In the first weeks during which a new strain of coronavirus seemed to stop the world’s spinning, I spoke with several people in the Hudson Valley who lost their jobs and livelihoods after Governor Cuomo gave the extraordinary executive order to shut down all nonessential businesses. This emergency action—taken to slow a pandemic which found its US epicenter in New York City and has killed more than 60,000 people globally—sacrificed the relative stability of our economy in order to stem the loss of human life.
Nationally, a staggering 3.3 million people filed unemployment claims in the third week of March, shattering the previous record for a single week by five and a half times. The following week, the number of unemployment claims doubled, meaning nearly 10 million people have lost their jobs. The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis predicts that nearly one-third of the US workforce will find itself out of work by summertime. More than 446,000 New Yorkers filed for unemployment in the final two weeks of March, and in the Hudson Valley it seems as if every bartender, restaurant server, and barista is looking for help covering the cost of living. Critics say the federal relief package “threatens to leave many people out,” with unemployment systems overwhelmed and potentially tens of millions of people ineligible for payments. If the spread of the novel coronavirus continues along its expected course, this misfortune is a picture of what is to come for millions more people throughout New York State and the country.
Nearly everyone I spoke with sounded like tourist fresh off a plane in some strange, new country. They were humbled and disoriented, far away from surroundings they know, grasping for language they could use to make sense of a place they never meant to visit. Here is what they shared about their experiences.
Known to friends and customers as “Ed,” Edward Gibbons-Brown spoke slowly when reached by phone at his apartment in Beacon on Sunday, March 22. Just seven days earlier, he was helping his coworkers open Mama Roux, a celebrated new hybrid Southern- and French-style restaurant on Broadway in Newburgh. Now, amid bookshelves and the trappings of his vocation as a bartender, he is trying to figure out how he will pay his bills.
“My situation went from bad to worse,” Ed explains. “Like many people in the restaurant industry, I was already living paycheck to paycheck. I have no idea what’s going to happen next.”
Ed’s last shift was on March 15. Mama Roux was typically busy, but neither patrons nor staff seemed eager to discuss what was happening, with a few indirect exceptions. While preparing for brunch, for instance, when a colleague would cough or sneeze, Ed and his coworkers would point a finger at the person, say something menacing, and have a laugh together. Midway through his shift, a man sat down at the bar and placed a bottle of hand sanitizer on the counter in front of him without saying a word. People smiled at each other, but an impending sense of loss—of health, money, jobs, and a favorite neighborhood place—made it difficult to enjoy the restaurant’s charms.
That evening, like other restaurants, Mama Roux reduced its service to pickup and delivery orders. At 7:30am two days later, Ed opened his laptop and filed for unemployment benefits through New York State’s Department of Labor.
When I asked how he was coping with the loss of his livelihood, he repeated the common understanding that restaurant workers are heavy drinkers: “Shift work is a habit regulator,” he explains. “But now I can’t work, so my bad habits can roam.”
Where will he get money? “I got my paycheck this weekend. So the finality of this hasn’t hit me yet. But I have some ideas.” His roommate is a film student and the two wasted no time starting production of a series of short films called “Cocktails for the Quarantine.”
“Everyone’s stuck at home and we can entertain them and show them how to make cocktails affordably,” Ed says. “If they like what they see, they can tip their bartender.”
Ed is an actor and skilled entertainer. A few hours after we spoke, the pair’s first video, in which he explains how to make an Old Fashioned, appeared on the crowdsourcing site Fundly. Their initial goal was to raise $500. In a little more than one week, 16 donors had given a combined $616, prompting Ed to increase his fundraising goal to $2,000.
Mateo (a pseudonym used to protect his identity) coughs when he picks up the phone on Sunday afternoon. He is isolated in the basement bedroom of his grandparent’s home in High Falls, halfway through a mandatory two-week quarantine he entered after testing positive for the novel coronavirus.
“About a month ago, I was complaining that I needed a vacation,” he jokes. “This isn’t the vacation I was hoping for.”
He is optimistic, anxious, and self-conscious about sounding gloomy. He spent several days obsessing over the question of where he could have contracted the virus. Was it the handle of a gas pump he touched while filling up his car? The keypad of an ATM machine? The thought that he could have given it to someone else—to his coworkers, customers, or his grandparents, who are especially vulnerable because of their age—fills him with guilt. He feels responsible for the closing of Deising’s Bakery and Restaurant in Kingston, where he served tables, and for the loss of his coworkers’ jobs. “Businesses are closed everywhere,” I try to reassure him. “Lots of people lost their jobs and even more are stuck in their homes.” (Later in the week, his employer tells me that all of Mateo’s coworkers tested negative for the virus and that they intend to rehire all of their staff when the lockdown is lifted.)
Coronavirus was on his mind during his shift on March 15 when he felt “a weird, irregular pain” in his chest. “I had no other symptoms, but people urged me to go to the hospital, so I went to Health Quest and they sent me to Northern Dutchess. They tested for corona and 15 other things. Two days later they called and told me I had it. I was shocked.”
