24 hours inside the lives upended by coronavirus in the nation’s capital

In a city defined by power, a virus has seized control

In a city defined by power

A virus has seized control

First-graders and friars, scientists and sanitation workers, teen models and the mayor: 24 hours inside the lives upended by a pandemic in the nation’s capital

(Photos by Matt McClain, Michael Robinson Chavez and Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

It was too dangerous for the men and women who collect Washington’s garbage to meet indoors anymore, so instead, more than 50 of them gathered on the sprawling lot where their trucks spent the night. In the predawn darkness, the glow from the light poles overhead glinted off reflective stripes on their uniforms, designed to keep them safe. Now, though, almost none of them felt safe.

Word had spread that one of their own had tested positive for coronavirus.

The director of the District’s Department of Public Works stood at the center of the crowd in Northeast on the first day of a new workweek and asked everyone to spread out at least six feet apart. The work they did was perilous but essential, he said. That’s why they would soon get hazard pay.

“Man, f--k the money,” one worker shouted, but the director didn’t react. He understood his people — whom he had just compared to first responders — were scared.

The drivers would soon head across a city that looked and sounded and felt nothing at all like the most powerful place on earth. But even on a day when the District’s mayor would join the governors of Maryland and Virginia in ordering residents to stay home, meals were served, meetings were held, dogs were walked, jokes were cracked, babies were born, prayers were delivered.

And, of course, trash was collected.

Sanitation workers in Washington, D.C., keep the city running by emptying trash and recycle bins, but are now exposed to the coronavirus every day they go to work. (Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post)

On the edge of the crowd at the parking lot, just before 6 a.m. Monday, a bearded man in dark-rimmed glasses raised his hand.

“I just want to let y’all know this is serious, you know what I’m saying? I just lost my son this morning with coronavirus,” said Thomas Fields Sr., 51, as dozens of eyes turned toward him. Just three hours earlier, he had learned that his only child, named after him, had died in a Detroit hospital. His father said the Navy veteran, a diabetic, had a fiancee and a 5-year-old son. He was 32.

Octavia French, pulling into the lot just then from her nearby apartment, didn’t want to hear those stories. She couldn’t. French, 27, was a single mom with rent to pay. She remembered what it felt like to lose a job, to apply for unemployment. Now she made $45,000 a year, and French was proud of that salary. But would she have to risk her life to keep it? She didn’t know who would care for her son, a first-grader, if she got sick, or worse. That’s why she decided to think as little as possible about the deadly virus consuming the nation and its capital city — her city.

So, after French parked her car, she retrieved a pink Victoria’s Secret hoodie and slid on an extra pair of gloves. Then she climbed into the lime-green cab of her 15-ton truck, squeezed into the middle seat between two of her co-workers, pulled on a white mask and rode toward a neighborhood of seven-figure rowhouses on Capitol Hill.

This is the Washington people know best, where the powerful and well-connected make deals and clusters of cherry trees surround soaring monuments.

Presiding over all of it, carved from Georgia white marble, is Abraham Lincoln, the slain president who kept America from coming apart at its worst moment. Just past sunrise, as the sky above him brightened, runners made wide arcs around each other as they climbed the 87 steps of the memorial. At the top, they paused beneath the engraved names of the states, almost all with a rising death count. But this early, before phones started pinging with news alerts, Lincoln’s visitors could stand at his feet and take a breath, try for a moment of calm. One runner leaned her back against a wide column, looking up at the wall inscribed with the Gettysburg Address.

A skateboarder laps the World War II Memorial on Monday, ignoring signs to stay away. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Two weeks ago, with her exercise studio in West End shuttered, she decided to go for a jog, and her jog brought her here. The 27-year-old came back again the next day. She came back after her uncle died of cancer and she realized her family wouldn’t be able to gather for his funeral. She came back after her mom called to tell her the New Jersey hospital where she works might have to put three people on a single ventilator. She came back every day, read Lincoln’s words — the great battlefield, the great task remaining before us — then ran back down the steps.

