The pandemic year of 2020 turned lives upside down. People lost loved ones, homes and jobs, and the economic fallout took an especially heavy toll on people of color and folks in the food and beverage and arts and entertainment industries. But with the coronavirus vaccine and a new year upon us, perhaps there’s cause for some optimism?

We talked to Seattleites from industries hit hard by the pandemic about the things they had to do to care for themselves and their communities to get through 2020, and asked them what they’re looking forward to in 2021.

a look back

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Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Justin Huertas, theater artist, creator of “Lizard Boy” and “The Last World Octopus Wrestling Champion”

Justin Huertas on the night he finished the script for ‘A Very Merry Kraken Tea Party,’ which he wrote in less than a week.  (Justin Huertas)
Justin Huertas on the night he finished the script for ‘A Very Merry Kraken Tea Party,’ which he wrote in less than a week. (Justin Huertas)

“The thing that I’m balancing in my head is the idea that this year was a complete shitshow, but I’m also trying to keep in the foreground of my mind the fact that our having to be home all the time, our having to be solitary and inside our thoughts and feelings for months and months and months has allowed us to have the time and brain space and compassion and empathy to be able to recognize these systemic injustices and all the bullshit that’s been happening for years that some of us have had the privilege to be on the periphery of. Now we’re all in it together and we understand together how we’re all affected, how some of us may benefit, how a lot of us probably don’t.

Kirsten “Kiki” deLohr Helland, Tyler Rogers and Justin Huertas recorded a song video at her beautiful First Hill apartment. (Courtesy of Justin Huertas)
Kirsten “Kiki” deLohr Helland, Tyler Rogers and Justin Huertas recorded a song video at her beautiful First Hill apartment. (Courtesy of Justin Huertas)
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“When I think about theater potentially returning after this year of us being like ‘here are all of the racist things that I’ve experienced in various theaters that I love working at …’ When theater comes back, I want to make sure that I’m coming back with a specific mindset of how I will work and how I will operate in this industry, and I’m really hoping that all of these institutions that I love working for are ready to meet me in the same place. It’s about making sure that I am standing by what I believe in. My artist mission is to deconstruct and decolonize American mythology and center people who haven’t gotten the chance to be the heroes of the story — Black people, brown people, queer people, trans people. I want to decenter the straight white male hero and give us hero stories that center people who we haven’t seen before, because that’s the kind of thing I grew up without. My heroes growing up were Spider-Man, X-Men, Batman, white heroes. And I just really want to create heroes that are not those guys for other people like me so they can grow up with something I didn’t have.” 

— As told to Crystal Paul

Wayne Johnson, VP of culinary operations/executive chef of FareStart

FareStart’s Wayne Johnson at their South Lake Union restaurant and kitchen space in Seattle in April. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
FareStart’s Wayne Johnson at their South Lake Union restaurant and kitchen space in Seattle in April. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

“This past year, FareStart was able to pivot and support the community’s food needs, working with the city and the county to deliver meals to those most in need. This allowed us to keep our entire full-time staff employed during the tough hold that the pandemic has on the culinary world. The impact on those we serve continues to increase as many people have been left without work. And while we increased the number of meals we were serving, we were also able to hire some of our past graduates who’d been laid off from restaurants closing to work with us to handle the increasing volumes of meals we were producing … 

“One thing that I’ve needed was a way to stay in a sense of calm, so I increased my meditating from once a day to two, three and sometimes four times a day. My wife, Sally, and I have committed to 4– to 5-mile walks or hikes daily.

“After about the third week of the pandemic, our family — which is scattered across the United States, eight states, to be exact — created a daily texting check-in chain of 19 family members and also a monthly Zoomunion hosted by a different family member each month. The daily texting has allowed us to feel supported and together during a time when there seems to be such disconnect … it’s something I would hope all families could adopt. The Zoomunion is themed by the host — [for example] ‘Name two or three things on your bucket list and explain how you enjoyed it or when you plan to accomplish it.’ Our family ranges from 18 to 89, so the conversations are aspirational to family history. I always look forward to our Zoomunion. 

“Post-pandemic, I’m most looking forward to getting and receiving hugs. I am such a huggy kind of person … it gives me joy to feel and share a loving hug.”

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— As told to Bethany Jean Clement

Estela Ortega, executive director of El Centro de la Raza 

Estela Ortega speaks at a Dia de los Muertos event at El Centro de la Raza in 2018.   (Courtesy of Estela Ortega)
Estela Ortega speaks at a Dia de los Muertos event at El Centro de la Raza in 2018. (Courtesy of Estela Ortega)

“I live right next door to my daughter. I bought this home close to five years ago. It’s in Auburn. Before, I lived five minutes from El Centro de la Raza. But when I thought about where I want to be at the end of the day, I want to be with family. I have grandchildren, so it’s been a real blessing during COVID because we operate as one household. My grandchildren go back and forth. We have breakfast, coffee, dinner. We celebrate birthdays and graduations together. I don’t know how it would have been if I would’ve had to be in Seattle by myself. I think that would have been very difficult. I always have company now.