Shortly after Mateo got the news, nurses arrived at his grandparent’s home to test them for the virus. He signed a statement pledging to self-quarantine. Since then, the hospital has called once per day to ask about his condition. Sometimes he reports a slight fever and discomfort in one of his shoulders. Otherwise, he feels okay.
“It’s like you’re on an island,” he says of his loneliness. The only person he sees regularly is his mother, who enters his room wearing a surgical mask to deliver food and water three or four times per day. Sometimes she draws him outdoors to walk the family property together. They always maintain the recommended distance of six feet between them.
Comic books and videogames help Mateo pass the time, but they’re no substitute for the tabletop games he enjoys with his friends, like Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder. He uses Facebook—“probably not the best source of news,” he admits—to stay informed of what’s going on in the broader world. He dislikes seeing pictures of empty supermarket shelves, imagining some people being unable to get the food and supplies they need.
His family and friends check in regularly. All seem healthy, except for his grandparents. His grandfather was “really sick” the day Mateo tested positive and was taken to the hospital the next day. Except for a phone call or two early on, Mateo hasn’t been able to speak with him, and he fears the worst. “He’s the closest thing to a father figure I have,” he says. His mother won’t answer direct questions about his grandfather’s condition. “You don’t need to worry about that right now,” she says when he asks. He fears she is protecting him from bad news.
At one point during our call, Mateo’s mother calls out to him and I hear the two talking through his bedroom door. “She wanted to surprise me with a dessert,” he says.
Later in the week I check in with Mateo and we exchange a few text messages. He tells me he heard from his grandfather, who was transferred to a different hospital, but no one will say whether he has the virus. Mateo’s grandmother tested positive for the virus and is being cared for in their home. “I’m scared I could lose them,” he says. “But I’m trying not to let that take over my thoughts.”
On Monday evening, I reach Gail Wauford and Dimitri Archip at their home in Beacon. I tell them I’m looking to talk with people who lost their jobs to the economic fallout from the coronavirus and they tell me I called the right house. They ask for a moment to pour drinks for themselves.
They sound subdued but upbeat. We talk about their sudden unemployment, the gratitude they feel for living in a “tight-knit” community, and the disruptions to everyday life. “We’re trying to keep a good sense of humor through all of this,” Dimitri says. “It’s like a Chekhov play: Even though it’s a tragedy, if it’s well-produced, there are moments of laughter.”
Now ages 57 and 63 respectively, Gail and Dimitri left careers in information technology in New York City to seek a gentler life in Beacon. Gail earned her living giving facial treatments in spas. Dimitri worked as a musician and bartender.
“It’s scary,” she says. “I’m on my second career. I chose it because I felt very strongly that people didn’t receive enough touch, and I wanted to do something about that. I don’t really know where to go from here, though. Touch is not really in anyone’s near future.”
On March 18, Gail was scheduled to start a position at a new spa and restaurant in Peekskill. When New York State began to shut down, the grand opening was delayed indefinitely. Over the previous weekend, she worked on her clients at The Inn and Spa at Beacon through the awkward barriers of a mask, eyewear, gloves, and a whole lot of nerves. The business closed several days later.
Dimitri worked his last bartending shift on March 12, the day Governor Cuomo announced limits on large gatherings effective the following day. On his drive down to Brooklyn Heights he feared he would get stuck in a city on lockdown. But that didn’t happen. He spent his evening mixing drinks and disinfecting the bar’s surfaces with Clorox. He had looked forward to playing three shows over the weekend after he got home, but then the shows were canceled, as was his Tuesday evening bartending shift at Dogwood in Beacon. Now he is preparing for some “musical isolation” and recording.
“Gail tends to work a little faster than me,” he says. “I have a tendency to go inward. I don’t have a clear idea about what’s next, except that I can refocus my energy in this new environment we’re in. I don’t feel urgency right now. When I approach things with urgency, I make mistakes. I guess we have to look at this as an opportunity.”
“One door closes and another one opens,” adds Gail. “But I don’t know where the door is!” They both laugh.
Since the lockdown, the pair have left their home during the day to walk, bike, and otherwise try to “maintain some sort of stability and sanity,” Dimitri says. On their walks, they interact with friends from a distance. Gail’s asthma makes her especially vulnerable to the coronavirus. Outside and at home, she is “heartened to see people helping each other out.” Friends have left gifts on their porch: seeds for their garden, wine.
“To be here in the Hudson Valley, in this time, at this moment, I find it kind of a blessing,” Dimitri says. “If we were in New York City I wouldn’t want to be in the street. There are just too many people and they’re not abiding by the strictures. But up here, there’s space.”
The two are blessed in another way: They own their home. “If the state forgives our taxes and utilities for a while, we should be alright,” Gail says. “We won’t have to worry about banks later on, saying: ‘Now you owe us even more interest because you didn’t pay us for a while.’” She worries about people with mortgages and rent. She and Dimitri have some savings and they estimate they can subsist until the end of the year without new income, if necessary. Of course, they both want to return to work.
