Shortly after the shutdown began, her daughter hosted a friend for a sleepover — via a video call on her iPad, which she rested on a pillow next to her own head.
As the months passed, one of her sons began starting the school day with a blanket over his head, unable to face yet another day in front of his computer.
“I feel like we lost a year of our lives,” said Jenn Ambrosiano-Reedholm, a mother of three in Cockeysville. “And it feels extra-long.”
It was March 12 last year that Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan ordered public schools to close in four days, just the start of a shutdown that also would shutter bars, restaurants, movie theaters, malls, houses of worship and other gathering places to help curtail the spread of the then-new coronavirus.
Today, even as schools slowly reopen, restrictions have loosened and some people are vaccinated against COVID-19, life remains profoundly altered. We now work, play, shop, worship, travel, socialize and navigate daily life in ways that would have been unimaginable just a year ago.
“This is one of those curveballs affecting everyone,” said Dr. Deepak Prabhakar, medical director of Sheppard Pratt’s outpatient services, “a global disruption.”
It has been a year of staggering loss, with COVID-19 killing more than 518,000 people in the United States alone. The shutdown triggered an economic crisis of business closures and double-digit unemployment, with as many as one in six Americans losing their job at one point.
But if the crisis was national and global in scale, it shrank the world in which we live, at least physically.
Home became the workplace for those whose jobs allowed it, and the classroom for students from kindergarten to college. With recent graduates unable to find jobs in a faltering economy, they, too, stayed or returned home.
“It’s almost like we’ve seen a return to the olden days,” said Johns Hopkins sociologist Andrew Cherlin. “Suddenly, families have more responsibility for schooling their children.
“Suddenly they have to face serious infectious disease, like tuberculosis or polio in the past,” he said. “Suddenly, they have their 20-something children at home.”
And once home, there were fewer reasons to leave, especially early on in the shutdown when restrictions were the tightest.
Last April, 96% fewer people flew in or out of BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport than the year before — and with travel bans in effect, none were on international flights. On the Friday heading into Memorial Day weekend and the traditional start of the summer vacation season, just half the number of cars crossed the Bay Bridge toward the Eastern Shore than in the previous year.
The homebound increasingly connected to the outside world via digital means. Zoom became the most downloaded app of the year, as videoconferencing substituted for in-office work meetings and friend and family gatherings.
Kids similarly increased their screen time, both for school and play. Qustodio, a company that studies children’s online habits and sells parental control software, reported that in March and April 2020, kids were spending an average of 95 minutes a day on TikTok, up from 38 minutes a day in May 2019.
But if the pandemic made the internet more vital than ever before, it also exposed the depth of the existing digital divide — in both rural areas and in cities like Baltimore, where an Abell Foundation report found about 40% of households lacked internet service and a third didn’t have a computer.
“You can’t do anything without it,” said Jonathan Moore, whose company, RowdyOrb.it, has been working with other tech entrepreneurs to provide Wi-Fi to underserved neighborhoods.
Recently, in partnership with the United Way of Central Maryland, Moore’s team installed an antenna atop the building of a Brooklyn-based nonprofit, City of Refuge, to build a mesh Wi-Fi network for the surrounding area.
A similar network was installed last year in the Sandtown area of West Baltimore, where Moore said it’s used by everyone from schoolchildren to job seekers to those who by the end of the month are starting to run out of data on their phones.
With city schools on a staggered reopening plan that stretches into April, the New Song Community Learning Center opened a digital learning support center Monday for kids who are struggling with remote instruction.
“I don’t think we’re going to be in any space of normalcy for some time,” said Jayson Green, the executive director of the learning center.
Franklyn Baker, the local United Way’s CEO, said helping connect people to the internet is just one of the host of critical needs that have emerged in the pandemic and shutdown. At one point, the United Way trained more than 100 volunteers to help existing staff answer the influx of callers to its 211 line looking for assistance in finding food, keeping their electricity on, preventing an eviction or seeking mental health services.
From March 16 of last year to Feb. 19 of this year, the service referral line fielded 194,941 calls, according to the United Way, almost 70% more than the same period a year ago.
“People were struggling before the pandemic,” Baker said. “But it’s also created this new population — we have people who never thought they would miss a rent or mortgage payment, or have to go to a food bank.”
