Slate launched Coronavirus Diaries back in February, when a writer in Milan offered to contribute a “letter from Italy” explaining what lockdown felt like. That writer, Greta Privitera, filed a lovely dispatch that captured the strange, soon-to-be-familiar feeling of staying home—the small bursts of terror mixed in with an eerie snow day mood. We wanted more stories that showed how this confusing new virus was affecting the texture of people’s lives, even if they weren’t getting sick (and if they were). Looking back at the roster we published in March now, it feels like a slow-motion scan of life being put on pause, one part at a time; people stopped traveling before they stopped eating out, for example. By the time we ran the one about the restaurant firing its entire staff one morning (they drank all the wine), the diaries’ aim had changed: It could no longer be about spotlighting how the virus was affecting people’s lives, because the virus was affecting everyone’s lives. Instead, we tried to find stories that might tell us something about what our world was now. It felt like we went back to the most basic elements: What happens when you’re born right now? What happens if you die? How do we find food? What about money, or sex, or drugs? As part of our series Six Months In, we wanted to hear from some of the most memorable diarists about what’s happened so far, and what’s happening now. Below, their dispatches. —Susan Matthews
I Thought It Was Bad When I Had the Coronavirus. It Was Far Worse Afterward.
Original diary: I Had the Coronavirus. This Was the Worst Part., March 2
If they had told me what was coming after February, I wouldn’t have believed it. It already seemed that I was unlucky enough to be among the first Italians with COVID, but what happened over the following months was worse. Yes, that’s right: worse. I am one of those people with “post-COVID syndrome”—in short, after overcoming the virus, exactly the moment when the results of my CT scans improved and I dreamed of returning to a normal life, the other symptoms began.
Muscle aches, joint pain, headache, tachycardia, breathlessness, failing thyroid. The more the days passed, the more things that I’d never experienced kept coming. My doctor said I had to be patient, and that it would take time to heal completely. He said that it was happening to me because after the pneumonia, I had a weak immune system. The truth is that I immediately understood he was shooting in the dark, and I with him. Nobody knew and still knows anything about what’s happening to me, but it has been over six months and still I’m fighting this unknown battle.
I did not have and do not have the strength to go back to my daily life. Working is impossible. I’m out of breath; sometimes the headaches are so bad they are disabling. So, one morning, I opened a Facebook group to see if there were other people like me. A world opened up: There are hundreds of people in my condition. And then I found out there are many groups like mine all around the world. Thousands and thousands of humans out there formally “healed” but full of symptoms. There are some with heart problems, others who have strange spots on their skin, others who lose their hair. The symptoms are infinite and are not related to how strong the disease was. Mine, for example, was like a terrible flu. I did not end up in intensive care, but here I am. Today, there are almost 3,800 members in the Italian Facebook group. We give one another comfort and strength; we feel abandoned by medicine. Together, we try to find the best way to face this battle, of which we still can’t see the end. —Morena Colombi, as told to Greta Privitera
I’m Back at My Restaurant Job. The Customer Entitlement Is Creeping Back.
Original diary: Scenes From a Restaurant That Just Fired Its Entire Staff, March 16
In March, we were fired.
In April, the food we had brought home from the restaurant kitchen started to turn. The unemployment site faltered under the strain of multiple industries being brought to their knees, including our own. Me and my colleagues complained constantly in a house email thread. I filled a notepad with every idea that could be turned into an article and sold, and my partner tried bike couriering.
In May, I got called back to do takeout. No other front-of-house staff wanted to return, risking their health for less money. For the first time, many people in the industry (who qualified for enhanced unemployment) were able to pay off debt and start saving. A manager, the owner, and I batched cocktails and poured wine into plastic cups with gloves, masks, and barely any idea of what the new laws actually were.
In June, we dragged the tables outside and set up the planter boxes for outdoor dinning.
In July, it rained. One of the wedding tent awnings collapsed on three men with cheeseburgers who were determined to sit through a torrential downpour. Most people tipped, some didn’t (including a restaurateur!), and folks were mostly patient with the bird shit and bees, and said things like, “How has it been for you?”
In August, customers started to rearrange the furniture and order espresso martinis (to this day, we’re without any of our bartenders or baristas). They tried to order a bowl of fries for a table of six after being told we had to serve meals with drinks, and they “just had a couple more friends coming” to a full table. Most did not do this. Most were patient with the single server for a full outdoor restaurant and their water taking a little (lot) longer to be refilled. But the entitlement wriggled its way back.
In September, we’re moving back inside, still with hardly any staff, still uncertain about pretty much everything, still just trying to stay in business. —Anna Bradley-Smith
Zoom Sex Parties? Meh. I Switched Back to IRL Hookups.
After the Zoom sex party article came out, I received a fusillade of cheerful inquiries from people of all ages, nationalities, genders, and sexualities looking to get in on the action. I realize that in the cataclysmic phase of human history that has unfolded over the past six months, there have been far greater miseries, but many of us clearly, desperately missed casual sex. I have the emails to prove it.
It began for me in March. I wrote first about my adventures on Grindr during the week New York City officially shut down, when the surf had drawn back from the shore but the tsunami of loss hadn’t yet made land. Many of the guys using the app, including me, were ambivalent, looking for some way to connect in a climate of fear and uncertainty—the monomyth of modern gay life. My way of connecting was to argue and scold (compassionately), which kept me busy for the small span in which it was possible to debate the seriousness of COVID.
