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Philadelphians brace for a long coronavirus winter: ‘It’s a fog that surrounds us all’

It is clear to many Philadelphians that the spring peaks of the pandemic may have been bad, but what lies ahead seems surely worse.

Bikeema Brooks, second from right, and her three children are nervous about the winter surge of coronavirus cases. They are shown on Nov. 20, 2020.  L-R: Darien Bassett, Zyla Ford, Bikeem Brooks, and Harlem Ford.
Bikeema Brooks, second from right, and her three children are nervous about the winter surge of coronavirus cases. They are shown on Nov. 20, 2020. L-R: Darien Bassett, Zyla Ford, Bikeem Brooks, and Harlem Ford.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

Ever since the coronavirus shut down her Germantown boutique in March, Shani Newton had been looking forward to the holiday season. It wasn’t just a chance to recoup lost business — she dreamed about a Christmas service celebrated at Zion Baptist, the church she’s attended since she was a little girl.

But as coronavirus cases soar and hospitals fill across the region, Newton foresees a different, more solitary and dangerous December. Like many Philadelphians, she is bracing for the months ahead.

“I pray all the time,” Newton said. “I just ask God to protect the city, the people you love, heal people from the disease, and wake people up to the seriousness of it.”

As Philadelphians missed weddings, Fourth of July parties, and Labor Day cookouts, they held on to a small hope that things would get better soon. But to many, what lies ahead seems surely worse than the spring peaks.

The shutdowns have dragged on longer than Newton expected. She doesn’t allow more than five people in her store, Dolly’s Boutique & Consignment. She isn’t sure how busy she will be this season. And there’s no way she will go to church after watching her friends and fellow congregants fall ill to COVID-19.

The city is also responding to the resurgence: Officials again shut down gyms and indoor dining, and are pleading for residents to cancel Thanksgiving gatherings. Local charities say the need for food is eclipsing their supply, and mental health experts warn of the harm that can come not just from the virus but from the prolonged, stay-at-home isolation.

“There is already this anxiety, it is palpitating, it’s in the air,’” said Ariel Cohen, 34, of Germantown, who decided to live alone instead of getting new roommates this winter because of exposure risks. “It’s like a fog that surrounds us all.”

Winter is coming

José Loyola, 34, of Upper Roxborough, bought a forehead thermometer — he’s planning to check the temperature of everyone he lets into his home this winter. Bikeema Brooks, 34, applied for food stamps to provide for her three school-age children in preparation for the months ahead. Marsha Rovner, 79, is limiting how much news she reads, gripped by a renewed fear of contracting COVID-19 and bringing it back to her sick husband, who is battling prostate and bone cancer in addition to heart and lung issues.

“The most trying thing we ever had on our minds was whether we were going to be OK to go to work at our age,” Rovner said of herself and her husband, who own Coventry Deli in Center City along with their son. “Now you’re fearful of even surviving any of this.”

Others echoed the same fears, and resolved to take precautions. They are buying extra groceries, pleading with families and friends to take the virus seriously, and steeling themselves for a long winter to come.

Michael Block, 28, moved back in with his parents in Gladwyne at the start of the pandemic in order to isolate, knowing that having Type 1 diabetes makes him at a higher risk of having complications if he were to get infected.

Now, he has extra glucose meters, test strips, and anything else he needs to make sure he can take care of himself if the winter surge depletes supplies.

Gianna Pelletier, 27, of West Philly, has been gradually buying extra packages of frozen vegetables, chicken, and pork when she goes grocery shopping, worried about the return of buying limits.

Donna Carcaci Rhodes knows how contagious the coronavirus is — she became infected in March and passed it on to her husband and elderly mother. They all recovered, but she described the time as terrifying. She has little of her senses of taste and smell back, and worries about reinfection.

The 62-year-old in Northampton Township goes to the grocery store in person now but may switch to delivery as cases increase.

While other families may be debating the risks and rewards of having Thanksgiving together, she described her family as acutely aware of its dangers. They usually have a large gathering of upward of 25 people, but this year, she canceled it.

No one pushed back.

How to cope

Sharmin Akhter, a Philadelphia therapist, said most of her clients have been mentally preparing, even during the brighter summer months, for what this pandemic winter would bring.

Akhter has recommended people take a walk during lunch, eat meals by a window, and open their blinds to let in natural sunshine. If people are struggling, Akhter said, they should get a therapist instead of bottling their emotions.

» Here are Philly’s current COVID-19 guidelines:

That’s exactly what Claire Dukatz, 30, did. The Graduate Hospital resident recently decided to start therapy, knowing that her seasonal depression could be exacerbated by the pandemic and isolation from her family back in Utah.

“When winters are hard I usually have these things to look forward to, a family Christmas party or a friend dinner, so even though the weather was terrible and I was cold and depressed, I had something to look forward to. And those things are harder to come by this year,” she said.

Out of work, and forced to adapt

The pandemic has laid bare systemic inequalities in health care, housing, education, and the workforce that have left Black, brown, and low-income Americans suffering disproportionately. More than 48,000 in Philadelphia were receiving unemployment as of Nov. 14, more than half of whom are Black.

“The bills don’t stop, the rent does not stop, those kinds of things don’t stop, but your pay will,” said Loujuan Reid, a 40-year-old South Philly resident who was an hourly employee at Planet Fitness, where he worked as a personal trainer. “It’s going to be a cold winter with COVID and also the flu season, so we’re battling all of those factors. The only thing we can do is keep our immune system as healthy as possible, and you have to stay mentally above water.”

Erika Guadalupe Núñez anticipates more people will need aid as winter approaches. As the executive director of Juntos, a community-led, Latinx immigrant organization in South Philadelphia, she says most people she serves have been deeply affected by the pandemic.

Almost immediately, the spread of the coronavirus forced the city’s 320,000 low-wage service workers in the hotel, hospitality, and retail industries into joblessness. They make up half of the city’s workforce, and Guadalupe Núñez said the immigrant community she advocates for is disproportionately represented among them.

To prepare for the increased demand, Juntos plans to open a “one-stop shop” at the Fleisher Art Memorial parking lot for food, diapers, baby formula, and information on how to file labor complaints and other civil rights information.

But as always, Guadalupe Núñez said they worry about food running out.

Every day at 11:20 a.m., Greg Hammond, 61, lines up outside South Philadelphia’s Francis Scott Key school to pick up lunch for himself and his mother.

He has never relied on charity for food before, but felt as if this was his only choice. He had to stop his part-time work substitute teaching and consulting to take care of his mother, who has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and dementia, after the pandemic closed the senior center where she would spend her days.

He’s nervous about this aid continuing in the winter as demand is expected to increase, and what it will be like to wait in long lines as temperatures dip.

“People are just barely holding on to what they do have, their house or mortgage or car. ... I’m barely holding on to my mother, and that’s the most important thing to me,” Hammond said. “There are others barely holding on to their lives.”