It was the first day that Allegheny County had moved from phase red, which required everyone to adhere to a strict “stay at home” order, to phase yellow. Now some nonessential activities and businesses could open — including the card store where Blair works.
The number of coronavirus cases had fallen over time during phase red but there were still dozens of new cases in the county each week. It was unclear how many people would risk venturing out into public and whether those that did would adhere to social distancing guidelines.
Blair had put up signs at the door, instructing customers to wear masks. For good measure, she taped up several masks near the entrance. There were arrows on the ground pointing out where to walk and Xs every six feet to provide separation. She worried customers would put up a fight.
But 30 minutes after the 9:30 a.m. opening, still no one had entered.
Blair has been working at the store on Walnut Street for almost 15 years. She had been planning to take over the store from the owner this year. But that’s been pushed back due to loss of revenue during the shutdown, Blair said. Now she likely wouldn’t be able to take over until sometime next year.
It was almost 10:30 a.m., and still no customers.
Blair would’ve felt more nervous about returning to work, if she and her husband, Jason, hadn’t already recovered from COVID-19. Just before the store closed in March, Blair rushed home after Jason told her he was running a 105 degree fever. His doctor told them to try another thermometer.
She called a friend who said there weren't any thermometers at Rite Aid. The nurse on the phone told her to put ice under Jason's armpits and start applying cold cloths to his forehead. Blair worried that the 20 minutes she was waiting for a thermometer instead of going to the emergency room might cost him his life. When Jason’s dad finally showed up with a second thermometer, Blair was ready to rush Jason to the hospital. But his temperature read only 100 degrees. And after a couple of weeks in quarantine, the Allegheny County Health Department notified them that they could go outside again.
The store had been open for nearly an hour last Friday when two college-aged girls finally wandered in. Most of the corporate stores on the block — Apple, Williams-Sonoma, Gap — were still closed. So the girls were excited to see the door propped open in the warm weather. They browsed the necklaces before leaving without buying anything.
The store had been taking so many orders for puzzles by phone — an item normally only ordered in December — that Blair had to order more. The store had also purchased a clicker to count customers as they entered. But foot traffic was slow all day. After years of waiting to take over the business, Blair’s enthusiasm was being tested.
Blair had wanted to build a website for the store, and during the lockdown she had finally started. She would be devastated if she never got to take over the store but the lackluster sales was putting it in jeopardy.
Without many customers, she spent much of her day back on her computer, building the website.
Sunday evening in Squirrel Hill
Initially, Eric Ackland, the owner of Amazing Books and Records wasn’t going to open his two book shops. He couldn’t find any hand sanitizer. But then a business friend sent him a link, and he ordered a gallon.
Or at least he thought he did. On Sunday night, he realized that he’d left the order in his online cart without paying.
The business wasn’t ready to open anyway. Ackland is a self-professed slob, and without customers the past two months, the mess has only grown. Last week, the area around his desk in Squirrel Hill had two boxes full of mailers, six packages ready to ship, a phone bill and a Journey record on the turntable, with a candle on top.
In the first weeks after closing, he worked 12-hour days by himself. Online sales only made up 30% of his business, and he couldn’t afford help with so little money coming in. But his online sales have grown, and now he’s making almost as much online as he made with both his storefronts open. He’s done so well that, two weeks ago, he paid off the $80,000 he owed on a storefront in the Southside Flats that closed two years ago.
A Paycheck Protection Program [PPP] loan came through, and he’s been able to hire back his laid off employees and add more. One of his best former employees returned from architecture school in Arizona and rejoined the staff. Ackland also hired a local book vlogger who has been promoting the store’s new "Lit Love Custom Concierge Surprise Package”. Customers tell him a little bit about their interests and receive four hand-selected books and, for an additional $7, a literary-themed candle.
Even with extra employees, he said, he’ll never be able to list all 50,000 of his books online, he said. But the PPP loan will give him enough help to list several thousand esoteric books, which sell slowly but can fetch a high price online. “It’s like saving nuts for winter,” he said.