“I always work from my house and probably work 25% more. There’s a great need in our community just based on the fact that so many have lost their work. For Latinos and in particular people who don’t have documents, they were basically left out of the stimulus bill because they were undocumented even though they pay taxes. People who were in a partnership or married to an undocumented person and the children of undocumented parents were also left out of the stimulus bill. They were basically penalized for having a relationship with an undocumented person … COVID made bare the realities of the disparities that communities of color face and, in a crisis, we were able to find money to help people and that was the right thing to do. Those disparities are not going to go away and in fact they’ve been heightened. So as a community, as a state, as a country, we need to look for ways to continue to provide the needed services. When people talk about essential workers, they don’t talk about people who are doing the work in human services, continuing to provide help to people.” 

As told to Crystal Paul

Meghan Elizabeth Trainor, artist and owner/curator of Moss Art Space

Artist Meghan Elizabeth Trainor found new ways to fill her time during Washington state’s stay-at-home order: gardening and making space for art in her home. (Roger White)
Artist Meghan Elizabeth Trainor found new ways to fill her time during Washington state’s stay-at-home order: gardening and making space for art in her home. (Roger White)

“You’d think I’d be in my studio all day long, churning out art. But the whole COVID experience was ‘I need to go outside and put my hands in the dirt and watch things grow.’ I had no idea how to garden … But because we had all that time, I grew corn. I mean, I grew one ear of corn, let’s be honest. Apparently it’s hard to grow corn in the Northwest — I didn’t know enough to know that … every day I would get up, and I’d look at the news, and it was terrible, and all I wanted to do was go outside and water the garden.

Gallery artist Meghan Elizabeth Trainor created Moss Art Space in her home during the coronavirus outbreak. (Meghan Elizabeth Trainor)
Gallery artist Meghan Elizabeth Trainor created Moss Art Space in her home during the coronavirus outbreak. (Meghan Elizabeth Trainor)
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“I spent a couple months in COVID doing that, and then [the police killing of] George Floyd happened and that shifted the pandemic for everybody, because we went from this completely isolating space to … this intense community space … you were involved whether you decided to be or not, because there was tear gas in the neighborhood, and helicopters overhead … I opened a gallery in my house … Moss Art Space had its first show this month with Sarah Lypstk … these amazing drawings of centipedes with masks on and kittens eating ramen and skulls with fire coming out of them … we just covered the entire space from floor to ceiling. It’s like a teenager’s bedroom in there. And maybe three people will be able to come see this art show because of COVID, but that’s enough … that space is being held, so that when we can, it can be a huge event and people in the community can come by … I’m still harvesting those vegetables, I’m still getting beets and carrots. I think the quiet, small, safe work that we’ve done this year is that land that can bear fruit when we can all come outside again.”

— As told to Megan Burbank

Elyse Rylander, founder of OUT There Adventures

Elyse Rylander, founder of OUT There Adventures (OTA), on Sucia Island, Central Salish Sea. She began laying the foundations for OTA in 2010, when LGBTQ+ rights were a national topic. (Brod Salo / Northwest Youth Corps LGBTQ Teen Conservation Crew)
Elyse Rylander, founder of OUT There Adventures (OTA), on Sucia Island, Central Salish Sea. She began laying the foundations for OTA in 2010, when LGBTQ+ rights were a national topic. (Brod Salo / Northwest Youth Corps LGBTQ Teen Conservation Crew)

“Especially throughout the summer … I was outside in some capacity every single day … it was like, well, no one else is gonna be able to go with me, because we’re all in this weird space, and so I’m just going to do it … getting back to the core and the root of it, I’m out here for me …

“It feels like this year has been an extrapolation of what we try to create in an outdoor education setting. I think of … any of the work that I’ve done with youth and outdoor education, and it’s like, OK, we’re gonna go on this backpacking trip for two weeks … there’s gonna be trials and tribulations and suffering and joy and so many discoveries … and there will be those moments of like, ‘Why am I out here? Why am I doing this? This is so miserable,’ and then you get through it, and you reflect back on it, and you’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m so glad I did that, or I had that experience, as tough as it might have been, it has enriched my life, and it has informed the way that I will now move forward in the world.’ It feels like we’re on this big, epic, gnarly journey in the most profound way … I’m hoping it will be one of those key moments that will be talked about for a long time, but serve as a positive catalyst for future change, and create the disruption we need to help truly push things forward in a positive and ultimately collectively liberatory way.”

— As told to Megan Burbank

Murray Stenson, bartender, formerly of Zig Zag Cafe and Il Bistro

Murray Stenson, formerly a bartender at Zig Zag Cafe,  says 2019 was actually worse for him healthwise than 2020. Perhaps 2021 will bring better tidings for all.   (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
Murray Stenson, formerly a bartender at Zig Zag Cafe, says 2019 was actually worse for him healthwise than 2020. Perhaps 2021 will bring better tidings for all. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

“Actually, 2020 was better than 2019 was for me. Last year, I came down with Guillain-Barré syndrome (a rare disorder that causes muscle weakness); it paralyzed me. I came home after working an employee party at Re:Public, and I just fell and was on the floor. Couldn’t move. I couldn’t reach the telephone that was two steps away. My buddy Richard Wilson texted me … and got concerned when I didn’t respond. He showed up at the front door with the manager. They called the fire department and took me away in an ambulance … I used a walker. Then switched up to a cane. Now I walk without it. I just need to build up my endurance.

