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A year in the life: New Mexicans share their experiences during the pandemic

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The pandemic has had an immense impact on everyone.

Essential workers were weighed down by the constant stress of being out in the world exposed to COVID-19.

Parents juggled working from home while shepherding their children through virtual classrooms. Bar employees were laid off entirely — some haven’t worked in the industry in a year. And many senior citizens — most at risk from the virus — sequestered themselves in their own homes.

It was a trying year for graduates — both those who began college and those who entered the workforce for the first time — and business owners who were left to make a new normal for themselves and their customers.

What follows is a look at how this extraordinary time has affected everyday New Mexicans.

ESSENTIAL WORKER: ‘On our own to do our best’

Kelly Ortman, co-owner of Silver Street Market, has been working long hours at her store Downtown since the pandemic began. (Roberto E. Rosales / Albuquerque Journal)

On her 55th birthday, Kelly Ortman worked 12 to 13 hours at the grocery store Downtown that she owns with her husband.

It was two days after the first case of COVID-19 was discovered in New Mexico and the governor had declared a public health emergency, banned large public gatherings and urged people not to travel, to work at home, and to wash their hands as much as possible.

“It felt a little like panic mode when we would have bad weather and people would run to the grocery store to buy a couple of days worth of groceries,” said Ortman, who has worked in the business for at least 30 years and owned the Silver Street Market since 2016. “So that’s kind of what we thought at first. We were just overwhelmed with how quickly our shelves emptied within the store.”

Pasta disappeared instantly, so did canned goods. Toilet paper and cleaning supplies were hard to find but Ortman said she managed to keep them on the shelves as much as possible.

Then people started baking and there was a run on yeast and flour.

“It seemed a little apocalyptic …,” Ortman said. “They were trying to think ahead but they were also short-sighted — thinking that two to three weeks at home and this is going to pass … I think at first, there was some kind of apprehension, an excitement, a flurry of people doing something new and different.”

A handful of Ortman’s 30 or so employees left the job leaving her short-staffed in the busiest time and by April those remaining began wearing gloves and masks for their entire shift. The store put up plexi-glass and employees sanitized surfaces constantly.

As for profits, the store sold more this year but also had increased expenses on everything from credit card fees to grain to extra cleaning supplies for the staff. In the end, it was kind of a wash, Ortman said.

She said the past year has been marred by near constant stress and she worries while she’s awake and also in her dreams while she sleeps. Almost daily a customer reacts negatively about wearing a mask — although by now she has thick skin and it doesn’t rattle her.

“At the beginning of the pandemic everyone was literally thanking us everyday for being here, for providing them the ability to buy food, and over time that kind of went away,” Ortman said. “I thought we got a lot of respect for doing what we did — we’re not health care workers, we don’t have the personal equipment that health care workers do — we were out on our own to do our best. I think people were very grateful for that in the beginning. Now it’s old to everyone. Everyone is tired of it. Everyone is tired of wearing a mask.”

— Elise Kaplan

PARENT:  ‘Just utter chaos and stress’

The Newcomer Miller family — from left, mom Monica; dad Jeff; Joah, 11; Kai, 4; and Matias, 10 — pose in front of their home. Monica and Jeff Newcomer Miller have been juggling their own busy work lives with taking care of their children and helping them with online schooling. (Roberto E. Rosales / Albuquerque Journal)

In the mornings, Jeff Newcomer Miller’s co-workers have started opening meetings with breathing exercises, trying to help people relax.

But Newcomer Miller, 43, has his two young sons clamoring for his attention.

“Every single meeting we’ve done I have had two boys screaming at me about activities, or wanting to watch screens or do something,” he said. “Luckily I can just turn my screen and audio off and deal with them while everybody else is holding their breath and relaxing.”

For Newcomer Miller, who works for the Albuquerque Public Schools district and is tasked with checking in on students who aren’t logging on to virtual school, it’s moments like this that highlight the challenge in parenting during the pandemic.

“It is really clear that it is much easier to stay focused, it’s much easier to get your work done, it’s much easier to accomplish a lot of things, when you don’t have children who are needing your attention, needing your support,” Newcomer Miller said. “That was evident before we had online school and working from home, but it’s just really, really apparent right now.”