At the other end of the Mall, beyond the Reflecting Pool and the Washington Monument, a lone lawmaker dressed in a paisley blouse walked into the ornate chamber of the United States Senate, ascended to the presiding officer’s desk and tapped a wooden gavel twice.

“The Senate will come to order,” Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska, said, essentially to herself, because no other member of the Senate was in the room. She asked the parliamentarian to read a brief procedural motion.

“The Senate stands adjourned,” Murkowski said afterward, tapping the gavel again, just 35 seconds after the pro forma session — which allowed the Senate to avoid officially taking a recess — began.

It had been five days since she and her colleagues walked into the same room and passed an unprecedented $2 trillion stimulus package meant to offset the outbreak’s devastation. Both chambers had originally intended to remain in session this week. Instead, after passing the coronavirus legislation, Congress went dark and the Capitol closed, leaving its domed Rotunda empty.

Blooming flowers frame the U.S. Capitol on Monday. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

“The government’s still open,” explained Murkowski, who stayed in Washington because she would be quarantined for 14 days if she flew home to Alaska. “Things are working, even though we’re not all physically present.”

Congress, though, isn’t debating or passing new bills, and as the deaths continue to mount, no one knows when it will again.

In Washington, the first death — a 59-year-old Franciscan friar named John-Sebastian Laird-Hammond — came March 20, and 10 days later, at the same moment Murkowski gaveled the Senate into order, Father Larry Dunham addressed some of the friars who knew Brother Sebastian best.

“It’s personal for us,” Dunham said of the crisis, but he told them he had realized something else: “It’s personal for everybody.”

The Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America had already closed its church in a corner of Washington known as Little Rome. Desperate to offer the faithful another place to pray, they opened a century-old stone chapel on the monastery’s property. It was there, at 11 a.m., that a dozen robed friars — some outside, so they wouldn’t violate the District’s order not to hold a gathering of more than 10 people — stood together, bowed their heads and pleaded with God for help.

Father Greg Friedman, center, leads fellow Franciscan friars in prayer at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

A nun walks the grounds of the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America on Monday. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

‘Gimme some of them’

Just as it always had, the city woke up hungry.

Most of the ravenous remained out of sight, picking through leftovers, ordering takeout and carefully extracting it from containers they worried might harbor the virus. At the shuttered National Zoo, even Jumbe and Shaka — a pair of 6-year-old lions who gorged on Nebraska ground beef, balls of Canadian horsemeat and cows legs served up by their zookeeper, Katy Juliano — seemed to notice something was different. Where had all those other humans gone?

At the Shrimp Boat, however, there were humans in abundance. In the line at Northeast Washington’s most famous carryout, open since 1944, no one was social distancing as they waited for their orders of seafood and soul food.

“Look at those ribs. Gimme some of them,” said Demetrus Watson, 55, a lifelong customer.

Watson is a home health aide. She’s working, of course, and so were all the customers in hard hats coming off their early shift, packing the Boat. They ordered mac and cheese, greens, fried catfish and went right across the street to the Metro entrance, where they rode home. No different from any other day.

Across town, at Miriam’s Kitchen, a lot was different.

Earl Samples, a homeless man, picks up a free breakfast at Miriam's Kitchen. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Earl Samples got in line outside of what looked like a wedding tent. For almost 40 years, Miriam’s has provided food for the homeless across from the Watergate. It’s usually busting in the dining room, which is exactly what led the charity to move its service outside.

“The only place in town with bathrooms and breakfast for us,” said Samples, 34. More than a dozen people — an older man in smart ankle-high walking shoes, a woman in layers of billowing skirts — stood behind him, waiting for hot pancakes, home fries and eggs.

The staff tried to keep their visitors apart while they congregated to talk about this new world where all of them wandered what felt like an abandoned city.

“They say ‘Keep washing your hands, keep clean,’ ” said a man dressed in camo. “But where are we supposed to go do this? Everything is closed.”

After collecting their food in white to-go containers, they lined up along the sidewalk, using the Western Presbyterian Church’s stone wall as a counter. They ate in silence, a few feet apart.

