‘Am I making the right choice?’

With no overarching coronavirus guidance, a Dallas family struggles with how much risk to take
Marisela Martinez, who is afraid she might contract the coronavirus, glances at her phone at her home in Dallas on May 13, 2020. (Tamir Kalifa for The Washington Post)

Marisela Martinez, a 68-year-old cancer survivor, has barely left the house for months, terrified she will contract the coronavirus. She agreed to help her daughter with child care after schools closed, but is scared to see her grandchildren.

Her daughter, Veronica Olivo, needs the help. The 42-year-old works long hours at a grocery store and yearns for time alone. Her children, who are 7 and 9, are struggling with being cooped up and miss their friends. Olivo knows she has to be careful, but her mother’s worries gnaw at her. Fear, Olivo thinks, is a poor excuse to stop living life to its fullest.

When Martinez learned that the children had a sleepover with a companionship-starved friend, she grew upset and washed their hands with bleach diluted in water. Olivo felt her kids had been isolated too long and needed a break.

“The news is making you crazy, Mom,” Olivo said.

In the absence of overarching national guidance, Martinez, her daughters and millions of others are grappling with their own calculations on how to live with the coronavirus. Faced with conflicting advice from federal, state and local authorities as stay-at-home orders end and the U.S. death toll passes 100,000, Americans must now decide individually which risks are acceptable or reckless as the virus persists, businesses open and people crave human interaction.

Martinez’s family, like countless others around the country, is suspended in a state of uncertainty. They are unsure about how to safely live their lives, whose guidance to trust and how to make decisions about things that, three months ago, would not have warranted a second thought, such as a child’s play date or meeting a friend for dinner.

“I am absolutely confused,” said Carlee Gonzales, the youngest of Martinez’s three daughters. “We are getting so many mixed signals.”

Carlee Gonzales, left, is the youngest of Marisela Martinez's three daughters. They live together, and she follows her mother's house rules on coronavirus safety. (Tamir Kalifa for The Washington Post)

Martinez and her daughters each have their own ideas about what is risky and what is not, leading to clashes, anger and guilt. How does a family that has always been there for each other continue to do so when that very act means putting them all at risk?

“How do I make them understand?” Martinez asked. “I’m not sure about anything.”

‘The information out there is not good enough’

Olivo was transitioning from a grocery job to a higher-paying office job in March, just as Texans began to die of the coronavirus. Within days, she was laid off and the store took her back. But that meant working 16-hour days, managing unruly and panicked customers and coming home so tired, she said, her husband had to force-feed her.

Olivo felt the threat of the virus viscerally. Everything was scary and unknown. She set up virtual play dates for her children and developed a disrobing ritual in the garage to keep germs out of the house: strip off work clothes and head for the shower before doing anything else.

Veronica Olivo tries on a new mask at her southeast Dallas home before going to work. She is careful amid the pandemic, but doesn't share her mother's fear. (Tamir Kalifa for The Washington Post)
The Olivo family's shoes are arranged and regularly cleaned in the laundry room of their home. (Tamir Kalifa for The Washington Post)
Veronica Olivo wrangles a load of clean laundry before work. (Tamir Kalifa for The Washington Post)
TOP: Veronica Olivo tries on a new mask at her southeast Dallas home before going to work. She is careful amid the pandemic, but doesn't share her mother's fear. (Tamir Kalifa for The Washington Post) BOTTOM LEFT: The Olivo family's shoes are arranged and regularly cleaned in the laundry room of their home. (Tamir Kalifa for The Washington Post) BOTTOM RIGHT: Veronica Olivo wrangles a load of clean laundry before work. (Tamir Kalifa for The Washington Post)

She taught her kids not to hug and kiss her when she came home.

“Mommy, why are you naked?” Olivo recalled one of them saying as she dumped her laundry into the washing bin.

Olivo made it a game for Xander, 9, and Amaris, 7. They now run through a checklist for their mother to make sure she has disinfected.

“They’d ask me, ‘Mom, have you washed your face?’ Olivo said. “The kids know what’s going on in their own way.”

