People across Snohomish County share their thoughts on two years of life during the pandemic.

People across Snohomish County share their thoughts on two years of life during the pandemic.

Anxious, weary, hopeful: How we’re coping with COVID

The pandemic has taken a toll in Snohomish County, where the first U.S. case was confirmed. Here’s a time capsule of life in 2022.

Herald writers Jacqueline Allison, Isabella Breda, Andrea Brown, Ellen Dennis, Taylor Goebel, Jake Goldstein-Street, Katie Hayes, Janice Podsada, Rachel Riley, Cameron Van Til, Ben Watanabe and Claudia Yaw contributed to this report.

EVERETT — Take a moment to consider your life two years ago.

It’s not a question of whether you’re a different person now.

The question is, “How?”

Remember learning to wash your hands like your life depended on it?

Remember realizing “flattening the curve” would turn into more than just a two-week disruption?

Remember how it seemed impossible Americans would accept wearing masks in public? Or for school campuses across the country to close and go virtual? Or for a strange new illness to claim millions of lives worldwide?

We’ve lived through a lot together.

And we’ve also survived a lot alone, in isolation.

Since that January morning when we learned the novel coronavirus had landed here — not just in the United States, but right here in Everett — so much about the world has been reshaped and rewired that it’s hard to put it into words.

Still, The Daily Herald asked you to try.

More than a hundred people took time to fill out an informal survey.

“Lonesome.”

“Increased anxiety and burn out.”

“Our lives have been dumped over like a bin of Legos.”

People lamented how politics have become so polarized. How they lost family members and friends to misinformation. How seemingly everyone argues and points fingers over every possible subject.

“I wish I knew that we are not ‘all in this together,’” someone wrote.

Some voiced opinions that masks and vaccines don’t work, or are harmful, contrary to recommendations from health experts, guidance from government agencies and the conclusions of countless studies.

At this point, pretty much everyone has either contracted COVID-19 or knows someone who has. Tragically, most know someone who has died due to complications from the virus. As of Wednesday, 891 have died in Snohomish County. There have been more than 860,000 deaths in the nation.

Amid all the despair, there have been pockets of hope.

Isolation has offered time for reflection, a moment to reset priorities, according to the Herald survey. Families spent more time together. Your neighbors learned to cook, to exercise, to play the bongos, to slow down. Employees quit jobs they hated and found ones they liked, with the acceptance of telework opening new doors. Longtime partners cemented their relationships. New love sprouted in spite of the circumstances.

At least one person got a corgi. Another scored 20 bucks on a scratch ticket. And someone found solace behind a mask, saying it hides their toothless grin.

And life moved on.

People got diplomas and degrees, bought houses and brought children into their lives.

Herald reporters spread across the region to talk to as many of you as possible.

Here are your stories.

Consider this a time capsule of what life was like in Snohomish County from 2020 to 2022.

Michael O’Donnell is a resident of a Sunrise View, one of the hardest hit retirement communities by the COVID-19 pandemic in the county. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Michael O’Donnell is a resident of a Sunrise View, one of the hardest hit retirement communities by the COVID-19 pandemic in the county. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Michael O’Donnell, 83, Everett

Michael O’Donnell is in quarantine. Again.

“House arrest,” he said. “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.”

This time, it’s a 10-day room sentence for visiting cousins with big homes and pools in San Diego.

Quite a contrast to his one-bedroom assisted living unit.

O’Donnell, 83, lives at Sunrise View Retirement Community, hit hard early on by COVID-19. The isolation from various lockdowns was difficult for a guy who liked to stay on the go, and who was grieving the death of his wife.

Sunrise residents can now leave for up to six hours. If they’re gone longer, they face restrictions upon their return.

O’Donnell said he takes off every couple months, only to come back and “face the quarantine.”

“Sometimes I complain but it has been a pretty good working deal over the last several years,” he said. “I’ve adjusted.”

He took trips to fish, gamble and dine in Reno, Nevada; Wenatchee; and Westport. More escapes are planned.

When quarantined, he is confined to his room. He can’t go to out to the courtyard to toss a football or take his little dog, Cricket, for a walk.

A worker named Sylvia brought him cupcakes with frosting and sprinkles.

“Life is as good as Sylvia’s cupcakes,” he said.

—A.B.

Amy Kass (Contributed Photo)

Amy Kass (Contributed Photo)

Amy Kass, 35, Lake Stevens

Amy Kass kept calm during the pandemic. She had to.

She’s a mother of a 5-year-old and a 15-year-old and the wife of an essential worker. And as the pandemic began, she became an emergency medical technician.

Working for a private ambulance company, she helps take patients from hospital to hospital. Many of them are critically ill with COVID-19 or some other illness.

She tries her best to treat those strangers tenderly — the way she would have wanted her grandfather to be cared for when he contracted the virus in 2020.

He died that fall, on the other side of the country, she said. Her family couldn’t hold a normal funeral.

The hardest ambulance call came when a COVID-19 patient had to be taken from a hospital in Skagit County to one in Snohomish County. His wife, who was also hospitalized with the illness, was pending transfer but had not been accepted by the Snohomish County facility yet.