I still haven’t found a way of relating to my sexuality that comes anywhere close to my pre-pandemic escapades. I went to the sex party on Zoom, one of the more exuberant new uses of technology at the beginning of the pandemic, and described it here, graphically, to the chagrin of the sportswriter who shares my name. I didn’t go again. But a hundred virtual sex parties bloomed, attended by a wave of coverage throughout April, and Zoom ostensibly banned the practice that month.
When I broke my vow of celibacy, around May, and logged back onto Grindr, I found that flakiness levels were at an all-time high. I did manage to hook up with a few guys. With the exception of one 18-year-old who enthusiastically sexts me still, they were not worth the effort. I watched a lot of porn, and then I got bored, and then I became very lonely and depressed for reasons that transcend time, space, and sex. It sucked, but I have a great therapist, and the cessation of New York’s gay nightlife has ultimately forced me, in a terribly painful way that I hate, to work, as they say, on myself.
In the meantime, when I got all those notes about how to bone on Zoom, a few readers also followed my piddly little Instagram. One of them struck up a conversation that has loped along through the summer. Today he said yes to a date. —Andrew Kahn
I’m a Luxury Travel Agent. We’re Very, Very Screwed.
Original diary: I’m a Luxury Travel Agent. We’re Screwed., March 6
Rich people still aren’t traveling. The ones who are traveling, they mostly rent out beach houses or cabins through services like Airbnb, Vrbo, or Inspirato, which aren’t things that most travel agents book, because our professional liability insurance doesn’t cover that if things go sideways. There are a couple of my luxury clients who have traveled for work or who have done weekend getaways to isolated hotels that were within driving distance, but I would estimate that my luxury business is down by about 95 percent from what I booked last year.
I am also a travel agent for one of the largest universities in the country. It is … very different now. As with my work with my luxury travelers, the university business travel is also down by around 95 percent, and has been since March. We have a few recruits or other unavoidable travelers, but for the most part, it is at a standstill. My team has been on reduced hours and pay since the end of March, and last month, three-quarters was furloughed or laid off. Those of us remaining spend our days monitoring airline cancellations and working to get refunds for our clients as flights change.
Both of my jobs are ghost towns. My 2020 income is roughly 35 percent of what my 2019 income was. Unemployment rejected my filing, and I wasn’t able to get through to a human to appeal the decision.
When I wrote my diary in March, I was scared—for my job, for my family, for all of us—but I seriously thought, “Oh, it’s going to be very bad for a few months, but the U.S. will get on top of this, and then even though people will be spooked to travel like they were after 9/11, things will still get back on track for the most part.” I didn’t foresee our government’s incoherent, inconsistent, confusing, fractured response. Canada had no COVID deaths last Friday. My friends in Europe are basically living and working like normal again. And I’m going to lose my whole career, and who knows what else, because a disease has been turned into a political football by a government that seems to want us to die. —Erica Wilkinson, as told to Jeffrey Bloomer
My Bookstore Has Survived in Crazy Ways. I’m Terrified for the Holidays.
Original diary: I Own a Bookstore. I Don’t Know How Much Longer We Can Survive., March 12
It is crazy to think it’s been six months. It’s gone by so fast, and yet it’s also surreal and slow. There was a lot of love that happened here in our little community of Mercer Island. We had people who were nervous for us, and they would drop off cookies and bagels and call and see if we were OK. I worked from behind the doors trying to fulfill as many orders as we could every single day.
We are in the business of people. We like giving recommendations and putting books in people’s hands. For us to have to—and I hate this word—pivot and do things over the phone or over FaceTime calls, or go back and forth with people who want to buy these things for their grandkids at home with their parents going bananas, it’s hard. We try to shop for these people so then we can deliver. We delivered so much on Mercer Island; it was crazy and fun all at the same time. We would drop things off at someone’s house, and they’d have a plate of cookies there for you, or they’d have some flowers there for you, because everyone’s working hard, and everyone’s trying to survive and make each day better than the last.
It seems like such a long time ago, because we’re now almost to the middle of September, and then it will be October and November and December. There’s fear in that, because who knows if the doors will shut again? Most small retail businesses make all their money in this time of year.
It’s exhausting. I just turned 55, and I feel like I’m 60. We’re all working harder than we’ve ever worked before. It’s exhausting to wear a mask, and anybody who has to do that all day and work with people will tell you that. It’s hard for people to communicate sometimes. Everything seems like it’s a little bit more work. But when you have some really big wins every day—like there’s this huge box of books and toys that you’re delivering to someone’s grandkid—it makes you pretty happy.
I really only can look at one day at a time. You have an OK day and you think, “Oh, well, it almost feels like normal.” Then, the next day, nothing. You sit there and go, “Oh my gosh, where are all the people?” Every day is different. That’s hard, especially for business. We don’t know what’s going to happen. We’re deeply appreciative of all the support that we got from this community. But we’re very concerned for the future. I think all small businesses probably feel that way right now. I know a lot of the businesses in our community feel that way right now. —Laurie Swift Raisys, as told to Rachelle Hampton