As much of California took a position behind the closed doors of home, sheltering in place in an effort to reduce the spread of the deadly coronavirus, others took their stance on the front lines.
Day care workers, police officers, grocery store clerks, gas station attendants, firefighters, community advocates, journalists, nurses, doctors, bus drivers — all working jobs considered essential to keep life on the outside going. These are their stories.
Barry Jones, 57
Bus driver/instructor, Valley Transit Authority
Jones spent more than 30 years in other careers before finding the one that he loves. His day can start early, sometimes at 3 or 4 a.m., but when he slides behind the wheel of his 40-foot bus and maneuvers it smoothly onto the road, he’s in his own world.
Driving in these days of the pandemic is different, the Texas native says. Ridership is down, most passengers have to board from the rear, and he has limited contact with the people he feels responsible for when they step aboard.
The love of the drive and his stewardship of his passengers remains, he says, but the whole experience is disconcerting.
“It’s the insidious nature of this virus,” Jones says.
He worries about exposing his wife of 30 years and their two adult children, who live with them. Both of them have compromised immune systems. But he hasn’t even thought about stepping down. What he and the other drivers do is too important, Jones says.
“I’ve had people on my bus that needed to get to a hospital,” he says. “I’ve been asked to bring my bus to the scene of a fire to help evacuate people. And on a daily basis, we have people who literally rely on public transportation.
“We are needed — and to help people is a joy.”
Janette “Netti” Billingsley, 60
Owner of Free To Be Me Child Care, Livermore
For 33 years, Billingsley has operated her child care center, which is licensed for up to 230 infant, preschool and school-age children, riding the highs and lows that come with the business. She’s comforted children who cry for their parents, negotiated truces during toy battles and watched loving bonds form between her teachers and their charges.
The parents who bring their children to Billingsley become part of one big family.
But in mid-March, when the mandatory shelter-in-place order went into effect, it meant Billingsley could accept only children of other essential workers. The daily census at the centers dropped dramatically. She’s had to close one location, likely forever, and the other one, which once saw 150 children a day, now has on average six to eight.
“It’s been rough,” Billingsley says. “Really rough. The nights are the worst.”
That’s when sleep eludes her and all the worries she has shouldered refuse to let her go. She worries about the children and their parents. She worries about her staff, some of whom she’s had to lay off, and the remaining workers being put at risk. She worries that her business might never recover, and she worries about the welfare of her family and her own health.
Like all the other essential workers, she and her staff are doing a job that needs to be done, but they expose themselves to the risk of contracting coronavirus. Billingsley admits that she is living with fear.
“It consumes me,” Billingsley says. “We can’t just stop. These workers need jobs, children need care. If it comes down to it, I’ll keep things open by myself.”
She has stopped visiting her elderly mother and tries to keep her distance from her husband, son, pregnant daughter-in-law and her grandson. On top of all the worry, she also is feeling isolated.
“It’s just torn me up,” she says. “But you have to have faith. And when it’s over, we’ll pull up our bootstraps and go on, but we’re a long way from that.”
Paul Anglehart, 61
Emergency department nurse, Seton Medical Center
Anglehart says it might sound corny, but he became a nurse out of the desire to help others, and he’s stayed in the profession for 35 years — 32 of them at Seton — because of it.
Being a nurse during the pandemic has changed how he does his job, Anglehart says. The need for self-protection and to avoid spreading the virus to other patients is at the forefront, putting a space between him and those he’s caring for. Interaction with patients has become more restrained.
“I’ve seen patients who are asymptomatic, who turn out to be positive,” Anglehart says, “and I’ve also seen patients who were so-so the day before and now are really sick. It’s a scary virus.”
Anglehart says he worries most about the younger nurses and doctors, who are putting themselves at risk. “They have so much of life ahead,” he says.
Anglehart and his husband, who works another essential job in the grocery business, are taking precautions to prevent bringing the virus home.
“We wash up out in the garage, and then shower before we can say hello to each other,” Anglehart says. “We’re both in high-risk jobs. I worry about him and he worries about me.”
The sudden outpouring of concern and admiration for medical professionals has been a boost to morale, Anglehart says. People are donating protective equipment and sending in food.
“They’re all so concerned for us,” he says. “There’s been so much gratitude from the community. It really makes us feel important.”
