Two weeks ago, we began asking how the novel coronavirus was affecting you, and boy, did you tell us. Some 1,500 responses so far have poured in, attesting to the incredible reach of this health care crisis into every aspect of our lives.

Even before local officials ordered dramatic collective changes — closing schools and libraries, restricting large gatherings — readers told us they were adjusting in ways big and small. Canceled or postponed: time with family and friends, vacations, doctors’ appointments.

But that is just the start. One Auburn man turned down an ad agency job he had always wanted because it was in downtown Seattle and he feared exposure to the virus there and on the bus or train he would take to get to work. He found a job in Kent he could drive to instead.

An EMT in rural Skagit County turned the barn next to his house into what he calls a “decon” (decontamination) room where he takes off the military-surplus flight suit he wears on calls as a protective cover. He wants to make sure he doesn’t infect his wife, who has health problems and, like him, is over 60.

One Seattle couple packed up and took off.  They’re staying at a family house in a remote Washington town they don’t even want to name for fear they’ll be identified as Seattleites potentially bringing COVID-19 to the community.

We asked some individuals and families to share more of their experiences. Here are their stories. Stay tuned for more in the coming weeks, including excerpts from the messages you have sent us.

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Jonah Pemble

The day of Gov. Jay Inslee’s order restricting gatherings of more than 250 people, 12-year-old Jonah Pemble and his family postponed the middle schooler’s bar mitzvah, a Jewish coming-of-age ritual that is for many a major life event.

The Kirkland family was expecting 150 guests, under the governor’s threshold, but local public health officials had warned that smaller crowds present dangers, too. One official, responding to an email from Jonah’s mom, advised people to keep their distance while sitting and dancing during the luncheon and party after the religious ceremony.

It didn’t feel right. “You want to be able to give a person a big hug and say, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m so happy for you,'” said Rachel Pemble.

It was a moment of clarity that ended the stress of decision-making. “We had been going back and forth, back and forth,” she said. But it was tough.

“It really sucks because you have something you worked pretty much your entire life for,” Jonah said.

He said he had been learning Hebrew since the beginning of elementary school. And for the last year and a half, he has worked weekly with a tutor on a portion of the Torah he was to chant and speak about during his bar mitzvah.

Jonah Pemble has been studying for his bar mitzvah, a Jewish rite of passage for boys who have turned 13. He and his family have postponed the ritual and big party afterward. (Courtesy of the Pemble family)
Jonah Pemble has been studying for his bar mitzvah, a Jewish rite of passage for boys who have turned 13. He and his family have postponed the ritual and big party afterward. (Courtesy of the Pemble family)

One of the challenges, noted Jonah’s dad, is that at a bar mitzvah, a boy stands in front of the congregation reading from a Torah scroll, in which Hebrew is written without vowels. (Girls can have a bat mitvah, marked in different ways among Orthodox, Conservative and Reform synagogues.)  Jeremy Pemble said he would hear his son singing his Torah portion in the shower, or mumbling it while playing Xbox.

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The biblical passage concerns animal sacrifice, and Jonah, tasked with thinking about how it applied to modern life, had prepared a speech about the importance of sacrificing for others, such as volunteering at a homeless shelter.

You might think the speech would have particular resonance in this time of crisis, but the Pembles face a conundrum because portions are assigned according to the date of the bar mitzvah. Would he have to learn another passage for a still-iffy new date? The rabbi hit upon a combination approach, letting Jonah read some of the original passage and some of a new one.

Then there were all the cancellations and re-bookings for the after-bar mitzvah party at a hotel. It had a Vegas theme, complete with a planned blackjack room.

For all his disappointment, Jonah said, “I get it … I just want people to be safe.”

— Nina Shapiro


Shawn Lawrence

Shawn Lawrence was finally going to live in the same state with his girlfriend. She planned to leave North Carolina and move into Lawrence’s Lynnwood home in July.

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He and Mandee Toro had been dating for about a year long-distance, having met in an online group chat for single parents. They talked for four months before meeting face-to face. He went to visit her in North Carolina, then she came here. They got along great and so did their three kids between them, Lawrence said. They both have 8-year-old sons, who like to play video games together.