As Kass carried his stretcher past his wife’s hospital room, he choked out a goodbye, not knowing whether it would be his last.

“He could barely talk. He was so short of breath,” Kass said. “And listening to her tell him it was going to be okay — it was just so heart-wrenching. That one will always stick with me.”

—R.R.

Kaiser Moses

Kaiser Moses

Kaiser Moses, 18, Tulalip

At Marysville Getchell High School, Kaiser Moses and his friends had just found a cool new lunch spot on campus before the world turned sideways.

“It was really fun because on Fridays, everybody from a bunch of different classrooms and lunch spaces would come in and we’d play Super Smash Bros. in the band room on their projector,” Moses said.

Then his classes went online, and he was forced to grow up fast.

“It’s very strange. People say: ‘Oh, hey, they have COVID.’ And then a week later: ‘Their funeral is gonna be on this date,’” he said. “Especially family members, seeing them succumb to it. … It wasn’t too uncommon to hear someone say, ‘Hey, can you pray for so and so,’ and I asked, ‘What do they need prayers for?’ And they explain that they have COVID.”

Everything was heavy. George Floyd was killed in police custody. Then, his auntie died. He didn’t get time to grieve or process much of it.

“I feel like it’s gonna hit me like a train sooner or later,” he said. “Not sooner but probably later. By then I’m kind of hoping I’m far enough detached from it by time. But you know, it’s a lot at once.”

And as a high schooler living at home during the pandemic, there wasn’t much to do beyond the virtual world.

Track and field meets were cancelled. Comic Con was cancelled. Annual community events like the Salmon Ceremony, Treaty Day and Canoe Journey were cancelled. It feels a bit weird, he said, having a “Canoe Journey 2020” hoodie hanging in his closet.

Lately, Moses has found friends in the online gaming community. He celebrated the return of birthday gatherings when vaccines became widely available, and he has cherished small bonfires and coffee dates with friends.

—I.B.

Allison Gunta (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Allison Gunta (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Allison Gunta, 34, Bothell

Being a military spouse during a pandemic is tough. Allison Gunta can attest to that.

In March 2020, Gunta was at a convention in Florida. After that, she planned a trip to the Caribbean with her husband and their two young daughters.

“It was the last time we felt normal,” she said.

But because of the pandemic, they had to cut the vacation short.

Thus began a two-year journey that led them around the world.

Later in 2020, her husband’s Navy career moved the family to Yokosuka, Japan, for 10 months, an experience Gunta called “eye-opening” as she saw the differences between how the United States and Japan responded to the pandemic.

They had a two-week hard quarantine upon arriving. That time together after so much separation “was a sweet little blessing of COVID,” she said.

In October, the USS John S. McCain arrived in Everett. With it came the Guntas and over 300 other sailors and their families. The family ended up in Bothell.

Gunta has been working to get her daughters enrolled in preschool while also trying to get back to work, something the speech language pathologist had to push off because of the strain of the last two years.

She wants to establish roots in Washington. And while the transition here has been tricky, Gunta feels the family is more stable than they’ve been since March 2020.

“It feels really beautiful and meaningful right now,” she said, “especially after the wild ride of the last two years.”

—J.G-S.

Danny Stevens

Danny Stevens

Danny Stevens, 53, Everett

Since the start of the pandemic, Danny Stevens has stepped up his singing.

The owner of The Thrifty Prospector, a second-hand store at 4718 Evergreen Way in Everett, always has a song for customers or anyone who walks through the door.

In need of cheering? Just say so, and he’ll turn on the sound system, grab the microphone and signal to Cruella de Vil, his pet cockatoo, that it’s time to warm up the pipes.

The playlist, of course, includes “Rockin’ Robin.”

The Thrifty Prospector opened in mid-2020. It carries used clothing for children and adults, electronics and an eclectic mix of curios, decorative plates and jewelry.

“I was all set for our grand opening and COVID hit. I was shut down even before I was open,” Stevens said.

A statewide mandate closed non-essential businesses for four months in 2020.

“If I’d known there’d be a pandemic, I would have waited,” he said.

The tired and homeless sometimes trek through the door hoping to trade old clothes for new.

“A man who’d had his suitcase stolen came in and wanted to trade tea and vitamins for a suitcase. I told him to just take the suitcase,” Stevens said.

“Another guy,” he said, “was going to visit his family in Bellingham and his clothes were dirty. I filled a duffel bag with underwear and clothing for him.”

No charge.

—J.P.

Nico R (Claudia Yaw /The Herald)

Nico R (Claudia Yaw /The Herald)

Nico R, 23, Everett

Nico R’s coffee mug clinks against his many lip piercings. He said his style is from his dad, an “OG punk.”

R is transgender and chose his first and last names himself. When the pandemic hit, he was living in Utah, desperate to get out.

His job at the cute coffee shop, R said, was “the only good thing” about the state. The “social suffocation” brought on by COVID-19 made it even more unbearable.

“I ended up breaking down one night,” he recalled.

R likes Washington better. But moving during a pandemic made it hard to find friends. He dropped out of community college when classes went remote. And with a new job at a retirement home lined up, he’s clamping down on his Dungeons & Dragons sessions.

