Essential workers of all kinds settle into some new routines

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Thousands of businesses in New York are closed, deemed “non-essential” by Gov. Andrew Cuomo as the state continues following social distancing measures to slow the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Even “non-essential” office workers are working from home, often juggling child care, school, and their day-to-day home lives, while trying to fit in work where they can.

Of course, there are also the workers deemed “essential.” Often health care, transit or education employees — they’re still headed to work every morning to keep the city moving and healthy, even in a pandemic.

Every morning, Roxana Vazquez drops off her daughter at The Learning Experience on Riverdale Avenue before driving to Westchester County, where she works with children as a clinical social worker.

“It feels like the world completely stopped, but I’m still moving,” Vazquez said. “It’s really confusing. But I know I have to be at work every day. I work with children, so there’s a lot of kids that need me right now, so I have to be present.”

Vazquez’s work has changed dramatically as she’s tried to coach her clients through their everyday problems as well as the abrupt shift in their lives since the pandemic began in earnest two months ago.

“I have my caseload that’s kids that I’m checking in with daily via video or via telephone,” she said. “These are kids who, even before the pandemic, were struggling emotionally. And now, after the pandemic, it’s like, you know, ten times worse for them. That’s why I have to be present every day, to help them get through this.”

Trying to explain what’s going on to those children has also been difficult. Her older clients know what’s going on, to some extent, but the younger children she deals with can’t quite wrap their heads around how their lives look under distancing rules, with school cancelled and parks closed. They often can’t articulate how they feel, Vazquez said, but they may start to act out or regress in their progress working with her.

“You know, before I make the calls, or before I make the video calls (to patients), I sort of brace myself,” she said. “Because I know that these kids, and even the parents who are home with the kids, are really struggling.”

While Vazquez works to help young people cope with a new reality, Melissa Kane is focused on a different demographic, working in recreation at an Upper West Side nursing home.

Activities at the nursing home would usually mean gathering everyone in one room for a movie or a game. For now, though, residents mostly stay in their own rooms, avoiding large groups to slow the potential spread of the coronavirus.

“Right now, our day-to-day operation is more one-to-ones, providing for the residents,” Kane said. “Crossword puzzles, reminisce. We do WhatsApp and Skype for the families, we reminisce, listen to music.”

Heading out every day while the city is quiet is hard, she said, but it’s just a part of the job.

“It’s a little nerve-racking,” she said. “This is essentially what I signed up for as part of my career. Nobody expected any of this to happen, but this is what I chose to do for my career.”

One thing that does help, Kane said, is the city’s nightly cheers for essential workers. Twice a week, she leaves work at 7 when the celebration from apartment windows starts.

“It’s very nice to hear how many people are really applauding,” Kane said. “It makes you feel good about what you’re doing, that you’re making a difference.”

 Like millions of health care workers across the country, even when she’s at home, Vazquez tries to reckon with the impact of the virus on her own life and family.

“Every day, I just feel like the next day is not known,” Vazquez said. 

“We don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow with this pandemic, with the shutdown, with this quarantine period. Is tomorrow going to be better?”

It’s impossible to pinpoint an exact reopening date in New York City. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has set criteria for various regions of New York to start reopening, tracking statistics like testing capacity and rates of new infections. All of upstate has started the first phase of reopening, while downstate — including New York City, Long Island, and the Mid-Hudson region suburbs — are still waiting to meet all the benchmarks that would allow them to reopen.

Even when it’s safe, Vazquez said, children and parents might struggle to reintegrate back into the world.

“One of the things that a lot of the parents of my patients are saying is, ‘I’m just afraid when things go back to ‘normal,’ that my kid is not going to want to leave the house,” she said. It’s “because of the fear of, ‘Is it really safe to leave?’

“I see my own daughter struggling, and I hear my patients struggling, and I know it’s not going to be as easy as, ‘Hey, we’re open, come on in,’” Vazquez added. “These kids are going to have these fears and anxieties.”

While some schools already either have in-house mental health care providers or partner with mental health organizations, Vazquez says she’s hoping to see a “big shift” as schools reopen to support the mental health of students readjusting to the outside world.

“When the kids return, (we can) concentrate more on stability,” Vazquez said. “Like, how can we stabilize them emotionally, but also give them that space for socialization? Because that’s something they’re missing greatly.”

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