Homeless men and women eat their breakfasts on the sidewalk outside Miriam's Kitchen. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Anne Chase and her husband, Bob Healy, both 69, ate apart, too.

Shortly after 1 p.m., he walked up the stairs to the couple’s second-floor bedroom in Chevy Chase and, just outside the door, placed a tray of Campbell’s beef-and-barley soup and a ham-and-Swiss sandwich. Healy hasn’t slept there since March 16, the day Chase was discharged from the hospital after nearly two weeks — coughing, sweating, but avoiding a ventilator — with covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Healy, a retired Congressional Quarterly editor who has his own health issues, sleeps in the basement.

“This could kill him,” said Chase, a retired teacher.

Suddenly, after two kids and 40 years of marriage, they had to love each other from a distance. He brought her meals three times a day — “He’s a really amazing cook,” she said — and they talked over the phone, though sometimes she sat on the bed corner so they could chat through the doorway.

Chase no longer had a fever, and her cough had subsided, but she intended to stay alone for at least another week or two. They won’t end the separation, though, until Chase is sure she can’t infect her husband.

Medical workers perform pretesting for covid-19 at the District's Public Health Laboratory. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Cooler bags, used for gathering tests for coronavirus, sit on a cart at the District's Public Health Laboratory. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

‘Coronavirus testing in progress’

Deep inside a gleaming glass building three blocks south of the Mall, exposed ventilation ducts purred overhead, pushing clean air into the quiet rooms where the city’s scientists were working double shifts — aided by robots — to analyze how far covid-19 had spread in the nation’s capital.

Colleen Courtney, chief of molecular diagnostics at the District’s Public Health Laboratory, approached a door with a sign in bright, red lettering: “Coronavirus testing in progress.” She slipped her arms through a crinkled plastic gown and snapped on a pair of baby-blue nitrile gloves. No need for a mask or goggles: The samples sitting in trays beyond the door had been treated with a chemical reagent that rendered the coronavirus inactive. Courtney and medical technologist Elizabeth Zelaya stood just feet away from the pathogen that had killed thousands around the world. Here in their test tubes, it was frozen, harmless.

As Zelaya waited for the afternoon’s results, she stood at a computer console next to a pair of white boxes, each about the size of a hotel minibar. Together, the machines cost as much as a Lamborghini. As the samples were processed, the monitor would display the results: Positive cases were shown as a line that sloped upward before leveling off.

The District’s lab, through a combination of luck and foresight, was well-prepared for the arrival of covid-19. Last year, before anyone knew this coronavirus existed, the city purchased a Panther Fusion, a box-shaped robot with a tinted-glass exterior that could process 300 tests every eight hours. It was now performing covid-19 analyses around the clock, its pipette arm dipping and shifting across rows of test tubes overnight, while its human operators slept.

The story told by these machines was as bleak in the capital as anywhere, following a classic exponential curve whose upward path — reaching a total of 499 that day — had no clear end. More samples were coming in every day as drive-through testing sites started to open. The results on Zelaya’s computer monitor would be reported directly to Mayor Muriel E. Bowser, who was providing updates on the city’s case tally every evening.

Courtney left the room, and Zelaya examined the image before her: a cluster of upward-curving lines, peaking and arching like a wave about to crash.

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser, center, leads a news briefing Monday. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

People clean their clothes at the Laundry Basket in Washington on Monday. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

‘Sprinkling something on us’

The mayor’s pleas to stay home, to slow the spread and flatten the curve, did nothing to dissuade the men and women who like to spend their afternoons on the benches at Girard Street Park in Northwest Washington. To them, it didn’t even matter that the gates were closed. Without access to their usual hangout, a couple dozen people — some in lawn chairs, others leaning against the fence — found new spots on the park’s perimeter.

Someone played the Staple Singers from a speaker. A boy pulled up on a bike, honking his horn.

“What you gonna do with your stimulus money?” Michael Johnson, 61, asked another man.