“The whole idea of her living here made total sense,” Lawrence said. He said Toro had fallen in love with this area. She is Puerto Rican, and feels she and her son are more accepted here than in North Carolina, according to Lawrence.

They started putting money aside for the move. They told family. When Toro’s yearlong lease ended, she signed on again for only three months.

Shawn Lawrence was excited about his girlfriend’s planned move to Washington from North Carolina this summer so they could live together. But now he and Mandee Toro have put their plans on hold. (Courtesy of Shawn Lawrence)
Shawn Lawrence was excited about his girlfriend’s planned move to Washington from North Carolina this summer so they could live together. But now he and Mandee Toro have put their plans on hold. (Courtesy of Shawn Lawrence)

As the coronavirus hit Washington, Lawrence and Toro struggled to figure out what to do. “We’re talking about it every day,” he said. On top of deciding whether to come, he said Toro is “scared for me and my kids, being in the area that is ground zero.”

They put their plans on hold and have set a deadline to decide: May 10, when Toro needs to sign a new lease. If the move still seems unwise then, he said, they’ll probably put it off until next summer, given housing and school considerations.

“It’s definitely hard to go another year when you’re planning on living with the person you love,” he said.

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Speaking last week, he hadn’t yet told his kids, but she had told her son. “He had a meltdown,” Lawrence said. The boy was looking forward to having siblings and a father figure.

Meanwhile, Lawrence, is talking about the coronavirus all the time at work, too. His job in customer relations for a health-insurance company has him answering lists of questions. He wouldn’t say people are panicked, but are thinking this through.

— Nina Shapiro


Nora Valenzuela

There’s a lot of stress on Nora Valenzuela, a Spanish-language medical interpreter.

The 43-year-old from Everett considers herself part of the team at clinics and hospitals, and is bound by patient privacy restrictions. But unlike the medical staff, she isn’t told what ails patients before she meets them. So she doesn’t know what precautions to take, even though she has asthma, putting her at greater risk of falling seriously ill from the novel coronavirus.

As far as she knows, she has not yet interpreted for patients who have the virus.

She appreciates new guidelines. Interpreters are to keep 6 feet away from patients and refrain from shaking hands. “That will help a little,” she said.

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That means, however, that interpreters aren’t sitting next to patients as they fill out paperwork and she worries that some, lacking in education, might not understand the forms.

When Valenzuela gets home, she said, her husband will say “shall we shower?” He’s really asking her to take a shower, which she plans to do, but sometimes the question makes her feel her husband is scared to get close to her.

Her four grown children call her, worried about her continuing to work. “I don’t want to answer the phone,” she said. “I don’t know what to tell them.”

Ever since she was 16, when she helped out in her grandmother’s restaurant in California, she’s worked. If she stopped, she feels like she would go crazy. And she fears, without interpreters, patients might not get the medical help they need.

“If we don’t go out there because we’re afraid,” she said, “these people can die.”

— Nina Shapiro


Anitha and Byron Hummel

The first day the Naan Sense food truck opened for business, it ran out of food in 45 minutes.

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In the six years since, Anitha and Byron Hummel have parked their truck at Ninth and Lenora, outside of Whole Foods and in the heart of Amazonia and South Lake Union.

It was enough for the couple to buy a second truck, hire employees and rent food-prep space in a community kitchen in Auburn.

“We kept our food very authentic,” said Anitha, a native of southern India. “It’s nothing we wouldn’t serve our family.”

Then COVID-19 hit, and as a safety measure, Amazon told its employees to work at home, which cut the lines by 90%, Anitha said.

“We are down to about 40 customers,” said Anitha, who lives in Puyallup with her husband and two children, 4 and 20 months.

Anitha Hummel and her husband, Byron, had two food trucks before business dropped off 90%, largely due to Amazon telling employees to work from home because of the coronavirus. The couple operate just one truck now, in South Lake Union. Byron is staying home to take care of the kids since schools have been closed. (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)
Anitha Hummel and her husband, Byron, had two food trucks before business dropped off 90%, largely due to Amazon telling employees to work from home because of the coronavirus. The couple operate just one truck now, in South Lake Union. Byron is staying home to take care of the kids since schools have been closed. (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)

“We had to shut down one of our trucks and we couldn’t afford to pay our employees,” she continued. “We are not getting anything in, and we are losing money every day.”

