It only took a couple weeks for COVID-19 to go from unfamiliar to ubiquitous, in Connecticut and across the nation. The virus has halted the economy and made the physical human gestures we normally use to comfort one another in such trying times potentially deadly.
But even as unprecedented numbers of Connecticut residents lose work or struggle to keep businesses afloat, life goes on, however alien. Here are how a few residents are adapting to these uncharted waters.
The hot dog man-cum-mayor
Don Trinks is getting hit in two ways by the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic: both as owner of a small restaurant where business has plunged, and as the long-time mayor of Windsor.
“It’s been a busy spring,” Trinks said this week with wry understatement.
He’s the owner of Bart’s Drive In, a locally famous hot dog stand on the bank of the Farmington River that’s seen sales plunge by 50% to 60%. Bart’s has been in operation since 1949 and is a revered Windsor institution.
“We have virtually no staff,” Trinks said. His younger workers have begged off because of worries about being exposed to the virus, and his older workers belong to the high-risk category and are self-isolating at home.
“My name’s on the place, so I gotta be here,” Trinks laughed. The 59-year-old said he likes “to think of myself as on the cusp of being high-risk.”
The staff at Bart’s now consists of Trinks and his wife Barbara, who recently retired as a district education administrator.
“Yep, this is probably the dream of what she wanted to do when she retired,” Trinks said.
Bart’s is now closing two hours earlier each day and Trinks said he and his wife are carrying out “a pretty rigorous decontamination routine” by disinfecting virtually all surfaces in the take-out stand “almost every 20 minutes.”
On the mayoral side of his life, Trinks said he’s spending a lot of time simply keeping up with official warnings and directives. “The executive orders have been coming in fast and furious,” he said.
It’s bad, bad, bad, but ain’t no stinkin’ virus gonna close Bart’s! We’ll get by.”
Windsor has closed schools, libraries and playscapes and sent all non-essential town workers home. The local parks are still open to give people a chance to get out of their houses, Trinks said.
Trinks is trying to maintain an upbeat attitude about the current crisis. He points out that the huge drop-off in traffic at his hot dog stand, while certainly terrible for business, is also “good because people are staying home and obeying the governor’s executive order.”
“We’ve seen two substantial floods, major snowstorms, hurricanes, and tornados,” Trinks said. “We’ll get through this.”
While the coronavirus crisis has brought increased isolation and distress to his patients, Andrew Gerber, Silver Hill Hospital’s president and medical director, said there’s also an upside.
“We’ve found a number of silver linings,” he said.
The hundred or so inpatients at the psychiatric hospital in New Canaan can no longer interact with anyone besides the six to 12 people in the houses they are living in. They can’t receive visitors — only their therapists and team members are allowed through the door of the seven resident houses on the campus.
Gerber says that’s a good thing.
“They live together, eat together, do therapy together,” Gerber, 48, said of his patients. “In a way it’s kind of like being on a hiking trip together, where they bond very closely with one another and in support of one another but with less direction with the outside world.”
“They’re sharing an experience that, while we wouldn’t have designed or wished on them, they’re finding very transformative,” he said.
Gerber also said the “stereotype of patients with psychological or psychiatric difficulties and addiction problems is that in response to stress they fall apart.” But the coronavirus crisis has shown that these patients “have enormous strengths,” Gerber said.
“I’ve been amazed and inspired by how much they have come together as a group and support one another,” he said.
Gerber said the toughest thing his patients face is the stigma of addiction or mental illness.
“But in the context of a national crisis like this, in some ways it lowers the stigma,” he said. “Everybody has anxiety. Everybody is scared. Everybody is talking about how crazy the world is right now, because it is.”
Since the state ordered all restaurants to suspend bar and table service last month, Jennifer Marozzi, who owns the Colchester restaurant Fresca Tequila Bar and Grill, has struggled to keep at least a few of her workers employed.
Her business, like that of all restaurants in the state, is limited to carry out and delivery, and receipts are about 40% of what they used to be.