“I don’t want to accidentally kill someone’s grandpa,” R said. “I can’t have that on my conscience.”

Thankfully, his dad — the punk — is moving up to the Pacific Northwest.

“I’m so relieved,” R said. “Because I didn’t think I was going to miss the chaos that is holidays with my family. But I’ve missed that a lot.”

—C.Y.

Diane Krieg

Diane Krieg

Diane Krieg, 58, Arlington

When things closed down, Diane Krieg kept busy with online classes at BYU-Idaho and an internship at the chamber of commerce.

“The next thing I know, I’m in the hospital and they’re telling me, ‘Just a minute Diane, wait a second,’” Krieg said. “They were taking the tube out of my throat.”

She likely caught COVID-19 while handing out PPE in fall 2020. By Thanksgiving, she lost her taste — that’s the last thing she remembers. She spent the next 10 days unconscious in the hospital.

“I couldn’t remember how to turn on the shower,” Krieg said. “I actually didn’t remember my own home. … I just had to relearn everything.”

With the support of physical and speech therapists, she finished her degree and started working as the executive director of the Stilly Valley Chamber of Commerce.

“I kind of have to make a choice and make sure that each day is worth being here,” Krieg said. “I love this job because you’re doing things for other people. You’re helping other people out.”

Since waking up in that hospital bed she has learned “not just to get through each day, but to make it worth it.”

—I.B.

Olivia Grace Saenz in her room, where she has spent most of her time attending classes online due to COVID-19. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Olivia Grace Saenz in her room, where she has spent most of her time attending classes online due to COVID-19. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Olivia Grace Saenz, 18, Arlington

At the start of the pandemic, Olivia Grace Saenz welcomed the solitude: She’s introverted.

But prolonged isolation took a toll on her mental health. She became depressed and suffered extreme anxiety.

“It was really difficult,” she said. “I’ve worked really, really hard, especially in the past few months, on my mental health.”

Saenz recently completed a mental health treatment program.

“It’s been easier after finishing that program to do normal things and just want to be out in the world more, not to shelter myself,” she said.

Recent adventures included concerts and a day trip to Seattle.

Saenz said she likes wearing masks, even outside. She wishes people would respect others’ decisions when it comes to masks and vaccines. Saenz is vaccinated, while her best friend since third grade is not. It has never come between the friends.

“I’m not like pissed off at her because she is making a choice for herself,” she said. “It’s not my business.”

—J.A.

Darrell Eylander, 65 of Lake Stevens, has worked as a driver for Everett Transit for over 10 years. (Ben Watanabe / The Herald)

Darrell Eylander, 65 of Lake Stevens, has worked as a driver for Everett Transit for over 10 years. (Ben Watanabe / The Herald)

Darrell Eylander, 65, Lake Stevens

Sitting in his bus, Everett Transit driver Darrell Eylander talked about the lack of camaraderie among his coworkers these days.

Before the pandemic, some met at the shop before their shifts to chat. But lately COVID guidelines have kept them from lingering.

“Before, there was a lot more socializing,” Eylander said.

Now most drivers eat lunch in the bus alone.

Like a lot people, he is tired of wearing a mask everywhere. But he’s glad when people have them on while riding his bus.

The city has provided masks, hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes to transit workers. Everett also installed plastic barriers on fixed-route buses so drivers can be further shielded from passengers.

But Snohomish County COVID-19 case rates since the holidays vaulted past previous highs.

“I feel like we’re going to be in these masks another year or two,” Eylander said. “You just can’t think about it a lot.”

Riders can grab a free mask from a bus. Not everyone does so gracefully, and some riders can be confrontational, Eylander said.

“If I’ve got to do it eight hours a day, you can do it for a 10-minute bus ride,” he said.

—B.W.

Duane Dow, 59 of Marysville, has worked 28 years for Everett Transit as a paratransit driver. (Ben Watanabe / The Herald)

Duane Dow, 59 of Marysville, has worked 28 years for Everett Transit as a paratransit driver. (Ben Watanabe / The Herald)

Duane Dow, 59, Marysville

No one at Everett Transit has driven the paratransit vehicles longer than Duane Dow. He’s done it for 28 years.

Paratransit work takes him beyond the regular routes. He gets to know passengers.

“I don’t want to ‘graduate’ to the big bus,” he said.

Some paratransit riders stopped during the early months of the pandemic, when social programs such as the Carl Gipson Senior Center closed. In those days, Everett Transit reduced the service to one passenger per trip to keep the potentially vulnerable population as safe as possible.

But as programs resume, people are coming back and paratransit rides have been in regular operation. Paratransit vehicles have individual masks ready for passengers who may not have one.

“Everybody has been really good,” said Dow, wearing a white N95 mask and a black-and-red button-up short-sleeve shirt.

One unexpected challenge: While on his route, he hasn’t had as much access to restrooms. Places like clinics and libraries aren’t open to a quick rest stop.

But he was thankful to have stayed employed through the past two years.

“I felt like one of the lucky ones,” Dow said. “I haven’t struggled for a paycheck.”

—B.W.