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The couple has kept one truck open in South Lake Union.

“We are holding onto that hope,” Anitha said. “But we can’t go on like this forever.”

Before starting Naan Sense, Anitha was a line cook at Branzino, then at a retirement home; her husband worked at a pizza restaurant.

“We started off Naan Sense just me and him, prepping, doing dishes, doing everything on our own,” she said. “We used to wake up at 4 a.m. and go to sleep at 10 p.m. but we didn’t mind because it was our business.”

Now they wonder if it makes sense to work so hard for so little.

“If we knew, well, it’s going to be two weeks and everything is OK, that would be one thing. But not knowing …”

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— Nicole Brodeur


Rob Ahrens

Rob Ahrens bought the College Inn as a Father’s Day gift to himself.

After years at Microsoft, Ahrens scaled back and started managing his rental properties, and some lakefront Airbnbs for out-of-town owners.

When the boutique hotel went up for sale in the University District last year, it made a certain kind of sense for Ahrens. One place, his own to run, and in an area with a long record of guaranteed occupancy, thanks to the University of Washington and its steady stream of students, parents, grad-school candidates, visiting professors and conference attendees.

Ahrens launched a major remodel that finished two weeks ago — just as the first cases of COVID-19 hit the Seattle region.

“March was going to be our first big month to show it off to the world and start making some money from it,” Ahrens said. “And on March 1, two-thirds of our bookings for March and April were canceled. Of 400 bookings, we’ve lost 250 of them.”

Other cancellations reach as far as July.

“You watch CNN and they show Pike Place Market and it’s empty,” Ahrens said. “It’s seriously hurting us.”

Rob Ahrens bought the College Inn last year and just finished renovations. Then COVID-19 hit. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
Rob Ahrens bought the College Inn last year and just finished renovations. Then COVID-19 hit. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

Ahrens has had to cut his staff’s hours, “but half of them are students,” he said. “They’re not going to class anymore and a lot of them have just decided to go home.”

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Now Ahrens is covering their shifts himself, working almost 100 hours per week “for the foreseeable future.”

He goes home to have dinner with his wife and twin 10-year-old daughters, then returns to the hotel and sleeps in one of the rooms.

“I don’t go home at night, just get up and work,” he said.

“This was the month that everything was going to kick off for me,” Ahrens said. “I’m gonna turn this around.”

— Nicole Brodeur


Colleen and Alex Edgeworth

The current tense climate is a bit of déjà vu for Colleen Edgeworth. In the ’90s, she lost a 29-year-old brother to AIDS and worked in public health on HIV outreach.

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“I remember the fear at that time and the precautions people were taking,” she said. Drugs making the disease manageable had not yet surfaced, just as now there’s no cure for COVID-19.

“I’m trying to educate myself as I can but not panic,” said Edgeworth, 61, of Bellingham.

It’s not easy. She’s at risk for serious illness since she had part of one lung removed due to cancer and has a new tumor that is being monitored.  She doesn’t yet know whether the latest growth is cancer, and finds herself wondering: “Am I more afraid of coronavirus or am I more afraid of cancer?”

Cancer, she decided. “I’d much rather get coronavirus and die quickly.”

Which is not to say she wants to get coronavirus. She canceled an upcoming CT scan and doctor’s appointment in Seattle, worried she might come into contact with people who have the virus in a big city hospital. She’s getting a scan in Bellingham instead.

And she’s mostly holed up in the small apartment she shares with her 21-year-old son, Alex. Even more distressing, the Whatcom Community College student decided to hole up, too.

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“For me, the main thing I’m worried about is exposing myself to others, especially my mom.”

Bellingham resident Alex Edgeworth stopped classes at his community for fear of getting the novel coronavirus and infecting his mom, Colleen Edgeworth. (Courtesy of Colleen Edgeworth)
Bellingham resident Alex Edgeworth stopped classes at his community for fear of getting the novel coronavirus and infecting his mom, Colleen Edgeworth. (Courtesy of Colleen Edgeworth)

As soon as coronavirus hit the region, he stopped going to classes. He normally rode the bus to school, and that presented exposure to even more people.

