Our haircuts were supposed to be in the backyard, the newest safe space for my family.
Too many weeks into New York’s stay-at-home orders, my sister Suzanne—a hair stylist—stops by to pick up some mail and give my father and me trims. The original plan was to do it outside, where there might be less risk of exposing Suzanne to whatever may follow my parents back home from their jobs.
Dad, who is 69, works at the bakery counter in our local Stop & Shop. My mother, 65, has been working as a pharmacy technician at a nearby CVS for the past 10 years.
A few minutes before Suzanne pulls into our driveway in Carle Place, the sky opens up. It’s raining so hard the street looks more like a river. She decides to do her work in the dining room.
Suzanne, 40, washes her hands as soon as she stepped inside, then meticulously wipes down her tools with Lysol towels. She’s not wearing gloves and none of us have put on masks.
“I trust you guys to tell me if you’re not feeling well,” she says. “I guess being with family gives me a false sense of security.”
At 23, I am the youngest of four, the last living at home. I am among the Americans who have the privilege of staying at home during the pandemic—my classes at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY have moved online, as has my communications job for a labor union.
My parents, though, are part of the workforce deemed essential. They must go outside, driving to their jobs as usual. What is brand new is how much my two sisters, my brother and I worry about the two people who worried about us. Working at Stop & Shop or CVS had always seemed safe.
Not any more. Like families coast to coast, we are on edge, thrust into roles as amateur disease detectives, calculating the medical risk of routine things that could end up to be fatal.
My sister Meghan, 37, an administrative assistant at an accounting office, has been working from home in Floral Park. She has asthma. Her partner, Alfred, 31, delivers oxygen to hospitals and nursing homes across Long Island and New York City. They never imagined his work could potentially endanger her.
Now Meghan and Alfred have a system for sanitizing when he gets home each day. Before he enters their apartment, Meghan sprays his shoes down with Lysol. They put his shoes in a box next to the doorway and Alfred uses Lysol wipes on his phone, wallet and anything else he brings into the house.
Alfred is not in direct contact with patients. But he and Megahn know they have to be extra careful about not getting her sick. Still, she’s more worried about our parents.
“They’re on the frontlines,” she said, “I don’t want anything to happen to them because the older population is dying from this.”
My dad’s Stop & Shop has installed four-foot-high plexiglass shields, or “sneeze guards,” at every register, and provided KN-95 masks and gloves to employees. They’ve even hired someone specifically to sanitize the store.
CVS has adopted similar practices. In addition to installing plexiglass shields and providing masks and gloves, the store requires that customers stand four feet from the pharmacy counter where my mom works. Employees have their temperatures taken at the start of every shift.
Both of my parents do as much as they can to stay safe during and after their shifts. In addition to trying to keep their distance from customers, they wash their hands extra often, change their clothing and shoes as soon as they come home and wash their uniforms right away.
None of this is a guarantee.
“I actually had two interns who came down with it,” my mother said. “We have a new pharmacist who was supposed to start with us. He also tested positive and we’re waiting for him to come back.”
Before wearing masks in stores became mandatory, most customers would come in without covering their faces.
“There are people in the public that don’t wear masks, don’t cover their mouths when they cough and are very careless with how they treat other people,” my dad said.
My brother, Ed, 42, works from home in Monrovia, California, where he is a merchandising manager at CPO Commerce, which runs online stores for businesses. He is unhappy about what our parents must face.
“They have to do it, they don’t have a choice,” he said. “I don’t care how careful you are, it just takes one absent-minded grab of the door handle to get them sick.”
That fear is keeping nonessential businesses closed. Suzanne doesn’t know when Hair Machine, the salon she works at in Rockville Centre, will reopen.
When she finishes her work in the dining room, she sweeps up the hair and puts her tools away.
She is contemplating whether giving clients haircuts in quarantine is worth the risk.
“Right now, my unemployment benefits are making it easier to say no,” she says. “Otherwise, I would probably be jumping at the chance.”
I hope she doesn’t have to consider it at all. We already have enough to worry about.