Morning Call: In Montgomery County, Pennsylvania’s coronavirus epicenter, families band together, from a distance

Morning Call: In Montgomery County, Pennsylvania’s coronavirus epicenter, families band together, from a distance

Peter Hall

March 19, 2020

On any other sunny March morning, the sight of a father and two small boys rambling over the fortifications at Valley Forge National Park would be unremarkable.

This Monday, it was a scene freighted with the uncertainty gripping thousands of families in Montgomery County, where the deadly coronavirus has spread more rapidly and racked up more cases than anywhere else in Pennsylvania. The park’s rolling hills and solemn history provide a respite in Philadelphia’s most populous suburb, home to more than 826,000 people. Here, people have been stuck at home since last Friday, with nonessential businesses closed and social distancing practiced to slow transmission of the virus.

Four days later, Gov. Tom Wolf extended the same measures to the rest of the state.

Jon Duncan of Wynnewood brought his boys, 5-year-old Asher and 3-year-old Brady, to the park to burn off energy pent up since their preschool closed last week.

“All the playgrounds are off limits,” Duncan said. “It’s a big open space, so you feel better about it, but you start to get paranoid.”

While his sons pretended to repel British soldiers with toy laser blasters, Duncan ruminated on what may come.

He’s a full-time substitute teacher at Haverford High School in neighboring Delaware County, and doesn’t know if he’ll get paid while schools are closed. While his wife remains at work, her job with a property appraiser is nearly impossible to do from home and it’s unclear how her income will be affected.

“I worry about the larger things,” he said, such as supply chain disruptions and long-term damage to the economy.

Lindsay Wetmore-Arkader of Lower Merion said she and her husband, both medical professionals, are upfront about the disease with their three children, ages 11, 10 and 7.

“We’re not sugarcoating it for them and giving them false hope that we’re going to be in some kind of protected bubble here,” she said.

But the coronavirus has not been a topic of dinner table conversation, either. The focus in their home is squarely on staying productive, healthy and hopeful, Wetmore-Arkader said. The last part is harder, knowing that trips, summer camp and community events will be canceled for the foreseeable future.

“There’s no carrot at the end of our stick right now,” she said. “That’s something that’s really difficult for the adults to work through.”

Those who own businesses face the additional worry of seeing customers disappear into their own homes. While this is the case across the board now in Pennsylvania communities, it comes with more of a sense of urgency in Montgomery County, where nearly a third of the state’s COVID-19 cases have been reported and where health officials now assume it is spreading freely in the community.

Fitness instructor Glenn Kohler sees clients at his home gym in Elkins Park, but fear of the virus has kept some away. So Kohler is working with them through video conferencing apps.

"My hope is that I can limit the number of sessions I lose in a week because I think it is just going to get a little worse,” he said, noting that he’s sanitizing equipment and holding sessions in his backyard when weather permits.

The state’s response to the coronavirus is meant to thwart the spread of the illness. The goal is to avoid scenarios like those in China, Iran and Italy, where the number of people suffering grew so quickly it overwhelmed hospitals.

In Montgomery County, there were more than twice as many cases Wednesday than in the next most affected county, Philadelphia, and three or more times as many as the city’s other suburbs of Delaware, Bucks and Chester counties. School closures began more than a week ago in Montgomery County, after state health officials reported 13 patients had direct exposure to an Upper Merion pediatric cardiologist who tested positive for the coronavirus.

County Commissioner Chairwoman Dr. Valerie Arkoosh said Wednesday that with more than 500 county residents in quarantine and half a dozen cases that could not be traced to someone else known to be infected, officials believe it is possible to contract the virus by doing normal activities in public. 

Arkoosh said one of the first two mass testing facilities in the state would soon open at Temple University’s Ambler campus and initially provide tests for first responders and medical personnel. The other testing site is in Philadelphia.

Wetmore-Arkader, who is a researcher for U.S. Food and Drug Administration trials, and her husband, a physician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, have seen work demands skyrocket because of the outbreak. And like many parents, they find it isn’t easy getting work done when children are clamoring for attention.

