Ten Americans Discuss How the Pandemic Shaped Life in the U.S.

At first it seemed like it would last only a short while. Then it just became the way things were.

In the 365 days since the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic, America’s people and economy have been remade by numbers that few could have imagined: More than 29 million infected and 529,000 dead, about 10 million unemployed. Millions more working from home — if they were lucky.

As the novel coronavirus lost its novelty, we reinvented how we eat, mourn, work, cope, dress and entertain ourselves. The changes — some great, some trivial — played out in places from Seattle’s hospitals, to a Fontana, California, funeral home, to the kitchens of novice bakers across America.

A year ago, we couldn’t imagine how we would make a reflex of calculating risk. How masks and social distancing would keep us safe, but faceless and apart. Time and space, once definite and real, grew abstract. Each day resembled the last and the next, each room became the backdrop for a video call, each in-person shift an opportunity for infection.

Then came the hopeful numbers: 95.7 million vaccine doses administered, across 19% of the population. When the pandemic is controlled, people will eagerly cast off many of the plague year’s distortions. But every one of America’s 330 million people also had their lives altered in ways that will be permanent.  

(Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity. Scroll down for a podcast of Americans reflecting on the year of Covid.)

Ten Americans Discuss How the Pandemic Shaped Life in the U.S.

Name: Mike Birbiglia, 42
Home: Brooklyn, New York; office in Providence, Rhode Island
Profession: Comedian

The closing of dark, basement clubs left Birbiglia with jokes but no stage and no business model.  Now he performs in a Providence office tricked out with cameras to a worldwide audience, whose members pay about $25 a show. About 6,000 people tuned in to a series of Valentine’s-themed shows, a crowd big enough to fill Radio City Music Hall.

If you go to see a comedian, the conditions for the comedy are actually really good without you realizing it. The sound is perfect. The lighting is perfect. The acoustics are great. You look at Zoom ... If you think about an art form that’s so much based on timing and precision, it’s like the enemy of timing and precision.  

I mentioned to the audience at the Valentine’s show that I think I'm going to keep doing these after we can go out, do shows live after the pandemic, and people cheered. I think that there’s an appetite. 

Reading the room is definitely more difficult. But there’s this other caveat: You can see their faces. Usually, I can’t see their faces. I can only see the first three rows, and then beyond that it’s darkness, because there’s a spotlight in my face. In this case, I can see them on their couch, with their family, with their dogs, with their kids. So even if the laughter isn’t loud, sometimes you can see that people are enjoying it.

I definitely make jokes about Covid, although those all have an expiration date, hopefully sooner than later. I was talking to a friend a few months ago and he’s like, ‘I’m having a good pandemic. I’m getting a lot done.’ And a week later he’s like, ‘We’re getting divorced.’ He’s like, you know, ‘I’ve murdered my grandmother. I have Irish citizenship, and I’ll be at our Zoom pottery class on Tuesday.’

I’m finding people are more comfortable with gallows humor, because it’s all around us. Death is all around us, illness is all around us. Darkness surrounds us, and if you don’t acknowledge the darkness, you’re actually not being astute.

Name: Valerie Steele, 65
Home: New York City
Profession: Director and chief curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology

By eliminating the need to dress well, the pandemic has accelerated a shift in the fashion world toward casualization. Combined with the broader economic devastation inflicted on consumers, the change worries an industry synonymous with luxury and novelty.

It’s been 15 or 20 years since the late Karl Lagerfeld said that wearing sweat pants was a sign that you had given up. He was already noticing that lots of people had lost relative interest in fashion.

If we go back three days a week, we’ll certainly be doing more shopping and more dry cleaning, but it may not be a wholehearted embrace of everything before all the techies started wearing T-shirts and men stopped wearing ties.

I mean, jeans are relatively dressed up now compared to sweatpants. There are many young people who, as far as I can make out, have never worn a pair of leather shoes. They just wear sneakers.

Ten Americans Discuss How the Pandemic Shaped Life in the U.S.

Name: Jessica Rodriguez, 43
Home: Fontana, California
Occupation: Funeral director at Ingold Funeral and Cremation

Rodriguez’s work grew so busy that she had to delay funerals and cremations, and even turn families away. Then came December and January: Rodriguez’s father — with whom she, her mother and her son lived — died from Covid-19, as did two uncles.