“Females,” he responded.

“That’s why you stay broke,” said Johnson, who planned to invest in a tent and a backpack.

“Might have to go to the woods,” he said. “You never know.”

He knew everyone. Ron, the one playing the music, had been in the neighborhood since they were kids. Same with Jimmy, in the Dodgers cap, and Slater, who was on the corner.

“We like family,” Johnson said.

He looked up at the sky. Military helicopters had been flying in recent days, he said — every day.

What’s that about? Johnson asked.

No one answered.

“They may be sprinkling something on us,” he said. “You just don’t know.”

Patrick Hickey takes a break from working from home with his dog, Lacy, in Lincoln Park. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

From left, Michael Winch, Joseph Walter, Sarah Collins and Marty Frye play traditional Irish music in the city. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

‘I understand your frustration’

With one long pink fingernail, Chioma Iwuoha dialed into a virtual huddle with her co-workers at Capital Partners for Education, a nonprofit that mentors low-income D.C. students. She checked that her laptop camera was off — so no one could see her white-tiled Southeast Washington kitchen or 7-year-old daughter, Ngozi — before raising an iPhone in her right hand.

As her boss began speaking, Iwuoha, 31, tried one last time to reach Ngozi’s first-grade writing tutor. No luck.

“How was everyone’s weekend?” the boss asked, but Iwuoha didn’t add to the stories about solo nature walks and fearful trips to the grocery store. Instead, she sent Ngozi to the living room with strict instructions: Write at least three sentences, please, while Mommy finishes her call.

Ngozi rolled her eyes but obeyed, and the conversation turned to a large fundraising event, canceled due to the virus. Iwuoha and a co-worker began detailing emergency outreach to donors — 18 emails, more on the way — when Ngozi reappeared.

The little girl didn’t know what to write.

Two minutes and a whispered consultation later, with Ngozi sent back to the living room, Iwuoha tuned in to catch a colleague’s question: Did she have anything to say?

“No,” Iwuoha said, closing her eyes, resting her cheek against her palm. “I think you pretty much covered it.”

Sprawled on the couch, Ngozi stared at the blank page. She looked at her “Captain Underpants” book. She wanted to know what happened in Chapter 12.

“What I like about my mom,” Ngozi wrote, “is that we have fun and I get happy hugs.”

But when she sidled back into the kitchen, Iwuoha — extolling the benefits of “succinct messaging to corporate sponsors” — didn’t seem interested in hugs. Hungry and bored, Ngozi dragged a red bar stool in front of the fridge. Teetering on tiptoes, she peered inside the high-up pantry cabinet.

“Wait, say that again, I missed that?” Iwuoha said into the computer mic, eyes fixed on her daughter.

But Ngozi snatched her Trader Joe’s apple cereal bar without incident. She even managed one more sentence — “art time,” she wrote, “my time to shine” — before accidentally wetting her pants.

When the call finally ended, Iwuoha yelled to Ngozi to change clothes, then began unwinding a roll of paper towels.

Iwuoha stopped. Better, she thought, to save those.

“Ngozi,” she called, “could you grab a rag from upstairs?”

Easter Bunnies on a lawn in the District. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Sharing the challenges of #WorkingFromHomeLife has become a favorite social media pastime in this new era, but as jobless claims soar, it’s also a reminder of something else: Having a job, any job, is a privilege.

Outside the Unity Health Care center in Columbia Heights, Nelson Canales, his face concealed behind a mask, waited in line to pick up his blood pressure and diabetes medication. Canales, 57, was laid off last week from his job at the D.C. Lottery’s Union Station store. He hoped he could still afford his drugs in the months to come.

In Mount Pleasant, Hector Perez, 17, hung out at a laundromat while his friend waited for a load of clothes to dry. He had just lost a carpentry job. He didn’t know when he would find another.

“Money is tight,” Hector said, and his friend nodded.

Before the pandemic, the people who worked at the District’s Department of Employment Services call center thought they knew what busy days felt like, when the phones would ring 350 times.

