PW special report: Voices from the pandemic, part 4

PW special report: Voices from the pandemic, part 4

- in COVID-19, News, Top Story
[Editor’s note: This is the fourth installment in a new series of special reports from NC Policy Watch that we’ve entitled “Voices from the pandemic.” In these brief vignettes, our award-winning team of journalists will share snippets from the lives of typical North Carolinians attempting to cope with and respond to the unprecedented global public health crisis.

We welcome your feedback, as well as your help in identifying other individuals whom we might feature in future installments of the series. — Rob Schofield – [email protected].]

Owens Daniels (Courtesy photo)

Owens Daniels

Restaurants, streets, parks and bus stops. All empty on a sunny afternoon.

Owens Daniels had never seen his city quite like this.

A seasoned photographer, Daniels began to document the eerie desolation of Winston-Salem in March, as the COVID-19 pandemic cleared streets, closed businesses and changed lives.

“It looked like the city was just dying by itself,” Daniels said. “There was an emptiness about it, a deprivation … the streets were empty, there were no people, no hustle and bustle, no sounds.”

But Winston wasn’t dying. Daniels knew its people, the beating heart of the city Daniels has for years captured in street photography and portraiture, were still there. But they were separated from each other, experiencing this frightening new reality in isolation.

The feeling sparked a memory.

“I grew up in a time when we used to write pen pal notes to strangers,” Daniels said. “As a kid in school we would write them, and let people know we were thinking about them, they weren’t forgotten.”

Daniels adapted that into “Dear-WS,” a photo project capturing images of the now masked residents of the city — all ages, races, occupations — holding up written messages to the city.

A smiling older woman in an N95 mask, whose message reads: “Dear WS – Jesus is Still in Control.”

A young woman in a cheeky, tongue-out face mask that contrasts with the serious look in her eyes. “Dear-WS,” her message reads. “I am the class of 2020.”

“Keep the Faith”

“We are Here! & We are Open!”

“Love Each Other”

“I am Hungry!”

The images, posted on Facebook, went viral. The public reaction inspired Daniels to keep going, collaborating with the weekly newspaper Triad City Beat and photographer Todd Turner to expand the project across the Triad as the “Faces of the Pandemic” series.

He’s now taken more than 100 portraits, from Winston-Salem mayor Mayor Allen Joines to the city’s transit and waste disposal workers. Along the way, he’s taken care to concentrate on underrepresented communities — Black, Latinx, LGBTQ. 

His interest in photography began during a 20-year Army career that started in cartography — map making. His new photography is its own sort of map: beginning with the anxiety of the pandemic’s early days, through resilience under social distancing, and now documenting protests and ethical struggles over when businesses should reopen and the wearing of masks.

Daniels’ family is supporting each other at home now. His daughter Jayla had her senior year at Catawba College cut short. His son John is back home from Grambling State University in Louisiana. His wife Sonjy lost her job as a receptionist at the Brookstown Inn.

“We’re all careful,” Daniels said. “We’ve got masks and all that stuff. We’re checking our temperatures all the time — especially when I come home.”

“But my family is very supportive of the idea that I keep going out to take these photos,” Daniels said. “They’re not sitting around writing my last will and testament. They’re not dismissive or angry. They’re very proud.” — Joe Killian

TaVera Hodge (Courtesy photo)

TaVera Hodge

On the day TaVera Hodge was to begin a job as a baggage scanner at Raleigh-Durham International Airport, her new employer called to say her employment would be delayed due to the COVID-19 crisis.

“I got hired, I did my background check, fingerprints, drug test, everything and they gave me a start date,” Hodge said. “The day I was going to start, they called me and said they weren’t going to start anybody because there wasn’t enough luggage coming through the airport.”

The job would have provided better hours and more pay — $12 an hour compared to the $9 per hour the 22-year-old mother of one son earned as a grocery store clerk.

Working at the airport also held the promise of a new beginning. Hodge hoped to save enough money to move out of her parents’ home and into an apartment.

“I was trying to do better and provide a better life for my son,” Hodge said.

With a 5-year-old to care for, Hodge couldn’t afford to spend time fretting about the setback. She still has the RDU job and is waiting to be called to work when business at the airport picks up.

In the meantime, Hodge has taken a part-time job at a Durham grocery store to get by until she gets the call.

“I was upset but I didn’t let that discourage me from looking for other jobs,” Hodge said. “I didn’t sit around and mope. I continued to look for jobs until I found something.”

As a grocery store clerk, Hodge is considered an essential worker. She understands there’s risk involved in the work that she’s doing. Like most essential workers, Hodge worries about taking the coronavirus home and passing it to family members.

“I just try to keep everything sanitized,” Hodge said. “I hope they [her employer] continue to sanitize the carts. I think they should continue to keep certain ours for the elderly. I don’t think they should go back to normal.”

“I’m not going to say I’m not afraid, but I feel like I’m covered by the grace of God,” Hodge said.

Even though, she’s following recommended safety guidelines. Hodge washes her hands frequently. And she practices social distancing behind the plexiglass barrier her employer erected to separate cashiers and customers.

Hodge isn’t thrilled about wearing a mask, but she does.

“We do have to greet customers and it is a little hard to talk [while wearing a mask] and some people can’t hear you,” she said.

Some businesses are paying frontline workers extra to compensate them for the risks they are taking on the job during the coronavirus outbreak. Hodge doesn’t receive extra money but thinks she and others on the job should be paid more for working during the COVID-19 crisis.

“Everyone, whether you work at the store or shop at the store, is putting themselves at risk,” Hodge said. “I’m not complaining but I do think we deserve more pay.”

But until RDU calls, Hodge is “grateful to be working.” Greg Childress