Last week, I got a press release that Armando Ezquerra Hasbun will get a special citation from Mayor Jim Kenney on Wednesday during a celebration of Immigrant Heritage Month. Immediately, I got that sense of pride where it feels like your heart is literally swelling, maybe beating a little bit faster than normal.
I have never met Armando Ezquerra Hasbun. Armando Ezquerra Hasbun has no idea who I am.
But for a year and a half, I watched Armando religiously.
A La Salle professor, Armando — I feel comfortable calling him Armando because in my head, we’ve become quite close — served as the Spanish translator for the city’s regular COVID-19 press conferences. The city is honoring him Wednesday for keeping Philly’s Spanish-speaking communities informed. For me as The Inquirer’s breaking news editor, overseeing live coverage of the coronavirus that required constant updates on changing safety regulations, case trends, and more, these regular briefings were must-see TV.
In the beginning of the pandemic, when every new restriction or seven-day case count average felt truly terrifying, Armando was a calming presence. His voice was unwavering, unflappable. During the briefings, I would message our City Hall reporter Laura McCrystal and we would compliment Armando’s suit or the decor of his home office.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy had the same effect. His liberal use of knucklehead as a pejorative and constant introductions of the state’s commissioner of health, Judy Persichilli, as the “woman who needs no introduction” would send me into gales of laughter even though what he was saying wasn’t particularly funny. Persichilli, who of course needs no introduction, became legend to Jersey COVID reporter Allison Steele and me. Did you know she needs no introduction?
Let’s not forget Pennsylvania’s former secretary of health, Rachel Levine, who, in addition to coordinating the state’s coronavirus response, sparked furious debate over whether her favorite accessory was, in fact, a scarf or a pashmina. (My stance: It was a pashmina.)
I’m sure I’m not the only one who found comfort in chaos, joy in inanity throughout the pandemic. One of the worst running jokes in a year of awful running jokes was that in 2020, time no longer existed. But every day I tuned into a new briefing, and they became signposts for the week when time felt like it didn’t actually exist: If it’s Tuesday, this must be the Philadelphia COVID presser.
My therapist told me at one point that she tells patients to turn off the news when it’s becoming too overwhelming and we both laughed because I couldn’t just turn off my job. So it was the Armandos and Judys and the intense debate over decorative neckwear that made it all feel manageable. These people gave my work-from-home life structure and helped create bonds with my colleagues, even if we were miles away from each other. No matter how coronavirus case counts were trending, at least Judy Persichilli still needed no introduction.
Last week, before word of Armando’s citation, a day before The Inquirer wound down its own live coronavirus coverage, the Health Department announced that Philadelphia would no longer have its regular COVID briefing.
At the last briefing, Armando wasn’t there. Another woman, with an equally unwavering voice, took his place.
I know that ultimately this end-of-a-terrible-era is a good thing. It means the city is turning a corner, that we as the press can focus at least part of our attention elsewhere for a while and Philadelphia can relax its shoulders and return to what it should be.
But, still, Armando wasn’t there at that last press briefing and I felt an unearned sense of melancholy when I should have been feeling hope.
I didn’t even get to say goodbye.
Molly Eichel is The Inquirer’s breaking news editor.