Orville Wetzel

Orville Wetzel

Orville Wetzel, 91, Gold Bar

Orville Wetzel has been eating at Mountain View Diner in Gold Bar since 1994, when the restaurant first opened. The U.S. Air Force veteran is Mountain View’s “No. 1 customer,” according to server Jamie Porter.

Mountain View Diner has been a constant in Wetzel’s life. It was there when he retired at 80 years old, and when his wife died three years ago. It’s been there as he watched his grandkids grow up. Wetzel said he has too many to count at this point.

He came in every day until the pandemic struck in 2020, forcing restaurants across Washington to temporarily shut down dine-in services.

But for the most part, the retired truck driver said he hasn’t felt the pandemic’s world-altering effects on his daily routine. He just had to cook more, or have friends drop off homemade meals, until the diner could welcome him back.

“What changed?” Wetzel asked, sitting in a Mountain View booth on a rainy Wednesday morning. “I haven’t lived any different. You just go home and burn your own breakfast.”

He’d just finished breakfast at the diner — half of a Western omelet — and was plucking leftover sausage links into a small container for Angel, his Dachshund.

Pandemic or not, Wetzel said, “You’ve got to eat.”

—T.G.

Jamie Porter

Jamie Porter

Jamie Porter, 43, Snohomish

Jamie Porter has been a server her entire career, 20 years. At Mountain View Diner, a coffee-fueled stopover to and from Stevens Pass, she’s used to seeing a lot of faces: skiers, snowboarders, tourists, cops, Gold Bar locals.

But when the pandemic ripped through Washington in 2020, restaurant dining rooms went dark. Tourists and locals alike stopped coming around, save for a few masked folks quickly grabbing takeout. Sales and tips plummeted.

“I’d only make about $200 in sales working a 10-hour shift, so how much do you think I made in tips?” she said.

Still, she’d worked at Mountain View Diner for a long time.

“I didn’t want to leave,” she said.

Porter struggled outside of work, too. Part of her family splintered over pandemic-related disagreements. She hasn’t seen her sister in two years.

“I’m proud that I’m still here because those were some dark days,” Porter said during a recent shift. “You have to talk yourself out of the darkness sometimes. And realize that it’s going to get better.”

—T.G.

Marta, an employee at Birrieria Tijuana. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Marta, an employee at Birrieria Tijuana. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Marta, 37, Everett

Customers are greeted by a woman with striking red hair when they walk into Birrieria Tijuana, a south Everett Mexican restaurant. Marta’s smile is hidden by her mask, but it shows in her eyes. The server has worked at the birrieria since it opened its doors a couple years ago in the Casino Square plaza at 205 E. Casino Road.

Marta, of Auburn, said the environment and the people at her work have helped her mood during the pandemic. In two weeks, she’ll be moving to Everett so she doesn’t have to make the long commute to work every day.

She said she rarely watches the news, and that has helped her stay calm the past couple of years.

“We need to accept that COVID is likely going to stick around,” she said.

Quotes were translated from Spanish to English, with permission, by Herald reporter Ellen Dennis.

—E.D.

Fredy Zavala, owner of Birrieria Tijuana. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Fredy Zavala, owner of Birrieria Tijuana. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Fredy Zavala, 44, Federal Way

Three years ago, Fredy Zavala was selling birria on the street in Kent. His business took off, and now he owns Birreria Tijuana along with a few other restaurants and taco trucks around Seattle. Many restaurant owners have struggled during the pandemic, so Zavala said he’s blessed to be thriving.

“Coming from nothing to what I have now means a lot,” he said.

The Federal Way man said giving back to the community is a way he’s kept his head up. Over the holidays, he said he gave away toys to children in all of his restaurants.

—E.D.

Tim Leonard

Tim Leonard

Tim Leonard, 51, Langley

It was almost “Game Over” for Tim Leonard.

Quarters no longer clinked in his arcade of over 90 retro video and pinball games he restored.

With overhead expenses mounting, Leonard, 51, faced closing The Machine Shop for good. He cashed in $3,000 in quarters when the bank called asking for his help during the coin shortage.

The arcade adds fun to this artsy seaside Whidbey Island town. Residents started a “Save The Machine Shop” fundraiser, bringing in $27,545 from 240 donors in November 2020.

Leonard used the pandemic time to expand his handmade neon art, which already dotted the town.

“I realized how much time The Machine Shop took out of my life, like a frog in boiling water,” he said. “I was able to focus a lot of energy back in the light work.”

He enlisted his daughter, Sage, who had lost her restaurant job in Hawaii and came back to Whidbey. She helped him make about 50 neon stars, bubbles and diamonds.

The neon art is for sale and on display in a gallery at the arcade, now open four days a week and rebounding. A cotton candy machine was added to the snack bar and an 18-foot bowling machine to the electronic wonderland.

Game on.

—A.B.

Tizazu Alemu

Tizazu Alemu

Tizazu Alemu, 18, Everett

Tizazu Alemu was a sophomore when the pandemic first closed Mariner High School.

“A lot of people didn’t have access to laptops, and some people didn’t have access to Wi-Fi,” Alemu said. “The beginning was really crazy and then it got more stable.”

