everyone to purchase gift cards’

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’

LEFT:Manuel works on her laptop and practices yoga at her home. (Alanea Manuel) (Photo by Alanea Manuel/Photo by Alanea Manuel)

RIGHT:Manuel practices yoga at home. (Alanea Manuel) (Photo by Alanea Manuel/Photo by Alanea Manuel)

Manuel works on her laptop and practices yoga at her home. (Alanea Manuel)

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.

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May 19

‘I still don’t feel safe going back to work’

Manuel does a client's hair on the front porch. (Michele McCormick) (Photo by Michele McCormick/Photo by Michele McCormick)

As far as the business goes, Sola [the suite where I have my salon] is still waiving our rent, so that’s great. But there are other bills and things that need to be taken care of in the meantime.

There is also not much regulation in Virginia. It is not required for people to wear a mask and they keep changing their reopening date. I still don’t feel safe going back to work because I just don’t see the numbers going down. I’m going to give it another two weeks before I reopen the salon.

Sola has been amazing with being on top of safety guidelines. They’re getting a completely new ventilation system, they’re adding hand sanitizer stations. They’re removing the codes from the bathroom stalls so we don’t have to use our hands to touch things. And they're saying that there will be more cleaning. But it's not necessarily up to them, it's everyone.

Mentally, [the pandemic] has been giving me a lot of anxiety. It’s really stressful to deal with the growing pains of starting a business. And then quarantine happens. I have always really struggled with anxiety and depression. So for this to happen now, it just accelerated things. I am seeing a therapist and getting help, and I am feeling so much better about it.

I’ve gained a lot of new referrals and clients. My clients have been extremely generous with their donations. It wasn’t something I expected, so I feel a lot of gratitude. I am able to take care of myself and I am considering buying a house. I’ve been able to save money. That’s part of the reason I didn’t want to get the loan, I’m doing so good right now that I don’t want to go back in debt.

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June 8

‘As I protest I find myself getting angry and emotional.’

How have you been affected by the protests following the killing of George Floyd?

I am absolutely affected by this because it happened to me. I am a victim of police brutality and am fortunate enough to still be alive. I agree that this is a racial issue. However, cops bleed blue. They will cover for each other right or wrong. I was assaulted by a sheriff. A Black man, while other cops stood around and watched and laughed. It only got worse when I got down to the station. When we got to court, my lawyer made me apologize to the officer who assaulted me. We need police reform not just for White cops but for all cops as well as reform in the court system. I shouldn’t have to pay taxes to get beat down by the same people who are supposed to protect and serve me! I shouldn’t have to be afraid of jail time. As I protest I find myself getting angry and emotional. So much so that I had to stop protesting and leave. The fact that we even have to still protest in 2020 is insane!

[Editor’s note: Online court records show Manuel pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct in the 2012 case, with the remaining charges of assault, failing to comply with a lawful order and disturbing the peace dropped. Manuel’s lawyer, in an emailed statement to The Post, said he recommended an apology as part of her plea agreement. “I believe that one of the officers did use excessive force on Ms. Manuel but my client did not want to risk a negative trial result.”]

What do you value now more than ever?

I value my life, my health and my future more than ever.

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June 23

‘I’m just not sure if I can manage it all right now’

Manuel's salon reopened June 14. (Alanea Manuel) (Photo by Alanea Manuel/Photo by Alanea Manuel)

I have been considering moving out [of my salon]. I’m still not exactly sure what the best decision is, but I’m going to give it at least another three months to decide if I want to stay open or if I want to close. It’s just a lot of responsibility. It’s not hard work, it’s just a lot of work, and I’m just not sure if I can manage it all right now.

I reopened on June 14, so I’ve pretty much been busy working. My wife and I have been talking and I definitely want to try and work things out with her, and I think we’re headed in a good direction. I really want to have a family and have a kid, and the only way I’m going to be able to keep my business and do that is if I had my partner with me. Otherwise I would have to give my business up, and that I don’t want to do. So that’s my dilemma.

The person I had contemplated working with, she did some numbers and realized that taking on another stylist was weighing heavy on her finances. She hadn’t realized it until she talked to her accountant. She was just like, “I know it’s the worst time to find out this information, but now probably isn’t the time.” Everyone had been telling us that we should wait three months before we make any moves.

I started a consultation about freezing my eggs. I will probably start that procedure next month, once I decide on whether I want to go ahead and freeze or get inseminated. That’s really the path that I’m taking right now — trying to work on growing a family, working on my marriage and buying a house.

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July 20

‘What I’ve learned about myself is that I come first’: Alanea interviewed by one of her mentors

Manuel is interviewed by Corey Gray for “Your Day Off.” (Corey Gray) (Photo by Corey Gray/Photo by Corey Gray)

Corey Gray is one of Alanea’s longtime mentors and the co-host of “Your Day Off,” a podcast about the hair industry. Below is a condensed version of their conversation.

Corey: Let’s get into it. How has covid and the pandemic affected not only your business, but you as well?

Alanea: Honestly, it gave me an opportunity to really work on myself and the business. As far as my personal life, I’m married but separated. Covid just gave me the opportunity to sit in my feelings and deal with that. It gave me the opportunity to sit down and focus on the business.

Corey: Have you found any techniques or has anybody helped you along the way?

Alanea: My mom has been a tremendous help. She’s so proud of me for taking on the reins and having my own business and jumping out there. She’s helping me climb out of debt because, going into business, man, the debt that you go into is insane.

Corey: What have you taught yourself or learned about yourself during this whole shutdown?

Alanea: What I’ve learned about myself is that I come first. I learned that if my mind and body is not in a healthy state, then I’m no good to anyone. And I’ve always been the kind of person that always wanted to make sure that everyone else is okay before I’m okay. So one thing that covid has taught me is that I need to take care of myself. And you know, family is really, really important. I feel like I need to be closer to family and to what matters most.

Corey: Certainly, in the recovery world, there’s a time to be selfish so you can be selfless. So for your business, what does the future look like?

Alanea: I’m not exactly sure what our future looks like. Talking to a lot of folks, a lot of them have been doing box color or [are] kind of like, “I’m not coming out of the house until all this is over.’’ I think we’re going to see a lot of bad hair, a lot of bad hair around in the streets. And I also think that we’re going to see a lot more solo business owners.

Corey: I heard a statistic from an industry leader that said that up to 40 percent of the salons are going to close down. Do you think we'll ever get back to normal?

Alanea: People are really freaked out. Until they find a vaccine, I think that a lot of people are going to be very hesitant to come in and get their hair done.

Corey: I think being in the solo suites, it can be an advantage because we do or I certainly offer private appointments. Alanea, thank you very much for hanging out with me for a couple minutes.

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Aug. 11

‘I feel like I’ve come full circle’

Manuel with her new dream car, a Dodge Challenger GT. (Alanea Manuel) (Photo by Alanea Manuel/Photo by Alanea Manuel)

I’m getting a lot more new inquiries. I think a lot of stylists in Sola [Suites] have been experiencing the same thing. It’s just us in the salon, so it’s a lot more safe as opposed to a huge salon that has more than one stylist in it.

My wife and I decided that we’re not going to be able to make our marriage work. I decided that instead of freezing my eggs, I wanted to go ahead and do the insemination. My only reason for freezing them was because I was trying to figure out what was going on with my marriage.

I’m going to stay in the area, at least for another 4½ years. After my mom retires, she’s going to move to North Carolina. Hopefully by then, me and the baby will be able to move to California. I don’t know how well it’s going to work out, but I have a plan.

Yesterday I booked a room to go to the beach by myself and now I’m on my way to Ocean City, just spending some time by myself and getting my head clear.

I feel like I’ve come full circle. I feel like — it sounds cliche — but kind of like a butterfly. I was in a cocoon and now I’m finally stretching out of it slowly. I still have a bit of anxiety about the future, just because I don’t know what the future holds, but I feel ready. Whereas before, I couldn’t even face the world.

I think the shutdown gave me that clarity because when you’re a business owner and you’re going through a divorce, you’re just going, going, going. So for me quarantine was a time to reflect. It was a time for me to give myself permission to sit back and not do anything.