Now, in a city often described as “recession proof,” they’ve started receiving more than 500 calls an hour.

On Monday afternoon, Corrine Jones listened to her staff answer questions from frightened hair stylists, bartenders and hotel receptionists.

“Take a deep breath,” she reminded her employees before they picked up the phone again.

“I understand your frustration,” she heard them say.

By day’s end, another 5,336 people had filed new claims.

People take advantage of a trail at Rock Creek Park on Monday. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Jordan Jones and Ruby Messier share a hammock at Rock Creek Park. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

‘You ladies look gorgeous!’

At 2:11 p.m., a six-wheeled robot no bigger than a standard cooler whirred away from Broad Branch Market in Northwest carrying milk, eggs and bread. It flew a lighted orange “flag” from its antenna, alerting people to its presence. At a section of uneven sidewalk, the robot paused, as if in thought, before clattering over the break.

Toward the bottom of a hill, Bernhard Fleck, 58, a solar physicist with the European Space Agency, and his wife, Lotte, 59, waited outside their house, where the robot stopped.

“What do we do now?” Bernhard asked. The top wouldn’t budge, so they searched for a latch or a button. Nothing.

“We have the food, but we can’t open it,” Bernhard said, so they yanked a little harder.

“Don’t break it,” a chipper mechanical voice admonished from a speaker.

Passersby stopped.

“Maybe if you talk to it,” someone suggested.

“Hellooo,” Lotte tried, to no avail.

(Michael Ruane/The Washington Post)

The robots, made by San Francisco-based Starship Technologies, aren’t new, but at a time when people are desperate to avoid each other, and delivery drivers command the streets, they’ve never appeared more useful.

Suddenly, the lights on the robot outside the Flecks’ house turned from red to green, and the top popped open. There, at last, were the couple’s groceries.

“Yay,” Lotte said.

They took their purchases and closed the lid, then watched their new acquaintance putter away.

All over the city, odd scenes unfolded, born of the pandemic’s ripple.

A few blocks from the White House, a half-dozen parking control officers stood beneath an awning and talked, their primary activity since the city relaxed enforcement on expired meters, easing the pain they normally inflict on car owners.

“We don’t have a purpose out here,” complained the loudest among them, a stocky middle-aged man, before sarcastically reminding his colleagues that they’ve been asked to provide a presence, to act as ambassadors for the District. The group laughed.

“Just out here getting my ambassadorship on,” he said.

Due north, in the woods of Rock Creek Park — not far from where a nanny was teaching a 4- and 6-year-old how to build a lean-to shelter and recognize edible plants, among other survival skills — two slender young ladies with long, luxuriously curled hair leaned into each other and smiled.

Behind the girls — one in a glamorous cream-colored coat, the other in a tan tank top — was an elegant high-backed beige sofa and, behind that, the rain-swelled creek. A kneeling photographer clicked away.

“Look at me,” he commanded.

Morgan Allen, 18, and Kori Norman, 12, tilted their faces and nudged their shoulders forward. They were modeling to help jazz up a new website for an Alexandria hairstyling business, Coiffed by Ken, owned by Kori’s sister.

Just then, two middle-aged women biked past.

“You ladies look gorgeous!” one of them called out. “OMG!”

George Warner begins closing down the Caribbean Citations food truck in Anacostia on Monday. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Seats at Union Station are covered in plastic and wrapped with police tape. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

‘It’s dystopian out here’

In a surgical mask and rubber gloves, Goli Kashani rolled her suitcase through Union Station and took her place in line for the 5:55 p.m. to New York City. She was the first and only passenger waiting to board Amtrak train No. 138 until, four minutes later, a man in a New York Giants sweatshirt showed up. He stood six feet behind her.

Outside the station, just past the woman lying beneath a blanket on the sidewalk, nine taxis waited for arriving travelers who never arrived. “You got some money for me?” cabbie Sam Ayokanmi, 65, asked a stranger. Ayokanmi had been waiting for a fare for nearly two hours.

