Juliette et Chocolat has nine restaurants in the Montreal area. The chain’s founder, Juliette Brun, has five kids. Now, the restaurants are closed – but the kids remain.
Ms. Brun, a bubbly entrepreneur who lives on the city’s suburban South Shore, is facing a dual challenge amidst the COVID-19 pandemic: keeping afloat a mid-size business in a highly exposed sector, while co-parenting a large brood ranging in age from 3 to 13.
“I have a very optimistic view on life,” she says. It’s a good thing.
Ms. Brun is swimming in daunting numbers these days: the children underfoot and the outlets shuttered, but also the roughly 350 employees laid off (temporarily, she hopes), and the dozen or so memos she’s had to write and rewrite as government directives ramp up and the virus spreads.
“It’s an hourly thing, where you’re having to kind of readjust,” she said.
Maybe the biggest number of all is April 12: Easter this year, and hopefully a date that can resurrect the company’s guttering chocolate sales.
Through it all, Ms. Brun has been working from home after returning from a recent trip to the U.S.
“I think the trick now is to not just fall into this very heavy, depressing atmosphere,” she said this week.
The family has strict quarantine house rules: everyone has to read for a certain number of hours a day, and family board games are mandatory, to maintain a certain esprit de corps. Each kid has to choose a special self-isolation project to work on. Still, Ms. Brun admits that she and her husband (also the company’s co-owner) have their hands full.
At least, she says, “We’re still allowed to be in groups of seven!”
Pia Perez barely leaves the house these days. The 31-year-old works in film production and the industry has effectively shut down. “I’m observing a pretty strict self-isolation,” she said.
But Ms. Perez’s sense of confinement can’t compare with what her mother is going through. The 69-year-old Carmen Perez was visiting her native Peru when COVID-19 began spiking in Europe and North America. On Saturday, March 14, the federal government urged Canadians abroad to return home. The next day, the Peruvian government announced it would be shutting its borders. She and her children scrambled to find a flight but couldn’t.
Now she and her two sisters are under a military-enforced quarantine in Lima, able only to leave the house one at a time for groceries or trips to the pharmacy.
Her daughter Pia knows her mother is lucky in some ways, compared with other travellers stuck overseas: a Spanish speaker in a familiar city, surrounded by family. But the uncertainty and the strict conditions of the quarantine in Peru are testing both women’s nerves.
“She doesn’t know when she’s leaving – that’s stressful,” Ms. Perez said.
Now Pia, on top of the usual agitation and anxiety of being isolated, has taken on the task of bringing her mother home. It hasn’t been easy. In an e-mailed response, the federal government’s Emergency Watch and Response Centre told her the federal government is “not repatriating Canadians,” and that "you should not depend on the Government of Canada for assistance related to making changes to your travel arrangements.” (Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has pointed out that at any given time there are about 3 million Canadians abroad.) Global Affairs Canada has since said it is exploring options to bring Canadians home.
The Canadian embassy in Lima, meanwhile, “has been totally MIA,” Ms. Perez said. For now, her mother is “stuck.”
So are hundreds of other Canadians in Peru. Ms. Perez has made this her burden, too. She created a Facebook group called “Bring Us Home,” since merged with a larger group, that aims to provide information for Canadians affected by the Peruvian border closure and advocate for more government assistance.
Rapid policy changes in Peru and Canada have made it hard to keep up. “The ground is shifting hour by hour,” Ms. Perez said. “I’m super tired and super stressed out. I’m looking forward to my mom being back so I can settle in to this new reality.”
Nicole, Burnaby, B.C.
Nicole Tomlinson suffers from ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory bowel disease. In recent years, a new class of “biologic” drugs has helped manage the condition and given her “the ability to live a full life,” she said in a Facebook post. But her drug regimen also suppresses her immune system. She has been happy to make that tradeoff until now. But the coronavirus pandemic makes it a potentially deadly dilemma.
Recently, Ms. Tomlinson received an infusion of the immunosuppressant drug to keep her disease at bay – but that has left her at much greater risk in case of a COVID-19 infection. She is now on high alert to avoid contracting the virus. She makes her partner take off his work clothes in the foyer of their Burnaby, B.C. home, to avoid contaminating the house. (He works in pest control, which is important for keeping grocery stores hygienic.) She and her son went to the park the other day, but not to the jungle gym. Ordering in beef dips for dinner is ruled out.
“I’m not going anywhere,” she said. “My partner is really exhausted and under a lot of stress.”
