It’s March 9, at the Vivint Smart Home Arena and a group of girls, parents, a staffer, a volunteer and two board members of Girls on The Run Utah watch a nailbiter between the Utah Jazz and Toronto Raptors. For International Women’s Day, for every shot he blocks, Rudy Gobert will donate $1,000.
After the game, the girls tour the arena. They venture down to courtside, taking in the magnetic aura of an empty arena. Gobert emerges from the tunnel in a white hoodie and black sweats, high-fiving the girls, commiserating and snapping selfies, before posing behind a human-sized check. Gobert’s foundation, Rudy’s Kids, reached out to Girls on the Run, who reached out to the Urban Indian Center of Salt Lake and asked if any Native American children would be interested in attending.
The daughters of Samantha Eldridge, a Native American mother of two, were among the group that attended. “For many of these girls, they’re not ever going to have the opportunity to even go to a Jazz game. That was huge,” Eldridge, 40, said. “It was even more exciting that they were able to go to the bottom, to be on the court and meet a player. I know that they felt special.”
The next afternoon, Eldridge tweeted a picture of the girls and Gobert, captioned, “Huge thank you to @rudygobert27 @RudysFoundation for inviting the UICSL (Urban Indian Center of Salt Lake), Girls on the Run to the game last night! We appreciate Rudy taking time to meet the girls & for his generous donation to inspire the girls to continue to pursue their limitless potential. #NativeYouth #GoJazz.”
Two days later, the notifications started piling up.
At the Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, the coronavirus collided with professional sports. Gobert tested positive for COVID-19. The game was canceled. Shortly after, the NBA season was suspended. Jazz teammates and staffers were trapped in the visitors’ locker room at the behest of the Oklahoma State Department of Health, which decided it was in the public interest to use 58 out of a supply of 100 daily tests on the Jazz’s traveling party. Neither the Jazz, Rudy Gobert nor his foundation responded to requests for comment. In the aftermath, Gobert pledged to donate $500,000 to Vivint Smart Home Arena part-time workers, as well as coronavirus relief efforts in Utah, Oklahoma City and his home country of France.
While workers in hazmat suits disinfected seats at the Chesapeake Energy Arena, Eldridge waited on the phone with the University of Utah Healthcare hotline. Her 10-year-old met Gobert and feels fine. But her 12-year-old daughter is tired, her head hurts, her throat is sore.
Eldridge finds a comment under a picture of the girls with Gobert that says, “They’re already dead.” Another poster suggests the girls could be “spreading the coronavirus.” Her girls wonder if that's true.
Eldridge deletes her post and advises the other girls who attended the game to delete theirs. “Knowing that some of the girls are reading this stuff online,” she said, “is just really terrifying for them.”
The next day, her daughters’ school district in Murray, just south of Salt Lake City, closes. They wonder if it’s because of them.
Worse, could they infect their 68-year-old grandmother? “Like many Native communities, we live in extended households,” Eldridge said. “A lot of us take care of our elders in our community. There’s no place we can send them. We’re their primary caretakers, so to know whether someone is healthy or not is huge.”
Eldridge won’t get the answers she needs. Despite meeting both CDC guidelines — being exposed to a known carrier and exhibiting symptoms — her daughter is denied a coronavirus test.
Over the next few weeks, celebrities come under fire for using a limited reserve of test kits that would better serve frontline healthcare workers and at-risk patients. An epidemiologist who prefers to remain anonymous told Yahoo Sports it may be a public good that professional athletes get tested. They travel, meet strangers, perform, sweat and mingle in packed stadiums. An athlete testing positive for the coronavirus sends a jolt of association anxiety to thousands of people at once. But as Steven Taylor, the author of “The Psychology of Pandemics” writes, “A moderate level of fear or anxiety can motivate people to cope with health threats, but severe threats can be debilitating.”
The coronavirus itself does not discriminate between rich and poor, but its ripple effects do. The New York Times estimates the coronavirus could be twice as deadly for low-income communities. The well-off are better equipped to work from home, to socially isolate and slow its spread. In marginalized communities, those changes are logistically complicated and economically crushing, with complicated solutions and fewer resources.