I bought my dream car, a Dodge Challenger GT. One of the reasons I had not bought the car was because of everything that was going on, even though I had the money to buy it. [If I were to give myself advice], it would have been to go ahead and give myself permission to live and not worry about what someone else is going to think.

Who I am now is a person who cares about herself first, and her business second. And, you know, [I’m] just trying to try to make myself happy. My dad always told me from a young age, “If you’re not going to put yourself first, no one else will.” So, I’m taking his advice now.

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Erika Thomas

Ice cream shop owner • Denver • 42

Erika Thomas at her business. (Matthew Staver/for The Washington Post) (Matthew Staver/For the Washington Post)


‘The closest thing I could relate to was the 1929 crash’

[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’

Erika Thomas in her shop (High Point Creamery) (High Point Creamery/High Point Creamery)

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.

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May 20

‘I feel good about where we’re going’

Thomas, right, during a photo shoot of her business's ice cream. (The Hip Photo) (Photo by The Hip Photo/Photo by The Hip Photo)

Overall, things have been going well, even though we’re significantly down. We’re figuring out how to pivot, so we’re working on fixing our shipping program. We’ve never really paid that much attention to it. Now we’re working to launch a program where essentially for the Lower 48, we’re going to offer free shipping for everyone, which is huge for us.

We’re also really focusing on being in grocery stores. We’re in most of the Whole Foods in Colorado and expanding in grocery stores and even out of state. In the meantime, day-to-day operations feel really intense. I had a freezer go down yesterday. That was about six hours of unloading an entire freezer into our delivery shop, so we could save all the ice cream. And then in one of my shops, the cable has been out for three days. We’re only accepting credit cards, and no one can get a hotspot. All of it feels really heightened.

This is going to be the week that we’re going to see what’s probably going to happen for the summer. I’m always worried because that’s my comfort zone, but I do feel optimistic that people are going to come and grab an ice cream cone and walk back to their house.

We turned six [on May 15]! I think we’re going to take the money we would use for a celebration and spend it on four high-schoolers who have been with us for a long time. They are graduating this year and they got a little bit robbed.

One of the things the city of Denver is working on is closing some of the streets and turning it into alfresco dining. It can bring back a bit of a new normal, where you can be six feet apart and enjoy your ice cream or your meal or beer. Colorado in the summer is a gorgeous place. Everyone will be in a better mood, and hopefully ice cream will help. I feel good about where we’re going.

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June 7

‘The responsibility of it all has been overwhelming’

Now that your community or state is reopening, what are you comfortable doing?

Denver hasn’t really reopened. We were given two days to reorganize our restaurants to be able to open at half-capacity. Now that the curfew has been lifted, we’ll see what happens. But practically speaking, not too much in my day-to-day life has changed.

How have you been affected by the protests following the killing of George Floyd?

When George Floyd was killed, I saw the anger that had been building in people for months find a focus. After the first night of rioting, Denver was immediately put under a curfew. A lot of our staff live near the state Capitol, so we closed an hour earlier than the curfew to allow people time to get home safely. I really love making amazing ice creams; it’s my passion. I also love leading and developing my staff toward the goals that they have in life. However, nowhere in my business plan did I address how to navigate our company through a pandemic, let alone civil unrest caused by racism and bigotry. All I can do is try my very best to make sure that all of my people are safe. But at times, the responsibility of it all has been overwhelming.

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June 23

‘I think everyone’s looking for something joyful’

Thomas's children, Ruby and Grayson, play with the family's new dog. (Erika Thomas) (Photo by Erika Thomas/Photo by Erika Thomas)

We got a dog, like the rest of America. My daughter has been asking for a dog for about two years, so we finally relented and got a dog from a local rescue. I think everyone’s looking for something joyful. We call her Lulu the Wonder Dog. She’s great with kids, she’s great with other dogs.

We’re still down 65 percent [for the ice cream business]. This traditionally has been our high season, so we're trying to see, is this what the new high season feels like or are things going to get better? When we miss these crucial months of June, July, August, it’s hard for us to recover.

We launched our shipping program, and we had challenge after challenge. Part of it is due to covid and part of that is just due to a rollout of a new area of business. We were fraught with difficulties, from our newsletter announcing free shipping going to half the people’s junk mailboxes to FedEx spending four days on a priority overnight shipment. By those four days, you’re going to get a box of melted ice cream, and it’s really just up to us to cover the cost.

I feel everything is so difficult right now. Not just in business but the reaction to George Floyd and the civil unrest that’s happening and these really important conversations people are having. I feel like what I can offer right now is very limited because our resources are so depleted. I’ve been listening and trying to figure out what’s going be more meaningful in the long run and not a quick reaction to what’s happening today. We work really hard to be inclusive. Out of the 11 managers in our business, there’s one that’s White and male — and I’m married to him. But you still feel like, “Am I doing enough? Have I promoted enough? Have I nurtured enough?”

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May 18

‘Those first couple of months were really rough’: Erika interviewed by her best friend

Thomas with Catherine Mackin. (Michele L Smith) (Photo by Michele L Smith/Photo by Michele L Smith)

Erika met Catherine Mackin, 48, in 2017 while taking one of her yoga classes. As Erika writes, “the two became fast friends.” Below is acondensed version of their conversation.

Catherine: As this adventure progresses, the first thing I want to ask you about [is] this most recent development of Gov. [Jared] Polis mandating masks statewide. What was your immediate feeling?

Erika: I was so happy to hear that he finally put in a mandate because I’m hopeful that it’ll take the pressure off of my people and that it will be a less stressful environment for them as more people just comply with wearing a mask. I also think we’re going to get a lot of increase in people who “have medical exemptions.” And so I’ve tried to figure out a strategy of how to accommodate them. They can have things delivered to their house through the door like delivery apps. But we don’t offer curbside service because we just don’t have the staff for it.

Catherine: Obviously your business is directly impacted by how you feel. How do you feel as a human being right now? Do you feel like you’re starting to gain some traction again?

Erika: Many years ago when I was 27, my dad died and my mom was sick and I had to stop my career. I was an actress and I had to move to my hometown and take over our family dealership, it was a car dealership. That was really hard. I stayed there for four years making that dealership profitable enough to sell it. And I sold it in 2007, a month before the entire domestic car industry collapsed.

That was a really lucky thing. I had a mentor from a neighboring dealership, and she actually called me the other day and said, “It’s really hard, but you’re going to be fine. It’s every four days that you’re going to feel like you just want to quit. That’s the cycle.”

It’s actually really useful information. Because I do feel there are days when it definitely feels like I’m like done. And then there’s days where I’m like, “You’re going to be okay. Everything’s going to be fine.”

Catherine: You and I have been friends for a while. And we’ve talked a lot through the pandemic.

Erika: Like daily.

Catherine: I just want to tell you, it’s nice to sit across from you on a couch.

Erika: It is nice. Those first couple of months were really rough, weren’t they?

Catherine: Really, really rough. So I’m happy. I just really want to applaud you for staying open.

Erika: Thank you.

Catherine: People need ice cream cones. And just a little bit of joy. It has not been easy for you or your employees or your husband or family. And so really I just … tip of the hat. I’m glad you’re still out there.

Erika: Me too.

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Aug. 12

‘Sometimes you just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other’

Thomas with her family, Ruby, Grayson and Chad Stutz, outside the Denver Central Market. (Annie Dent) (Photo by Annie Dent/Photo by Annie Dent)

We are negotiating three leases for three new spaces. Most of them were in the works before the pandemic and at least two of the projects are probably still going to move forward.

We actually walked a space yesterday for a commissary kitchen for us to make our ice creams. With making so many more pints than we’ve traditionally been making, we’re just really crunched for space. In September, we’re probably going to be presenting to a very large grocery store chain to have our pints in [their] store.

It’s been a really odd time because we’re down in some areas and we’re up in other areas. It almost feels like you’re standing in two worlds because the restaurant world is so decimated by the virus, whereas the grocery store world, which we’re also in, is just going really well for the same reason.

I didn’t think we would still be on this path when the pandemic hit. I’m glad we’ve been able to navigate it, but it feels a little fraught because the world is so fraught.

