Montgomery County residents felt the coronavirus drawing closer Friday, an invisible monster creeping right to the edge of their everyday lives. Their kids were off school, their organized sports canceled. Their gyms would soon be closing, their movie theaters were going dark, and many of them said they knew someone with the virus, or thought they did, though just 17 people in the county had a confirmed diagnosis.
A store owner at the King of Prussia Mall heard that her daughter’s classmate’s father had tested positive. A worker at a Bridgeport vape shop said the wife of a coworker at a second job had it. Some laughed because it helped. Others bought ammunition and frozen beef. At the Beer Stop in Colmar, manager Rob Wood said people were stockpiling.
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“Yes, we’re open. I answered the phone, didn’t I?” Wood said to a caller on Friday afternoon.
On Thursday, Gov. Tom Wolf directed all schools, community centers, gyms, and entertainment venues in the county to close. In the morning, many there woke up confused and uncertain, heading to supermarkets and bulk suppliers, almost embarrassed to admit they’d bought toilet paper like the rest of the country.
“Excuse me, the line is back there,” a woman leaning on a shopping cart said outside the Aldi in Wyncote Friday morning.
Most people planned to retreat to their homes to wait out this murky future. There was nothing else to do but wait, to watch the news and text loved ones. Many businesses were open as usual, treating this Friday in March like any other. But would people want their art framed during a pandemic? Would they put down payments on swimming pools in light of the stock market? Business owners didn’t know if they’d be ordered to close and how, if at all, that would be enforced.
“Would that be martial law?” a florist in Spring House wondered.
Inquirer reporters traveled through Montgomery County on Friday, from the streets of Ardmore to King of Prussia’s quiet corridors and out to the corn fields of Franconia, to see how residents were dealing with something they had never confronted before.
Oriana Catania curled a woman’s hair at Siro’s Beauty Salon Friday morning, but Italy was on her mind. Catania, who was born in Italy, said her daughter lives in Rome and has cancer. A surgery planned for Wednesday was canceled. Italy has been on lockdown for days, trying to wrest control of the coronavirus.
“I never, never seen something like this in all of my life,” she said. “How does it go from China to Italy?”
Franca Morrell, a stylist at the salon for nearly 40 years, said getting a haircut is essential. She’s had one cancellation.
“Look, we’re booked full for Saturday,” Morrell said, running her finger down a date book.
Both woman said they try to laugh, to break the tension. Morrell said her daughter recommended using vodka to disinfect her hands. She liked the idea.
The platform at Ardmore’s train station was damp with Friday’s morning rain, and was also mostly empty.
About a dozen people waited for the 8:45 a.m. train into Philadelphia — about a quarter of the number who would normally be there, said Lauren Radino, 30. She is a public accountant and was going to work, but she was most concerned over what might come next. “I am worried I’m going to get stuck in the city,” the Ardmore resident said.
After the train came and went, the platform remained deserted for a long while.
About a half-hour later, Jonathan Koffler showed up. He had a medical appointment in the city. “I don’t have high blood pressure,” he said. “I don’t have diabetes. I exercise every day. For that reason, I’m not really nervous.”
He had seen the surge in supermarket shopping this week, he said, and while he did buy 40 rolls of toilet paper, he didn’t feel like he needed to amass a stockpile of food. “We are not ones to hoard food,” he said of himself and his husband. “We’ll go to Delaware County stores. We’ll see if the stores there are less zooish.”
Beyond the train platform, Ardmore’s Lancaster Avenue commercial strip was empty. Most businesses had not opened yet, but the shutdown had left the avenue unusually vacant. “I think it’s reasonable,” said Lauren Fick, 24, as she walked to her retail job in Suburban Square. “I would much rather have something like this happen and prevent the spread.”
At Delice & Chocolat, a French cafe, owner Joseph Amrani watered his plants, stepping around the few customers inside.
“I used to have, around this time before, all moms" who came in after dropping off their children, he said. “Now they’re not here.”
