Aurora natives caught in the COVID-19 epicenter

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Two Aurora natives living in the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic sent the same warning back home this week from New York City -- take this threat seriously.

Tereasa Payne and Erin Whitney grew up in Aurora about 10 years apart and now live in the Big Apple, where the spread of COVID-19 has changed their lives in various ways. Both shared their experiences and perspective, which vary some because they live in different parts of the city.
“I personally know people my age and younger who have died already with no pre-existing conditions,” said Payne, a 1992 Aurora grad. “Some people are saying I’m young and strong, but no one knows if they have it. A lot of this is not symptomatic until you have it, when it’s too late to know that you’re spreading it. This is serious, so the quicker we all comply and stay isolated the quicker we’re going to get rid of it and get back to our normal lives.”
Payne lives with her husband, Simon Hutchings, in Harlem, Manhattan, where she temporarily lost her job as a professional musician March 12 when the lights went dark on Broadway. Sharing her experience on the 14th day of complete isolation, she said it’s a scary time to be in NYC.
“Overall we’re in good spirits but when people ask what they can do for us our advice is to take care of yourself,” she said in a phone interview from her apartment in Harlem. “It happened very quickly. One day we’re going about our lives and then we were jobless, inside and disinfecting the doorknobs.”
In fact the only time she and her husband leave their apartment now is for a daily walk with the dog, which is in itself a terrifying venture.
“We have to disinfect door knobs and elevator buttons everywhere we go before we can walk in for safety,” she said. “There are stories upon stories going around like mail carriers getting it just from touching the mail. It’s just so contagious.”
The couple has groceries delivered to their apartment now, which she said was fairly common even before the pandemic. It’s no longer a routine venture.
“It takes two weeks to get an appointment and they are mostly sold out, so you take what you can get,” she said.
Having just received an order on the day of the interview, Payne said they heard a knock on the door from the delivery man, then waited an hour to let things settle, hoping to minimize the risk. Once inside, all the groceries had to be removed from the packaging and sterilized as much as possible.
“Just getting groceries and taking the dog out takes 10 times longer than before, but it’s necessary,” she said. “We’re pretty well stocked, we feel, but no one knows how long we’re going to be on lockdown.”
Getting essential items like toilet paper is impossible now, though Payne had a priceless care package recently from home.
“My mom sent us disinfectant and toilet paper, so we are very grateful to her,” she said.

Feeling blessed
Whitney has a slightly different perspective since she lives a few miles north in a less populated region of Manhattan called Inwood. The 2002 AHS grad has been living in New York for about 10 years, though she said the city has never looked, or felt, quite like it does now.
“For me, living in the northern most part of Manhattan, it just feels more like Aurora,” Whitney said. “It’s pretty low-key, though everybody is wearing masks at the grocery store, so I’m not experiencing it like a lot of my friends. Living downtown I imagine is horrible, especially if you can’t get outside or get fresh air.”
Whitney said she feels blessed to own her own apartment, which gives her a sense of space and security many are not feeling these days.
“I have a lot of friends who are packing up their car and driving to wherever they are from and they don’t know if they are going to be back for a couple of months or a year,” she said. “I recognize that I am extraordinarily lucky.”
Though she is working from home now and feels safe, personally, Whitney said she is trying hard to send the appropriate message via social media to everyone she knows.
“Without scaring people, I’m trying to share how this spread in New York and that’s how it is going to spread everywhere,” she said. “One thing that is frustrating about this epidemic is trying to stress that if you have any contact with someone who may not even have been symptomatic but could have been exposed, then you could be walking around exposing others for 14 days. I really want people to understand the importance of what we’re doing for each other by staying safe, even if you are not the one getting sick.”
As for local access to health care, both women say they hope not to need emergency medical care, knowing access is limited.
“They are sending us texts from the city saying if you are sick, don’t go anywhere,” Payne said. “They don’t have beds for anyone. There are floating hospitals and barges set up with beds, but it’s still not enough. It’s scary.”
“You definitely don’t know what you’d get now (in terms of health care),” Whitney said. “I have one friend who was probably one of the early ones to get it and she was able get treated, which seems encouraging. Another couple got it really bad and never got tested, but they each have all the symptoms. So far all of my friends are recovering well, but it’s scary. It’s surreal because we know people in these hospitals telling us they are overbooked.”

Working from home
Payne and Whitney are confined to their homes for the foreseeable future, focusing first and foremost on their health and safety. Both are also doing what they can to stay busy, and earn a living.
Payne had a running start on the concept of working from home as a musician. She and her husband have been teaching online lessons for about 10 years, which comes in handy when they are on tour.
“We’re very grateful for that,” she said. “And if anyone needs private clarinet, flute or sax lessons, let us know,” she added with a laugh.
In addition, both are working with Concerts in Motion, an organization devoted to bringing music to home-bound seniors.
“We connect with people who can’t get to the concerts, which of course now that’s all of us,” she explained. “I’ve been working for the last week trying to find a way to get concerts out to everyone who needs it, especially seniors who are already isolated.”
Payne said the process is going well and she hopes to reach hundreds of people next week, delivering soothing music via phone or computer.
“It’s a complex system that allows for sounds to come through and we also speak with them, asking about their experiences with music,” she said. “That’s been an emotional life-saver for me this week and hopefully it will continue.
“That’s taken a lot of my time,” she continued. “I’m not a person unemployed and sitting around watching Netflix. We’re working hard.”
One upcoming musical gig Payne will not get to enjoy is the Lion King performances booked at the Orpheum in Omaha.
“That’s very sad and very emotional to me,” she admitted. “Hundreds of people -- family, friends and a lot of Aurorans -- had tickets and were going to be there. I was looking forward to seeing everybody and showing them the world flutes I play.”
Though the Lion King tour has been cancelled, Payne has been assured that it will be booked in Omaha at a later date, and so will she.

An online world
As a broker with the Bohemia Realty Group, Whitney sells residential and commercial real estate. She’s worked from home at times in the past, but since selling real estate is not considered an “essential business” she coordinates transactions and directs her team exclusively from home now.
“We have about 150 apartments on video for people to rent apartments,” she said. “We’ve established new procedures to read documents online and the banks are working on how to close, so everything is still happening.”
Whitney said everyone understands the need for people to stay home and mitigate the pandemic curve as much as possible, but on the other hand the business world has not completely shut down.
“You have interest rates lower than they have ever been so you have people trying to lock down what they can not knowing what the future holds,” she noted. “I’ve seen the gamut of how rentals and sales are affected and what we’re doing to make things happen.”
In closing, both women know they won’t likely travel back to Nebraska any time soon, but they hope folks in the Midwest are watching and learning from what’s happening in the Big Apple.
“At a time like this we see a lot of people getting frustrated or mad because it’s really scary,” Whitney said. “People are irritable and you see that all over. It’s just more important than ever not to judge each other during these times because everybody has a different response, so being patient with each other and extending that love, even if you think they are not handling it appropriately, is so important. You just kind of have to control what you can control.
“That frustration can happen on a larger scale in New York because you have more people who are different from each other, but at the same time I see it within households of two people,” she added. “It’s easy for things to blow up and I think that applies to a microcosm the same as it would at a macro level.”
Payne’s final thought was a serious warning to take safety protocol seriously.
“I wish I had more to add, maybe some good news, but there is little of that here right now,” she said. “Central Park has been turned into a field hospital, the streets are deserted and our neighborhood has been reported as the highest percentage of residents afflicted with COVID-19 in Manhattan.
“I hope everyone realizes that even if it’s not there to the extent it is here, it is coming,” she concluded.

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