Candice Elder, 36
Founder and executive director of the East Oakland Collective
When Elder founded the collective 4½ years ago, she wanted to focus on racial and economic development in the area where she’s lived all her life. With the coronavirus, Elder has found herself on the front lines of the battle to keep people fed and healthy.
The organization once provided about 100 meals a week; now it’s up to 1,000 meals and their recipients include the under-served senior and disabled community. She and her staff are scrambling to provide food, snack bags, and sanitary and hygiene kits.
“We’re taking more risks,” Elder says, “but people need to be fed, and I’m doing what I feel compelled to do.”
Elder, who is in the high-risk group as a diabetic, is working eight to 12 hours a day, she says, every day. The collective has expanded its hours to include providing help on weekends.
She’s concerned for her health, and outside of work, she’s been self-isolating to avoid passing the virus to her family and friends. She worries more for her staff, volunteers and the people the collective serves.
“I’m trying to take care of myself, and we’re doing as much distancing as possible,” Elder says, “but I’m going to keep doing this as long as I can. We need to find jobs for the people who need to work. We need to get them as much help as we can.”
Kamryn Duque, 37
Assistant manager, 76 gas station, San Jose
Duque knows he’s lucky — lucky to still have a job, lucky to have a boss who is trying to protect employees financially and against the COVID-19 virus, and lucky to be healthy.
But he can’t help thinking he’s playing Russian roulette every time he greets a customer who isn’t wearing protective gear.
The station has gone full service, pumping gas for its customers to lessen their exposure to the virus. Duque, who once helped run the business from inside the office, is now working the pumps.
“I’m so thankful to be working,” Duque says, “but I don’t really want to be out there. I have friends who are able to work from home and be with their families and spend time with loved ones. I can’t do that.”
Duque says every day he reports to work, he’s glad to know that he’s helping people as an essential worker and that what he does can help keep people safe. But when drivers pull in and they aren’t wearing protective gear, Duque feels his heartbeat quicken.
“I do worry,” Duque says, “but when I’m at work and see how happy the people are to have the service, well, that puts pep in my walk. I get a lot of thanks from the customers, and it feels good to feel like I’m doing something to help. It’s also been good to see how we’ve come together as one to fight this.”
Khadija Zanotto, 27
Manager, Zanotto’s Family Markets, San Jose
Zanotto is the third generation to work in her family’s grocery stores, and though her title is manager, she does a little bit of everything, from marketing to manning the register. On any given day, 17 members of her family, including her parents, can be found working in the stores.
The idea of closing the doors during the pandemic was discussed, then quickly dismissed, Zanotto says. Their customers need them. The store actually has increased its services, offering to put together orders of groceries for older people and medical professionals, and setting up special shopping hours.
Zanotto has a lot to be concerned about, not just for her own health, or the risk of bringing the virus home to her husband, an electrical contractor who is now also helping out at the store. The whole family is worried about their parents and have implored them to change their work hours, so they won’t be in the store during its busiest times.
“It’s very scary,” Zanotto says. “We’re in a fortunate and unfortunate position. We want to stay open and lead by example, but we are at risk.”
They’re all pitching in to ensure they and their customers are as safe as they can be. Zanotto’s mother has sewn masks for all the employees, and the masks are laundered after every shift.
Zanotto says the family feels a responsibility not just to their customers, but to their employees to keep them getting a paycheck. Would she rather be safe at home? Yes, but she has no plans to be.
“We need to be there for our community, and we’ve made our store one of the safest places to shop. We’re very much ahead of the curve, and we want to stay ahead.”
Randy Davis, 62
Davis, who grew up in Walnut Creek, has been a journalist for 41 years. He is so tied to the profession and the love of storytelling that he came out of a brief retirement to continue his career.
His personal life has, at times, taken a back seat to the work but never like now. His wife of 40 years has moved out and his two sons, Jack, 32, and Joe, 35, are not happy with him, Davis says.
The split with his wife isn’t permanent, though, or caused by tension. With a new grandchild on the way, they agreed that it was safer for the family if she put some distance between her and her husband, so she could help out with the baby as soon as possible.
“I think my biggest fear is bringing it home to my family,” Davis says.
His sons, Davis says, love him, as he loves them, but they don’t understand why their dad puts himself at risk as an essential worker.
Why, they ask, is he still working?
“Partly,” he says, “it’s because we need the money. But I’ve been a journalist a long time. I did 9/11, I was at Newtown, I was at the shooting in Las Vegas. I’ve been at almost every historical event you can imagine.”