For me the fatigue of [the pandemic] has really set in. I’ve been struggling with the fact this is now how we are living. We’re five months in, it’s not going away, it’s only gotten worse. I feel like what I learned from it is, sometimes you just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other and keep showing up at work to try to do your best, even when you don’t want to.

I really do feel grateful that we are where we are. That my family is healthy, that we’ve been able to keep everyone employed, that our businesses — all three of them — are still open.

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Cara Briggs Farmer

Sculpture artist • Marion, Iowa • 45

Cara Briggs Farmer in her studio. (Kathryn Gamble for The Washington Post) (KATHRYN GAMBLE/For The Washington Post)


‘Not going to wait for a rescue’

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’

Briggs Farmer works on a commission. (Cara Briggs Farmer) (Photo by Cara Briggs Farmer/Photo by Cara Briggs Farmer)

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.

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May 20

‘I miss the normalcy that goes with being around other artists’

Briggs Farmer on a chilly-water swim. (Cara Briggs Farmer) (Photo by Cara Briggs Farmer/Photo by Cara Briggs Farmer)

I miss my people. I miss my tribe of fellow artists who I’d run into at art festivals. It always makes me feel like I’m part of a really long and respectable tradition every time I set up my booth. I really miss that.

I miss my swim team. I had a very short and lackluster high school swimming career, but in my 40s, I’ve come back to competitive swimming. I have this team and I haven’t been able to work out with these guys in two months.

I miss my ladies at the Y. A lot of them are in their 70s and 80s and I worry about them. They are definitely a bunch of firecrackers and it would break my heart to lose any of them.

I don’t know how to put into words how profound and thorough that loss is. It’s not like, ‘Oh, I miss my friends.’ It’s like missing three different church communities. These are the groups of people who remind me of the different facets of myself. It’s like finding that lunch table full of weird kids where you’re just sort of like a regular kid. I miss the normalcy that goes with being around other artists. I miss being in a locker room full of other middle-aged women because we all like to gripe about the exact same things.

I haven’t done any virtual meetups. It would just rip my guts out to have the expectation that that would be anything like it. I’d rather just be sad and miss them than put the expectation on a Zoom get-together.

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June 3

‘I’m concerned about a second, larger wave of infection’

Now that your community or state is reopening, what are you comfortable doing?

I’m comfortable meeting with clients in person so long as we’re both wearing masks and following CDC guidelines, usually outdoors. I’ve met clients in their outdoor living spaces, on either side of a screened-in porch, outside my gallery. I’m also continuing to do virtual meetings if that’s what a client prefers.

What are you still concerned about, related to the coronavirus?

I’m concerned about a second, larger wave of infection and what that will do to state and city budgets in regard to public art. Public art commissions are a large part of my business. If LOST (local option sales tax) revenues decline significantly over the next year, that will have an impact on many public art budgets for years to come.

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June 2

‘It was just very pre-pandemic normal’

Briggs Farmer recently installed the four-piece sculpture “Emergence” at Creekside Park in Iowa City. (Cara Briggs Farmer) (Photo by Cara Briggs Farmer/Photo by Cara Briggs Farmer)

Last week I installed a big public art piece in Iowa City. It’s a four-piece sculpture set in a city park. We started the design process in the winter before there was any hint of a pandemic. There are two eight-foot-tall stainless steel shocks of stylized prairie grass and those are anchored to big limestone benches. Then there are two stainless steel panels.

On a normal install, there’d be three or four parks department people, but since everyone is being cautious, it was just me and this one other guy who did the install. It was really lovely to have something that felt like a laid-back, half a day of work with another person. It was just very pre-pandemic normal.

We are titling the piece “Emergence.” My initial intent was to get this installed at the same time [the park’s] new garden was coming to life, but then you throw a pandemic on that and it was like, this is the time when everyone is coming out. Lockdowns were getting lifted, the weather is nice, people were actually getting to interact with each other.

Stainless steel shocks of stylized prairie grass are part of Briggs Farmer's “Emergence.” (Cara Briggs Farmer) (Photo by Cara Briggs Farmer/Photo by Cara Briggs Farmer)

I’ve cut back to 10 hours a week [at the grocery store], which is really nice. It’s five two-hour shifts — I’m a sucker for a good schedule — so I do that from 4 a.m. to 6 a.m. and then I can have a normal work schedule in the studio. I have four large commissions, a midsized piece and a handful of small pieces. They’re all private commissions. And then there’s a large-scale public art piece. We took a presentation to city council last week, so that is moving forward again. It’s been a busy summer.

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July 20

‘I think people are living more intentionally’: Cara interviewed by her wife

Briggs Farmer, right, and her wife, Laura Farmer, share a meal. (Cara Briggs Farmer) (Photo by Cara Briggs Farmer/Photo by Cara Briggs Farmer)

Laura Farmer, 40, lives in Iowa. She and Cara recently celebrated their sixth anniversary. Below is a condensed version of their conversation.

Laura: So I hear you bought your wife a unicycle. Why did you do that?

Cara: I was looking for a rowing machine. There were no used rowing machines to be had anywhere in the area. … The Y was closed. We had no swimming pools and no gyms.

Laura: As I recall, when you brought it home, you told me it was recess.

Cara: Yes. You’ve got to have recess. Pandemics are serious and you need to take a break. If we’re going to go to a lawyer and get our wills done, we need recess.

Laura: What about this job [at the grocery store] has been helpful for you?

Cara: It’s been a long time since I’ve had just regular income and I’ve forgotten what that was like to just have money show up in the bank every two weeks, like magic. Like allowance. I’m only working 10 hours a week so it’s not a lot of money, but it is just kind of a nice security blanket. Then also, with having all of my shows canceled for the summer and having very little other human interaction, having this group of co-workers has been really nice.

Laura: Do you think your process as an artist has changed these last couple months?

Cara: Everything feels more intentional, even from the patrons’ standpoint. In the past, a lot of the place people were coming from was like, “This tree died. I don’t want to try to grow another tree. Make me a sculpture.” And now it’s like, “I want you to think about what it feels like when you’re in the pool.” People usually aren’t that intentional with their outer space. This pandemic has I think given us all an opportunity to figure out what our priorities are and I think people are living more intentionally.

Laura: One thing you do have control over is time. Have you noticed that you’re using that resource differently?

Cara: Going to bed early so I can get up at 3 a.m. to go to the grocery store really took away our evenings together. I’m going to bed at 7. But that we can have lunch together now is fantastic. It’s so nice to come home and warm up lunch and put it on plates and sit at a table with a tablecloth and get to spend time with you.

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Aug. 5

‘This is a pretty spectacular failure’

We never hoarded toilet paper. We were not in that camp. But I remember having a weekend where I was like, “We only have two pounds of rice left in the house.” I hit up the Indian grocery store and got like a 20-pound bag of basmati.

I wish I could have mitigated my own stress level better, because I don’t think I was the best spouse I could be at the beginning. I always have a strong desire to protect both of us. Your gentler nature slips away. If I could go back, I’d remind my March self to just be a good partner.

Probably in April, [my wife] Laura was able to identify that we were having completely different pandemic experiences. She had gone from being in a busy work environment to working remotely. I had gone from being solitary in my studio to being in a busy grocery store for four hours a day and being around other people and we were able to talk about that.

I haven’t seen much of a response from the federal level. This is a pretty spectacular failure given the fact that our pandemic hit after other countries. Other countries have already figured out a pretty decent playbook for this. Just go on lockdown. Make sure people have what they need. Wear a friggin’ mask. Stop breathing on each other. But no. We had to embrace misinformation.

I’ve got the best spouse in the world to go through a pandemic with. I’m busy in the studio. I have this wee little part-time job for security. I’m really hopeful about the groundswell following George Floyd’s murder and the conversations that are finally happening in this country.

I’m really optimistic about this younger generation of people in the United States. I’ve gotten to know some really lovely young people in their early 20s at the grocery store and oh my God, just let them take this country and run with it. They’re hopeful and they’re passionate and they really don’t take any guff.

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Larrilou Carumba

Furloughed housekeeper • San Leandro, Calif. • 47

Larrilou Carumba with sons, Louie, 11, left, and Elbert, 13. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post) (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)


‘Suddenly my schedule became zero’

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 okay.