He and his wife, Monica, an immigration attorney, switch off their time going into the office so each spends 2½ days at home with their sons, ages 10 and 11, as they complete fourth and fifth grade. Their 4-year-old has been going to day care every day until the early afternoon. It’s an experience Newcomer Miller sums up as: “just utter chaos and stress, lots of anxiety and at the same time it’s a mixed bag of spending lots of time together, and lots of good experiences.”

The 10- and 11-year-old boys log onto class each morning from their school-issued laptops at desks in their rooms. When either Newcomer Miller or his wife work at home they set up their office at the kitchen table. Around lunch time they all take a break to eat and take a walk.

Despite the challenges, Newcomer Miller said some things have been really nice. His two oldest boys have been spending a lot of time playing together and saved up to buy a remote control airplane — something “they would never, ever have had the gumption or idea of doing in the past.”

In the future — if and when things get back to normal — there are some things Newcomer Miller said he wants to hold onto.

“We would love to not have as much on our plate afterward …,” he said. “When they go to school all day and come home at 3:30 and then if we have sports or anything afterward that’s the rest of the day and we do dinner and go to bed. Now when they’re done with school, we kind of force them to have some quiet time alone so they can have some relaxation and some down time for themselves and then they can go outside.”

— Elise Kaplan

TEACHER: Navigating online learning

Bonnie Dickson teaches first grade at Governor Bent Elementary School in Albuquerque. (Roberto E. Rosales / Albuquerque Journal)

Bonnie Dickson’s classroom walls are decked with shapes and numbers and letters, bright colors, children’s drawings.

The 6- and 7-year-olds she’s teaching this year have never been inside it.

Dickson, 28, has been teaching first grade remotely since last March and said everyone has learned and adapted a lot along the way. She recalled that in the first couple of weeks after the shutdown she suddenly lost contact with students she’d grown close to and known for the past two school years.

The microphone didn’t work on her home computer so she would call a parent’s cellphone to talk things over while they watched her on video.

“I would drop off packets to families that couldn’t get to the school by bus or by car,” Dickson said. “I would go deliver it to them so that they wouldn’t have to really leave that house.”

By the time August rolled around teachers at Governor Bent Elementary School didn’t know quite what to expect but they were a lot more prepared. Teachers were allowed to teach from their classrooms in the beginning of the fall semester but then were sent back home when cases began to spike.

This year Dickson said she has spent a lot more time getting to know her 17 students, building those relationships, and helping their families navigate online learning. She said it’s really hard to introduce new concepts — the difference between six groups of ten and six ones for example — but her students have been eager to please and are trying their best.

“It’s really funny and cool to be like in their houses kind of,” she said. “You get to see how they interact with their families, you get to see how their house is decorated. Sometimes it’s really funny just seeing how they interact with their siblings … It’s fun to have the family as part of your classroom in your community, which is not how it is when you’re in person.”

And the kids get to see the inside of her home and “meet” her three dogs as well.

“They really love my girl dog Cookie,” Dickson said. “So whenever they see her in the background, they’re like ‘ooooo Cookie!’ so yeah, they know my dogs.”

Still, she’s been thinking a lot about what it will be like to see her students again — how tall are they? Will she be able to hug them or hold their hands like she used to?

“The little ones, they’re very affectionate,” Dickson said. “They want to hold your hand when you’re walking to lunch, they want to give you hugs every morning. As a teacher, you get used to that and so not being able to do that will be interesting. If a student is hurting or they’re sad — how do you comfort them?”

— Elise Kaplan

STUDENT: ‘A little bit of a bummer’

Noah Chavez, 19, is a freshman at the University of New Mexico whose entire experience of college has been under strict pandemic restrictions. (Roberto E. Rosales / Albuquerque Journal)

It was March of 2020 and Noah Chavez, a senior at La Cueva High School, had just asked his girlfriend to go to prom. She said yes.

Then the pandemic began and all students were sent home until after spring break, and then indefinitely. Prom was canceled. Graduation was done as a “drive-thru” where Chavez picked up a diploma but didn’t get to hang out or celebrate with his friends.

“It was a little bit of a bummer,” he said. “It was a drive-thru I guess so I didn’t get the whole experience. I’m not 100% (sure) what actual graduation would have been like but it would have been cool to do that.”

Graduation and prom are just a couple of the things 19-year-old Chavez had heard about, looked forward to and seen portrayed in popular culture that ended up being completely different for him and his classmates.

The pandemic cemented his decision to go to the University of New Mexico where he’s a pre-pharmacy major.