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“What I am saying is, no matter how bad 2020 has been, it can still be a lot worse.
I have my music — 3,000 albums that I’m trying to organize. And I have my books. I’ve been reading a lot. I always have two or three going on. I recently came across an old copy of Orwell’s ‘1984’ that I’m going to start this week. I’m also reading James Crumley. I have a lot of detective novels. Financially, I’m doing OK. I collect Social Security. I eat fairly well. I pay the rent.

“I think the whole restaurant business will go through a big change. I miss the good old days, the ’90s and the 2000s. I love Zig Zag and Il Bistro. I miss the sociability. I will go back to bartending at some point, but it would be part time.

As told to Tan Vinh

Megan Janes, owner of Seattle Pops

Seattle Pops owner Megan Janes and her wife, Suzie, were able to take a vacation for the first time in seven years during the pandemic. (Courtesy of Megan Janes)
Seattle Pops owner Megan Janes and her wife, Suzie, were able to take a vacation for the first time in seven years during the pandemic. (Courtesy of Megan Janes)

“We made it through 2020 by limiting our overhead costs — which meant we had to close our shop and hold out until spring 2021. We also dove pretty heavily into our savings. Apart from saving on overhead costs, one of the reasons for closing the shop this summer was to take care of ourselves mentally and physically. The toll of running a business during a pandemic was initially very intense and draining. My own mental health was suffering and making the very hard decision to temporarily close was the right thing to do. Since the shop has been closed in July, we have been offering seasonal Pop Packs for delivery and pickup. The support has been amazing and kept our spirits high while keeping us financially afloat. We have just completed our Holiday Pop Packs and will have our New Year Pack in January.

“My wife, Suzie, and I took an RV trip to national parks in Utah and went camping a few times. It was a nice change to enjoy the summer outside of work, for the first time in seven years, but we are looking forward to seeing our customers again! We are hopeful we will be back in the farmers markets in 2021, which are always a fun and thriving community to be part of. It will be great to have the shop open again and able to rehire some of our old team members and hire new members. Getting pops to the people is our mission for 2021!”

— As told to Jackie Varriano

Kevin Sur, owner and concert promoter at Artist Home, which produces the Timber! music festivals. Now owner of Sur Woodworking.

When the pandemic canceled Kevin Sur’s annual Timber! music festivals, the veteran event producer and local music booster pivoted to another passion: woodworking.  (Rich Zollner photography)
When the pandemic canceled Kevin Sur’s annual Timber! music festivals, the veteran event producer and local music booster pivoted to another passion: woodworking. (Rich Zollner photography)
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“It’s whatever. Lost my business, started a new business. But honestly, I’m OK. It’s all good [laughs]. Woodworking’s been a passion, but it’d been just a small side thing.

“So when the pandemic hit and it was pretty clear that there was no hope for my business, I spent a lot of time working with the Washington Nightlife Music Association, helping put that together. But I hit a point where, I was like yeah, I kinda have to pay my mortgage now [laughs]. So come April, I just went full-bore, mostly doing outdoor furniture. As fall approached I switched to my cutting boards and my woodcarving, knowing people would be looking for holiday gifts, and that became crazy. I’ve been covered in dust and wood glue since April.

“And honestly, that’s been some of the best therapy. Those first few months, it was all day on Zoom meetings with people who were losing their business. Part of me, once I transitioned and started doing this full time, I was feeling super guilty about it because I was happier. I was just listening to albums and KEXP all day while working in a wood shop, my own little isolation. I know this has just been devastating and awful, but I’ve found a lot of really great things for myself personally out of it.

“That pivot, it was important to my mental health to make the decision. I’m a festival producer. If our music economy was a cake, we’re not even the icing on it, we’re like the topper. When our venues aren’t getting enough money and they represent the bones of our entire ecosystem, there’s not a lot to fight for or feel justified in fighting for.

“The other thing I’m doing, my woodcarving, [I actually drove] around town delivering Santa ornaments as surprises for friends. I’m a Christmas nerd. I’m not religious at all, but I’m a sucker for it. Yeah, things are down, so be part of the thing that makes it a little better and it will always be better for you. Not to be all Tony Robbins and [expletive], but that’s the place I’ve gone and how we’ve been happy.

“I think so much of how to stay healthy mentally is be in the moment. Just focus on today and don’t spend a bunch of emotional equity on hypotheticals you can’t control. The fact is, I haven’t been thinking too much about 2021, aside from hey, how fast can we organize a festival? [Laughs.] Should everyone get vaccinated and the numbers plummet and it’s safe to do things again, I think there’s a part of that mindset that’s going to stay with me and make me emotionally healthier.”

As told to Michael Rietmulder