Back inside the station’s Main Hall, its vast emptiness circled overhead by 36 Roman statues, a performer who calls himself General Midingtons twirled on the tiled floor while a videographer shot him lip syncing a rap:

I was 16 when I got my first shipment, don’t talk when I’m talking just sit down and listen …

A man approached and asked for change. Another man, shirtless, walked by. A woman in a white turtleneck talked aloud as if she were on a call. She had no phone.

“It’s dystopian out here,” General Midingtons said to the videographer, a woman who calls herself Aunty Nina. They headed for the street.

It was 5:36 p.m., and now there were three people behind Kashani in line for the train to New York. Of course she was worried about traveling to the epicenter of America’s pandemic, where 38,000 were already infected, and 914 had died. But the idea of being stuck in an Arlington studio apartment for the next two months was scarier. New York is her hometown. Her mother would be waiting for her in the Bronx. Her mother would be happy to see her.

At 5:39 p.m., when the gate opened, she rolled her suitcase toward the train, walking with the purpose of someone who had somewhere to be.

President Trump speaks with reporters during the Monday coronavirus briefing. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

People walk through the Yards Park on Monday. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

‘This is crazy’

It wasn’t just Union Station, and it wasn’t just the Capitol. The Anacostia Riverwalk Trail, the National Arboretum, the Tidal Basin — all empty. So, too, was Washington’s springtime cathedral, Nationals Park, where one day soon, a championship banner would have been raised on a pole in center field before a crowd of 41,000. But not now.

Four blocks from the deserted stadium, a panhandler in a heavy coat waited at the top of the Navy Yard-Ballpark Metro station shortly before 6 p.m. People used to arrive from work then, spilling onto the sidewalk and looking for a place to grab a drink, meet friends, watch the game.

Now the station was desolate. The next Green Line train wouldn’t arrive for 14 minutes.

“Trying to get me something to eat,” the man told pedestrians on M Street. He peeked down the station’s exit, where minutes passed between anyone riding the escalator.

“This is crazy,” he said. “Usually a thousand people coming off this junk.”

He jammed his hands in his jacket pockets and walked away.

Nearby, Arthur, a 4-month-old French bulldog busy chasing a Chihuahua in a cable-knit sweater, had no idea that Monday would be his last romp at the Navy Yard Dog Park, or any dog park, because the next day the city closed them all.

Inside the Trump International Hotel, the bar was deserted and dark, lit only by a few TVs, including one tuned to CNN — the network the president claimed “people just don’t want to listen to … anymore” at his daily coronavirus briefing up the street.

As Trump talked in the White House Rose Garden about the “war” the country was waging, a human rights protester sat with his signs (now including, “Wash your hands!”) in the strangely still park across from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

During the 57 minutes that Trump spoke, just five people paused to acknowledge Philipos Melaku-Bello, a fixture at Lafayette Square since 1981. None gave donations. During a normal shift at his protest vigil, Melaku-Bello raises an average of $65. On Monday, he had earned a single dollar.

On 14th Street, once a favorite happy-hour destination, plywood and white paper covered the windows of locked-up restaurants and stores. But Pearl Dive Oyster Palace had stayed open for takeout, filling orders with a staff of two. The Painkiller, a frothy tropical cocktail with pineapple rum, had sold particularly well during the pandemic.

“People are looking for comfort right now,” said Tammy Vodinh, the general manager.

In a different way and for a different reason, that’s what the family of Marquis Osborne had hoped to find Monday night. Osborne, 21, was shot to death at the Waterfront Metro station March 25 in Southwest. Before Bowser decreed that residents stay home, the people who loved Osborne planned to hold an 8 p.m. vigil for him outside the station. But when the order came, they moved the gathering to 6, then canceled it altogether.

That night, the sidewalk where he had lost his life, and where it was supposed to be remembered, remained empty, too.

A memorial for Marquis Osborne, who was shot and killed March 25, is adorned with balloons outside a Safeway in Southwest. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

‘I’m being very careful’

The text message arrived after the mayor’s daughter had gone to bed. It was from her own mother, Joan Bowser, urging her to be more careful.