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.’

Carumba, center, buys groceries with daughter Norielle Carumba. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post) (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

[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.

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May 19

‘I can only help so much’

Now I’m able to have more time with my kids and my family. I always missed birthdays, celebrations and anniversaries because I worked weekends. Now I am able to spend time with my sister, my mother, all of us.

My kids are so happy that they’re here with me. But I also can’t help think at the end of the day, when I’m alone and they’re asleep, that I don’t know long this is going to be [if I’m not able to pay my bills and I lose my health care].

The worst thing that’s happened to me is that my mother-in-law passed away. I was really devastated because the hospital didn’t want to release the body. They wanted [us] to pay in full. But my in-laws don’t have enough money, and I can only help so much because I have a lot of bills [and] I’m a single mom.

LEFT:Carumba's late mother-in-law, Norma Lopez, with her grandson Louie, Carumba's son. (Larrilou Carumba) (Photo by Larrilou Carumba/Photo by Larrilou Carumba)

RIGHT:Carumba with mother-in-law Lopez. (Larrilou Carumba) (Photo by Larrilou Carumba/Photo by Larrilou Carumba)

Carumba's late mother-in-law, Norma Lopez, with her grandson Louie, Carumba's son. (Larrilou Carumba)

She died of acute respiratory [distress syndrome]. But she had [coronavirus] symptoms. It’s so frustrating in the Philippines. We really don’t know what happened because nobody was there to see her. We were able to talk to her through a video call.

We’re afraid to have her go to the public hospital, because it has a lot of covid patients. We thought that she’d be safe in that [private] hospital.

I raised some funds and my in-laws [helped]. And finally, when they had at least half of the hospital bill, they released her body. Now she’s cremated.

When my husband passed away 10 years ago, she became very close to me. We always had time to chat. She was very patient and very humble. I will forever be grateful to her for taking care of my youngest son for six years when he was living in the Philippines.

We were going to surprise her for her birthday. There’s a nice hotel in the Philippines, an aquarium attached to a hotel. We were going to check her into that place. I wanted her to experience the kinds of things that we are experiencing here in America.

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June 2

‘I still don’t have a job, so there’s no place to go’

Now that your community or state is reopening, what are you comfortable doing?

We’re not reopen yet, and in San Leandro where I live is the earliest curfew at 6 p.m. since we are the biggest hit. So now I feel like shelter in place is more than before. Actually even if they lift quarantine, I still don’t have a job, so there’s no place to go and I still don’t feel safe with the coronavirus.

What are you still concerned about, related to the coronavirus?

I’m concerned that there’s still no vaccine and my health care is unsecure because according to Marriott’s announcement in the news they might furlough until October, but they’re not informing us so I don’t know. My health care is going to expire before then, so I’m fighting for that with my union because I need the health care for my kids, especially in this pandemic.

[Editor’s note: In an emailed statement to The Post, Marriott International said: “Due to widespread travel and social distancing restrictions, we have experienced significant drops in customer demand. Hotels are adjusting operations accordingly, which has impacted employment, resulting in staffing reductions, temporary leaves, and in some cases, termination notices. The Hotel sent written notification to all of its associates and to Ms. Carumba’s union representative concerning her temporary leave. Ms. Carumba’s terms and conditions of employment, including her benefits, are covered by a collective bargaining agreement. The Hotel continues to comply with those terms and to communicate with her bargaining representatives during this time.”]

How have you been affected by the protests following the killing of George Floyd?

I was really scared when my kids and I saw in the news about the looting and burning stores in San Leandro. We hear gunshots and helicopters, which sounds very near, so I watch my kids the whole night because I feel unsafe. I feel the fear in the heart of those who protest about their worries every day that the police might kill their kids, that’s why I support Black Lives Matter.

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June 22

‘This time we were all together — complete — with my family’

Carumba talks on Zoom with her family members, who live all over the world. (Larrilou Carumba) (Photo by Larrilou Carumba/Photo by Larrilou Carumba)

This month, I became closer to my family, like my sisters and my mother. Even though we live in one place, while we are working we don’t usually see each other because I usually work weekends, so I always miss everything.

This time we were able to celebrate different kinds of anniversaries of [those who passed, like] my husband, my father, my sister and my mother-in-law.

Usually, if we have a celebration, it’s only us in the United States. My sister’s kids are in Australia and New Zealand, so we don’t talk to each other as a group. But this month and last month we were able to have a Zoom meeting with all of them.

When it’s early in the Philippines, it’s morning in South Australia and New Zealand and afternoon here. It was my brother who has to sacrifice a lot because he’s in Qatar. This time we were all together — complete — with my family in different parts of the world.

I still stay at home most of the time and only do my groceries. Aside from budgeting my money, my kids don’t want to go out because they think it’s not yet safe. There’s a lot of people coming to the stores or, like, parks and beaches. Our sacrifices for three months will be nothing if we sacrifice a little bit more to be safe. I just want my family to be safe.

When we go out and come back, we need to take a bath and wash everything. Because we're protecting my mother, who is 88 years old.

I don’t think we will have a job before October or even before the end of the year. It scares me to think that I will lose my health care or that I won’t be able to pay my bills.

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July 14

‘I always fight because of you’: Larrilou interviewed by her daughter

Larrilou Carumba holds stuffed toys given to her by daughter Norielle Lopez, 21, on Father's Day. Also pictured are Larrilou's son's: Louie Lopez, 11, far left, and Elbert Lopez, 13, far right. (Photo by Larrilou Carumba) (Photo by Larrilou Carumba/Photo by Larrilou Carumba)

Norielle Mae Lopez, 21, studies nursing at a nearby university in Oakland. For the past several months, she has self-quarantined with her mother, Larrilou, and her two brothers in her aunt’s house.

Norielle: What struggles have you overcome during this pandemic and who helped you the most?

Larrilou: I’ve experienced all kinds of struggles, like staying in the house all the time without going out. And you know me, I really want to go out and I really want to stay outside. I have a lot of fears on my mind, especially when I’m looking at all three of you while sleeping. I’m afraid that I might get sick or one of you might get sick. I pray so hard, not only every night, but also those times [when] you see me quiet. . Plus, you and your brothers are my source of strength. I always fight because of you — and you know that.

Norielle: So what are you afraid of?

Larrilou: It’s hard to lose a job, and I don’t know where to get my money to pay for everything, especially that I’m both your mother and your father. That scares me, thinking that I cannot provide for you and your brothers and I cannot buy all the things that you want. But it’s good that I have unemployment, but that would end soon because I think it’s only like a couple of months. … And I’m always struggling thinking about our health care. But it’s good that our union — you know our union, right?

Norielle: Yeah.

Larrilou: They’re the one who helped me, Local 2, to fight for that. That’s why until now, we still have insurance and we’re still fighting for it. It’s so disappointing that Marriott is not helping us at this moment. And we need to fight just to have that, or else we will not have health insurance before the end of the year. And that scares me.

Norielle: So what do you think about going back to work? Are you ready, mom?

Larrilou: I’m so proud to be a part of a law in San Francisco, for the supervisors to vote ‘Yes’ to the healthy building ordinance. You remember that? It is now a law in San Francisco.

I feel safer going back to work because of this law, because it protects me. The law says that the room needs to be disinfected every day, because I really don’t feel safe cleaning a room which has not been sanitized or cleaned for multiple days. And this time, the board of supervisors listened to us, because they know that housekeepers are experts when it comes to cleaning the room, because that’s our job, right? It’s not everything I need. We are still in negotiation with Marriott and different hotel companies in San Francisco about our health care and safety protocols.

Norielle: What about that?

Larrilou: It’s not only about cleaning the room every day, but it’s about my protection while cleaning the room, like the mask, [and] everything we need to protect myself by cleaning the rooms. That’s really very important to me.

Norielle: We’re going to’ be fine, Mom.

Larrilou: I know. Soon we’ll be back to normal. We just need to have patience, and we really need to pray hard to God. Thank you for your time, daughter. I love you.

Norielle: I love you, too.

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Aug. 10

‘Who is going to help us?’