Ackland’s family has been thriving. His three stepchildren are staying full time at his house because of concerns about spreading the coronavirus. Ackland’s family is Orthodox, so for three full days in April — two days of Passover and then Shabbat — they didn’t connect to life outside their home by phone, TV or radio. They didn’t see anyone at synagogue or have any visitors. Instead, they spent their days talking, playing board games and singing. “It was like being in a different world,” he said.
He has no plans to take down the Mezuzah, a case with a Jewish prayer that hangs near the store’s entrance. It’s considered a good thing, though not required, he said, for Jews to kiss their finger tips and touch the Mezuzah in honor of God when they enter. Ackland thinks "most sensible, intelligent people are not going to kiss them.”
When he finally does open, he’ll limit capacity to five customers, but he rarely has that many anyway. And he’s not sure how he’s going to serve them with all of the online orders he has to fulfill.
“I'm not sure I want to open right now because there is too much on our plate,” he said. "Thank God."
Monday morning in Mt. Lebanon
Bob Shooer, the president and owner of Fleet Feet shoe store, was greeting customers when a woman called out to get his attention.
He didn’t recognize her.
And then he realized it was his neighbor: She was wearing a mask.
The shop was open for the first time in more than two months, with a host of changes. Customers had to schedule appointments through a reservation app. When it’s time to come in, they receive a text. There are fewer seats for shoe-fittings, and plexiglass barriers at the register. Employees use breaks to take off their masks in the back.
One customer told him, “You have too many rules here” and left.
Another man approached Bob. “You worked at Kaufmann’s, didn’t you?”
He didn’t recognize the man until he pulled down his mask. He hadn’t worked at the now-closed downtown department store since the late 1980s.
The last two months were the longest break Shooer has ever taken in 45 years of retail work. While the business was closed, he stopped eating junk food for lunch, started walking every day and lost 14 pounds.
Shooer still came to the office above his store but he didn’t work as much. It was depressing, he said, the first couple of weeks to walk into a dark, empty store where nothing changed from one day to the next. He had no revenue, and it took his employees weeks to collect unemployment.
He can’t visit his 93-year-old mother at Tapestry Senior Living, a nursing home in Moon Township. But his sister received special permission to help her eat, twice per day, and so he is able to see her on FaceTime occasionally. The nursing home didn’t have any COVID-19 cases, he said.
Fleet Feet had about 40 customers the first day back, he said. This was only about half as much as a big day before the crisis. But Shooer said the business would be in good shape if that pace continues.
"I’ve been in retail for 45 years,” he said. "It’s the most surreal thing to greet customers you would give a handshake to or hug, and not do that and stand six feet apart in a mask.”
Monday morning in O’Hara Township
Chris Murphy had to drop off his two sons at exactly 7:30 a.m. This was their first day back at A Place To Grow Learning Center, now that it was allowed to open up again. The center urged the parents to be prompt with the arrival time so the check-in process could be done more efficiently, the protocol Murphy supported. A worker took the boys’ temperatures at the door and asked Murphy where they had traveled to recently.
Murphy's schedule could finally shift back to normal: He had been starting his day at 6 a.m. in their basement office, but his work Monday could start at 8:30 a.m.
Murphy and his wife, Brenda, had hired a babysitter to help with their kids, while Murphy worked in the basement and Brenda drove to her pharmacy job at UPMC Passavant. He could hear their feet sometimes upstairs running around the house. Sometimes they would run downstairs and knock on his door. He was able to do most of his work remotely while he worked on a pharmaceutical IT project.
He loved greeting his kids right after work. He saw his 1-year-old daughter take her first steps, a milestone that had largely happened at daycare for his two boys. The boys fought over crayons and, sometimes, he had to set them in front of the TV while he held his daughter on a conference call. He felt like Bill Murray from Groundhog Day, he joked to family. When his wife returned at 5 p.m., he was exhausted.