Both in their 80s, Joe and Joan Bowser still live in Northeast, where they had raised their daughter. They had stopped going out or accepting visitors — including family — early in the pandemic, but Joe Bowser’s technological savvy kept them remotely connected. The mayor sat down in the small office off her kitchen and called her mother using FaceTime. It was about 9 p.m.

These calls took place daily. In the morning, they were a joyous and casual interlude, held in the dining room as Miranda Bowser, almost 2, ate breakfast. The doting grandparents would hear news about how the toddler passed her time now that swim and ballet lessons were canceled, about the new words she had begun stringing together. “Mommy is funny,” Miranda was now declaring, at a time when her mother was delivering daily briefings on people killed over the previous 24 hours by covid-19. Three days earlier, she had announced the death of one of her own staffers: George Valentine, deputy director of the Mayor’s Office of Legal Counsel.

Now Joan Bowser was worried. She understood her daughter’s duties as leader of a city confronting an explosion in new cases of the virus — 94 on that day alone. But did she have to be out in public so much? Couldn’t she do more of her work from home? Did she understand that the microphones she used at news conferences needed to be disinfected? Perhaps she could start changing into a fresh set of clothes when she came home, as many doctors and nurses were doing?

“I’m being very careful,” Bowser told her mother. “We’re limiting my exposure as best we can.”

The mayor explained the precautions she was taking: the physical distance she maintained from people outside the house, the elimination of face-to-face interactions that weren’t strictly necessary. She assured her mom that she was following all the advice she was giving the public. They said they loved each other and hung up, but Bowser kept thinking about what her mom had said.

On Tuesday, the mayor decided, she would start changing out of her work clothes in the basement.

Few people took in a stunning sunset at the Wharf in Southwest on Monday. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

A walker passes U Street landmark Ben's Chili Bowl. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

‘Keep breathing’

On the fourth floor of The Washington Post’s K Street downtown office, the cleaners queued behind a yellow X, taped to the floor in a hallway. One wall bore a sign inscribed with red letters: “Security.”

A man wearing an N95 mask stood behind another line of yellow tape, careful not to cross it as he pointed an infrared thermometer gun at each person’s forehead. In every case, the device’s small screen flashed green. No fever. That meant the overnight cleaning crew — part of an unheralded labor force suddenly tasked with keeping millions of people safe from infection — could get to work.

At 10:53 p.m., a half-dozen women, employed by a contractor that prohibited them from talking to a reporter, filed into an empty lobby. Lugging gray buckets filled with a liquid that smelled of cough drops, they passed LED screens featuring an endless scroll of Post journalism.

“Latin America’s domestic workers face an impossible choice,” read one. “Your job or your health.”

The cleaners boarded elevators, headed for different floors. One of them emerged into a vacant newsroom, littered with half-empty Purell dispensers and unread newspapers.

The Post’s hub — a journalistic nerve center where editors once plotted coverage and sent breaking-news alerts to millions of readers — was silent but for the hum of air conditioning and the slosh of a distant mop. More than a dozen muted TV screens encircling the desks played cable news shows about the virus that went unwatched.

Even during the day, hardly anyone came to the newsroom. At night, the cleaners were alone.

Near midnight, just after one of them ventured into a women’s bathroom and wiped down the toilet bowls, raising every lid, a TV tuned to MSNBC flashed a chyron on the screen: “covid-19 has killed more Americans than 9/11.”

Down K Street, Andy Marsh tried not to think about the virus or its death toll when he woke up in a maternity ward sleeper chair at George Washington University Hospital at 3 a.m. Tuesday. Wearing a pink mask, he checked on his pregnant wife, Jenni Tonti, lying next to him. He texted an update to their doula, awake in her own bed an hour away, in Frederick County, Md.

Dina Piccioni, a doula, provides virtual assistance to Jenni Tonti and Andy Marsh, as they prepared for the birth of their daughter. (Samantha Schmidt/The Washington Post)

“Still only 4 cm dilated,” he wrote. “Still several hours out.”