Davis has developed a ritual, wiping down the truck and his equipment with bleach wipes after every assignment. The on-air reporters have started driving their own cars instead of riding with him in the truck, and they keep their distance from each other as best as they can.
“I know my family would probably prefer it if I just said ‘screw it,’ but I can’t,” Davis says. “I feel we have a certain responsibility to the world to be out there. My wife understands that it’s more than just a job.”
Zachary Phelps, 36
Sheriff’s deputy, Santa Clara County
For Phelps, patrolling the West Valley in Santa Clara has changed in some small but significant ways. The deputy, who lives in Morgan Hill with his wife of 17 years and their 4-year-old son, has seen a shift toward kindness.
“I definitely see people waving more than they would normally,” Phelps says. “A lot of people are saying ‘thank you,’ and even a tiny little thank you is appreciated. I don’t forget them.”
He’s also seen the opposite side, however, with people seeming more on edge than ever before.
Phelps says police officers always put their lives on the line when they put on their uniforms and hit the streets, but in his 11 years with the department, he has become attuned to the unseen dangers that might await him. In some ways, the COVID-19 crisis represents the same sort of danger, but this one lurks, sometimes hidden in plain sight, a known but unknown threat.
“When I come to work, I have an idea of what I might face,” Phelps says, “but with COVID-19, you’re caught off guard.”
Knowing how much even small gestures of thanks buoy his spirits, Phelps said he researched ways that he might do that for others. He saw video of police officers in Italy turning their lights on to acknowledge the medical workers, to let them know how much they are appreciated in this war against the virus.
He organized a similar showing of love and support, inviting his fellow deputies, the fire department and other agencies to surround an area hospital and light up the night with their emergency lights. His goal, he says, was to let them know “we see you, we recognize you, we appreciate what you’re doing.”
“Anytime you have a life problem,” Phelps says, “if you can help someone else, it helps you get out of your funk. It goes a long way. If everyone would do a little bit to help — help their neighbors from a safe distance, help others — then the world would be a better place.”
Dr. Cotton Widdicombe, 35
Emergency Department physician, Seton Medical Center
Working in an emergency department was once considered a punishment, Widdicombe says. It’s a high-pressure environment, where time is of the essence and the patients are among the most in need.
A specter of risk hangs over the department even in the best of times. The goal is to minimize the threats. So in many ways, COVID-19 is just another one of those risks, Widdicombe says, although one more virulent and perplexing than others.
California’s shutdown bought Seton and other hospitals valuable time to get ready before the onslaught. Knowing of the COVID-19 dangers, Widdicombe says, the emergency department focused on training and preparation. But while safety directives go far, they don’t remove all the concerns.
“I think I’ve been more worried about getting other people — my co-workers, our patients, my family — ill,” he says.
Widdicombe, who moved to the Bay Area a year ago from Connecticut, is married to his high school sweetheart, who is also a doctor. Their family includes a 1-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son.
“I love the work,” he says, “In the emergency department, you see people at their most vulnerable time. This is my job. It’s what I enjoy, and you always have to accept there will be some kind of risks.”
Jaylin Brooks, 32
Firefighter, Fremont Fire Department
Brooks, born and raised in Oakland, has spent the past few weeks working in a mobile coronavirus testing unit, first in Hayward and then in Fremont. The four-person crew sees on average 140 people a day, administering tests for COVID-19.
Brooks says he’s lucky in that the equipment provided the firefighters is more than adequate to protect them, and every day they go through training on how to keep themselves and others safe.
If not, he’d be more worried about bringing the virus home to his wife, his two daughters, ages 2 and 4, and an 8-year-old niece, who has been part of his family since she was 4 months old.
Before becoming a firefighter, Brooks worked as an emergency medical technician and paramedic, but the fire service was where he wanted to be. He is the first in his family to become a first responder.
With coronavirus, Brooks says, you know what to expect, what to look for. In some ways, fighting fires is more nerve-racking as fire can take sudden turns. You’re always looking at the unknown, he says.
Working on the testing unit is different, Brooks says, but it always comes down to training. That and trusting your equipment and the safety precautions. Before going home each night, the firefighters are put through a screening process, and if there is any suspicion, they receive nasal and throat swabs necessary for the COVID-19 test.
“I think we have a minimum risk,” Brooks says, but he has no intention of asking for reassignment.
“I like being able to help everyone get a test that needs one. I’m honored to do it.”
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