He played on the football team, participated in clubs and worked at Walmart before the pandemic started. Alemu said he was used to full, busy days. He spent most of his time at school or work, easily earning As and Bs.

His junior year, however, Alemu and the rest of Mariner High School spent the year learning remotely. Mariner didn’t return to in-person learning until the 2021-22 school year.

“I had no motivation to do school,” Alemu said of his remote junior year. “Even now that we’re back in person, it’s hard to adjust to going back to school. We’re almost done with first semester, but I’m struggling to get back in the frame of mind of where we were before.”

Alemu was accepted into multiple colleges, though, and is on schedule to graduate. He said he’ll most likely attend University of Washington Bothell, pursue physical therapy as a career and spend time learning more about photography and fashion. He’s still deciding.

Alemu said the most significant change in his life over the past two years was in the quality of his relationships. He has a smaller, closer circle of friends than he did before the pandemic. He also feels closer with his family. He spent a lot of time alone his junior year, thinking about what he wants in life.

“I feel like people do a lot of soul searching during that time, but they do it with experiences,” Alemu said. “I was just staying home, thinking. I feel like I did a lot of thinking about what I want to do, you know? Before that I didn’t know what I wanted to do after I graduated. I still fully don’t, but at least now I have a direction to go.”

—K.H.

Daniel Deconinck

Daniel Deconinck

Daniel Deconinck, 43, Everett

Daniel Deconinck officially became a first-time business owner in December 2019. He was too busy to socialize, long before social distancing became the norm.

He practically lived at Noodle Nation in Everett, building an eclectic menu where you could find American wagyu brisket next to fried okra next to Scotch eggs next to beef pho. As a Korean adopted by an American family at age 5, Deconinck has long been exposed to foods and cultures outside his own blood.

On Jan. 13, he was taking his Noodle Nation signs down. Placards for his new restaurant, Bao Boss, would be coming in the next few days.

“What I learned from the pandemic was that people will become crazy when they get cooped up,” he said. “There’s a lot of pointing fingers and judgment.”

Deconinck prefers steamed buns and smashburgers to the onslaught of negativity brought on during the pandemic. Plus, he didn’t have time for it. He had new signs to hang, sandwiches to make and, as with Noodle Nation, a lot of food education to provide to curious, hungry customers.

—T.G.

Dwayne Bat (Claudia Yaw / The Herald)

Dwayne Bat (Claudia Yaw / The Herald)

Dwayne Bat, 32, Lynnwood

The Forest Park playground was packed as Dwayne Bat taught his young kids how to throw a three-pointer on the basketball courts.

When asked how the pandemic affected him, Bat focused on the positives.

“I’ve definitely spent more time with my family,” he said.

This year, he took his three kids to Deception Pass and other picturesque Washington beaches.

Now, he’s finishing up a bachelor’s degree in law, economics and public policy at the University of Washington. He wants to be a social worker. And virtual classes are working for him.

“I’ve been on campus maybe five times,” he said. “And here I am about to graduate.”

Going into 2022, Bat said, things are starting to feel normal again.

“We’re a family, so we’re OK for the most part,” he said. “I’m sure if you don’t have kids or a spouse, it’s a lot harder.”

—C.Y.

Gail McClary, Zumba instructor at the Mukilteo YMCA. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Gail McClary, Zumba instructor at the Mukilteo YMCA. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Gail McClary, 70, Tulalip

Zumba by Zoom just isn’t the same.

After COVID-19 shuttered the YMCA, Gail McClary, a popular Zumba instructor with classes of 60 people, led virtual dance fitness sessions from her home.

“I had to generate all that energy as if I had a gym full of people,” she said. “The challenge of Zoom is pumping everyone up and then here I was all by myself. It’s like being in the gym with two people.”

She invited friends and their friends to join in the free sessions she did on her own, not as part of the Y.

“I needed to do it as much as the people showing up,” she said. “Everybody wanted to move and feel an hour of lightness. I taught six classes a week. It was good for everybody all around, me included. People would stay on after class and just visit and chitchat.”

She returned to teaching in-person classes two times a week at the Mukilteo YMCA last summer.

The first class, two people showed up.

“They walked in like scared little church mice,” she said.

Class sizes have picked up with new and old faces, all of which are partially covered by masks.

“The spike of this variant has a lot of people freaked out,” she said. “Several asked me if I was going back to Zoom. I can’t face virtual again.”

—A.B.

Junelle Lewis has spent the last two years juggling seven kids in Monroe schools. (Jake Goldstein-Street / The Herald)

Junelle Lewis has spent the last two years juggling seven kids in Monroe schools. (Jake Goldstein-Street / The Herald)

Junelle Lewis, 43, Monroe

When the pandemic started, Junelle Lewis and her husband had six kids in Monroe schools, another in preschool and yet another at Eastern Washington University.

Meanwhile, both Lewis and her husband worked in the Monroe School District, as well.

In March 2020, she first heard her kids would be out of school until late April.

“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, are you serious? Like a month? What’s going on?’” she said. “And then it just went further and further.”