On Monday, he had already been able to sleep an extra hour longer and after dropping off the kids, he had 30 extra minutes before he had to start work. He went out to the yard and quietly watered his plants.
Tuesday morning in Troy Hill
After a couple hours at work, Don Mahaney set out on a bike ride with his 9-year-old son, Issac.
He and Issac rarely see each other, since Issac stays with his mom and they are practicing social distancing. When they do see each other, it's either across a long picnic table or on their bikes. Mahaney longs to sit across from his son again and play a game of chess.
Mahaney often works from about 6 a.m. until 8 p.m. at his restaurant, Scratch Food and Beverage in Troy Hill. This hasn’t changed. But everything else has.
At first, he turned the restaurant into a place to serve food to people in need. He catered for a homeless shelter, unemployed restaurant workers, and now he’s picking up a summer meal contract. He changed his menu to provide more take-home food like pickled eggs, pasta bolognese and even household items, like toilet paper and hand sanitizer. For some menu items, people pay whatever they can afford. The website description for the chicken noodle soup says merely, “We all need comfort these days.”
After he returned from his bike ride Tuesday morning, he met with his executive chef and discussed two new menu items: yogurt and cream cheese. Delicatessen items will now become the backbone of his business, as he works with local farmers to source food and process it in-house. He’s turned half of his dining room into additional kitchen space. And on the bar side of the restaurant, he’s installing shelves to hold pickled and canned foods.
He runs up the steep steps by Penn Brewery every Monday and collects $4 donations from customers on his website for every second of time that he’s able to shave. He did the first run in 71 seconds. The last couple of weeks he’s plateaued at 50 seconds. The donations have helped, but it doesn’t make up for the pre-COVID-19 dinners when customers would spend $50 a head.
When he first called up his lenders and told them his revenue had tanked, they offered him deferments. Those deferments are about to come to an end. And when he called back recently, he was told that they didn’t know what to expect this time.
He’s found himself being more open and vulnerable with his staff. During the day, he says his attitude is: “We’re going to deal with it and figure out how to be the best partner for the world.”
“But late at night,” he said, “it’s sometimes hard to maintain that singular focus and you wonder and get worried about things."
Tuesday morning in Duquesne
Nickole Nesby, the mayor of Duquesne, woke up at 5 a.m. and watched the news for four hours, switching back and forth between channels. President Donald Trump announced that he was taking hydroxychloroquine, a drug she said medical experts say is “supposedly ineffective.”
"I don’t believe government is being honest,” she said. “I believe the medical professionals, not Donald Trump."
She doesn’t trust county coronavirus statistics either, she said. People in Duquesne don’t often have their own transportation to get tested and she believes the cases there are being undercounted. (According to county statistics, 79 people had been tested and eight were positive in Duquesne as of March 20. That’s a test rate about half as high as in Pittsburgh, but similar or above outlying municipalities like Upper St. Clair and North Fayette.) She is working with the county health department to bring a testing site to Duquesne.
After turning off the news, she got on a call with state and county officials about trying to keep one of the city's largest employers, a low-priced grocer near the Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, in Duquesne.
"The business is profitable,” she said. "When most businesses leave an area it is because they are losing revenue. Our store is generating substantial revenue.”
Then she videoconferenced with The Pittsburgh Foundation*, she said, and advocated for more resources for her school district. The superintendent says the students need hotspots and computers.
A woman called to ask if the city could build a speed bump on her block. The resident had gotten involved for the first time, Nesby said, because the city’s meetings were being broadcast on Zoom.
Nesby, who took office in 2018, said she earns $3,000 per year as the mayor. She does the job to make the community better, she said, and to help counter the severe depression that landed her on disability for the past seven years.
"I still take my pills. I still go to therapy,” she said. "And I try to pick projects to put my time in instead of dwelling on the current situation."
Tuesday morning in Lincoln Place
Jeff Turko, the operations manager at Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority’s water treatment plant, was helping colleagues plan for some electrical work at the plant over Zoom.
