It wasn’t dinner as usual. Yes, Brad Bartnes’ two daughters had made it to the table a week ago, as they do most weekends. And the barbecue feast Bartnes had prepared — skewered shrimp, brats, chicken and steak — was standard fare for a family that’s used to Bartnes’ good cooking.
But for Bartnes and his daughters Ava, 12, and Kaylee, 21, a new pall of anxiety hung over the dinner table at the family home in Covington.
Were they at risk for the new coronavirus?
“I was just more fearful,” said Kaylee, a graduate student studying psychology at Pacific University in Hillsboro, Oregon. “I really don’t want to go out, and I’m going to be a homebody for the next week or so.”
This is the new dinner-table conversation for the Bartnes family. It’s also the topic of talks on the way to Costco — where Brad and Ava found themselves early Sunday last week amid a rush of harried shoppers — after-dinner chats while watching the news, and phone calls between Bartnes and his daughters when they’re at school.
As cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by a novel coronavirus known as SARS-CoV-2, grow in Washington and across the United States, families are beginning to reckon with what seemed unbelievable just a few weeks ago.
Virus-talk has revealed differing degrees of fear. Concerns have proliferated in social circles and run rampant on social media pages, such as school and community Facebook groups. Conversations about coronavirus have also marked divisions among families, such as Bartnes and his daughters. Bartnes and Ava says they are trying to stay calm during the chaos, while Kaylee is alarmed, and is taking extreme caution to keep herself safe.
This week, the threat suddenly feels more real. More than 130 people in Washington have tested positive, and at least 18 have died. Public events are canceled, the University of Washington and several other colleges are moving classes online, and the state’s biggest tech companies have asked thousands of employees to work remotely. On Sunday, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said he was considering mandatory ‘social distancing’ measures to combat the virus’s spread.
The Bartnes family has not faced the worst impacts of the virus. They’re not sick, and they don’t know anyone who’s been infected. But its threat has cut deeply into their family’s communities, creating uncertainty about school closures, hospital readiness and their own health and safety.
Kaylee, who lives in Hillsboro but visits her dad and Ava in Covington most weekends, can see Kaiser Permanente Westside Medical Center from her third-floor apartment window. That is where Oregon’s first coronavirus patient was treated and where dozens of hospital workers were potentially exposed; roughly 70 are in quarantine, The Oregonian has reported.
Ava, a sixth grader at Crestwood Elementary in Kent, has found herself warding off gossip among friends, including one who is now refusing to talk to another girl whose mom has a sore throat. The friend thought that if the mom had the virus, the daughter had it too, Ava said.
Rumors are flying fast at Ava’s school, which is less than two miles from two Kent School District schools that closed last week for deep cleaning after suspicion that a parent might be infected. As of last week, there are no known cases of COVID-19 in the Kent School District, but more than 80 people have tested positive in King County as of Sunday afternoon.
At school, Ava said, teachers are telling students to do the things they always advise: cough into their sleeves, wash their hands regularly. Signs in the bathroom urge students to use two pumps of soap, she said.
“I’m not too scared,” Ava said. “Even if someone at our school has it, I know that they will do something about it.”
Bartnes has the same attitude. He’s a former Marine and says his experience in the military has prepared him for the worst.
But everyday activities are now beset with an air of caution. When he and Ava went to Costco last weekend to buy swimsuits and beach towels he was baffled to see long lines of people stockpiling toilet paper and bottled water. “People were frantic, going as fast as they can,” said Bartnes, who does house maintenance.
He’s following the news, he said, and rests easy knowing that he and his daughters aren’t in high-risk groups. COVID-19’s worst effects have mostly spared children and young people, and of those who have died here, most are elderly.
Kaylee found herself in a new normal: she stocked up on cleaning supplies, made plans to hole up with movies to avoid leaving her apartment and began regularly reading the news as reported cases began to mount.
By late last week, though, Bartnes and his two daughters had found ways toward the middle.
Kaylee decided to head to the gym on Friday to reclaim some sense of routine. “I was a little hesitant for this next couple of weeks because you’re using the same workout stuff as other people,” she said. Fitness coaches encouraged people to fist-bump. “No one is high-fiving each other right now,” she said.
Ava stayed home this weekend and “hasn’t done much,” Bartnes said. For his own part, Bartnes went out with friends on Saturday night and was relieved to hear friends “make it very known” that they had hand sanitizer on hand.