He decided to live on campus — away from his parents who have health conditions that could put them at higher risk from COVID — and is in a double room alone. All dorm room common areas are closed and for the most part the halls are empty, he said.

He hangs out in small groups with people he already knew and attends class online from his room. Most students keep their video and audio off during class so he hasn’t even really met his fellow classmates.

“Everyone including my parents and coach said it can be some of the funnest times ever,” Chavez said. “Meeting new people and just the whole ‘experience’ … I don’t really know what that is.”

— Elise Kaplan

RECENT GRADUATE: ‘Thrown into the deep end’

Sara Howard’s first full-time job after college was done at her kitchen table.

Sara Howard’s first job after graduation isn’t what she expected — namely because it’s now located at her kitchen table.

Howard, 23, had only just transitioned from an intern to a full-time employee at Sunny505, a marketing firm, when the pandemic hit, prompting the entire office to work from home.

“It was a little scary because, you know, as an intern you’re not really doing a whole lot of stuff, you’re kind of doing busy work, right? And since my degree wasn’t in advertising I was really nervous to have to start this brand new career from home,” she said. “My first office job out of college is going to be at my kitchen table.”

Howard said she had to learn a completely new tool set without being able to rely on co-workers in the same way you would in the office. Plus, since she hadn’t been in the position very long she didn’t know her cohorts very well, leaving her feeling disconnected at first.

“The past year, the first half of it definitely was a lot to take in and I feel like that was amplified, you know, by not having that hands-on experience that you would in the office,” she said. “Google was like my best friend for the first half of COVID.”

While the first several months were a “learning curve,” Howard said the concepts began to click and she started to feel more confident in her job by the time summer rolled around.

“I would say this is, in some way kind of helpful, you know, being thrown into the deep end essentially really helped me learn my job at a faster rate because I didn’t really have another choice,” she said.

Now she has learned to deal with dogs interrupting Zoom meetings and enjoys the benefits of wearing T-shirts and leggings to work instead of blazers and dress pants. Plus she has the freedom of a mid-day dance break in her house.

“I really didn’t know what the first year was going to look like, but if I had to imagine what the first year would look like, it would not be this,” Howard said.

— Pilar Martinez

UNEMPLOYED: From vacation to insecurity

As a grad student in counseling and a father of five, Shane Givens relied on his job at Dirty Bourbon Dancehall & Saloon to help support his family. (Dean Hanson / Albuquerque Journal)

At first, the shutdown felt like a vacation.

Shane Givens, 39, who worked behind the bar and did security at the Dirty Bourbon Dancehall & Saloon, suddenly had more time to relax and spend time with his wife and five young children.

For the past three years he worked late on weekend nights at the popular club in Northeast Albuquerque — a job that allowed him to make it to his kids’ sports practices and pursue a graduate degree.

With the break from work combined with additional benefits from the federal government, he was actually feeling secure.

“The bills were still getting paid,” he said. “We caught up on things and everything was fine.”

But days stretched to weeks and then into months while the doors to the Dirty Bourbon remained closed.

By summer, much of the federal aid bolstering unemployment benefits dried up leaving Givens to rely on state unemployment — $157 a week that was quickly eaten up by bills and car payments.

“So then I’m left with, when it comes down to (it), probably $20 that I was supposed to feed my family, and pay a power bill and a water bill and a natural gas (bill),” he said.

Givens said he tried looking for work, but jobs that could accommodate him staying at home during the day to take care of his children — all 12 years old and younger — and help them navigate online learning were limited, if not fruitless. He dropped out of the master’s program in counseling he had been attending at New Mexico Highlands University since he was unable to get his clinical hours due to the school shutting down.

Givens began missing payments on his car loan and deferred his credit card payments. He had to ask relatives for help to keep him and his family afloat and even sold valuable sentimental items like his motorcycle — a graduation gift from his father — and the family’s horses.

“My wife had to dip into her own retirement (fund) just so we could put food on the table …,” Givens said. “Her retirement that she’s built up for the last 15 years got cut in half in one day.”

— Pilar Martinez

CATHOLIC PRIEST: A chance at a reset

The Rev. Vincent Paul Chávez conducts Mass online March 3 from St. Therese of the Infant Jesus Catholic Church. (Roberto E. Rosales / Albuquerque Journal)

In the beginning of the pandemic the Rev. Vincent Paul Chávez began thinking about the concept of the Jewish year of Jubilee in which debts are forgiven, the land is not planted and the Earth is given a chance to rest.