Next to him at the dining room table sat his 7-year-old daughter Harper who needed help with double-digit subtraction.
Turko was working from his Lincoln Place home to help lighten the parenting load on his wife, who works in human resources. She had set up on a folding table in the front room, with their 4-year-old.
The electrical work wasn’t expected to cause a problem, but Turko wanted to make sure there was a plan. The city depended on him for their drinking water.
His daughter depended on him to make sure her work is correctly submitted. "There have been some tears at home,” he said. "It’s like everything else: You get up and do your best and try to make it though until things open.”
His colleagues are understanding. But some of the workday boundaries have dissolved: the emails arrive earlier and keep coming until later than before.
They thought about sending their kids back to their old daycare when it reopened this week, but the price had increased and it wasn’t taking school-aged children anymore. “That didn’t work for us so well,” he said. "We’re looking around."
After the Zoom meeting, he and his daughter knocked out a few assignments and then he darted into his bedroom to order water treatment chemicals, while his wife made the children a snack. At lunch time he took back over the parenting duties.
PWSA employees at the treatment plant now stagger their work times, wear masks, get their temperature taken and maintain social distancing, he said. But he and his wife are waiting until the county moves into the “green” phase before they consider play dates. He used to take his kids to see his mother in Erie once a month, but they haven’t seen her since December.
“I’d hate for something to happen,” he said.
Whenever the weather permits, Turko and his wife let their kids play outside. His wife can keep an eye on Harper’s handsprings and cartwheels through the front window. On Tuesday afternoon, she pedaled her bike for the first time.
The children used to bicker and complain about screen time or not being able to go outside. But now they’ve become closer. They've been building a Lego city in front of their mom’s makeshift desk, an imaginary world that “is getting bigger and bigger,” he said. “Quietly."
Tuesday evening in Carnegie
Just before bed on Tuesday night, Attallah Moore started some of her physics work for the next day, so she could get ahead.
Five years earlier, her parents decided that she should move from Baltimore, where she said she was failing her classes and “running with the wrong crowd,” to come live with her father in Pittsburgh.
She had a few assignments left before she would graduate from The Neighborhood Academy, a private college preparatory school in Stanton Heights. She’d attended a summer program at the school that had helped her acclimate to the school’s academic rigor. She said she’s been getting mostly A’s since moving from Baltimore.
But she’s not sure if she’ll be able to attend a summer program at Berea College in Kentucky. The program was shifted back a month to July, and the school still hasn’t told her if she’s been accepted to the summer program, or even if there will be classes on campus in the fall.
She visited Berea’s campus before the pandemic and ate in the dining hall, where her father asked one of the students if the college’s commitment to diversity was real. (It was, the student told them.)
Because of the lockdown, Chanel Thomas, Moore’s classmate at The Neighborhood Academy, didn’t even get a chance to visit Spelman College in Atlanta before she accepted. On national signing day, Thomas put away her lounging clothes for the one and only time during the pandemic, and posted pictures of her college decision on Instagram.
The pandemic had changed Thomas’ outlook. "I should live in the moment more and try not to plan as much because I never know what’s going to happen and I should just do what I want while I have the time,” Thomas recently told her classmates during a morning advisory over Zoom.
On Tuesday afternoon, Moore watched the fictional high schoolers in Riverdale on Netflix attend prom. She was envious. She and her 17 senior classmates wanted to know if they could all get together to celebrate before graduation, since there were only 18 of them, and during the yellow phase, the state permitted gatherings as large as 25.
Her school is going to drive to each of the 18 graduating seniors' houses on May 29 to celebrate their commencement. Moore’s aunt, grandma, two sisters and mom all are driving up from Baltimore.
“I plan on hugging them with open arms,” she said.
Clarification (5/22/2020): The story has been changed to more precisely reflect Chris Murphy's experience with the day care center his kids attend.
Oliver Morrison is PublicSource’s environment and health reporter. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @ORMorrison.