It isn’t her partner she’s most worried about, though – he knows the stakes. Rather, Ms. Tomlinson wants the general public to know that people like her, with compromised immune systems, need everyone’s help to avoid infection.
“This is a silent dilemma or a silent worry or a silent burden for us, and we may not tell you that, but we’re here, and your actions can gravely affect us,” she said.
“Reading more books,” “building forts.” Biking, hiking, baking. Lisa Baylis can make self-isolation sound like adult summer camp.
“I’m hoping this will just be a beautiful calming moment when we can calm our nervous systems and reset,” she said this week.
The chill approach isn’t just down to the Vancouver Island air. Ms. Baylis has things to be grateful for. Her brother Daniel is finally coming home from Cuba this weekend, after a struggle to re-book his ticket with Air Canada. (It may be a sign of the times that Mr. Baylis bears no ill will to the airline. “I truly think we’re all doing our best in a complex situation,” he said.)
Her kids are excited that “Uncle Danny” will be nearby, staying in a colleague’s basement suite at no cost, where he can have easy access to a bike and delivered groceries.
“I put it out on Facebook and within a half an hour it was sorted,” Ms. Baylis said. “People have come together so nicely.”
She has had to make sacrifices, too, although they’re small enough that she can laugh at them. She and her immediate family had to cancel a trip to Mexico, which, as a mother of a 10- and eight-year-old, she is mourning slightly.
“I won’t deny that I had my moment of thinking, ‘I can’t believe I’m missing out on an all-inclusive, not having to cook and clean,’ ” she said. “I had my grieving process.”
But as the public high-school teacher and counsellor awaits an extended spring break, she is keeping a healthy sense of perspective about the constraints of self-isolation and social distancing: “That’s what we can offer to the world right now, right?”
There’s working from home, and then there’s… this.
Martin Reisch is used to the former. He’s a freelance videographer and video editor with a home office in his second-storey walk-up in the Montreal neighbourhood of Outremont, where he stitches together the documentary interviews he specializes in.
But to edit, you need footage. And all of his March and April video shoots have been cancelled. Finding remote editing work, meanwhile, has been “tough.”
There are other challenges: he has severe asthma and so is at higher risk in case of infection. That means no interactions with anyone in the outside world, for now at least. His girlfriend has been doing the shopping and the laundry.
She is “working from home” now too, of course, “and that part is great,” Mr. Reisch says. They cook three meals a day together and work side-by-side. “It’s been wonderful.”
All things considered, he feels lucky. “These seem like minor adjustments and I’m feeling like they are absolutely okay when I think about how tough other people have it.”
What’s most unsettling, he finds, is the uncanny atmosphere of life during the pandemic.
“I keep thinking about how pedestrian some e-mails I get during the day seem (sales for a shoe company I am on a mailing list for) amidst tweets of absolutely terrifying updates from around the world,” he said. “Daily life has felt like a mixture of not changed at all and completely different. Business as usual and yet casual panic.”
Frank, Vaughan, Ont.
Weathering the pandemic is hard enough without being blamed for it.
But for Frank Ye and many other ethnically Chinese people around the world, COVID-19 has been a dual burden. The health risks have been paired with pervasive racism, online and in the real world, targeting people associated with the virus’s country of origin.
“I think, in particular in my community, it’s this double worry,” he said. “It definitely contributes to the stress of this event for Chinese-Canadians.”’
Mr. Ye doesn’t need the added anxiety. He is self-isolating with his parents and younger brother in suburban Vaughan, north of Toronto. But his mother is a nurse at a hospital in Scarborough, and is continuing to work, as are many health-care workers suddenly thrust on to the front lines of a public-health crisis.
“The main thing is being nervous for my mom and her safety,” said Mr. Ye, 23, and a masters of public policy candidate at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.
Her biggest worry, meanwhile, is passing on the virus to members of her family.
Amid this stew of nerves, and with prominent Republicans in the U.S. increasingly insisting on calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus,” ordinary, boring life goes on.
Frank and his brother are playing lots of video games together. He misses bubble tea, which can really only be had at cafés that specialize in it. With gyms closed, he is trying to avoid excessive snacking.
The family goes for walks together, passing by a pond near their house, waving at neighbours.
But amid all the drab ordinariness of isolation, shared by millions of Canadians, it is hard to forget that a vocal minority has taken to stigmatizing people who look like him.
“That weighs on you,” he said.
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