It seemed almost as if that’s what was happening — the virus was forcing a time-out on the world “from the ravages of our humanity, greed and our selfishness.”

“I remember seeing those images …,” Chávez said, his voice thoughtful, soothing and melodic as if giving a sermon. “In Northern India for the first time in a long while we could actually see the top of the world again, the Himalayas could be seen again clearly. In Paris, the City of Lights, people could hear birds chirping again and it was almost as if the Earth was given a rest.”

Over the past 12 months, 57-year-old Chávez and St. Therese of the Infant Jesus Catholic Church adapted and adapted again. After the archbishop closed church services to in-person attendance, Chávez and his team began live streaming Mass daily — he said the earliest of which have a number of “bloopers.” When parishioners were allowed back at 25% capacity they received communion from masked and gloved ministers. The ritual of drawing a cross on foreheads for Ash Wednesday was done with a cotton swab instead of a thumb. Confessions were heard by appointment only.

Chávez recounted visiting a parishioner who was dying from COVID at the hospital, suiting up in personal protective equipment to deliver the sacrament of the sick while simultaneously video-taping it for the family who was not allowed to attend.

“I was even trying to be careful to get a good angle of the face of the man because of all the medical equipment so the family’s last images of him would be softened,” he said.

The year was marked by a tremendous amount of tragedy. Chávez counseled parishioners who had lost their jobs and were worried about scraping by. And in late January as deaths in the U.S. reached 400,000 the church set up 1,000 luminarias and tolled the bells for those lives lost.

He said he sees the pandemic as a great challenge but also as an opportunity to re-examine humanity’s relationship with the Earth, plants and animals.

“Our human greed is ultimately what causes a pandemic of bacterial substances,” Chávez said. “So the challenge is how do we as the human community… How do we look and care for each other, especially the littlest among us? How do we care for the Earth, our common home?”

— Elise Kaplan

FIRST RESPONDER: ‘It’s been challenging’

Albuquerque Fire Rescue Lt. Doug Hearon says the coronavirus pandemic is “complicating life across the board.” (Roberto E. Rosales / Albuquerque Journal)

As a paramedic, Lt. Doug Hearon says he’s used to pushing the limits when it comes to stress. He’s used to taking on the emotional burdens of the patients he helps at the most intimate and vulnerable times in their lives.

This past year has amplified all that as he’s been called to respond to emergencies in an unprecedented situation.

“You’re also kind of taking away some of our mental health therapy such as spending time with friends and family, access to the gym. It’s complicating life across the board,” Hearon said.

The 38-year-old lieutenant with Albuquerque Fire Rescue describes his experiences over the course of the pandemic as “surreal.”

He said it’s been difficult building trust with patients as he has to be suited up with a mask, shield, gown and gloves if there is any chance they have COVID. And when virus cases spiked last fall and winter he definitely noticed an increase in calls.

“It was always a subtle stress in the back of your mind, that there’s just unknowns,” Hearon said. “Hoping that you took your PPE off appropriately and didn’t recontaminate yourself … just not knowing what we’re going to walk into.”

Hearon and his fiancée were originally going to get married in June 2020, but pushed it back to October and now he said they’re just keeping it open-ended and waiting for the pandemic to subside.

His friends and family worried about him and what he could be exposed to. The tight bonds that first responders form, living, eating and working together as a “fire family” were tested by the circumstances as well.

“The overall health and wellness of the fire service … it’s been challenging,” Hearon said. “That being said dealing with emergencies and managing emergencies is what the fire service and first responders do. So for the pandemic, in reality, it was tweaking some policies and procedures, wrapping their mind around different approaches to things and kind of continuing business as usual.”

— Elise Kaplan

BUSINESS OWNER: ‘It’s almost like expect the worst’

Cameron Frigon, co-owner of Gravity Bound Brewing, opened his business during the pandemic.

Gravity Bound Brewing was a dream about to come true for co-owner and brewer Cameron Frigon.

Frigon had worked tirelessly alongside his brother, Chris Frigon, and by early March the downtown brewery was just weeks away from its planned debut.

Though Frigon had seen stories about the virus’ spread in Europe and debated the benefits of having bartenders wear masks when they opened, at that time the coronavirus still seemed like a distant threat.