He and his workers wore white latex gloves, and he held up a box of Clorox wipes he’d been using liberally. He won’t close, though, he said.
A scene usually reserved for days in May played out at Harcum College’s Pennswood Building Friday morning: students moving out of dorms. There are 1,500 of them, and they learned Thursday night they had to be out of the small associate-degree college by 6 p.m. Friday due to coronavirus fears.
“I’m excited because I get to go home, but I don’t like the idea of online classes,” said Haiden Jacob-Byrd, 19, as she, her mother, and a friend shoved crates full of her belongings into the back of her mom’s SUV. They were heading back to Harrisburg, they said.
The decision came suddenly, said her friend, Jazmine Simpson, 21. “I’m an RA,” she said. “We didn’t even know about it.”
Online classes would begin March 30.
“I don’t even know how online classes are going to work,” said Taylor Sandy, 19, as she tried to find room for herself in her parents’ vehicle.
Her mother, Kristina, is a nurse, and believed the precautions were warranted. As the coronavirus threat has grown, she said, and unprecedented events like the county’s closure result, she has noticed a change in people. They’re ruder, she said. They don’t want to talk or touch things.
“It’s definitely making things more difficult, I think more stressful,” she said. “I think they’re scared. I think they’re very scared.”
On a street that dead-ends in a old soybean field, three boys took jump shots on a curbside basketball net. The sun was out, a dog chewed on a stick, and wind swept clouds through the sunny sky.
“It feels like spring break,” said Carter Cahill, 15, a student at Boyertown Area High School.
Steve, his father, works for a heating and air conditioning contractor and already had the day off, but wondered what exactly “essential” would mean in coming weeks.
“I’m in and out of houses all the time, and I’m beginning to question whether maintenance calls make sense right now,” Cahill, 40, said. “Even if something breaks down, in this weather they’re probably going to be OK. It’s the perfect time of year when people can open windows or close windows."
Father and son traveled to South Philly this week to watch the Flyers play the Boston Bruins. Carter said “it was awesome," but his dad now wonders if it was the best idea. Days later, the NHL and NBA suspended operations, and the Wells Fargo Center closed.
The kids didn’t seem too concerned.
“I was trying to tell them that they don’t just shut down the country and lose billions of dollars for nothing,” Steve said.
A lot of new faces have been coming into American Arms & Ammo in the last week, owner Ken Pucci said. Business is up “five-fold," particularly ammunition, he said, and many people are asking about refunds when the virus subsides.
“There is no refund on a gun, technically,” he said. “I suppose I could buy it back if I wanted to, but then it’s a used gun.”
He said many of his new customers are Asian.
“Maybe they’re nervous," he said. “Maybe people have been threatening them.”
Pucci said he can’t order more ammo from wholesalers. Whatever he has is on the shelves.
“I need all the ammo you got," a customer joked after walking into the store.
At World’s Finest Vape Shop, Reuben Wray was still greeting people with handshakes.
“I’m trying to stay open as long as I can, though,” he said. “This is like the community hub.”
Sweet-scented vape haze drifted through the small space on Fourth Street, and a small crowd gathered inside. Like so many other places, the staff and customers seemed uncertain about the virus, uneasy, as though eyeing an ominous shadow in the corner that they hoped may yet turn out to be just a pile of dirty laundry.
“I honestly think the media’s talking it up in a way,” said one customer, Kayla Marcozzi, 20, who works at the Pub in Conshohocken.
Later, though, she said, “I just get scared, and that’s why I don’t want to be there, because we touch a lot of silverware.”
Though customers kept coming through the shop’s door, Wray, the manager, said business was slow compared to a usual Friday. He doesn’t plan to close, he said, but is intentionally avoiding his parents.
“I’m scared to expose my mom or dad,” he said.
He chatted with customers, and while conversation often focused on coronavirus, it was jokey, a little dismissive.
When one customer went to leave, Wray gave him a parting handshake.