Last week, he was studying at home and negotiating with professors over where to take his final exams; one wanted him to come to a school testing center. He was also looking for online courses for the next quarter, and finding a frustratingly limited selection. He hoped to take an environmental policy class that could set him up for an eventual major after transferring to a four-year university, but he saw nothing.

Getting an associate degree might now take longer, he reckoned, and that might mean delaying his transfer plans.

He seemed to be handling it with equanimity. He had put off school once before to look after his mom when she was going through cancer treatment. “We have to stick by each other,” he said.

She felt bad, though. “I see how this is impacting his plan for the future,” she said, marveling at the coronavirus’ snowballing impacts.

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The next day, after the county got its first case of COVID-19, Whatcom Community College moved all classes and exams online through the end of the current quarter on March 27. Since Alex intended to continue classes online for the next quarter, too, he wasn’t sure how much this would help.

— Nina Shapiro


Leslie Johnson Stay

“Everyone feels conflicted,” said Leslie Johnson Stay.

She was talking Wednesday about volunteers at a Bellevue thrift shop that raises money for the American Cancer Society. At 72, the Arlington resident is among the youngest. Many live in senior communities, where a COVID-19 outbreak can be particularly lethal. Johnson Stay’s sister, also a volunteer, has a nerve condition that requires her to use a wheelchair.

She worried about keeping the store open, given so many were vulnerable.

At the same time, she believes in the mission. Several people close to her, including her parents, had died of cancer. She thinks about her mom when she works at the store. Volunteers care about one other and their customers. “It’s a community,” she said.

The store’s board decided to remain open at that point. Yet, Johnson Stay wavered on whether to go to her weekly shift Friday, bringing her sister as usual. She also wasn’t sure whether to go to the library, where Elizabeth Strout’s new novel, “Olive, Again,” was waiting for her.

Thursday, she received notice the thrift store was closing. Though she felt it was the right move, she said: “It feels like a huge loss.”

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But at least she had gotten to the library before it closed at the end of Friday. “I needed books. For me that’s as important as coffee and bread.”

Johnson Stay looked ahead to the next week, when she was to take a 90-year-old aunt to a Seattle medical appointment. The aunt needs ongoing care for a leg wound related to a removed cancerous growth. But a nurse could do that in the aunt’s home. The real point of the visit was having a surgeon take a look at the wound, and Johnson Stay wondered if that couldn’t be done electronically.

She planned to call about it Monday. “We’ll see what happens,” she said. “One day at a time.”

— Nina Shapiro


Young Cho

As the owner of Phorale, a food truck that relies heavily on the foot traffic around Amazon, Young Cho is too disheartened to drive around South Lake Union anymore. “There’s no one out there. I’m just counting how much money I am losing every single hour,” he said.

Young Cho, owner of the Phorale food truck, was planning to open his new restaurant in White Center in late March. With the coronavirus outbreak, his food truck is not going out and he’s not sure what to do about the restaurant. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
Young Cho, owner of the Phorale food truck, was planning to open his new restaurant in White Center in late March. With the coronavirus outbreak, his food truck is not going out and he’s not sure what to do about the restaurant. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

After Amazon urged its blue-badge workforce to work from home as a safety precaution, Cho put the brakes on his food-truck business because the economic arithmetic didn’t add up — $200 in salaries, gas and propane daily, $300 in food supplies and $1,700 in monthly rent to use the commissary kitchen to prep food.

He can’t even sell $100 worth of banh mi and wings when the Amazon campus is “such a ghost town.”

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Cho is also opening a brick-and-mortar version of his Asian-fusion truck, Phorale Way, scheduled to debut March 28 in White Center, the same neighborhood where King County is setting up a coronavirus quarantine facility.

Will the public be too irrationally freaked out to come, knowing those who might be infected are housed in this neighborhood, he wonders?

He’s weighing which options will have “the least negative impact” — opening a 35-seat restaurant that will sit mostly empty or just locking the doors and paying the rent.

“I have invested literally every single last dollar into this place,” he said. “I don’t know what to do.”

— Tan Vinh

Seattle Times staff reporter Tan Vinh contributed to this report.

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