In Salt Lake County, throughout the coronavirus crisis, amid school closures and job losses, and after a March 18 earthquake that measured 5.7 on the Richter scale — the state’s largest in 28 years — these communities are turning to each other for support. “This is what we've always done,” said Chelsie Acosta, a local activist and health teacher at another middle school. “We take care of each other. In the biggest times of crisis, that's when our community rises up and takes care of one another and the most marginalized within our group.”
“We know,” she continued, “we cannot rely on the healthcare system. We know that unless you are white, rich, privileged, how this kind of rolls out.”
Four miles down the road from Vivint Smart Home Arena, on March 12, students at Acosta’s middle school found out their classmates were part of the group that met Gobert on behalf of the UICSL and Girls on the Run.
The combined seventh- and eighth-grade class had spent the last week learning about the coronavirus, and watching Sanjay Gupta on CNN, Department of Health briefings and videos of hospitals built overnight in China. “That’s what I was trying to show my kids: the helpers, the resiliency,” said Acosta, who also taught English as a second language and led a Latinos in Action program that was discontinued last year.
So they aren’t surprised by the news. But knowledge doesn’t downplay the moment when terms like “being exposed” — once the subject of far-away news stories — get printed onto sheets and handed out on desks.
Acosta’s school is Title 1, receiving supplementary federal funding to meet the educational requirements of a high concentration of low-income students. The neighborhood is majority Latino, and over a quarter of residents live below the poverty line.
Acosta has a close bond with her students. “I think as a health teacher, that lends to a very vulnerable, loving kind of safe space,” she says. In one class, Acosta draws a three-sectioned chart on the whiteboard and breaks the class into groups.
First, they make a list of questions. Second, they write their fears: “Our communities have more kids living with elders, that was a huge concern,” Acosta said. The elderly are especially vulnerable to the coronavirus. As of 2016, one in five households — 84 percent being non-white — in America are multigenerational.
Acosta’s mother, who was also a teacher, lost a seven-month battle with cancer in January. Since then, her 70-year-old father has lived with her. They use the same kitchen. They eat together, from a distance. They grieve together. She believes they will weather this crisis by remaining socially close while being physically distant. When she gets home, the first thing she does is wipe off and put her clothes in the laundry. She sanitizes her hands excessively. She washes towels and pillowcases daily. She wonders, “Am I overthinking? Am I underthinking?”
In the final section of the exercise, the students come up with a plan: to talk to their families, to find resources in different languages, to set up meals. “Do you have a plan if you get a fever? What is that?” asked Acosta. “They felt safe [after the discussion], because we’re all in the same boat.”
But by lunchtime the next day, students pile into the office in a panic, demanding to be seen by the nurse. That evening, Utah’s governor announces the closure of all schools, kindergarten to 12th grade.
Murray councilwoman Rosalba Dominguez returns from a conference in Washington, D.C., and hears from a school board colleague. He asks Dominguez if she has checked in on her friend, Samantha Eldridge.
Eldridge thinks about reaching out herself, but she hesitates. She knows Dominguez has been busy and that she was just in D.C.
Dominguez calls on March 12, a day after Eldridge’s initial attempt to get her daughter tested was rejected.
“I was like, Sam, whatever it is, always feel free to call me,” Dominguez said. “She didn't want to make it a burden for me.”
Together, Eldridge and Dominguez exhaust different avenues — the University of Utah Health clinic, the Salt Lake County Health Department — while Dominguez relays Eldridge’s situation to a few colleagues. A friend involved in coronavirus policy-making gives her a tip: try doctors’ offices — they have more test kits.
On March 13, after paying $59 to use a ConnectCare app, Eldridge waits on the phone for over two hours to be screened by her daughter’s pediatrician. Her daughter’s condition has worsened since Wednesday. In Rhode Island, another child who received an autograph from Gobert tests positive. “The nurse I spoke to was really empathetic,” she adds. The FDA has relaxed its restrictions. Test kits are creeping into wider availability.
