So before the polls opened at 7 a.m., Leaper, who works in accounting for a livestock feed company, called her polling place near the tiny town of Three Springs, Pa., and made arrangements to vote safely. “I wore an N95 and another mask over it, I had two sets of gloves on, [and] they brought the paperwork out to me,” she said. “I filled it out on the hood of my car.” From there, she went directly to the hospital.
Over the next few days, Leaper’s home state of Pennsylvania would become the focus of national attention as President Trump and former vice president Joe Biden competed for its 20 potentially game-changing electoral votes. But late Wednesday night, Leaper’s mind was no longer on the election. Her roommate in the covid-19 ward, an elderly woman, was having a difficult night.
“I knew she was close to the end,” Leaper said, “and I got up, went over and held her hand and prayed with her.” In their shared “bubble room,” Leaper sang the hymn “How Great Thou Art”: I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder / Thy power throughout the universe displayed. / Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee / How great Thou art, how great Thou art.
Nurses informed Leaper shortly afterward that the woman had died, and as TV audiences across the country watched Trump’s lead in Pennsylvania dwindle, Leaper lay in her hospital bed and wept. “It just broke my heart that she was alone.”
This past week, Americans spent what many described as an agonizing three-and-a-half days anticipating an election result that took longer than usual to arrive. As the last few battleground states carefully counted votes, millions spent the better part of a week sitting (or pacing, or squirming) before their TV, computer, and phone screens; as one Twitter user wrote on Friday night, “I know the name of the registrar in Clark County, Nevada, how to pronounce every town in Georgia, and where every Republican in Arizona lives.”
At the same time, other Americans were dealing with an agony far more profound and prolonged. On Election Day, a Texas-based Pentecostal Christian congregation lost its 75-year-old co-founding pastor to covid-19. On Thursday, a middle school in Lancaster County, Pa., had to abruptly cancel students’ in-person classes for the rest of the week after the coronavirus claimed a 47-year-old guidance counselor. On Saturday, a record 134,377 new U.S. cases of the coronavirus were reported, according to The Post’s count, and the country reported its fifth straight day of more than 1,000 deaths.
For some, like Leaper, the devastating effects of the coronavirus made the presidential election temporarily feel far away. But for others, being personally affected by the pandemic only made electing a new leader with a detailed plan to fight it feel more urgent.
In Clark County, Nev., the nucleus for much of the collective vote-counting angst last week, Trina Atencio Cleveland was quarantined in her home in Las Vegas with a fever wavering between 99 and 100 degrees. By Election Day, Cleveland, 50, who works in human resources for a retail chain, had been fighting the coronavirus for over a week and was confined to a bedroom in the home she shares with her boyfriend and her two adult daughters. At breakfast, lunch and dinnertime, they left trays of food outside her door, she said, even though “my appetite has been awful.”
Cleveland’s older brother, 66-year-old Ron Atencio, lives only a short drive away. But when his “baby sister” went into isolation, he felt powerless and scared. “It’s a very close family,” Atencio said. Atencio, who is semiretired and earning his bachelor’s degree, has been checking in with Cleveland via phone and FaceTime several times a day, and last week, their conversations began to drift to the ongoing election. Soon, they were watching election coverage together on their separate televisions while they talked on the phone, each able to hear the other’s TV in the background.
Having something to talk about other than Cleveland’s health, Atencio said, was comforting. “I felt like I could be by her bedside,” he said. But watching election results trickle in while his sister coughed also brought the election “way closer to home,” said Atencio, who identifies as a Democrat. “It made it way more personal.”
School librarian Sadeqwa Simmons, 38, and her husband Victor, a 43-year-old research-library administrator, live in Smyrna, Ga., on the southern end of Cobb County. As Democratic voters, they have sometimes felt isolated in their home state in past elections. But on Thursday, as their county’s votes were trickling in and helping Georgia look like it could flip from red to blue, the Simmonses and their two sons were traveling to New York to attend a funeral. Sadeqwa, who lost one of her grandmothers to covid-19 back in the spring, had now lost her other one to complications from the same virus.
Jennie Washington, of New York City, was 87, and according to Victor, “extremely sharp.” “If I ever get to be 87, I’d like to be 87 like Ms. Washington,” he said.
The service, held on Saturday, was the first time Sadeqwa had seen several of her cousins since the start of the pandemic, and some of them had also lost their mother to the virus. “This was my first time hugging them and saying, ‘I’m sorry for your loss.’ But we’re both sorry for our loss,” she said. “It’s been heartbreaking.”
Sadeqwa, like Atencio, has only become more acutely aware of the election and its stakes as she’s dealt with the pandemic’s havoc on her own family. Frequently over the last few months, she’s thought about Trump’s revealing interviews with Bob Woodward, which show he knew how deadly the novel coronavirus could be back in February but continued to downplay it. When the news first broke via Woodward’s book “Rage,” she cried at work. “I [wondered], if he would’ve taken it more seriously, if my first grandmother would have still been here.”
On Saturday afternoon, about an hour after TV networks finally called Pennsylvania for Joe Biden and thus projected him to be the next president, Leaper was sitting in her car in the hospital parking lot, feeling “shaky” and trying to work up the nerve to make the drive home. Leaper had a bag full of medicines in the back of her car and a long recovery ahead of her, but she was ready to get home and be with her husband — and watch more election coverage. She had watched during the day on the TV in her hospital room, and despite multiple outlets having announced a projected winner, it wasn’t over yet, she said: “Who knows when we’ll even know?” she said. “I mean, both sides are declaring.”
Sadeqwa, meanwhile, got the news that the election had been called for Biden during her grandmother’s funeral: She got a push alert on her phone, showed Victor, “and we just kind of smiled and that was it.” Soon, though, the news was rippling through the church, and the sadness of the occasion was interrupted by “the feeling of just … joy.”
As news of Biden’s victory traveled around the world, many Americans’ anguish finally subsided. Celebrations erupted on the Las Vegas Strip — but Cleveland was still in her bedroom. For her, the hard part wasn’t over yet. Although she felt significantly better, she was planning to spend another day or two in isolation.
Nevertheless, on Friday night, when Biden’s win became apparent, she and Ron shared their own moment of quiet elation.
“I’m not a bashing kind of person,” Cleveland said, but perhaps if curbing the spread of the coronavirus had been more important to the president, “maybe I wouldn’t have gotten sick. Maybe there would have been less unnecessary death and sickness.” So when the polls began to strongly signal a Biden win, “every emotion hit me,” she said. “Finally I’m better, and — sorry,” she said, her voice breaking. “It kind of is just a breath of fresh air to know that this is important again.”