“I tried to file for unemployment but I was working as an independent contractor,” Gail says. “I’m not sure I’ll get compensation. I’ve been a little annoyed at the whole situation.” She may as well have been an official employee in previous jobs, she says. “They provided the equipment and told me when to come, but they paid me with a 1099, so I had to file business taxes with no write-offs. People who drive Uber or Lyft are in the same situation. You’re functioning as an employee without paying your unemployment insurance or payroll taxes.”
Dimitri chimes in. “It’s called the ‘gig economy.’ Some people see it as a benefit. They make their own hours. But it seems to me that it’s a way for employers to take advantage of not having to provide their employees with health insurance and benefits, or take care of them at any level. I remember when, I don’t know, employees were taken care of.”
“I think this moment is showing real holes in our healthcare system and our economy,” Gail adds. “In many parts of our society, actually.”
Personally, I worry about my family, especially my father, who has dementia and is confined to a nursing home in Seattle, where COVID-19 has killed dozens of people like him. But no one depends upon me for their livelihood, which has made my experience of the pandemic relatively comfortable.
My conversation with Amanda Monroe disrupted that. She needs no prodding to tell her story. At 42 years old, she is one of the tens of millions of Americans who are barely getting by. Her voice is a cascade of anxiety. Without work or income, she fears her family will collapse into poverty and violence. She sounds like a drowning woman who expects no one to save her.
As a server at the Coach Diner in New Windsor, Amanda took home an average of $165 every day she worked. As fears of coronavirus spread, however, customers stopped coming in and her daily take-home pay dropped to $100, then $50, then $30. On March 16, she served just three tables over a period of five hours. Her manager sent her home early with $27 in her pocket. The restaurant closed. Her last paycheck was for $147.
“I moved from the City of Newburgh to Cornwall for a better life for my children,” she explains. “I’m used to being able to provide for my family. Now I’m just stressed. My rent alone is $1,350 per month and there’s no money coming in. My kids aren’t acting right. They’re not sleeping or eating correctly because they think they’re not going to have a place to live soon. Everything is scary.”
After her final shift, Amanda filed for unemployment and submitted applications to work at Price Chopper and Shop Rite. She hopes to become one of New York State’s “essential” grocery-store employees and work every day. Her longtime partner worked seasonally in the construction industry, one of the few industries still in operation during the lockdown. But the crisis hit during his annual two-month break from work and he doesn’t expect to find work until the lockdown is lifted. Few businesses are hiring and jobs are scarce.
Amanda has three children: two sons, ages 13 and 16, and a two-year-old daughter. “I have maybe a week-and-a-half worth of food left,” she says. “My oldest is six-foot-two and he can eat a box of cereal in two minutes. My youngest goes through a gallon of milk a day. I’m out of diapers, wipes—everything.
“The first week with the kids was alright,” she continues. “There was lots of crafts and book reading. But now the boys are at each other’s throats.”
New routines seem to give her a slight sense of control. “The four of us go outside and walk for an hour or so. We practice social distancing. But I don’t let them play with the kids in the neighborhood. Afterward we go home, I make a snack, and it’s back to a game or a book.” Without school and contact with friends, she is worried that her 13-year-old son, who is enrolled in special education, will “forget everything he learned.”
As our conversation continues, Amanda’s pace quickens. She launches into a litany of expenses, obligations and fears that, taken together, simply amount to a terrible trap. I hear the unfiltered anxieties that have harassed her for days. I can’t follow everything, but her meaning is clear.
“Every day there’s another bill in the mailbox.… My car’s in the driveway, but there’s nowhere to go, and I still have car and insurance payments.… I have a grace period, but that just moves the date further back, and there’s no money going into my bank account.… My landlord is being understanding, but he wants his money.… They talk about a government check for $1,200, but that all goes to him.… If this goes on for three months, that’s almost $4,000 I have to pay in rent alone. There’s no way I’m going to make $4,000 in a few days when I get back to work. … Spectrum wants their $100.… I’m going to lose my phone service.… If I lose my car insurance, if I can’t update my plates, then I’ll have to drive to work illegally when the time finally comes…. I’m hoping my landlord doesn’t show up at the door because I don’t have any money to give him.”
Amanda doesn’t slow down. She is panicked about her future because she sees her present clearly. “This is just a real scary time for me and my family. Everyone wants my money, regardless of what is happening in my life. And I’m not alone. Ninety percent of people where I live are out of work,” she says, meaning her immediate neighbors.
I’m not sure what to say to Amanda. Journalists are supposed to press people for details about their lives under the premise that telling their stories accurately and well can help drive public demand to make society better, and maybe even help them sooner rather than later. It’s not a trade that’s sure to pay off. I say all of this somehow and thank her for speaking with me.
“I’m willing to share all of this because it’s the truth,” she replies. “I can’t wait anymore.”
Alexander Reed Kelly is a writer living in the Hudson Valley. He served as an advisor in the New York State Senate and Assembly and associate editor at the news and opinion website Truthdig. Follow him on Twitter @alexreedkelly.