The sky was cruel. Blue and cloudless on Monday, it beckoned people to abandon their living rooms and makeshift offices and temporary classrooms, to step outside and drink up the sunlight and warmer weather.
It’s what we look forward to all winter: a spring rebirth, a chance to renew simple pleasures and traditions — ball games, beer gardens, graduations, races, family gatherings around a barbecue. And yet, on this April afternoon, the city’s sidewalks were barren for blocks at a time, from the northernmost reaches of Broad Street, where it cuts off at Cheltenham Avenue, down to the stadiums in the last pocket of South Philly before I-95 and the Navy Yard.
Broad Street is more than just Philadelphia’s main artery; it’s 13 miles of traffic jams, churches, schools, restaurants, hospitals, and homes. It’s where we come together to celebrate parades and argue during protests, where couples pose for pictures on their wedding day. And it’s just one lens through which to view the toll that the coronavirus has exacted, the sense of normalcy that the pandemic has stolen from us all.
At Broad and Olney in North Philly, the gates to the Philadelphia High School for Girls are chained and locked, and unlikely to be reopened any time soon. The school’s 228 seniors, who last attended classes in person on March 12, have gradually come to terms with missing out on the traditions they’d been looking forward to most.
The prom is a lost cause. So, too, their June graduation at the opulent Metropolitan Opera House. There is no way to roll back the clock and recapture those last carefree teenage experiences before college and adulthood intrude.
“I was really looking forward to senior day,” said Fanta Toure, 17. “It’s a day when the seniors get dressed up, and they give us awards for our academic achievements, or clubs we belong to, or sports we play. They celebrate us and our accomplishments.”
Toure and her friends discuss the moments they have long imagined — walking together at graduation, clutching their diplomas. “That’s probably not going to happen,” she said.
Three miles away, at Broad and Allegheny, members of the Greater Ebenezer Baptist Church have adapted to a new way of worshiping: Facebook.
The church’s pastor, the Rev. Otis V. Brandon, suspended Sunday services several weeks ago, as the shadow cast by the coronavirus grew larger and more ominous, and resorted to posting videos of his sermon on the church’s Facebook page.
There has been a silver lining to this approach: The videos reach people far outside the city who are searching for comfort at a time when getting within six feet of another person feels dangerous.
But it is not an easy adjustment, not for everyone. The church has occupied its stone building, in the middle of a busy intersection, for 35 years. For some residents, it’s the heart of the neighborhood — and they won’t be allowed to go inside on Easter.
“It’s been kind of difficult, in that the church is more of a personal communication,” said Brandon, 60. “It’s a personal touch. It’s seeing one another and gathering together.”
At nearby Temple University Hospital, frontline health workers like radiology technologist Celeste Bevans have been used to working in a frantic environment; gun-violence victims flood the hospital year-round. The pandemic is a different animal, though, an equal threat to patients and those who treat them.
“I never feared for my safety,” Bevans said, “until now.”
Bevans, 48, is the vice president of the union that represents allied health professionals at Temple. She has been quarantined in her house in Middletown, Del., for the last two weeks since learning she had been exposed to at least one patient with the coronavirus; at that time, Bevans said, she had been denied personal protective equipment and was working without adequate protection.
She tested negative for the virus but is still struggling with respiratory problems. She can’t go near her 80-year-old father, who lives with her.
“I’m Latina. We are a huggy, kissy culture,” Bevans said. “I miss all of the everyday things that people take for granted. Being able to say, ‘Hey!’ and hug someone is off-limits.”
“I can’t carry my grandson.”
That apprehension over what were once normal interactions extends across professions. While car traffic on Broad Street has thinned dramatically, as more and more Philadelphians shelter inside their houses, subway trains continue to rumble below ground throughout the day.
Keith Swaby has been a subway conductor for 16 years. The part of the job that he enjoyed the most — mixing it up with passengers — now deeply unnerves him. Three SEPTA employees have died from COVID-19, and more than 80 have tested positive.
“You don’t know who has the virus,” he said. “You got to assume everybody has it.”
SEPTA officials say daily subway ridership has plummeted 80%, to about 24,000 passengers, and certain station stops have been eliminated along the Broad Street Line and the Market-Frankford El.
But Swaby, 57, recalled subway cars that he drove in recent weeks that were more crowded than he expected, and looking on with a sense of disbelief as groups of teens huddled together and other passengers sat next to one another without masks, as if the pandemic were on hiatus while they traveled.
He’s torn between an impulse to stay home and a sense that SEPTA is providing an essential service, especially for health-care workers.
“Every time you’re leaving the house,” Swaby said, “you’re taking a risk.”
Few people would feel comfortable venturing out to a restaurant or coffee shop any time soon, a fact that threatens countless businesses in the city.
This new reality can be felt acutely in areas like East Passyunk Avenue in South Philly. The avenue’s revitalization has been one of the city’s biggest success stories during the last decade, a symbol of its appeal to younger residents and empty nesters alike.
But many of the avenue’s dozens of locally owned shops are treading water because of the pandemic, forced to either close or switch to pickup and delivery services only while navigating stressful loan and grant application processes.
“The fear and frustration that we’re hearing about is centered around the uncertainty of how long this will last,” said Adam Leiter, the executive director of the East Passyunk Avenue Business Improvement District.
A run of mild temperatures in the last week reminded merchants and residents that the neighborhood would ordinarily be full of activity right now: diners enjoying a meal outside, parents pushing babies in strollers, couples lounging by the fountain at Passyunk and Tasker.
“I’m hopeful that once things do get back to normal, there will be some sense of joy in even the little things that we took for granted before all of this occurred,” said Leiter, 41.
In a normal, pre-coronavirus world, the Phillies would have hosted the Toronto Blue Jays at Citizens Bank Park on Monday night.
Instead, the ballpark was as still as a mausoleum. The only activity could be found across from the bronze statue of Mike Schmidt on Pattison Avenue, in a parking lot where the city had set up a temporary coronavirus testing site amid a cluster of white tents.
Phillies first baseman Rhys Hoskins has been riding out the pandemic with his wife in the city and staying in touch with his teammates through text-message threads that alternate between baseball and coronavirus updates.
“I miss being with the guys,” he said. “We get that strong bond that we form in spring training, from being together for most of the day for six weeks straight.”
Major League Baseball is reportedly considering a plan that would have teams play out the season in Arizona, in empty ballparks. Hoskins, 27, has a hard time envisioning such a thing; surely, the game wouldn’t feel the same without the usual sights and sounds — thousands of hollering fans, peanuts, Cracker Jack, vendors hawking beer and cotton candy.
On the other hand, could baseball players imagine traveling through airports and large cities if the virus is spreading?
“I’m not sure,” Hoskins said. “We’re pretty fortunate, in that we get to travel pretty securely. But obviously, a big thing about this virus is the ease of which it’s transmitted. If you implant yourself in different cities and don’t know what’s going on there, that could be a little bit of a scare.”
For now, Hoskins — like so many other Philadelphians — is muddling through days and weeks that feel shapeless and indistinct, and adapting to a cityscape that looks borrowed from a dystopian film.
“We go out to walk the dog … and it seems like we could walk down the middle of Broad Street if we wanted to,” he said.