Carumba and her family at Seacliff State Beach in Aptos, Calif. (Family photo) (Courtesy of Larrilou Carumba/Courtesy of Larrilou Carumba)

It is scarier at this moment. I thought after a couple of months it would get better, but it became worse. Nobody’s helping me right now. Marriott is not helping me. The government is not helping me. They removed the $600, which was helping me. Now I only get $900 every two weeks, which only pays my rent.

It only pays two of my bills, and I have a lot of bills. I have a car, the place I’m living in, my insurance, my telephone, my loan consolidation. It’s not a luxury for me. I need my car. I need my insurance. I need a house to live in. I need a telephone. The basic necessities. I cannot pay all of them. I don’t know where I will be in a couple of months. I’m really scared about how I’m going to survive.

My health insurance is still in jeopardy. It’s getting near October and still, I haven’t gone back to work. The last time me and my union negotiated with [Marriott], they said they don’t want to talk with us anymore. So who is going to help us? It’s so frustrating.

One thing is for sure: I know who I’m going to vote this coming November. The people who will help workers. The workers, we live paycheck to paycheck. That’s the only thing we have. We only want to live. We live one day at a time.

I want to find a job, but it’s really hard because millions of Americans don’t have jobs. I’m trying to look for a good job that is safe for my mother. I don’t want to take a risk to earn a little money against the health of my mother.

I'm trying to be strong for my kids. I always teach them to be positive in life. I want them to know that even though life is hard, we need to be happy and work together.

My daughter is really trying her best to pursue her schooling. It’s good that her school gave her a loan. I was really praying hard. I don’t want her to stop her school because this is what she wants.

[Nursing] is her passion. She chose it herself. She keeps saying she wants to be like [me], because I was a nurse in the Philippines. I took that [path] because I really loved helping people. But I cannot do it right now because I’m a single mom, and I need to set aside my dreams. I need to help my kids to pursue their dreams first. I don’t know what will happen, but I will never stop fighting for my kids.

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Sonya Roper

Home health aide • High Point, N.C. • 51

Sonya Roper outside her home with her 3-year-old granddaughter. (Eamon Queeney/for The Washington Post) (Eamon Queeney/For The Washington Post)


‘I don’t think people are paying attention’

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.

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May 21

‘My back is against the wall’

Roper with her great-aunt Rachel Creighton. (Sonya Roper) (Photo by Sonya Roper/Photo by Sonya Roper)

The government is opening back up in North Carolina. I left work yesterday to go grab some groceries, and I got spooked. All the way down the shopping center, people were standing in line in the pouring rain — to go to Ross. I thought, “Wake up people! Wake up!”

We continue to face shortages of PPE, gloves, masks, hand sanitizer. We haven’t been able to put our hands on a can of disinfectant spray in over a month. Many of the clients, they’re sending aides out to do their errands, so many of my aides are going out to Walmart and every which way. I try to take some of that off of them when I can go to the stores. If something happens to me, who’s going to take care of my grandkids?

I’m still doing about 15 to 20 hours a week, down from 40 or more. There are hours available if you want to put yourself at risk. My back is against the wall. I’ve got clients who need care. But if an aide drops off, and the client still wants care or needs care, I have to send a new person into their homes. That might be someone I had to hire off the street. I have no way to test them. I have a list of safety questions I can ask. But if someone is desperate enough for a job, they may not answer honestly.

I’m debating going to a viewing tomorrow for my great-aunt. She was the last of my grandmother’s generation. She was 90 years old. You knew when Aunt Rachel opened her mouth, wisdom was coming out. I’m thinking my mom really wants to go. I don’t know what precautions I’ll take, whether I’ll stay in the car. I want to make sure my mom gets closure.

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June 8

‘I’m not even comfortable going to church yet.’

Now that your community or state is reopening, what are you comfortable doing?

I’m only going out when it’s absolutely necessary. For instance, I haven’t done any department store shopping for summer clothing or anything of that nature.

What are you still concerned about, related to the coronavirus?

It’s definitely not business as usual. I’m not even comfortable going to church yet.

What do you value now more than ever?

Now more than ever I value my life, health, my family (especially my children and grandchildren) and definitely my church family. The things I miss the most are spending time with my mom, who’s high-risk, and my grandbabies. I have 10 grandkids.

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Mick Stewart

Personal trainer • Houston • 53

Mick Stewart at his home. (Callaghan O'Hare/for The Washington Post) (Callaghan O'Hare/For the Washington Post)


‘Down to about five online clients’

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’

Stewart trains a client in his home gym. (Mick Stewart) (Photo by Mick Stewart/Photo by Mick Stewart)

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.

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May 22

‘I have felt a little bit of fear’

Stewart at his home. (Mick Stewart) (Photo by Mick Stewart/Photo by Mick Stewart)

All of the bars open up tomorrow, so it’s going to be the Wild West. It’s going to be crazy. People have been cooped up for months. I’m staying home; there are going to be some drunk drivers out there.

I was one of the naysayers about covid. I’m a conservative, I thought it was BS. Then I saw the mortality numbers and I thought, “This is bad, this is really bad.”

But if we have a second outbreak of this because everything is so open, they may close it [the state] down again. I don’t know how they would close down this state again. Texas, it’s a state of mind down here. They’re very, very independent. If there’s a second wave, I don’t know what the city will do. We have a lot of people pissed about … wearing their mask.

I have felt a little bit of fear there. Everybody is talking about a second wave. I told all of my clients, you have to monitor your temperature. A lot of clients are telling me they’re not going back to the big gyms until there is a vaccine. That kind of shocked me. This may be the new normal. They feel much safer in an environment like this.

Nationally, we have been taken down a peg. We have the highest mortality of any country on Earth, and that should teach us that fitness and diets are vital to life. We are a big fat happy country, and that has to end. As a country, we have to get back to fitness.

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June 8

‘We must make health and nutrition number one priorities for our elderly’

Now that Texas is reopening, what are you comfortable doing?

We’re much more comfortable working out both inside and outside the gym, running in the park. Clients are much more comfortable after World Health Organization’s recent comments about the lethality of asymptomatic carriers! Major relief! [WHO recently said only people with symptoms typically spread the virus, though the announcement was immediately met with skepticism from prominent health and medical experts. The WHO also quickly walked back that statement.]

What are you still concerned about, related to the coronavirus?

A recurrence of the virus, possibly a latent outbreak or migration of it to the DNA where it replicates.

What do you value now more than ever?

My health. We must make health and nutrition number one priorities for our elderly who were adversely [affected] by the virus. Fitness must be number one for the country as we move forward.

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June 23

‘I hope they don’t shut us down again’

Stewart provides his clients with personal protective equipment when they come to train at his house. (Mick Stewart) (Photo by Mick Stewart/Photo by Mick Stewart)

The numbers in Texas are starting to go back up. I think that has people scared. I don’t blame them. I made plastic shields that I wear in the gym. I keep my distance, [but] I have so many clients I am stashing away cash. I brought my prices back up to $30. I’d gone down to $20 when everything hit because I didn’t think anybody would have any money. Slowly, I have raised it back up.

I really think what brought those [coronavirus] numbers back up were the protests. I watched it on TV. Nobody was wearing a mask and there were thousands of people on the street. That’s what has stressed me out recently. I used to be a police officer so my heart is with law enforcement. I was the only White cop in a Black city, it’s called Prairie View, and I got to know the citizens and the city. Several of the people had marched with [Martin Luther King Jr.] One of the ministers was there when King was killed. I learned a lot. I was talking to my client who had covid-19, a Black client, and he said, “If we could only talk, that would do it.” If people could just sit down and talk.

Now that the covid numbers are back up, people are taking it more seriously. People who didn’t wear masks, mostly conservatives down here, are now wearing them. Three weeks ago when I went to the grocery store, one-third of the people were wearing masks. Yesterday every single person had a mask on in Houston, Tex.

I hope they don’t shut us down again. I would have to shut the gym down. That is the worst-case scenario.

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July 18

‘Clients depend on me to help them get out of the covid-19 depression’: Mick interviewed by a customer

Robert Silva, left, and Stewart. (Mick Stewart) (Photo by Mick Stewart/Photo by Mick Stewart)

Stewart was interviewed by one of his fitness clients, Robert Silva, a corporate recruiter in Houston. Silva, 39, trains with Stewart three times a week. Below is a condensed version of their conversation.