Navigating over half a dozen kids doing remote learning was stressful, Lewis said. Her Monroe home turned into a school, as every corner turned into a classroom. Walls were stapled with multiplication tables.

Work never stopped, she said. Lewis would get home from her job and then it was time to make sure all of her kids were on track.

It only got worse when four of her kids were infected with COVID in October. One of her elementary-age daughters, who didn’t test positive, had to be out of school for over three weeks. Another fully vaccinated child of hers tested positive this month.

“It’s just a constant whirlwind,” Lewis said. “Nothing is certain.”

—J.G-S.

Milo Alford

Milo Alford

Milo Alford, 14, Stanwood

These days, Milo Alford feels a lot more social. A newfound love for extracurricular activities, he said, is the biggest change in his life since the pandemic started.

“After we got back into regular learning, I was like, ‘I want to do everything and I want to try everything,’” said Alford, now in eighth grade. “… I want to be social with everyone. The biggest change is just getting out of being depressed all the time. I just wanted to be around everyone and I wanted to do everything I could.”

Alford was in sixth grade when the pandemic started. He said seventh grade was the most stressful year. It was a mix of in-person and remote learning. He felt isolated. Alford attends classes on campus now.

“It’s going great,” Alford said. “All my grades are back up to As.”

—K.H.

Danjel Zeka. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Danjel Zeka. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Danjel Zeka, 33, Everett

Those first few months of the pandemic were tough, Danjel Zeka said.

He drives DART paratransit vehicles for Community Transit and has for almost six years.

“It was scary,” Zeka said before his shift started at the vehicle base on Hardeson Road. “Too much unrest, not knowing what the virus was capable of.”

Services like DART, an acronym for dial-a-ride transit, took a hit in ridership early in the pandemic. Their passengers can be among the most vulnerable to COVID. DART rider demand dropped, which led to driver hours being cut.

Some of his coworkers quit because working part-time wasn’t enough, Zeka said. But he stayed through it because he’s a trainer and his wife worked full-time, he said.

Since vaccinations started and people have grown more used to wearing masks, Zeka said things have improved.

“So far, so good,” he said.

He expected the next year to get better, too.

“Hopefully (this) will be the end of it,” Zeka said.

—B.W.

Bus driver Robert Gaines at Community Transit headquarters on Jan. 18 in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Bus driver Robert Gaines at Community Transit headquarters on Jan. 18 in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Robert Gaines, 58, Shoreline

Every day when Robert Gaines leaves his home, he makes sure he has a mask with him.

“Before the pandemic, you were only wondering, ‘Where’s my cup of coffee?’” the Community Transit bus driver said.

Some differences are more personal.

In December 2019, Gaines ran in the Seattle Marathon. But he got out of the rhythm of exercising during the pandemic when gyms closed because of the state’s guidelines.

“There was no reason for me to stop exercising,” he said.

He plans to resume his workouts and run another marathon. Staying healthy is important to him.

Going forward, Gaines wonders what’s next.

“How do you protect yourself from the next ‘threat?’” he said.

—B.W.

Brenna Wells (Contributed Photo)

Brenna Wells (Contributed Photo)

Brenna Wells, 45, Shoreline

Brenna Wells used to travel around the United States and sing as a classical soprano.

With the pandemic, that “completely came to a grinding halt,” she said.

Her focus shifted to Little Sprouts Music Together, a music school for children she runs in Everett, Mill Creek and Mukilteo.

“For the most part now my sole job is teaching,” Wells said. “That has really evolved over the past two years.”

She switched to online classes in 2020 and taught kids all over the country. She continues to offer online courses, in addition to in-person classes. Many families are eager for more social experiences for their kids. Others remain cautious of COVID-19, Wells said.

Wells looks forward to when kids and adults can see each other’s faces without masks, high five and pass instruments again. She doesn’t see her career as a professional singer returning to what it was before the pandemic. The same is true for other singers she knows. COVID-19 forced people to reevaluate their careers, she said. She transitioned to teaching.

“I’m grateful for this other avenue, and it helped me connect to my musical world,” she said.

—J.A.

Cryss BlackWolf

Cryss BlackWolf

Cryss BlackWolf, 53, Martha Lake

Watching people die has changed the way Cryss BlackWolf lives.

He is a hospice social worker who provides in-home care. He graduated from the University of Washington in 2020 and began his job in the midst of the pandemic.

“It has changed me, incredibly,” he said. “And I think it’s guided me on the path to how I can truly be present. Tomorrow will figure itself out. Yesterday has already happened. What do I have right now?”

The job might sound dark. But it’s his calling, he said.

“We get invited to some of the most intimate, sacred spaces compared to just about any other line of work,” he said.

He remembers most vividly the patients who were comfortable enough to be raw with him. They swore. They got angry. They felt validated enough to “give the finger” to the person or principle that had always deserved it.

One person came out as gay to BlackWolf. Another recently told BlackWolf that, for the first time in his life, he felt his voice was being heard.

He has cared for centenarian veterans, too, who survived military tours abroad but were later foiled by cancer or some other condition.

Recently, one of his patients said goodbye to his friend in the same nursing home, BlackWolf recalled.

The dying man took the hand of the other.