Olivo’s husband, Daniel, manages a pawnshop that stayed open when shelter-in-place orders shut down greater Dallas. Their extended family spent time exclusively with one another during the first weeks of quarantine, taking precautions and limiting their contact with the outside world. Whatever happened, they would keep it in the family. And in some ways, life didn’t change.

But as the weeks dragged on, it did.

Olivo’s quarantine fatigue coincided with the announcement in late April by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) that the state would begin to reopen. The dangers were still real, she said, but the desire to see friends, have a drink with neighbors or host a cookout started to outweigh her concern.

“I am a super social person. I use my job as an outlet, like my ‘get-out of jail free’ card,” said Olivo, who has missed singing karaoke to relieve stress. “But let me tell you, there is only so long I can handle being cooped up. And online karaoke is not great.”

Veronica Olivo spends some time outside with her husband, Daniel, and children Xander, 9, left, and Amaris, 7. (Tamir Kalifa for The Washington Post)

The couple also noticed their children were becoming more emotional, crying often and missing their friends. So the family came up with a new set of social distancing rules.

“It’s like unprotected sex,” Olivo said. “I got to know where you’ve been, who you’ve been with and whether you’ve been sick, before I or my family hangs out with you so we don’t catch anything from you.”

Olivo said she relies on her personal connections at her favorite locally owned greasy spoons and lounges to decide whether she’d try dining in. Chain restaurants and mass gatherings of any kind are out of the question, but a backyard cookout with a few friends is a lifeline. She misses going to the casino but is not ready to take that chance.

Olivo knows those decisions can put her at odds with her family. She said she depends on her gut instinct and common sense because she doesn’t trust what she is hearing from officials and doesn’t feel informed by the news updates her mother lives by hour upon hour.

Veronica Olivo gives a vitamin to Xander. (Tamir Kalifa for The Washington Post)
Some of the Olivo family's masks. (Tamir Kalifa for The Washington Post)
A hand-lettered sign by Amaris expresses her appreciation. (Tamir Kalifa for The Washington Post)
TOP: Veronica Olivo gives a vitamin to Xander. (Tamir Kalifa for The Washington Post) BOTTOM LEFT: Some of the Olivo family's masks. (Tamir Kalifa for The Washington Post) BOTTOM RIGHT: A hand-lettered sign by Amaris expresses her appreciation. (Tamir Kalifa for The Washington Post)

“No one is going to listen to these politicians fighting on TV,” Olivo said. “But if it comes from a pastor, a friend they trust, or the lady they buy their tamales from, that’s the information they value and respond to. In the end, we all make our own assumptions.”

For Olivo and others, it can be tempting to believe that, as the nation reopens, the virus has become less of a threat. To relax a bit more or gamble on whether sitting close to a friend for a margarita could have no consequences or dire ones, particularly for vulnerable people like Martinez. Now, as people crave normalcy after weeks at home, it can be hard to know what to do.

“The information out there is not good enough to help me make decisions,” Olivo said.

Martinez keeps the television tuned to cable news for most of the day. What she knows is as terrifying as what she doesn’t. Martinez is familiar with the ways the virus can kill and its medical terminology. Antibodies. Cytokine storms. Asymptomatic vectors. The stories of people suffering haunt her, Martinez said, because her girls don’t have a choice when it comes to staying home.

Olivo shrugged off her mother’s anxiety.

“Oh Mom, I’m a cockroach, nothing can kill me,” she said.

An “Open” sign is displayed in the window of High and Tight Barbershop in Dallas. (Tamir Kalifa for The Washington Post)

‘Am I making the right choice?’

Olivo’s neighborhood in southeast Dallas has been one of the hardest hit in the city. More than 10,000 Dallas residents have tested positive for the virus and more than 229 have died as cases continue to rise. Like the Olivos, many in the neighborhood are also considered essential workers and could not shelter in place, leaving the house each day for jobs where it is difficult to practice social distancing. More than three-fourths of city residents who were hospitalized with covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, and reported their employment had jobs that were classified as essential.

