SAN FRANCISCO – One week in isolation. Two families. Only a few miles away, yet a world apart.
For San Francisco lawyer Rebecca Biernat, a mother of three, "sheltering in place" started out in a panic, but her family is now adjusting. She is working from home. Her kids are keeping busy with online school and regular video chats with teachers and friends. The family is finding silver linings in the slower pace of life and time together.
For hotel housekeeper Sonia Bautista, the world is spiraling out of control. She and her husband have lost their jobs, they can’t afford their rent and their teenage son is feeling both bored and overwhelmed by the lessons his school is posting online. The family is afraid of becoming destitute.
California’s Bay Area has been shut down for more than a week, the first region of America to order its residents to stay home, work remotely and homeschool their children in a desperate bid to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. Much of San Francisco now feels as empty as a Gold Rush ghost town, its streets cleared of people, of cable cars and most other cars, making a rush-hour drive through the hilly cityscape feel like a roller coaster with no traffic to slow things down.
No life has been unchanged. For the two families, like millions across America, there are constant anxieties and nerve-wracking moments to navigate. But their ability to cope is dramatically different. They are two extremes in a region full of them. And they remind us, that while a global pandemic may know no boundaries, how you survive the upheaval may depend in part on your paycheck.
There is no rushing to get kids up and out the door to school.
No hurrying home from work to get dinner on the table.
At their spacious, tidy 2-story home in a leafy San Francisco neighborhood, Rebecca Biernat is finding a new sense of sanity amid the disruption.
"Everything that made being a working parent so hard — is gone," says Biernat, a civil litigator with a San Francisco firm now working out of a home office.
Biernat did feel initial panic when the shelter in place order was announced, last Monday. She raced out to buy essentials at the grocery store.
She's been out several times since and is reassured by the supplies at supermarkets. She plans to shop once a week, as she did before.
Her husband, Frankie Keenan, a plumbing contractor, is considered an essential worker and still getting paid but also getting to spend more time at home. He’s more involved in the kids’ school work now.
"The positive thing is I am with them all the time," she says of her family, Seamus, 6, Rachel, 9, and Jack, 16. "I feel more on top of my home life."
The family is now eating three meals a day together and spending more time with each other than ever before.
"We are extremely fortunate, and I remind myself every day to count our blessings," says Beiernat, 47. "We are blessed to have a place to live, we have money to buy food. I have a salary. I can't imagine what it's like for people thinking, 'How am I going to feed my kids' every day?'"
The crushing weight of Sonia Bautista's new reality hit her at the supermarket.
She and her husband rushed out, like Biernat, the moment they heard the shelter-in-place order announced. But shelves at their supermarket were already bare of essentials. There were no eggs, no bread, no toilet paper or bottled water and as she stood in the checkout line with the few items she did find, she had a panic attack.
"It was so horrible. I just started to cry. In that moment, I thought, 'I have no work, no food, no money. How will I feed my family?'" says Bautista, 43.
For the past six years, Bautista worked full time as a housekeeper at San Francisco's Palace Hotel, one of the city's finest luxury hotels.
The San Francisco Bay Area had been feeling the impact of a tourism slowdown for months, since the coronavirus hit China and shut down the city's lucrative conference industry that keeps hotels filled. On March 8, the hotel, owned by Marriott, told her due to the slowdown they no longer needed her.
A week later, her husband, William Gonzalez, got laid off. Gonzalez worked in the employee cafeteria at the Marriott Waterfront hotel at San Francisco's airport, south of the city, where his 40 hours were already trimmed to 16 in February due to the slowdown.
The family has always lived paycheck to paycheck, but in the absence of income they are piling up credit card debt. They don't know how they will pay the $2,800 for their small two-bedroom apartment in South San Francisco, just outside the city limits.
"We try not to panic," Gonzalez says. "If this lasts only two months, maybe we will be fine."
For Biernat, working from home has its challenges, but she maintains a sense of humor about it.
"I haven't put on makeup or gotten dressed up in over a week," she jokes, adding it's a great opportunity to get in shape — "I'm wearing workout clothes all day, every day, anyway."
Thankfully, the younger kids are settling into virtual schooling. Their private school is replicating the kids' daily schedule, which starts with the principal's morning assembly that they watch together at breakfast. Then Rachel, in third grade, heads off to her room for a full day of classes being livestreamed by her teachers.
"They can even raise their hands, chat and talk," Biernat says. The library specialist comes on once a week, the music teacher on Fridays, French lessons are still every day. The kids see little pixelated pictures of their classmates and feel connected.
Seamus, in kindergarten, requires a little more hand-holding.
“I’m stressing about getting my work done while ‘teaching’ my kindergardner,” Biernat says. Seamus’ teachers mix live online classes with pre-recorded videos that explain assignments but require parental involvement. They offer video chat office hours, which helped when Seamus didn't understand a science assignment and his teacher could explain it to him.
Daily FaceTime play dates are helping them stay connected with friends.
For their teen, not seeing friends has been hard. He keeps asking if he can go out to meet friends, Biernat says, and it's difficult to keep saying no.
Time seems abundant now, for family bonding and to do things she never found time for before — yoga, meditation, cleaning the garage, sorting through the linen closet.
As it drags on it will get harder, Biernat realizes. They make an effort to exercise, play basketball in the backyard, go to the beach, staying 6 feet apart from others. For now, they are OK, they feel safe and secure and for that she feels enormously grateful.
Bautista and her husband are trying to stay positive but it is getting harder.
Both have applied for unemployment benefits, but have yet to hear if their applications have been approved. They are among more than 1 million people who have filed for unemployment in the past two weeks, a dramatic spike as businesses are forced to shut their doors.
They fear losing their health insurance, which their contract says is only extended one month after being laid off. Their union is negotiating with the company for an extension.
Husband and wife try to put a brave face for their 14-year-old son, Ricardo, who feels his family's stress acutely, compounded by desperately wanting to hang out with friends.
"It's really boring," Ricardo says, about being cooped up at home. His teachers are not livestreaming classes but posting assignments online, which he says feels like an overwhelming amount of homework. He is sleeping more and spending more time playing video games, often with friends online, Gonzalez said. The other day his parents let him go to school to pick up lunch.
After their initial failed supermarket run, the family went out early the next morning with a strategy. They arrived at their supermarket at 6 a.m. and were the first to enter when doors opened at 8. Bautista ran for the eggs; Ricardo grabbed bottled water.
The couple hasn’t been outside in days. Tempers flare more than usual in their small two-bedroom apartment. Bautista finds that knitting calms her mind, but they watch the news too much, which only heightens their anxiety. The pep talks from politicians — that we will emerge from this crisis stronger as a nation — are beginning to ring hollow.
To keep a sense of normalcy, the family cooks all three meals and eats together, something they rarely got to do before. They are starting to think of cutting back to two meals a day -- a brunch and early dinner -- to save money, Gonzalez says.
The couple grew up in El Salvador and survived the country’s decade-long civil war that ended in 1992. They had never told their son the details of their earlier hardship but now, at dinnertime, it keeps coming up. They remind him how lucky they are to have things like electricity, television, the internet.
But they can't help draw parallels.
"There is so much uncertainty. It's almost like being in a war. There is danger of getting infected and dying, there is no work, there is no food and you have to shelter in place," Gonzalez says. "But we have faith in God and we know one way or another, we will keep going."