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News >  Health

Our pandemic past: Inland Northwest leaders share their memories of when COVID-19 took over everyday life

The pandemic’s arrival in the middle of March 2020 ushered in a period of concern, uncertainty and furious planning.

The expectation at that moment, though, was that life would return to normal soon, said about a dozen Spokane residents reflecting on the moment they realized COVID-19 was here to stay.

Kimberly Messina, the president of Spokane Falls Community College, took a tour around her campus, snapping photos of workers wrapping up their jobs for the day as the campus approached a mandated break. At the time, she expected to be back in classrooms later that spring.

“We ran into this thinking it was a sprint,” Messina said, “and then we realized it was a marathon.”

That realization hit different people at different times as the pandemic slowly worsened and closure announcements started to pile up. Spokane Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer knew the city’s plans were going to be changing drastically in early March, when he was in Missouri teaching a class for other fire chiefs.

He received a phone call at 4 p.m. March 1, asking that he return to Spokane to start emergency planning. The day before, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported on the first American to die of the coronavirus, a Washington state man in his 50s.

“The situation was almost surreal,” said Schaeffer, who was on a plane back to Spokane the next day. “Coming from the Midwest, it was kind of like the feeling before a tornado.”

Within two weeks, the first cases would be confirmed in Spokane County. Restaurants and schools were being shuttered, and the call went out for personal protective equipment to protect the region’s hospital workers for an onslaught of cases that many feared would arrive.

“The race is between knowledge and time,” said Schaeffer. “We were planning for the worst-case scenario.”

At Sacred Heart Medical Center, health care workers had already seen patients presumed to have contracted the virus on a cruise ship. Those patients arrived at the hospital Feb. 20 for treatment in the hospital’s special pathogens unit.

Those patients didn’t become gravely ill, said Bennett Gladden, a hospitalist who joined the medical center’s staff in 2019 and quickly became one of its doctors leading the charge against the pandemic. But he remembers the first patient diagnosed in the hospital, whose condition worsened rapidly.

“I had been waiting three or four days for his test results,” Gladden said. “It came back positive at about 8:30 or 9 o’clock on a Friday morning.”

At the time, the man was receiving minimal supplemental oxygen, Gladden said. But within 12 hours, he was placed on a ventilator. The man later became one of the first local residents to die of COVID-19, Gladden said.

“I think that’s when, those of us in the hospital, we saw how fast that happened,” Gladden said. “That was kind of a moment of, this thing is here, it’s very real, and it can make people so sick.”

Gov. Jay Inslee ordered schools across the state closed that same day. Local performances, exhibitions and trade shows were also postponed or canceled, just as local stand-up comedian Philip Kopczynski was planning a series of shows to build on the success of a recorded special that had just recently been released and caught the eye of promoters nationwide.

“It felt like a big step in momentum,” Kopczynski said. “I had a good February. In March, I had kind of a light schedule.”

Kopczynski opened the night of March 11 for Chad Daniels, a touring comic out of Minnesota, at the Spokane Comedy Club. It was two days before the school closure announcement, but Kopczysnki remembers the audience and performers feeling extra tension that week.

“It was a real weird energy in the air. Like, are we about to lose half the people in the country?” Kopczynski said.

During and after the show, no performers shook hands. That’s a noticeable departure from stand-up convention, Kopczynski said, where it’s ingrained to respect other comics by shaking hands. He even caught himself extending his palm to Daniels in the green room.

“I did it as a matter of habit, and he recoiled a bit,” Kopczynski remembered. “And I was like, how am I going to learn not to do this?”

The next day, Daniels was scheduled to perform in Tacoma. The show was canceled.

As businesses and restaurants started to close, more and more residents looked to grocery stores to stock up on items. Runs on paper products, as cleaning supplies and cooking staples, were common, said Jeff Phillips, president and chief executive officer of Rosauers Supermarkets Inc., the Spokane-based chain of food stores.

“The 12th, for us, was the big day,” Phillips said. “It just went absolutely crazy.”

The supply chain started to strain, especially as record days of sales dragged into the month of April, Phillips said. That’s when it became clear that the pandemic wasn’t going to be ending anytime soon, he said.

“When we got to the end of April, and we had still not recovered form a supply chain standpoint, along with a huge spike in cases, a consistent rise in cases, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re in this for a lot longer than I thought,’” Phillips said.

While grocery stores remained open, their workers deemed essential by order of the governor, other businesses found themselves shuttered for an indeterminate length of time. That included Black London’s, a Browne’s Addition barbershop that had just been opened by owner Will Enochs.

“My wife and I got married the day it hit the U.S.,” said Enochs. “We opened in March, and we closed in March.”

Enochs’ wife, Demitra, had a job at Verizon before she was eventually laid off. The couple took the few weeks during the closure to enjoy a kind of honeymoon, Will Enochs said, but also plan for the future.

“What it did for us, was open the door to a bigger plan,” he said.

Demitra Enochs has launched a vintage furniture venture, called ReSpruced, and they’re hoping to open a coffee shop called Bohemian Brew soon.

Even when the barber shop reopened in June, though, Enochs recalled having to convince patrons that masks and other sanitation efforts were essential to keeping the doors open.