Olivo’s younger sister, Carlee Gonzales, also works at a grocery store. Gonzales’s work makes it impossible to let her guard down. She screens employees with an infrared thermometer to check their body temperatures.

When she comes home to Martinez, Gonzales, 36, respects her mother’s rules. Shoes come off and stay outside. Work clothes are isolated to the laundry. Hands, face and arms are washed. But she said having her mother walk behind her wiping down surfaces and becoming painfully reclusive is tiresome.

“I try my best. I think we should do everything to protect ourselves but I won’t drive myself crazy,” Gonzales said. “My mom is trying to save her physical health without seeing what it is doing to her mental health.”

Gonzales went from seeing her best friend every day to resigning herself to phone calls. The isolation was taking its toll, she said, after weeks of following the rules. Gonzales wanted to reengage her social life but was not sure how.

She soon got an invitation. A Sunday afternoon backyard hangout with six people.

Gonzales declined and blamed her absence on work. She was worried.

“My biggest fear is giving it to my mom and knowing I am the one who passed it to her,” she said.

Then came a second invitation with new parameters. Gonzales’s best friend, a nurse, invited only her, promised to sit outside and apart, with disinfectant wipes. Each would have their own wine bottle. No touching. She was tempted to unburden herself with a friend.

“Am I making the right choice?” Gonzales wondered after deciding she would go. “Should I feel guilty about this?”

Another invitation came soon after. Gonzales pushed the boundaries further when she went inside her friend’s home. She confessed to her mother when she got home.

“When I told her, she wanted to crawl out of her skin, but she didn’t tell me not to go anymore,” Gonzales said.

She ticked off the reasons she felt the risk was worth it: We took precautions. She trusted her friend not to violate the rules of social distancing.

“Don’t you trust me?” she recalled asking her mother.

Carlee Gonzales's mask rests on a chair at home. (Tamir Kalifa for The Washington Post)

Gonzales decided to spend the night at the friend’s house. Martinez was sitting outside when Gonzales jumped into the front seat of her friend’s truck and left.

“Carlee, be careful,” Martinez said. “I will, Mom,” her daughter replied.

“I just pray that she is all right. That’s all I can do,” Martinez said. “They think I’m nuts because I’m sequestered at home.”

‘The older I get, the more it scares me’

Martinez ventures out to retrieve prescriptions from the pharmacy drive-through and make deposits at the bank, but not much else. She wore a mask before it was a suggestion. When her grandchildren are at her home, they play, paint and spar over how to do math. If their hands get dirty, Martinez washes them in a tub of soap, water and a capful of bleach. Martinez takes care of herself, but everyone else’s approach to risk is aggravating.

She understands the torment of illness better than her daughters. In 2001, a mammogram caught breast cancer early and she had a mastectomy to stop the spread. Her narrow escape from cancer felt lucky.

“Every year I get the mammogram, it freaks me out,” she said. “I have two aunts who died of this cancer,” she said. “The older I get, the more it scares me.”

Martinez knows her daughters are adults but believes they don’t understand the danger of the coronavirus. The family knows people who have been infected. Latinos with covid-19 in Dallas are hospitalized at nearly three times the rate of whites. Residents under 65 account for nearly two-thirds of the county’s hospitalizations. Martinez said she is confident that the reopening of Texas, which started last month, was premature and her city will suffer. She worries she and her family will as well.

The best Martinez said she can hope for with her children is respect and balance.

Her part-time job called recently to ask if Martinez could do a few things for them from home. She loves her grandchildren but wanted to further reduce possible coronavirus exposure — especially as her daughter takes fewer precautions. The extra work felt like the perfect pretext for broaching the conversation with Olivo about bringing the children over less often.

Martinez felt guilty but made her plea.

Now, she only has the kids on Saturdays.

Xander and Amaris get some fresh air. (Tamir Kalifa for The Washington Post)

Photo-edited by Karly Domb Sadof. Designed by Tara McCarty. Copy editing by Wayne Lockwood.

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