We’re a service that’s 24 hours, on call, closing our doors. We had to do everything by appointment, taking information over the phone. It became very impersonal. 

We’ve created a waiting list. You don't get used to something like that, when you've got loved ones, just rows of them. Some, the family wasn't going to be able to view them because they were already too far along in the decomposition process— maybe they were at the hospital for a month before we received them, or at the coroner's office.

Our chapel and church space, commonly it's okay to have standing-room only and people all over the place. Now it’s not at all possible. The comforting has to be done from a distance. There’s isolation from the time they get sick to the time they’re laid to rest. 

My son actually had gotten Covid, maybe from my sisters, who got it from work. I kept him upstairs. I kept my six feet distance, and we wore masks. That’s how we spent Christmas. At the beginning of January, my parents were both now positive. My dad went to the hospital, and that’s the last time I got to see him. 

I did ask them to allow my staff to come and pick him up from his bed. I told them, ‘Look, you, and I both know you don't have any capacity at the hospital, and I will not allow you to place my father in a refrigerated trailer in the parking lot.’ After the services I took a day off, and the next day I went back to work. 

A lot of times people think that someone in our profession has become jaded: We see it day in and day out, it’s not a big deal. It very much is a big deal. 

I’m a little concerned with people deciding that I don’t necessarily need to be there for a funeral once Covid is over. If it can be livestreamed, let’s do that. Hopefully not, because you need people around you when you’re grieving like this, you know? 

Podcast: Americans Discuss the Year of Covid

Name: Katalin Kariko, 66
Home: Abington Township, Pennsylvania
Profession: Senior vice president of BioNTech

Scientists have been working on messenger RNA vaccines for decades, but in 2020 the public took notice. BioNTech teamed with Pfizer Inc. to create the first one commercially available in the U.S., which Kariko herself received in December. 

I could not get grants up until 2006. I knew that it could be used for everything. It was kind of a Cassandra feeling, that I can see the future and nobody believes me.

Some people were quite nasty and made my life miserable. There are people who are in leadership positions, and they help and lead, or they have the power to crush you. I can resist that and not care that much. As long as I was in the lab and focused on what I can do, I was very happy. Oh my god, I was there weekends, long days. My husband once calculated I earned probably $1 per hour, worse than in a McDonald’s. I was 57 years old, I was working at the bench and then doing the experiment, designing it myself. 

I don’t know what could have been changed, because when people have ideas other people judge to be crazy, probably 99% are crazy. I don't know. I don’t blame other people. 

That will be the next big chapter, how many different diseases we can treat. We can target the messenger RNA to certain organs, certain cell types, bone marrow, and can perform different kinds of treatment. For cancer vaccines, vaccination against infectious diseases as a prophylactic or therapeutic. And rare disease.

Ten Americans Discuss How the Pandemic Shaped Life in the U.S.

Names: Betsy Sneller, 32; Suzanne Wagner, 42
Home: Lansing, Michigan; East Lansing, Michigan
Profession: Sociolinguists at Michigan State University

Sneller and Wagner launched the MI Diaries project in April, asking participants to submit recordings talking about their lives. The researchers listened to stories of isolated teenagers, socially distanced weddings and Zoom Christmases to discover changes in how we speak. 

Wagner: We expect any kind of in-person interaction to be a driver of language change. Any kind of interaction is the spark of possibility that allows people to subtly change the way that they talk to be more like the people around them. 

What has been somewhat unprecedented for linguists is the opportunity to study the opposite. What happens when most kinds of day-to-day interactions on any kind of scale are taken away from people? 

Sneller:  There was kind of this explosion of new terms: maskhole, quarantini. 

There’s BC, AC, to mean life before corona and after corona. Corona bae, the person that you are in lockdown with, might have accidentally accelerated a relationship. Covidiots. Coronaphobia. Quarangut, the weight that you put on during quarantine. Social distancing. Quarantining. Zoom bombing. 

Wagner: I like doomscrolling. That was on the short list for word of the year. But I’m going to go for social distancing as perhaps most likely to catch on. 