Maybe that’s why her daughter is approved for a test the next morning.
“It just depends on …” Eldridge trailed off. “But that's the thing. I still don’t know what it depends on.”
Regardless, she is relieved. The results come back negative. She worries about the girls who weren’t tested, including her other daughter.
“They're the ones who have to go back into the community and face peers, face any of the bullying that was happening on social media, even just people questioning whether they did have it or not,” Eldridge said. “And I feel like it would provide them with at least something that can say, ‘I was tested. We were negative.’”
In the meantime, Dominguez waits.
Quarantined at home on March 18 after the earthquake, she spends the day talking to her 12-year-old stepdaughter.
Dominguez says their generation seems fatalistic. The kids at school are convinced the world is going to end somehow. She wonders if it’s because they’re hyper-aware of climate change. Either way, an earthquake on top of a pandemic strengthens the kids’ case.
“When we stepped into these roles, we didn't step into it thinking, ‘I’m gonna be able to help people in a pandemic,’” said Dominguez, who was elected to Murray City Council last fall. “But we are here and we are trying to facilitate people's real feelings.”
The conversations she has with her family are the same ones she has with her constituents, eschewing her fears to make room for others’.
Dominguez tries not to think about death, approaching it with a Zen-like acceptance — your time to go is your time to go — trying to summon the ancestral strength of her mother and grandmother, both healers. In reality, she thinks about it a lot. Everyone does.
Dominguez suffers from asthma. She’s had pneumonia multiple times. She’s not feeling well. Chest pains. She tells her partner that if it comes down to it, she doesn’t want to be hooked to a ventilator. “I don’t want a tube shoved down my throat to survive this thing, because I already know my lungs won’t survive.”
She took the same airplane back from Washington as councilman Ben Adams, who has tested positive for COVID-19. She got tested too. She’s retracing her steps. Did they shake hands at the conference they attended there? She doesn’t remember. But they did sit next to each other. “I just was so paranoid at the conference and I had never felt like that,” she said. That’s why she knew she had to call Eldridge. If she was scared, she can’t imagine what it’s like for Eldridge to worry about her mother and her daughters.
On March 20, another council member tests positive. Dominguez calls the clinic. Still no results. While she quarantines, Acosta drops off groceries for the Dominguez family.
The next day, Dominguez’s test comes back negative. Two days later, she drops off a box of wine at Acosta’s doorstep.
Acosta has created a Facebook group, Comunidad, to help the community deal with the coronavirus crisis, connecting community leaders from Black Lives Matter, Latino groups and the LGBTQ pride center.
On the morning of the earthquake, people are checking in on each other online. One commenter says she is fine, but it feels like a bad movie. Another advises people to prepare for power outages by filling containers and bathtubs with water and charging their devices. “Random people have invited other people and it's really cool watching the connections and people talking,” Acosta said. Mutual aid groups like Comunidad have organically mobilized all over the country.
Later that day, they are dispersing free medical supply kits to five of the six hubs they created around the valley for when fever inevitably strikes. Acosta runs supplies to a physically disabled group stuck in a fourth-floor apartment complex.
On March 23, Acosta decides to rest and isolate to keep her 70-year-old dad safe. On Comunidad’s Facebook group, she posts, “I would like to avoid the stores and spaces where I could be exposed or exposing. I’m still here, we are still doing this. Just shifting gears and tightening the needs and runs.”
The next morning, she texts a friend who is organizing meals for a refugee community. She has rice and beans for them. But her friend has to work until the evening. By the afternoon, Acosta is in her car again.
She hopes we will all emerge from the wreckage with bigger hearts. “I feel like a large sum of us will become much better human beings and remember what it is to be a human helping out another human.”
Acosta’s students made her a Snapchat account. Sometimes they bombard her with stories. She records messages back, telling them everything is going to be fine. Then she puts her phone down. “I’m like, ‘Oh god, I hope we’re gonna be fine.’”
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