Robert: What have you learned most about yourself during the pandemic?

Mick: Probably the most important thing I’ve learned about myself is that the clients depend on me to help them get out of the covid-19 depression. I think that’s been the big thing. I’m there as a crutch, I guess, for mental health. And I think that’s a normal thing.

Robert: What struggles have you overcome?

Mick: Probably the biggest struggle would be not having clients in the beginning and then all of a sudden being overwhelmed once the gyms shut down.

Robert: What’s helped you get by? Who helped you the most?

Mick: The clients’ comments — their suggestions, smiles, stories — helped me get by the most.

Robert: How do you feel about the future?

Mick: Actually everybody else is kind of depressed. I’m actually upbeat because all viruses die. They’re eventually going to die out. So I think things are going to get back to normal in a couple of months. We won’t be rid of covid-19, but I think in another two or three months we won’t have to wear masks. Once the mask orders go away, I think we’ll be back to normal. [Editor’s note: Health experts do not expect covid-19 to disappear but are more optimistic about containing it over time.]

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Aug. 4

‘I would have spent more time with my parents.’

My dad is finally in the throes of Alzheimer’s. When I started training again, Mom didn’t want me to come over. I can definitely understand that. They live in Sugar Land, which is right down the road, about 20 miles from Houston. I hadn’t seen them in four weeks.

I went down there [recently] with my mask on — just wanted to check in on him and see how they’re doing. He had closed up in the space of a month. It was kind of disheartening. I knew it was coming. He’s no longer mobile. He takes naps all day. I think we’ve maybe got six months left.

[One thing I would have done differently is] I would have spent more time with my parents. Dad has deteriorated to such a point. I’m going over there now and I can wave to them. But I’m covered up in an N95 and in gloves. And he doesn’t understand that.

I stay pretty silent about my politics. I am not a Trump supporter — I’m a libertarian. But I like some of the things he’s done. He’s been tough against the Chinese. I like that.

I would say they’ve done a pretty good job [with the coronavirus response]. Not bad. What they didn’t do right is Trump coming out with a mask on Day 1, stepping up to that podium and saying, “Put on your mask. Wash your hands.” That’s the negative I have.

But getting out the PPE, getting the vaccine through the FDA, stuff like that — I think they’ve done a pretty good job. You’ve got to have somebody up there who’s going to rah rah for capitalism. You have to. I think that the economy is going to start up again and people are going to have jobs again and hopefully the hospitality industry, which has been hit really bad, will be back in business. I really believe that things are going to get better.

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Mazhar Chughtai

Restaurant operations manager • Springfield, Va. • 58

Mazhar Chughtai at his restaurant. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post) (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)


‘We learned that the SBA was out of money’

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.

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May 19

‘We are really feeling the crunch’

Chughtai works at Sapphire Tysons. (Luxman Bhise) (Photo by Luxman Bhise/Photo by Luxman Bhise)

We opened the restaurant, just for a weekend. The government is trying to open within the next couple of weeks, so we wanted to get the staff back in and acclimated. We tried and there was hardly any traffic. It was miserable.

[There were] no more than 10 orders. Normally we see close to 100 dinners. That would be average for my restaurant on the weekend.

We are really feeling the crunch, and I feel that it’s going to take a lot longer to recover. My restaurant is located in the office park community and there is hardly anybody working there right now. It’s been a roller-coaster weekend.

We knew that the sales may not be there, but it is important to get the staff back. This will be a test for us. This is the first time we’ll be open a whole week, just for dinner.

The financial pieces are always the biggest challenge. We still haven’t paid rent since April, that’s looming on our heads. A good thing that’s happened is that our landlord, I’ve never seen them as flexible. They were willing to defer our rent payment, so that [gave us] peace of mind. The Payroll Protection loan got approved. We’re still waiting on funds, but we believe within this week, they’ll be transferred. That will carry us through the next few weeks.

The staff is committed. We’ve always treated staff with the utmost respect during our regular times, and now that it’s crunchtime, they’ve been very supportive. A couple of my chefs have assured me, ‘Don’t worry, we’re with you.’ Those are the key things I’m relying on, because they’re my inspiration. We’re team players.

Hopefully, the government comes up with a plan that gives small businesses a further break because what we received is not sufficient. In my opinion, people are still going to try to open their establishment, but can they sustain? That will be the biggest test for many small businesses, including ourselves. Can we sustain the next six to 12 months? Can we sustain that economic pressure? That would be my biggest worry and fear.

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June 8

‘The most important thing for us is to survive’

Now that your community or state is reopening, what are you comfortable doing?

We are cleaning the entire restaurant, sanitizing, washing all pots and pans, dishes and silverware and sanitize the entire building to ensure the safety of our customers. We are mainly concerned about our guests’ safety, our staff safety and most importantly whether people come out and support our business.

What do you value now more than ever?

I value our safety, guests’ safety and other staff safety first. The most important thing for us is to survive and stay alive in this 2020 and focus on other things in 2021.

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June 23

‘I’m working seven days a week and trying to survive’

Chughtai poses for a photo with his restaurant staff. (Almer Sorto) (Photo by Almer Sorto/Photo by Almer Sorto)

We decided to open the restaurant, as you know. Phase 2 started June 1 and we prepared, following all the safety guidelines. However, the office community has no plans on returning until September, after Labor Day weekend. So [the number of] guests is extremely low, and it has affected revenue almost 80 percent.

We are feeling really scared. We are getting concerned about our long-term survival. Just as your call came in, I was preparing a response to [the landlord]’s request because they wanted rent. And I don’t have the money to pay the rent, so I’m going to let them know, “If you let us go, then we’ll close the door if you don’t work with us.”

Our staff has seen the writing on the wall. We brought people back, but we had to cut some hours. They’re concerned as well. We have to see what happens after Labor Day. If these trends continue, it’s going to be very tough. There’s no way that, until a vaccine comes, that we can survive for another eight or nine months.

Every day that I go home, the first question my wife asks is, “How were your sales today?” That’s the first thing she asks. On some days, it’s really, really bad, and some days it’s good. We are definitely going through a challenging time, and we’re just going on a day-by-day basis right now. I’m working seven days a week and trying to survive.

There’s always hope. I believe that God closes one door and opens 10 others. When we hear the news, they say a vaccine is coming. Before, if you remember, it was like January or February. Now I hear it’s December. So that’s two months earlier. Hopefully it’s before December. So those are positive and hopeful news that keeps us going.

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Aug. 12

‘The federal and state government has failed businesses’

The office community has not returned yet, so it’s very difficult to gauge our progress. Right now we are operating at 25 percent revenue and capacity. Which is nothing. It doesn’t even cover the cost or the rent. We’re operating in the red.

I feel frightened. We haven’t paid rent in four months and the landlord is demanding rent. We’re hoping there might be federal assistance with this new package. I hope that the government comes up with another package that addresses businesses that were affected the most.

We were able to get the [PPP] loan, but that’s already been exhausted. That covered 10 weeks of payroll, but we’re beyond that. We applied to several grants, but we didn’t get them. We have not received any funds from anyone except for the PPP loan. It’s getting tough right now. We don’t have backup plans.

If I had to grade the [federal] government response, I would give them an F. The Virginia government came up with a grant, but their stipulation is, if you received federal money, you’re not eligible. So it’s a Catch-22. They think the federal grants are sufficient, but it’s not. I truly believe that the federal and state government has failed businesses.

I have hope that things will turn around and that there’s a positive outcome from this. If there is no other grant, then we’ll just have to do what we’ll have to do. There are a lot of people who are handing the keys to their landlords, and we may have to be one of them. It’s sad, but that’s the truth right now.

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Diane Sphar

Owner of a travel company • Cincinnati • 64

Diane Sphar in her office. (Maddie McGarvey/for The Washington Post) (MADDIE MCGARVEY/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)


‘Am I fearful? Not a bit.’

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.

