“That was my outing for the day,” he said after returning to a home now occupied around the clock by his wife, three children and father-in-law. “The windows were down and the sun roof was open. Nice to get some fresh air.”
Day by day, as officials across the Washington region impose new restrictions to contain the coronavirus, the routines and rhythms of conventional life are melting away. Bedrooms are now offices. Dining rooms are classrooms. Sidewalks have become obstacle courses, as pedestrians — many behind masks and in rubber gloves — navigate new rules for how close is too close.
“I’ll just say hello from here,” a man was overheard saying to a friend standing a few feet away outside a Whole Foods on H Street NE.
For most people, the new normal is unfolding at home, which has become a blend of sanctuary and pressure cooker, with work calls interrupted by diaper changes, sounds from one room bleeding into another, and everyone savoring the chance to step outside even as officials warn to stay indoors.
Worst of all, perhaps, no one knows when it will end.
Beyond a near-universal fear of catching the virus, anxieties can take varying forms depending on the neighborhood. In affluent Zip codes such as Old Town Alexandria and Friendship Heights, a recurring source of agita is how to not go insane while getting work done and parenting children.
“Our stir-crazy prevention plan is to get outside for a long walk or hike every day,” said Amina Sarraf, 45, a creative content manager who has been housebound in Falls Church since last Friday.
She and her husband, Darius, take turns keeping their 8-year-old son occupied, entertained and educated.
The lessons have included how to strip and remake a bed.
“Landscaping class” is their new term for yard work.
The boy has been poring over Ranger Rick magazine, she said, and can now “go toe to toe with anyone on orangutan knowledge.”
Lost jobs and growing worry
In more modest neighborhoods, the prevailing fear is about the availability of work — whether jobs that have been lost will be recovered anytime soon, and how to pay bills in the meantime.
Until this week, Ana Velasquez, 47, was a cook and server at El Sol, a Mexican restaurant in Silver Spring. But with the restaurant now open only for to-go orders, there’s no work for her.
On Wednesday, Velasquez set up a table near her apartment building in Langley Park, selling peeled mangos and tacos from the restaurant.
Sales were slow.
“People don’t have money,” Velasquez said of her neighborhood, which includes many Latino immigrants who have lost jobs as restaurants and other businesses across the region have closed. “They can’t work.”
A mile away, at a playground on the grounds of an apartment complex, seven middle school kids assembled at the top of a yellow slide.
“Look who’s coming!” said one, as five more joined them.
As a blue-gloved maintenance man sprayed disinfectant nearby, two boys squared off for a round of slap-boxing, apparently unconcerned about skin-to-skin contact. Another kid offered an extended elbow as a greeting to a friend, who grabbed his hand anyway.
“Ahh, coronavirus!” the boy shouted in mock horror.
When an ice cream truck pulled up, a 13-year-old boy bought a bag of M&M’s and shared them one at a time with his friends. From inside the truck, George Mensa said the warming weather usually means more sales. Not now.
“They don’t want to be in contact,” he said of his customers, fretting over how he will pay his bills and feed his kids. Fortunately, he said, his wife works at a liquor store, where sales are steady.
Tanya Washington has been unemployed for six months and does not expect her job prospects to brighten any time soon. Now she must also contend with the challenge of sharing her Southeast Washington apartment with two teenage boys and a daughter whose beauty school classes have been put on hold.
“Nobody can come in and nobody can go out unless it’s necessary,” said Washington, 50, as she stood outside a Safeway on Alabama Avenue SE. Her kids, she said, were still in their beds as of 1:30 that afternoon when she left to buy groceries.
“This is a time for family and unity, time for home-cooked meals and being together,” said Washington, the letters on her black baseball cap spelling “J-E-S-U-S.” “When you’re family, at least you know where your germs came from.”
A couple of miles north on Division Avenue NE, Raymond Coates, 60, a contractor, said maintaining distance from people was his most taxing challenge. Earlier that day, he saw a woman struggling to carry an empty oversized carton down her stoop to a trash can. When he offered to help, she gave him a look and said, “No thanks.” The woman relented when he told her the box was long enough that they would be safe if each took the opposite end.
Coates, who lives in the predominantly working-class neighborhood of Marshall Heights, relies on what health experts would consider wishful thinking when he claims that he and his circle do not feel especially vulnerable to infection. The virus, he tells himself, only attacks those with enough money to travel.
“Rich people get it,” he said. “We don’t go anywhere other than our own neighborhoods.”
No end in sight
On Day 3 of “WFH” — the new shorthand for “working from home” — Mary Beth Corrigan sensed that her two cats seemed unsettled by a change in routine that meant she and her husband were not leaving their house in Old Town.
“One of them keeps moving around and won’t stay still,” said Corrigan, 58, who works for a not-for-profit. “He’s like, ‘I’m happy you’re here. But why are you here?’ ”
By early afternoon, she decided she’d had enough. She walked over to Old Town’s waterfront, sat on some rocks and found a measure of solace in a view that included a plane taking off from Reagan National Airport, seagulls coursing through the air and ducks making slow circles in the water below.
“Frankly, I just had to get out of the house for a little while,” she said.
Everywhere, it seems, time is a constant topic of conversation. As in: How long will it be before everyone can go back to their office? Before their kids return to school? Before restaurants reopen?
Before a semblance of familiar life returns?
Bob Guidos, 54, a corporate director of regulatory affairs, said he focuses on questions that he can answer, such as when to work, where to buy toilet paper and where he can exercise now that his apartment building has closed the gym.
“Everything else, you have no control over,” he said, as he lifted eight-pound weights in his new workout location — a grass patch in Logan Circle — while his trainer kept a watchful eye from 15 feet away.
A few yards away, a man sat on a bench reading a book. Another man on another bench ate soup from a takeout container. A few yards from him, another man stared at his phone.
Beatrice Becette, 25, and Catherine Kubitschek, 24, were doing “stiletto squats,” happy to escape their apartments and, as Kubitschek said, “be around people but not be around people at the same time.”
“You just have to find a way to calm yourself down,” she said, reciting a list of her own activities that included meditation, sleeping and eating healthily.
The worries creep in, nevertheless.
Both women work at National Geographic and wonder whether the economy will ever recover, and whether they will be able to return to the projects they were working on before they were sent home.
“It’s just a big change,” Kubitschek said.
A few miles north, on a ballfield in Friendship Heights, John Springer, 57, an editor at a think tank, hit balls to his 10-year-old son, Alex, who stood by himself on an otherwise deserted field.
It was a needed break in a week in which Springer found himself forced to work at home while also trying to be a decent parent.
“At the end of the day, you end up feeling like you didn’t do very well at either,” he said. “And tomorrow it will feel the same. This is not sustainable.”
He turned and hit another pop fly to his son, and then another, as dusk settled and soon they headed back home.