Column: How to pull together while standing 6 feet apart: Community in age of coronavirus

Steve Lopez
Tina Smith of Sunland takes a walk in her neighborhood with her dog, Chica. She was laid off from her job because of the coronavirus pandemic.  (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Anxious? Scared? Frustrated?

Same here.

If the days seem long and yet they’re gone before you can remember what you even did to pass the time, don’t worry.

That’s going around.

I can’t remember what I did yesterday, don’t know what I’m going to do tomorrow, and I fluctuate between near certainty that loved ones will be fine and mortal dread that we’re all going to die.

I exaggerate a bit, sure. But time is warped, our fate is uncertain, and the world’s fifth-largest economy has all but shut down, with Gov. Gavin Newsom imploring Californians — all 40 million of us — to stay home. Not just for our own safety but for the health and safety of everyone else.

We’re charging into a new frontier without a map. Isolate, comrades. And let’s pull together while standing apart.

But how do you do that?

We’re figuring that out as we go.

In Echo Park, the neighbors at the top of one hill have taken to stepping outside at the same time each evening to catch sight of one another and make noise, a testament to being alive, relatively sane, and together in spirit.

On Facebook, friends across California are looking after one another, offering to deliver groceries for those who can’t or shouldn’t get out of the house.

A West L.A. reader told me about a mail delivery mix-up in which his assistant heard from a downtown resident who tracked her down to say he got a package intended for her. She went to retrieve it and brought precious rolls of toilet paper as a gesture of thanks; he greeted her with a bag of produce.

In the city of cars, people have rediscovered walking. They stroll through neighborhoods with dogs and kids, slow-motion caravans of people enjoying at least one aspect of the break from long commutes and constant hustle. And spring is beginning to bloom, with jasmine and orange blossoms perfuming the air, as if to remind us all that the cycle of life is resilient.

But you come home from a pleasant, spirit-reviving walk, check the news and instantly, the blood pressure soars again. Why? Because greed and self-dealing are their own pathogens, and not everyone is pulling together.

Rich pro basketball players are getting tested for coronavirus even as symptomatic mortals are told to shelter at home and call for advice if things get considerably worse.

Many people are watching college tuition funds and hard-earned retirement investments shrivel, even as several senators are suspected of using early insider information on the pandemic to sell off stocks before getting hammered by big losses that have ravaged the 401(k)s of working folks.

As millions of us self-isolate, loyal to the idea of one for all and all for one, spring break morons flock to Florida beaches in droves, defying calls for everyone to do their part.

On the other hand, we have gotten mixed signals on the severity of the pandemic, haven’t we?

It’s hard to trust the same authorities who said the virus was a hoax and delayed the urgent response that was called for, leaving the U.S. without needed testing and ventilators and also without enough protective equipment for front-line medical staff risking their lives here in the richest country in the history of the world.

And now that bodies are piling up and the global medical community is sharing notes on the best practices because the whole world has become an emergency room, Le Grand Orange still has to poke a stick in someone’s eye, so he calls this not the coronavirus, but the "Chinese virus."

We’re flying through a storm with a chimp in the cockpit, so hold hands and say a prayer.

And let me know how you’re doing.

I’ve been in touch in recent days with a few businesses forced to scale back or shut down, and will be following their employees over the next few weeks or months, whatever it is, as they try to survive. And let me say that I never, ever thought I’d see a day when L.A. officials called for nonessential businesses to close.

Debbie Ficarra, owner of La Canada Pre-School, would like to keep her doors open to care for children.  (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Debbie Ficarra, owner of La Canada Pre-School, isn’t sure what to do. Even as some parents who work in jobs deemed essential were desperate for her to stay open, others were horrified at the thought.

“While I wanted to reopen Monday, I have been barraged with negative feedback, panic and fear," she said. Meanwhile, "I am refunding thousands of dollars in tuition and paying teachers so they can pay their rent and using my savings to stay afloat." But she’s not sure how long she can keep that up.

At Art’s Deli, the Studio City institution, owner Harold Ginsburg is keeping his kitchen staff of 20 or so on the job to handle takeout orders. But with the dining room closed, he reluctantly let his 10 servers go this week and encouraged them to apply for unemployment benefits.

“This is a game-changer not just for us, but for our entire industry,” said Ginsburg, whose late father, Art, opened the deli in 1957.

Tony Castro, the head server, has been working at Art’s ever since it reopened after the Northridge earthquake of 1994. I reached him at his North Hollywood apartment, where he said his modest savings could get him through a couple of months, and he’s been reaching out to all the other servers during the shutdown to see how they're coping.

“I miss the job, because it was like family there,” Castro said. He suggested I call Tina Smith, who bought a place in a mobile home park two years ago after four years on the job at Art’s.

“I just got to where I had paid off all my bills and was just starting to save,” said Smith, 58, who’s been in the restaurant business for 40 years, and has a heart condition that’s giving her some new worries now.

She said that on Wednesday, her third day without work, she had “a heart episode that lasted seven hours.” She said it’s happened before, and she knows to sit down, relax and try to calm herself. It worked, and she's now feeling better.

“I’m a strong Christian and that’s helping, absolutely,” Smith said. “My daughter gave me an Alexa and I tell it to play worship music. That changes the atmosphere. Positive thinking, faith and prayer.”

Even at that, Smith said, “I’ve already lost five pounds because my stomach is in a knot.”

Smith said her housing costs about $1,400 a month and her healthcare plan costs $550, and she just had to shell out from her savings for a new engine on her 2003 Mustang. She told me she doesn’t know how she’ll find another job in the disrupted economy. So she applied for unemployment.

“To be honest, I’m not as concerned about dying as I am about living, because the fallout is worse than the virus. Economically, this is very stressful,” Smith said. “I’m avoiding other people and only going out if it’s essential. I did go out for a walk and to talk to a few neighbors. Ordinarily I like to be home, but I’m used to working with the public, and now that I’m home, I feel isolated.”

Don’t we all.

Monday afternoon, before Gov. Newsom ordered everyone to stay home, I was going stir crazy too. I drove to La Cañada Flintridge to speak to Ficarra from a safe distance, and also to Sunland, where photographer Francine Orr and I stayed 10 feet away from each other and 10 feet away from Smith, talking to her in front of her mobile home while she held her dog, Chica.

It was the first time in my 45 years as a journalist, I told Smith, that I interviewed someone from a distance.

That’s the strange world we all live in now. Anxious, scared, frustrated, longing for a return to normal.

steve.lopez@latimes.com