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May 18

‘Right now we feel like we’re playing that game, Jenga’

LEFT:Sphar helps wash a motor coach for a trip to Washington, D.C. (left: John Renick; right: Dixie Lacy) (Photo by John Renick/Photo by John Renick)

RIGHT:Sphar on the bus she rode to the D.C. rally. (Dixie Lacy) (Photo by Dixie Lacy/Photo by Dixie Lacy)

Sphar helps wash a motor coach for a trip to Washington, D.C. (left: John Renick; right: Dixie Lacy)

We had over 1,000 motor coaches in D.C. from all 50 states. Over 450 companies brought their coaches. Some said they’d used their last money to come to this rally. It was exhilarating, it was unified. It’s just a question of whether or not the message gets across that our industry [travel and group tours] is getting decimated. We can’t get answers. This huge market could bring in so much help to everybody that needs it — theaters, attractions, hotels, restaurants.

People [at the rally] asked me, “Why are you here?” And I said, “Because if these coaches start closing up shop, then I don’t have tours.” The amount of losses is something that’s breaking my heart. This is what I put my heart and soul into.

I have one hotel that I’ll put in easily $800,000 to $1 million a year. All of my May tours are canceled. All of June is canceled. As of today, all of my July is canceled. I’m thinking August before we run our first tours. That hotel has gotten nothing. If you look at them looking at their budget and saying, “Here’s one supplier not able to bring us business” — I can’t imagine what their losses must be.

Personally, I don’t even know how many letters I’ve written to the president. I kiddingly say [U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot] met with me so I wouldn’t send him any more letters! My team has been working on new tour ideas, but there’s nobody mandating anything for this industry. There’s nobody that has said, “You have to run this industry like we run airlines or cruise lines or Amtrak.” Nobody has come by or said anything about this lost stepchild.

Right now we feel like we’re playing that game, Jenga. Pull this one out — try this, and oh gosh, it all fell! We have to start building it all over again.

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June 2

‘I value my hope and choosing courage in the face of the unknown’

Now that your community or state is reopening, what are you comfortable doing?

I am comfortable booking and rebooking tours for 2021 and find that the industry wants to be closer to home and wanting tours that are shorter in length. So I am working on new tours and concentrating on longer tours for 2022. The new tours are around water and taking pride in America and going back in time.

What are you still concerned about, related to the coronavirus?

The motor coach industry still has many concerns since the market has been totally decimated. One is what happens if someone on a tour becomes ill during the tour. Do we continue on? Do we turn around and go back to their home base and not finish the tour they paid for? This is a huge question in the industry and one of about 25!

How have you been affected by the protests following the killing of George Floyd?

The mix of events do not make for easy summary. … Since my business will not rapidly respond to cities opening or closing due to curfews and protests, the only thing this has done is show that there are moments of unity amid the chaos: Some police chiefs and officers listened to protesters’ issues and knelt in shows of solidarity. Unity is strength.

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June 17

‘I get too attached to people, and it hurts my heart’

Sphar's office is empty after she had to lay off her staff for a second time. (Diane Sphar) (Photo by Diane Sphar/Photo by Diane Sphar)

This wicked virus is nasty. It’s been two weeks today that [my brother] started with symptoms. I finally talked to him for the first time today. I was, “Rah! Rah!” I had to be the cheerleader. On Friday he said, “Okay, I lost the fight.” He’s had two open-heart surgeries. I said, “You did not lose the fight. You’re losing your spirit, but your body has to still fight.”

On top of my brother having covid and a decimated industry, my staff [was laid off] again. Is there anything else? Just tell me.

I applied for Payroll Protection money and I got it, but then I had to lay [my staff] off again. I paid them for all of their vacation time and I paid them for sick time, so when they do come back, there’s no vacation money, there’s no sick time. I paid it all in advance.

I have seven people on the payroll and I have two that are contract employees. They’re being taken care of somewhat, but it’s not the same to me. I get too attached to people, and it hurts my heart, and it hurts down to my soul. My husband keeps saying, “That’s why your leg hurts so bad. You take it internally, you’re worried about your brother, about your staff.” I was like, “Well, I don’t take a pill for a headache,” but it’s that type of world.

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July 13

‘His belief in me goes beyond the norm’: Diane interviewed by her husband

Sphar and her husband, Bob. (Family photo) (Photo by Family Photo/Photo by Family Photo)

Diane Sphar and her husband, Bob, have been self-quarantining together since the start of the pandemic. Below is a condensed version of their conversation.

Bob: What have you learned about yourself during the pandemic?

Diane: I have learned that I am tenacious and as fierce as a dog with a bone. My initial reaction to the pandemic is the fact that I built my existing life around my business and nothing can take that away. Wow, was I wrong. I thought this would last a few weeks and now we are entering our fifth month. This pandemic has affected my heart and soul. It has impacted all walks of my life with the exception of the virus itself. But the virus did attack my brother, and I have been a part of the domino effect that comes with this hideous virus.

Bob: What struggles have you overcome?

Diane: The struggles are ongoing and they have not been overcome. I recognize the sacrifices and challenges that I face personally but have no clue how to correct them in this period of my life. I just figure if I can’t find the sunshine, then I need to be the sunshine.

Bob: What’s helped you get by? Who helped you the most?

Diane: Truly my husband and interviewer, Bob, has helped me get by. His belief in me goes beyond the norm and he has always been my biggest cheerleader and has given me years upon years of support in whatever endeavor I choose. But he also recognizes my own faith in myself. I believe I have to be me, the one who gets up each morning to an opportunity clock! Nobody can go back, but anyone can start today and make a new ending.

Bob: How do you feel about the future?

Diane: This isn’t a snow day where you’re waiting for the sun to shine and the world to return, because the world we have lived in for so long in many ways is never coming back. There’s little debate that the America that emerges from the coronavirus pandemic will be a new America, not unlike the new nations that emerged from the Great Depression and World War II.

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Aug. 7

‘I don’t think I’ve ever lost my spirit. I’ve just lost some of my mojo.’

It’s August now. As of today, I’ve had 727 tour groups cancel through December. I had 141 tours to run in October. I still have four open.

I’ve done nothing all year, but I’m still here every day at 4 o’clock in the morning. I write refund checks; I re-book for next year. People ask me questions and I have to say, “I don’t have the answer.” And that’s part of the hurt that I feel. I just don’t know.

We’re all in an unknown part of our lives. I have to start rebuilding relationships because so many people have lost jobs, and some of them have been around my life for 30 years. Do you know how hard that is to get back clients that would work with you for everything you ever did?

It’s almost like a death. Somebody said to me today when I was on the phone with them, “Diane, how do you keep upbeat?” And I said, “Whoa, whoa, wait a minute! I have my moments!”

Every one of us, we’ve been through this together, and that’s the truth. Whether we like it or not, there is going to be a new norm. Do I like it? No, I hate it. But does that mean I’m going to curl up with a TV and a remote and loungewear? I come in at 4 o’clock in the morning, and I’m still totally made up. I have all my jewelry on. I say, “Oh, I couldn’t wear this outfit, I wore that last week!” Even if I didn’t see anybody last week!

I still smile constantly through my mask. I wear lipstick to put on a mask. What if it falls off?

I don’t think I’ve ever lost my spirit. I’ve just lost some of my mojo, and that I can probably get back. And I hope everybody else does too. It’s going to be hard. But anything worth reaching out for isn’t easy.

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William Hensel

Former employee at a car dealership • Webster, Tex. • 75

William Hensel outside of his residential community. (Callaghan O'Hare/for The Washington Post) (Callaghan O'Hare/For the Washington Post)


‘I feel like the dryer when it’s finished with its spin cycle’

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’

Hensel on one of his daily walks. (William Hensel) (Photo by Will Hensel/Photo by Will Hensel)

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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May 18

‘The qualification is simply to show up’

Hensel takes a photo of his Zoom church group. (William Hensel) (Photo by Will Hensel/Photo by Will Hensel)

I checked in with the Texas Workforce Commission very early on a Monday. The representative comes on and walked me through the process and corrected the blocks that had kept me from getting [unemployment benefits]. He said I was still eligible and that I should be getting paid.

I continue to try with the Cares [IRS] money. I’ll go on their website, and always get, “The information you entered does not match our record.” How it doesn’t match their records, I’m not sure. Is it the amount? The address? And once you make a mistake, it’s like going back to “go” and starting over.