“It’s very hard to work from home and have your work interrupted every 45 seconds with a question,” Wetmore-Arkader said, adding that a key to sustained focus is keeping the children separated enough that they don’t bicker.

With the closure of schools, Wetmore-Arkader realized that despite being busy with their own jobs, she and her husband would have to pick up an additional one — ensuring that their children don’t fall behind academically.

A former Seattle resident, Wetmore-Arkader reached out to friends there, where the coronavirus outbreak began weeks ago, for advice.

“The kids thrive on a schedule and treating this like a snow day is not going to be tenable for any period of time,” she said.

She divided the day into one-hour or half-hour blocks, during which the children work on academics, music, art and household chores. She set alarms to help them transition from one period to another.

“When they’re done at 4:30, there’s no homework, so it still has a bit of a snow day feel to it,” she said.

Meg Pritchard, on the other hand, hasn’t had to create a structure for her daughter Ila, who is a senior at Cheltenham High School.

“I am lucky that she is that self-sufficient. I think some kids are going to struggle,” Pritchard said.

Educators in Cheltenham and other communities — including Lower Merion, where Wetmore-Arkader’s children are enrolled — are implementing online learning, Pritchard said.

The state Education Department has advised districts that they must do so in a way that ensures students with disabilities have access to the same opportunities. Because a lack of resources makes that impossible in some places, other districts have chosen to provide no instruction during the closures.

Cheltenham, which abuts Philadelphia, also has grappled with how to feed children who depend on school lunch for their one solid meal of the day. The district is providing “grab-n-go” bags for families in need and will distribute nearly $12,000 in grocery store gift cards donated by a local synagogue and others in the community.

Pritchard said the community has come together through social media to help the elderly and others more vulnerable to the coronavirus by fetching groceries or medicine.

In Norristown, Emily Amoriello still must go to her job as manager of a fast food restaurant, so she posted a note in the hallway of her apartment building offering to do errands for anyone who didn’t want to go out. The next day, others in the building did the same thing, she said.

Although Amoriello and her boyfriend, Mike Heise, are not working from home, they’re taking social distancing seriously. Heise works in a law office with one other person. But he canceled his plans to go to a libertarian political conference this spring.

Amoriello said she told her parents in Chester County she wouldn’t visit until the crisis was over.

“I told them I work with the public out here. I don’t want to come and visit you and possibly give it to you,” she said.

Some people have made the choice to include others in small groups with whom they interact. Pritchard, for example, still works out with her trainer, Kohler, in his home gym.

Wetmore-Arkader’s family lives on a small dead-end street with only a handful of houses. The children play together in the street. Over the weekend, the families built a bonfire and shared s’mores.

“We decided we’re going to be our own community,” Wetmore-Arkader said.

On Lancaster Avenue in Ardmore, one of Montgomery County’s busiest thoroughfares, many businesses have notes taped to doors and windows, apologizing for being closed or instructing customers how to pick up or return items.

Aside from takeout restaurants and a pair of nail salons where masked manicurists continued to serve clients, the only other businesses open Monday were Viva Video, the last video rental shop in the region, according to clerk Paul Donaldson, and Mapes 5 & 10, selling a hodgepodge of hardware, toys and groceries.

A block from Lancaster Avenue, Esther Ahn stocked a beer cooler at the Rittenhouse Deli, where business was down by about 30%.

“It’s a ghost town,” she said.

Owner Brandon Yi said he had to close his other restaurant, Songsan Korean BBQ, next door because it is eat-in only. After 15 years in business, he reckoned the restaurant could survive the lockdown for about a month. After that, rent for the restaurants would be overdue and family mortgage and car payments would be difficult to make, he said.

“It’s going to be a big-time problem,” he said.

Fitness instructor Kohler’s wife, Denise Shardlow, is a fashion designer and had to cancel consultations and fittings. To make things worse, thousands of dollars worth of Shardlow’s garments are locked in a store at Willow Grove Mall, which closed under guidance from the state.

“We’re both, on some level, a luxury business,” Kohler said, worrying that the long-term economic impact would force people to cut extras from their household budgets.

“I’m sure there are so many areas of so many people’s lives that are going to be affected that we just can’t even measure right now,” he said.

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