“I think we thought at that point in time that ‘oh this will pass in a couple of months’ …,” he said. “Or we’ll figure out a way to just stop it, or it will go away.”

But the virus and the ensuing shutdown put a stop to all their plans. In some way it was almost a relief.

“It’s kind of like your first day of school or something like that — you’re, like, excited but you’re also a little scared and that’s kind of how I felt,” Frigon said.

The brothers ended up dumping a batch of beer brewed in anticipation of the opening. Instead of welcoming customers, Frigon spent his time expanding the patio, building garden boxes and starting a small garden.

The brewery opened in June when public health orders once again permitted on-premise dining.

“We sort of expected things to be a little bumpy, and a little rough, a little unpredictable …,” he said. “I think it’s almost like expect the worst.”

Plus, he said, the delayed opening had some unusual benefits, like attracting customers who may have gone elsewhere if it weren’t for the virus.

“I think being new and novel at such a time when there’s a dearth of that elsewhere … that oddly benefited us,” he said.

— Pilar Martinez

HEALTH CARE WORKER: ‘We just lost so many patients’

Dr. Renee Varoz had just returned from maternity leave when the pandemic reached New Mexico.

Dr. Renee Varoz, an internal medicine physician at Presbyterian Hospital, had only been back from maternity leave for a couple of months when the pandemic reached New Mexico.

Her son, Jaxton, was 7 months old when the units she worked in were designated as wards for COVID-19 patients. The 33-year-old said she was wracked with anxiety about contracting the virus and, even worse, passing it to her son.

“I remember feeling really terrible at the time,” Varoz said. “Because I truly felt that, if I had known that this is what I was going to be doing, then I would likely not have become a doctor.”

While some physicians opted to isolate from their families, Varoz said she wanted to stay with her young son and her husband, Jesse. That meant changing her routine: sanitizing her hands constantly and changing into and out of scrubs in her garage.

Despite her anxiety about having a young child at home while working during a pandemic, Varoz stuck with the job.

Once COVID cases became more common and she felt assured about personal protective equipment and other measures Presbyterian had put in place, Varoz said her worries faded.

“Now it just seems like the norm when we see (COVID-19 cases) in the hospital,” she said. “So, it’s hard to remember what it used to be like.”

While her nervousness about the virus has faded, Varoz said she’ll never get used to the massive loss of life she saw over the year.

“Just again and again, despite what we did, we just lost so many patients,” Varoz said.

Even with all the tragedy, Varoz said her perspective shifted dramatically over the course of the past year. Where she was once anxious and frustrated by the situation, she said she now feels grateful to be on the frontlines of the pandemic.

“I now am very thankful that I was an essential worker, that I didn’t have to stay home,” she said.

— Stephen Hamway

SENIOR: ‘This year … has been drastic’

Alvin Mund’s previously active life has slowed considerably during the pandemic.

Alvin Mund is 91 years old and has a lot to say. He says he enjoys a nice cigar, drinks a shot of good single malt bourbon every day at 4 p.m., whistles at pretty girls when they walk by and drives a fast car.

Before the pandemic he and his 85-year-old wife would dine out frequently with their son and daughter-in-law, going to restaurants all over town. But for the past year they have stayed home and limited their contact with those outside their immediate family.

“I am pretty much living the life of leisure in many ways,” he said. “But this year to me has been drastic. I’m confined. I can’t go anywhere so I have everything delivered. I don’t see my family as often as I would like.”

Last year two of Mund’s grandchildren had children — making him a great-grandparent who has mainly seen the new babies through video calls. In the past, family members from all over the country would descend on Albuquerque to celebrate Christmas together.

This year: “Nothing. We didn’t have any of that.”

In January, Mund said, he and his wife were able to get vaccinated “by accident” when he was at the pharmacy picking up a prescription and mentioned that he was in his 90s.

“He says ‘well Mr. Mund,’ he says ‘I have a lot of people who were priority to get these vaccinations and guess what? They didn’t come for their appointment and I’m stuck with some vaccination material, and it will spoil if I don’t use it,'” Mund said. “I said ‘well I’m here.'”

Even after getting vaccinated the Munds continue to wear masks and limit their time out of the house. He says he won’t feel at ease until herd immunity has been reached.

As for planning for the future?

“I can’t because I don’t know,” Mund said. “This is also sad because you don’t know what to expect next. It’s so unpredictable.”

— Elise Kaplan


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