“Thank God I have some loyal customers,” Marozzi, 46, said. “The fact we could stay open for carryout was a saving grace.”
Marozzi said she still had to lay off 18 employees, all “front house” workers and busboys.
“We were like family,” she said.
Many of the employees she had to lay off are young people, still living with their parents, whom Marozzi said could “weather” unemployment better than others.
But she also had to lay off a married couple whose sole income was what they earned at her restaurant.
“That was terrible,” she said, adding that she’s trying to keep her former employees “educated” about how to file for unemployment and seek other types of help.
She’s also sought help for herself and her restaurant from several sources, including the Small Business Administration, which has been given $350 billion in the latest massive federal stimulus bill to provide grants and loans to people like Marozzi.
“I jumped on every possible opportunity,” she said.
When she’s not worrying about the restaurant, Marozzi is trying to home school her three children.
“It’s challenging all around,” she said.
But she said she’s fortunate her husband is self-employed and still working.
Her advice to those struggling with the crisis?
“Stop all your spending and get ready for what’s to come.”
The massage therapist
It’s now been nearly three weeks since the last time Carrie Teslof gave anyone a therapeutic massage, and no work means no money for the owner of Manchester’s Caring Hands LLC.
“I have a little money saved,” Teslof said. “But it’s going to run out soon… And I can’t imagine what people who are living paycheck to paycheck are going through.”
“I’ve put my car payments on hold for three months and my mortgage payments on hold for three months,” Teslof said. “I’ve applied for unemployment and I’m in the process of applying for the paycheck protection program.”
“But everything is such a long process,” she said. “I don’t know when we’ll see any of that money.”
Teslof, who’s been doing massage therapy for 21 years, opened her business in 2003. There are now six other therapists in addition to Teslof working out of Caring Hands, with each masseuse renting a room when they have clients.
“It’s my business, but it’s sort of a co-op,” she explained.
Teslof, 48, lives in Ellington with her husband, a retired postal worker. They are healthy and self-isolating to the extent that their children aren’t even coming to visit.
So she’s not all that frightened about getting the virus herself, but Teslof is very concerned about her economic future, especially in this early period when there is no sign when the financial aid will start to arrive.
“Until we start seeing some money coming in, up until that time we’re going to be pretty worried,” Teslof said.
In Watertown, Catherine Wolko is keeping plenty busy taking care of her 25 bee hives and finding new ways to connect with customers to sell her honey amid the pandemic.
“I kinda had to step outside my comfort zone,” Wolko said.
She’s been running her Humble Bee Honey Company since 2006. As a food producer, Wolko is considered an essential worker under the governor’s executive orders. So is her husband, who works at the Southbury Training School.
Wolko normally generates most of her business by giving talks about bees, honey and beekeeping and by selling at farmers’ markets and the lobbies of places like Waterbury Hospital. But all that’s changed.
“It’s hard to reach out to my customers now,” she said.
Most of her honey sales now come from the “no-contact” honey table she set up in her front yard and from deliveries she makes to people’s homes in five area communities.
Customers can now pre-order their honey online or by phone and set a time to pick up their order at her farm. Wolko then puts the honey in a bag and sets it out on the table. Her customers can come up the driveway, leave their payment in a box on the table and drive off.
“I don’t come out to the table,” she explained. “They want to make sure they’re not in contact with me.” That’s an important factor for many of her customers, especially the ones who are doctors, nurses and first responders.
Wolko said her deliveries – also done on a no-contact basis – usually involve a customer leaving payment in a mailbox or on a doorstep and Wolko dropping off the honey in the same place.
“Some of it’s really heartbreaking,” Wolko said of her deliveries.
One customer was a woman with four children, one of whom is wheelchair-bound and getting regular chemotherapy. For that family, Wolko said she didn’t take payment for the honey and left a bag full of crayons and coloring books.
“Just to give the mom a break,” Wolko said.