“It takes some of these profound experiences to really step back, take a breath,” BlackWolf said. “It’s like finding fuel for those truly defining moments in our lives, whether it’s professionally or personally.”

—R.R.

Lorie Lelwoj, owner of The Islander Shop, opened her business in 2019 and then the pandemic hit a year later. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Lorie Lelwoj, owner of The Islander Shop, opened her business in 2019 and then the pandemic hit a year later. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Lorie Lelwoj, 48, Everett

Lorie Lelwoj was concluding her first year in business when COVID-19 struck. A former nursing assistant and teacher’s aide in the Marshall Islands, Lelwoj wanted to “do something different” when she moved to Everett. So she opened The Islander Shop at 607 SE Everett Mall Way, selling food, clothing, home decor and crafts sourced from the Pacific Islands.

“People come by and see something that reminds them of home,” she said. She estimated some 3,400 people comprise the area’s Pacific Island community. At her shop, they can find hot kakidane arare — rice crackers — summery “Guam” dresses, satin men’s shirts and Lelwoj’s handmade flowers.

“It’s been a struggle for the last two years,” Lelwoj said.

Sales plummeted.

She turned to Facebook, social media and online sales to make up for the in-person losses. The store’s cyber reach has grown, but Lelwoj would like to see more customers walk through the door.

“Every night, I’m thinking, thinking of what to try next and wondering if I can go on,” she said.

—J.P.

Steven Schmitz

Steven Schmitz

Steven Schmitz, 32, Edmonds

In the past two years, a lot has changed for Steven Schmitz.

Early in the pandemic, Schmitz’ parents didn’t take restrictions as seriously as he and his partner did. Their relationship is still strained.

“It’s gotten to the point where it’s a family feud,” he said.

The family is also coping with the loss of Schmitz’ brother, who died by suicide during the pandemic.

Other relationships grew stronger. While they were stuck at home, Schmitz said, he and his partner started taking daily walks and cooking for each other.

New habits stuck.

“Every day one of us makes a meal for the other person,” he said.

Schmitz also recently changed jobs.

He said he became frustrated after his former employer didn’t pass down higher profits to employees. He was also uncomfortable when managers pushed him to return to the office, months before vaccines were available.

After Schmitz asked for a raise and the company offered a raise far below what he requested, he searched for a new job. He landed a position at a smaller, locally owned firm last fall.

“I’ve told my colleagues and friends repeatedly if they are feeling undervalued, get out,” he said. “Or do some searching and try to come up with something they can be appreciated for.”

—J.A.

Deborah Reep at Esther’s Place. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Deborah Reep at Esther’s Place. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Deborah Reep, 57, Marysville

She used to rely on isolation to escape the pain of her past. But even as the pandemic distanced friends and family, Deborah Reep found her way out of her shell.

She was seven years into her recovery journey when she fell off the wagon in 2020.

“When I fell off this time, I hit rock bottom, where I was all the way on the ground, literally,” Reep said.

In the months that followed, Reep wandered the streets of Everett, spending her nights wherever she could find shelter — inside a friend’s van, at the Salvation Army on Rucker Avenue, in a room at the Econo Lodge.

She kept hearing of a woman named Judy Hoff who helped women get sober and stay clean.

Reep now lives in one of two Marysville group homes that Hoff runs for women who are in recovery and at risk of being homeless.

“It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” she said. “I got a lot of stuff in my soul that’s happened. But when you can go into a house, and you can shed down naked in front of God, and explain everything that’s going on in your life to God, and feel comfortable — that’s a good feeling.”

With her faith renewed, she spent Christmas with her daughters for the first time in years.

Next, she hopes to enroll at Everett Community College and get a stable job.

“I don’t want to be complacent,” she said. “I want to keep on moving.”

—R.R.

Tammy Hilliker at Esther’s Place on Jan. 18 in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Tammy Hilliker at Esther’s Place on Jan. 18 in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Tammy Hilliker, 47, homeless

After five years holding a stable job at the Motel Express on Broadway, Tammy Hilliker thought her time living on the streets was over.

But in 2020, she lost the job.

She was homeless again — this time, during a pandemic.

Now, she and her husband camp in a tent near Forest Park, Hilliker said.

“I can’t be out in the elements with the way my health is,” she said after a recent lunch at Esther’s Place, a women’s day shelter at 3705 Broadway. “I got asthma and other health problems.”

She comes to the shelter to clear her head.

Hilliker doesn’t have a cellphone. So in the past two years, especially, she said, she has struggled to reach the organizations that normally support her and others experiencing homelessness.

But she’s hopeful for the future.

“I got a cabin near Ketchikan, Alaska, that I’ve been trying to get to for over three years,” said Hilliker, whose mother lives in Anchorage. “There’s a lot of unexplored wilderness, still, in Alaska.”

—R.R.

Edmonds-Woodway High School senior Alec Rust. (Contributed photo)

Edmonds-Woodway High School senior Alec Rust. (Contributed photo)

Alec Rust, 17, Edmonds

As a three-sport athlete, Edmonds-Woodway High School senior Alec Rust is used to a busy and active schedule. So when the pandemic wiped out prep sports across the state for 12 months, it was a major challenge.