Inevitably, a few things will stay. Like the Second World War and the way that we continue to use terms like blockbuster, which was a bomb, I feel confident that some things will remain. They may just take on new meanings. 

Ten Americans Discuss How the Pandemic Shaped Life in the U.S.

Name: Chase Cannon, 33
Home: Seattle, Washington
Profession: Infectious disease doctor

The first case of Covid-19 was identified in the U.S. on Jan. 21, 2020, in the Seattle area. Learning to treat the disease was difficult and humbling, said Cannon, who saw his first Covid patient that spring. 

We had more hope that there would be other therapeutics, but it’s limited now to one, maybe two, antivirals and then steroids. We thought maybe this would last for a couple of months, but it doesn’t look like it’s going to be that much different this year than it was last year. 

I do primary care for people living with HIV, many of whom have a home that is stable, but a lot of them do not. For people who are living homeless, a lot of the shelters close down if they have an outbreak. For people who rely on that, it’s really challenging to try to keep their spirits up and encourage them to stay motivated when a basic human need like that can’t be fulfilled.

 I’ve had a couple of family members who have died. It’s really been telling to talk to patients who are Black and they just are exasperated, and they’re like, ‘Why does this keep happening to us?’ And I don’t have a good answer.

Ten Americans Discuss How the Pandemic Shaped Life in the U.S.

Name: Karen Colberg, 55
Home: Lyme, New Hampshire
Profession: Co-chief executive officer of King Arthur Baking Co.

Last spring, King Arthur saw demand for flour, yeast, baking pans and vanilla spike six-fold.  After expanding production, the employee-owned company is trying to figure out how long the baking bump will last.

We were positioned for Easter baking, which is our second-biggest time of year, that March timeframe. So we were able to meet demand a little bit for the first couple of weeks. It was probably the highest sales month in our history. 

Baking has been a source of activity, escape, comfort and sustenance. It’s everything from chocolate-chip cookies and banana bread to sourdough bread. A lot of people who have come to us — come to baking really — throughout the past 11 months are people who have not baked before.  We are deep in trying to forecast what is going to happen. The total baking, is it going to drop back to where it was in 2019? Is it going to be somewhere above that? 

People want to go places. They want to go to entertainment and concerts and plays and restaurants and all those things. And so that will take them out of their kitchens, which I completely understand.

Name: Edouardo Jordan, 40
Home: Seattle
Profession: Chef, Restaurateur

Jordan, a James Beard award winner, had to shut down one of his three restaurants, part of over 100,000 closings in the industry since March 2020.  

I just ended up my series of events called the Soul of Seattle, and the whole point was to stop and recognize these restaurants that are run by people of color, black-owned businesses and restaurants that are, we call it, the fabric of our communities.

If we don’t support these locations, they won’t be here in 2022 and we’re going to have a huge void in our city. And our city is just going to become the old-school Seattle, I call it salmon and coffee beans. 

The closing of my business wasn’t because of a lack of effort on my behalf, a lack of talent, a lack of product, quality of product. It’s something that was uncontrollable from our end, and it really stings. When we open, we might be in so much debt that it doesn’t make sense to keep the doors open or to reopen them. It’s like someone taking the keys to your house and you’ve been paying the rent or the mortgage on it.

Name: Jessi Gold, 33
Home: St. Louis
Profession: Psychiatrist

A year of isolation and trauma has just begun taking its full toll on the psychic health of Americans. Healing and managing the mental illness hangover from the pandemic will fall on the shoulders of health-care providers, who are vulnerable to burnout themselves.

We’ve had a 20% increase in phone volume. It took off pretty quickly — a lot of anxiety because of uncertainty, the longer it’s gone on, depression, because we’ve been away from people. 

If we’re having trouble now, what does it look like down the road? I would have told you before Covid that I probably had 10 patients or something that I would go to sleep and worry about of my, like 150 or so. It’s not the case anymore. It’s much closer to over half of them. 

You can’t medicate away a pandemic and you can’t medicate away grief and you can’t medicate away job loss and schooling from home and work from home.  I think I’m going to be consistently busy until forever. I don’t see an end to it.

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