“What really made it hard was people mixing in politics. That shouldn’t be, not during a pandemic,” Enochs said.

Government officials found themselves advocating on behalf of businesses like Enochs’, as well as trying to govern in unprecedented times.

As spring dragged into summer, Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward found herself pushing for businesses in town to reopen, and for the region to get to the next phase of the reopening plan. The difficulty in doing so, she said, was the main indication that COVID was going to be with the state and its residents for awhile.

“I think that was a clear indication that this was going to last much longer, and we were going to have to work even harder to get beyond this,” the mayor said.

Like everyone else, governments were dealing with a dearth of information, she said. And, like many others, government officials were under the assumption that stay-home orders and other measures wouldn’t be as long-lasting as they became.

“I think the expectation was – we’re all learning, this was all new – we would get on the other side of this sooner than we did,” Woodward said.

Airway Heights City Administrator Albert Tripp pulled up an email he sent to city staff on March 17, the same day the Spokane Catholic Diocese announced suspension of public Mass for three weeks. The number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Spokane County stood that day at four, with one airman at Fairchild Air Force Base testing positive.

“Even in that moment, I think, there was still some kernel of hope that it would not last,” said Tripp. The email ordered staff to work from home through March 31, a directive that still hasn’t been completely lifted one year later.

Tripp’s email found its way to inboxes the same day students across Spokane County began learning from home. It would take a full year before all students in Spokane Public Schools returned to the classroom, at least part of the time.

Shadle Park High School Principal Julie Lee made a point to visit each of her building’s classrooms on the final day before they were sent home.

“At that time, it was really about thinking that we were going to close schools for a temporary situation, and to make sure that everyone felt like we’re going to be OK,” Lee said. “We smiled at each other, telling students to make sure you take your personal items for now, we don’t know exactly when we’ll be back.”

As the end of the school year approached, it became more and more apparent that a return to classrooms wasn’t in the cards. Also, that the traditional rites of passages for seniors weren’t going to take place as scheduled. Each one reminded Lee of the seriousness of the pandemic, and the long-term implications it would have.

“It’s things like not being able to hold a prom. Not being able to hold the traditional graduation ceremony, having to shift to a drive-thru graduation ceremony,” Lee said. “That’s when, for me, I knew that we were in this for a long time.”

Teachers began preparing for extended absences from their students. Susan Poindexter has worked in schools for 38 years, including as a secretary and a teacher. She was on medical leave from her position as a resource math teacher at Shadle when it was announced schools would be closed, news she received shortly after watching an NBA game with her husband and seeing arenas evacuated over concerns about exposure.

“I was due to come back that month,” she said, “but I couldn’t come back to in-person teaching. This allowed me to come back to school.”

During her nearly four-decade career, she’d never seen schools close like this before, including during the eruption of Mount St. Helens that threw ash into the air. Then, schools were shut for less than a week.

“You never realize what you have, until it’s gone,” Poindexter said. In the coming weeks and months, she would ask for a show of hands during virtual classes how many students wanted to return to the building. Hands shot up quickly.

The drive to find a way back to what was normal prior to mid-March has clouded some people’s memory of those first several days, when there were more questions that answers about the virus and how it would affect everyday life. Kevin Brockbank, president of Spokane Community College, had trouble putting his finger on a specific moment in those months when it became clear life was changing.

“Our role in the leadership, in a big institution like this, is how do we get to tomorrow? How do we get to Friday?” he said.

His colleague, Messina, remembers staying up one night in March, scribbling down notes on a pandemic plan on two sheets of paper, then meeting with staff the next day to talk about what needed to be done immediately at Spokane Falls.

“We thought we’d only be going home for two weeks,” she said, adding that the college made the decision to end ,its quarter early. But Messing pushed for even longer-term plans.

“Let’s just assume that we don’t get to come back completely, what would that look like?” she said.

That’s when the marathon kicked in. Coming up with a plan of how to respond to this pandemic, and improve as a result of it, wasn’t just a path the colleges chose, however.

Woodward said it was important for the city to open what it could, in an effort to give citizens hope that there would be a return to normalcy in the future. She pointed to efforts to open attractions in Riverfront Park, including the skating ribbon and the Looff Carrousel.

“I think this past winter was really, really hard for people, when we were shut down again,” she said. “We were able to do a lot of things at the city, to at least provide people with an outlet.”

Spokane’s Fire Department has adopted practices for employee safety that will persist beyond the pandemic, Schaeffer said.

“The lessons we learned as part of this pandemic are not going to go away, they’re going to be instituted as a way of doing business,” he said.

Kopczysnki said he’ll be able to rein in some of his travel as clubs start to open up slowly, keeping his comedic focus on the region rather than taking gigs on the East Coast simply because of the prestige of performing outside the Inland Northwest.

“My kids are teenagers now,” he said. “Going away for five-day trips, two week trips, just due to travel costs. It feels like an insane time to do that, when my kids are in high school.”

And those schools may be the areas where the pandemic has the biggest affect, as students, teachers and parents alike take on a greater appreciation for what a cooperative effort education is.

“It really has boiled down to how incredibly important we see our role as helping them get ready for adulthood, Lee said. “This past year has been a challenge. We’re still finding our way.”

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