“When I’m not really working out, I just (feel) like I need to do something,” he said. “And there wasn’t really much to do.”

Rust kept training during the long layoff. With no coaches around, he had to be independent and self-motivated.

“It was really just based off of your own want to get better and to succeed when sports come back,” he said.

High school sports finally returned with abbreviated seasons last spring. This school year, prep sports are back to their usual full-season format.

In the fall, Rust was the quarterback on the Warriors football team. He plans to compete in track and field this spring. And as a standout wrestler, he’s eager for a third trip to the Mat Classic state tournament.

COVID-19 is still causing some disruptions to the prep sports schedule, but Rust isn’t worried about that.

“I’ve just been worrying about the stuff that I can control,” he said.

—C.V.

Elizabeth Gough. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Elizabeth Gough. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Elizabeth Gough, 57, Darrington

Elizabeth Gough is frustrated with mask mandates.

The Darrington resident said her three children — ages 5, 12 and 13 — can’t wear masks for a full school day because of health conditions. All three have sensory processing challenges, and one has asthma, she said.

Gough said she couldn’t get exemptions for her children to attend school without masks, so they go to class for just three hours a day. Gough said the schedule has prevented her from returning to her job, a financial hardship for the single mother.

She doesn’t believe in the effectiveness of masks, and thinks schools should discontinue their use despite the advice of health officials.

She said her 5-year-old doesn’t remember what people’s faces look like.

“It’s heartbreaking for me,” she said.

—J.A.

Monie Ordonia (Contributed Photo)

Monie Ordonia (Contributed Photo)

Monie Ordonia, 59, Tulalip

In 2019, DJ and artist Monie Ordonia watched sweaty people pack dance floors wall-to-wall to hear her mixes.

“I could make people run out onto the floor with their arms up in the air, like, that’s my job,” she said. “Dance is medicine.”

There haven’t been many vibrant dance floors since, but she hasn’t stopped sharing her medicine.

“One of my neighbor’s husbands passed away and people were gathering outside in their cars in the front to pay respects and stuff,” Ordonia said. “To kind of help uplift them I put one of my speakers outside and started DJing for the whole neighborhood.”

Truthfully, she said, the pandemic has been a blessing. She sees how it’s forced educational systems to be more thoughtful about youth emotional wellness and allowed people to take a deeper look at the needs within their own communities.

“There are some negatives to it — but then again to me, it’s a shift,” she said. “Lots of times a shift comes with resistance. It’s a new way of living and some of it can feel confining. But it’s learning that there’s a new way of doing things. When we get in our comfort zones, you won’t jump out unless you’re pushed.”

While surrounded by sickness, Ordonia has spent more time tapping into natural medicines, like cedar steams and herbal immunity shots. It’s a regular part of her life now.

—I.B.

Katy Evans is a single mom dealing with a middle schooler and an unprepared school system in the height of the COVID pandemic. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Katy Evans is a single mom dealing with a middle schooler and an unprepared school system in the height of the COVID pandemic. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Katy Evans, 39, Everett

Katy Evans listened to the “Murder, Mystery and Makeup” podcast while pulling espresso in a tiny Everett coffee hut. She avoids the news, especially these days.

“I prefer to live in La-La-Land,” she said, “which I know is uninformed.”

But news about the pandemic causes too much anxiety for the working single mom.

Last year, her middle-schooler, who normally excels, was suddenly failing classes.

“He came to me and said, ‘Mom, I think I’m stupid,’” Evans said. “That’s heartbreaking. That’s the hardest thing for me.”

Now, Evans is scared rising cases will force students into remote learning once again.

“I understand it’s about safety … but I also know what’s coming,” she said. “Maybe it’ll be better because they’ve had a little practice. But I doubt it. I still work as much as I do. During the day they’re going to be home without somebody to keep them on track.”

—C.Y.

Meredith Gudger-Raines (Contributed Photo)

Meredith Gudger-Raines (Contributed Photo)

Meredith Gudger-Raines, 42, Mount Vernon

Of the two years since the pandemic began, Meredith Gudger-Raines will remember two days the most.

On Christmas Eve in 2020, the United Methodist pastor sang “Silent Night” to conclude service, as is tradition. But this time, she vocalized to pre-recorded music and held her candle in front of a webcam, filming footage to play later on Zoom.

She was alone in the sanctuary of her Ridgefield church. After the final verse, then the Christmas benediction, she burst into tears.

Gudger-Raines has since been reassigned to Marysville United Methodist Church.

Through the shutdowns, she has mourned the same thing that so many others have missed: the presence people feel when they gather for a concert, a party or a prayer.

“There’s an aura,” said Gudger-Raines, who now lives in Mount Vernon. “I can only use the word ‘spirit’ to describe that. And it’s hard to feel that by yourself. It’s hard to remember that.”

On Christmas Eve in 2021, she felt it again, in full force.

The church had started in-person services. On the holiday, it allowed the congregation to sing just one song, “Silent Night.”

“It was just — there’s no words for it,” Gudger-Raines recalled. “It was a beautiful, beautiful sound.”

—R.R.

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