I am not one of the ones that’s dangling by my fingernails — I’ve got the time and resources to keep after this. But there are people that are desperate, and my heart breaks for them.

I’ve updated my resume on LinkedIn and gotten some contacts from there. But most of the ones that contacted me had a list of qualifications I don’t have.

The other aspect of this is I’m going on 75. I’m a high-risk person. I’m not really scared about that. I got what I paid for! Every day I have breath now is kind of a bonus. But I’m more vulnerable than I would have been 50 years ago, so I’m reluctant to put myself in a situation that could also pose a risk to other people.

I have no doubt about my long-term destination — it’s clear. It’s the path between here and there that’s not clear to me. The way I apply my Christianity has to do with love and compassion toward others. I’m in a small group of 25 to 30 people, sort of like a house church within a larger church. That group is my family of choice — the people I would turn to if I had a bleeding wound in my spirit. We keep close tabs on one another.

It’s one of the places I can give. I don’t have to qualify for a job. The qualification is simply to show up.

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June 8

‘I grieve the loss of life’

What are you still concerned about, related to the coronavirus?

The pugnacious “me first” attitude that extends from our president down to the folks that cluster at local beaches and bars, flaunting social distancing and masking, scorning the good-faith guidance provided by science, medicine and conscientious local government officials. I grieve the loss of life and time these patterns are likely to engender.

How have you been affected by the protests following the killing of George Floyd?

I think the videos documenting the brazen murders of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery have brought many Americans down from the fences of indifference and indecision toward committed action to cleanse and heal the long, deep wounds of racism and racial brutality in our country. I am heartened by what I see as widespread determination to move forward toward a new birth of equality, freedom and responsibility.

What do you value now more than ever?

The capability provided by the Web and electronic media like Zoom, to gather with my church and friends, which I do nearly every day; the worldwide discussions with friends on several continents; opportunities to provide encouragement, prayer and counsel in a safe manner; and the protective professionals who safeguard the senior community where I live.

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June 16

‘Somebody could get me for a bargain price’

The movie room at William Hensel's senior living facility has been rearranged for social distancing. (Photo by William Hensel/Photo by William Hensel)

I’ve continued to respond to inquiries about employment on LinkedIn and ZipRecruiter. The ones they send me have a lot of opportunities to work at a drive-in like Sonic or McDonald’s. A lot of places want me to be some sort of phone salesman. I’ve had other offers that I was totally unqualified for, like where being bilingual is a minimum. Some are three to four hours away, and that’s crazy for me. I’m not relocating.

I got three different [unemployment checks] covering two-week periods from the state of Texas, but it stopped because I haven’t made a request for a few weeks. I’ll have to go shake the tree and make the request again. But I’ve seen none of the Cares Act money.

I have lots of skills and experience. And on the other hand, I’m 75 years old, and I’m unemployed. I’m also a high-risk person. I need to get about $2,000 a month to break even. Somebody could get me for a bargain price if they want to give it a shot.

On a daily basis, [case counts rising in Texas is] just a source of great grief and frustration for me. My war was Vietnam, and they kept track of the military-related deaths in the whole Vietnam era, which added up to a little more than 58,000 casualties. That’s what’s on the wall. In four months, rather than four decades, we have doubled that. And Texas has set new successive, all-time records for hospitalizations because of Gov. Greg Abbott’s overriding plan for opening the economy.

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July 15

‘Forced to be on the same page’: Will interviewed by his friend

Hensel and Fran Lantz in Friendswood, Tex. (Carl Smith) (Photo by Carl Smith/Photo by Carl Smith)

Will Hensel and Fran Lantz first met in 2003. During the pandemic, the two have met online twice each week through a small church-based group. Below is a condensed version of their conversation.

Fran: Good morning Will!

Will: Good morning Fran!

Fran: I’m tickled to have you in this backyard and to get to talk with you. We have been in this pandemic now since sometime in March. That’s a long time, and knowing you the way I know you, I bet you’ve learned a lot about yourself in this season.

Will: I’ve been doing a lot of reading to contemplate and pray and be still. The best teacher I ever had was someone in seventh grade, and the only thing I really remember him saying is, “Hensel, you’ll be all right if you ever learn to sit still.” So I’m still working on learning to sit still, and covid plays a big part in doing that.

Fran: You referenced your wife’s passing and the really long season of walking beside her, or having her walk beside you. Since that time are there other struggles that have surfaced in this pandemic?

Will: The decade or so I spent being Kathy’s caregiver — she took great care of me for 30 years, so I figured I still owed her a couple of decades. I was using more of my heart during that time than I think that I’ve had a chance to do at other points in my life. I loved being a teacher.

But I think the most frustrating thing about covid has been a lack of opportunity to put my shoulder to the wheel, to use what gifts and graces I have in the time that remains, to be of some use in this struggle. I know there are a lot of things I could do that need to be done. But I’m finding it to be creatively difficult to find a venue for where that’s possible.

Fran: You are 75, and so am I, and it’s easy to suddenly say, “My goodness, life is short. What next?”

Will: I’m not concerned about legacy. I think my legacy is this moment, this breath, this conversation. I’ve never spent a great deal of time planning the future, because I saw very early as a child that that really didn’t work out for very many people.

This is a wake-up call for the whole planet. It’s unprecedented in my lifetime. Both of us were born after the Great Depression but too young to really remember World War II. But the 1918 plague, the Great Depression and WWII are the only things even approaching what’s going on in our world right now. The whole earth is more or less forced to be on the same page, whether we like it or not.

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Aug. 7

‘That is exactly when we can grow’

We have that sense of isolation and being separated, but the reflections and experiences I’ve had since covid became a reality in my life have really led me even deeper to the conclusion that we are all deeply connected. And that this dangerous opportunity is not just dangerous, it’s an amazing opportunity.

My fundamental reality is eternal, holy love. That’s where it all comes from and where it’s all going. One of the things I think in any faith — whether it’s religious or some other kind — that’s worth keeping is that by definition, when our lives are shaken and challenged, that is exactly when we can grow. There are two alternatives in times of stress. We can build a silo or a fort. That’s what we see in the tribalization of our culture.

And the other side is, “Wow, this is hard, this is challenging my faith. This is rocking my world.” And I think people have come to the conclusion that if they stay open, there is a deep level of security and truth.

The people who do have a solid faith are freer, I think, to cope with the current circumstances because they don’t have that ultimate, existential anxiety. We know what the last chapter is, but that makes it no easier to know what the next page is going to do, and that’s where we are right now.

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About this project

The Post will continue to feature stories and updates from each person included in this project. Each story, told to Post reporters, is edited for length. Through telling their stories, we hope to show America’s transformed economic reality and how we can emerge from the pandemic over time.

Design and development by Katherine Lee and Jake Crump. Design editing by Virginia Singarayar. Photo editing by Annaliese Nurnberg. Copy editing by Stu Werner. Editing by Ziva Branstetter and Suzanne Goldenberg. Project management by Julie Vitkovskaya.

Rachel Siegel

Rachel Siegel is a national business reporter. She previously contributed to the Post's Metro desk, The Marshall Project and The Dallas Morning News.

Kanyakrit Vongkiatkajorn

Kanyakrit Vongkiatkajorn is the community editor at The Washington Post, with a focus on comments, live chats and reader submissions. She comes to The Post from Mother Jones, where she was the assistant editor for audience and breaking news.

Renae Merle

Renae Merle covers white-collar crime and Wall Street for The Washington Post. She has also worked for the Wall Street Journal and the Associated Press.

Julie Vitkovskaya

Julie Vitkovskaya is a projects editor for The Washington Post who focuses on innovative storytelling and enterprise stories. She was previously the operations and digital editor for foreign and national security. She joined in 2015 after spending two years in South Korea working at an English-language newspaper as a Princeton in Asia fellow.

Jena McGregor

Jena McGregor writes on leadership issues in the headlines – corporate management and governance, workplace trends and the personalities who run Washington and business. Prior to writing for the Washington Post, she was an associate editor for BusinessWeek and Fast Company magazines and began her journalism career as a reporter at Smart Money.


Originally published April 30, 2020.