October 30, 2020

No Coronavirus Reopening for Those at High Risk

Credit…Trisha Krauss

Summer is typically tourist season in Mendocino County, a region of Redwood forests and breathtaking seaside cliffs about 160 miles up the California coast from San Francisco. But Devi Genuone, a musician who lives in the area, sees little to celebrate as stores and streets have filled with visitors, few of them wearing masks.

Instead, she sees only risk.

Many people may be done staying at home, but Ms. Genuone, 43, is not. She has multiple sclerosis, putting her at higher risk for complications from Covid-19. As the country reopens and coronavirus cases surge in California and other states, she finds herself retreating further into her home.

“When I go into town, I’m strapping in for battle,” said Ms. Genuone, who lives with her partner, Michael Eyermann, in a small cabin on a 21-acre wooded property in Willits, Calif.

A few weeks ago, she was beginning to pump her own gas again, and felt safe enough picking up her prescriptions at Safeway. Now, with roads full of cars with out-of-state license plates and locals planning summer gatherings, she’s only willing to go to Mariposa Market, an organic grocer that requires customers to wear masks.

“My concern is escalating,” she said. “I feel forgotten.”

Ms. Genuone is among the millions of Americans who have or live with loved ones at higher risk for complications from Covid-19 because of pre-existing conditions like diabetes, obesity, and heart and lung diseases. For these Americans, the reopening has signaled the start of an uncertain period in the pandemic. As friends, family and neighbors make plans for barbecues and beach trips against a backdrop of rising cases in hot spots around the country, interacting with them becomes a riskier proposition than it was a few weeks earlier when most people were staying home and limiting social contacts.

In early March, when California enacted stay-at-home orders, Ms. Genuone and a group of her neighbors agreed to follow strict social-distancing rules to protect one another. Because of the arrangement, Ms. Genuone felt comfortable enough to rely on a group she called her “quarenteam” to help with the chores that come with living in a rural, mountainous area, like chopping firewood.

But now she is no longer confident that others are taking the same precautions as before, even as Gov. Gavin Newsom and local Mendocino authorities rushed to reimpose restrictions ahead of the Fourth of July holiday weekend. “I don’t see anybody continuing to socially distance,” she said.

Although Ms. Genuone said her neighbors didn’t have any holiday parties, she worried that others in the area had. So she is now self isolating with Mr. Eyermann, 47, who works in fire abatement, tending to her garden, practicing yoga and composing music at home. “I am now nervous to go anywhere as a result,” she said. “Online will be my only outlet for music performances for awhile.”

For months, Americans engaged in a shared collective quarantine. Sourdough starters and banana bread recipes trended on Instagram. TikTok filled with quirky videos of families shamelessly performing dance routines. And who among us didn’t have an opinion about the fate of Carole Baskin’s husband in the “The Tiger King” documentary on Netflix? The world was at home together, sporting overgrown haircuts and badly chipped manicures.

But now, with bars and restaurants reopening to various degrees, Instagram is once again the venue to show off the contents of your dinner plate or the orange tinge of your Aperol spritz on a night out. Facebook feeds are often full of happy reunion photos of families and friends in backyards and at beaches.

People who consider themselves low risk for complications from infection could still get seriously ill, or pass the disease onto someone more vulnerable, yet that has not proved to be enough of a deterrent to keep many of them home. Beaches are packed, vacation homes are booked, and those itching to travel are crisscrossing the country in recreational vehicles, bidding adieu to those long months spent in lockdown.

And so, two worlds are emerging: the people still staying home, and those who’ve decided they’ve had enough.

For those who cannot risk going out, “there is a feeling of helplessness, like what else is going to limit my life?” said Anne Marie Albano, the director of the Columbia University Clinic for Anxiety and Related Disorders. “It’s going to heighten in a very real way their feelings of loneliness, estrangement and guilt.”

Phyliss DiLorenzo, 62, who lives in Jersey City, N.J., and has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, administers a Facebook support group for people with the disease. The conversations among members have been fraught, with some worried they won’t be able to leave their homes until a vaccine is developed. “It’s been a roller coaster,” she said.

Ms. DiLorenzo lives with her husband in a small one-bedroom apartment, and as Jersey City has opened up, the narrow sidewalks outside her building have gotten crowded, making it more difficult for her to socially distance outside. “It’s sort of a double-edged sword,” she said. “Part of me wishes I could partake in it. On the other side, I’m anxious about it.”

For Jen Singer, a writer and cancer survivor in Red Bank, N.J., the loosening of stay-at-home orders has cut her off from her favorite place, the beach. She lives just five miles from Seabright State Beach, but since early June, it has been packed, and she has seen few people wearing masks.

”I’ve thought about going to the beach really early in the morning,” she said. “But I know I will spend my time looking over my shoulder looking at people coming in and feeling scared.”

In April, Ms. Singer, 53, received a pacemaker after being diagnosed with a heart blockage and heart failure. At the hospital, she tested positive for Covid-19, which she believes she contracted in February when she had bronchitis-like symptoms. Although she recovered from the initial infection in a few weeks, her doctors believe the disease may have also attacked her heart. “It’s like the velociraptor in Jurassic Park — it just finds your weakness,” she said of the virus.

Three months later, she still does not have normal heart function, and worries about the possibility of getting reinfected with coronavirus. So, she’s staying mostly indoors, and hasn’t been to a store since April. Her sons, both in their early 20s, are back home with her and taking the same precautions. “We have food delivered from a local market,” she said. “We get pizza once a week from a local pizzeria. I don’t go anywhere except for my doctor’s office.”

For the most part, Ms. Singer does not mind the arrangement. As a writing coach, she’s able to speak daily with clients. And her sons see their friends over Zoom. What she misses, she says, are the casual encounters with strangers, the small talk at the grocery store.

On a recent walk around her neighborhood, she passed a mother pushing a baby in a stroller. “I could tell she’d had one of those days,” Ms. Singer recalled. “She said, ‘Wave to the nice lady!’ and I waved back and I almost started crying because I miss human contact.”

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