They had been at the hospital since Sunday morning, when Tonti began taking medications to induce labor. On Monday, a doctor inflated a balloon in the 40-year-old woman’s womb to help speed up the process. Forty-eight hours after they’d arrived, the couple was still waiting.

Their firstborn, a girl they intended to name Emily, wasn’t supposed to come into the world like this. The excited grandparents in California and Ohio had canceled their trips; then the hospital began restricting guests to one per mom. The staff took Marsh’s temperature every 12 hours, explaining that if he showed a fever, he would have to leave. They also warned Tonti: If she contracted the coronavirus, they might need to separate her from the baby the moment she was born.

As Tonti and Marsh waited for labor to begin, they found comfort in a woman they had only ever met virtually — their newly hired doula, Dina Piccioni, who guided the parents from a desktop in her living room.

“The contractions are going to be hard and heavy,” Piccioni reminded Marsh over a Zoom video conference. “She may get upset, cry or say, ‘I can’t do this.’ You just have to reel her back in, saying, ‘Don’t lose your breath, remember to keep breathing, you’re going to get through this.’ ”

That’s what was on Octavia French’s mind — getting through this — when her phone alarm went off at 5:15 a.m., then 5:20 and 5:30. The sanitation worker would be emptying cans in Shaw that day. She packed oranges and thought about the “ch” sounds she needed to teach her son that afternoon, now that she had to home-school him. Then French got into her car and headed back to the parking lot.

So much had changed. Strangers were thanking her crew, even leaving them snacks, and she understood why. Just a single square of tissue paper could pose a threat, so when they blew out of the cans, she had started picking them up with sticks.

But what choice did she have? Her job was important, and French needed the paycheck. She had to do it.

“Protect us,” French asked God in the new day’s predawn darkness, and she hoped that the prayer, the face mask, the extra pair of gloves and the hand sanitizer hidden behind the truck’s passenger seat would be enough to keep her safe.

John Woodrow Cox

John Woodrow Cox is an enterprise reporter at The Washington Post. He previously worked at the Tampa Bay Times and at the Valley News in New Hampshire.

Hannah Natanson

Hannah Natanson is a reporter covering education and K-12 schools in Virginia.

Peter Jamison

Peter Jamison is a reporter on the Local Enterprise Team. He has worked at The Washington Post since 2016.

Jessica Contrera

Jessica Contrera is a reporter on The Washington Post's local enterprise team. She writes about people whose lives are being transformed by the major events and issues in the news.

Petula Dvorak

Petula is a columnist for The Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. Before coming to The Post, she covered social issues, crime and courts.

Paul Schwartzman

Paul Schwartzman specializes in political profiles and narratives about life, death and everything in between. Before joining The Washington Post, he worked at the New York Daily News, where he covered Rudolph W. Giuliani’s rise as mayor.

Sydney Trent

Sydney Trent has been a journalist at The Washington Post since 1999. Most recently, she was Senior Editor/Social Issues, supervising award-winning coverage of religion, gender, poverty and other topics. In this role, she ran coverage of the 2013 inauguration of Barack Obama and Pope Francis' U.S. papal visit in 2015.

About this story

On Monday, March 30, The Washington Post spent 24 hours chronicling how the nation’s capital is living through a pandemic.

This story was reported by John Woodrow Cox, Jessica Contrera, Paul Schwartzman, Peter Jamison, Sydney Trent, Petula Dvorak, Hannah Natanson, Michael E. Ruane, Ian Shapira, Michael S. Rosenwald, Michael E. Miller, Samantha Schmidt, Kent Babb, Katie Mettler, Perry Stein and Paul Kane.

Photography by Ricky Carioti, Matt McClain, Bonnie Jo Mount and Michael Robinson Chavez. Video editing by Erin Patrick O’Connor and Amber Ferguson.

Editing by Lynda Robinson. Photo editing by Wendy Galietta. Copy editing by Carey Biron. Design and development by Junne Alcantara.