Along with the digital divide, other disparities emerged. While working from home became more commonplace, the Pew Research Center found that 60% of jobs can’t be performed remotely and those were the first ones to be cut when the economic downturn started. Some 90% of those let go in February and March worked in non-remote jobs, Pew reported, such as in the restaurant and hospitality industries.
Unemployment soon spread to a wider range of jobs, but disparities remain: Women were more concentrated in industries like retail, education and hospitality that were hit hard by the economic downturn. But additionally, women have dropped out of the workforce at a higher rate than men, in some cases because schools and day care operations remained closed and someone had to watch the kids.
“I’m pretty much the teacher’s assistant now,” said Luci Creel, 37, a mother of two in Baltimore County. “But I’m a paralegal.”
Creel, her husband, and their 8- and 12-year-old kids moved from Timonium to Hereford in June, so the kids have yet to see their new classmates and teachers in person. Creel had been interviewing for jobs, but with the uncertainty over when her kids would return to school, she instead remains at home and monitors that they’re staying focused and finishing their assignments. She is more than ready for them to resume in-person classes.
“It’s not that I don’t love my kids. I can’t provide what school provides — friends, a different environment,” she said. “That’s what helps them grow.”
Ambrosiano-Reedholm, 43, like Creel, has grown impatient with what they see as Baltimore County’s overly slow pace for reopening schools even as other jurisdictions have started bringing kids back to classrooms. She worries about one child in particular, who needs extra assistance with his schoolwork.
She has chronicled the highs and lows of a year of shutdown in a daily diary on her Facebook feed: The stripped-bare shelves of Costco early on when shoppers treated the pandemic like an impending snowstorm. The need for her kids to regain their “school stomachs” and not require seven feedings before dinner. Her own learning curve of trying to splice together video of musicians playing from their own homes — she is a flutist who founded the Hunt Valley Wind Ensemble — into a coherent performance.
“Day 194 at home,” she posted on Sept. 25. “I’m spent already!”
But as exhausting as the year has been, Ambrosiano-Reedholm said she also feels like her family has done nothing. Avid restaurantgoers, they hardly ever go out. Their pool was closed all summer, and instead of their annual beach vacation, they took a single day trip.
“We went out to dinner once because it was outdoors,” she said. “It felt luxurious.”
There is one bright spot, she said. When her husband Erik, 43, commuted rather than worked from the basement, and everyone had more activities outside the home, they didn’t have dinner together as often as they have this past year, meaning: basically every night.
Mary Lee Williams’ home in Sandtown has similarly been bustling, with five grandchildren ranging from prekindergarten to 12th grade straining the Wi-Fi connection and keeping her bouncing between the youngest ones.
“It’s hard to keep the two little ones focused,” said Williams, 59. “I have one in the dining room and one in the living room and I have to go back and forth between them.”
It’s been a lot, especially since her husband of almost 30 years had to be hospitalized in December for a preexisting condition and now is in rehabilitation. She’s only been able to see him through the window of his room, but hopes he’ll be home soon.
While the city public school district says it’s still considering how to handle graduation ceremonies and other activities, after a year at home, Williams’ granddaughter Ja’mayeh Armstrong, 17, is pessimistic about whether she and other seniors will get to close out high school with the traditional celebrations.
“I thought it would be for a couple of weeks,” she said of the initial closure of the schools last March. “And here we are, a year later.
“We missed out on prom and homecoming,” said Armstrong, who attends Reach! Partnership High School. “I was really looking forward to graduating, and walking across that stage.”
She plans to take a bit of a break then perhaps go to college and study culinary arts and business.
Cherlin, the Hopkins sociologist, said the shutdown has paused life, particularly for younger adults who would normally be starting careers, getting married and having children.
“It’s put the future on hold,” he said.
He likens it to the Great Depression, when the economic crisis contributed to declines in everything from birthrates to divorces, both of which of course cost money.
The Maryland courts, which have been under a series of COVID restrictions over the past year, received fewer divorce filings from March through June of last year compared with those months in 2019. By July, however, the number of filings was back to a similar level, close to 1,700, as the prior year.
It remains to be seen what long-term effects the continuing pandemic will have, Cherlin said, given that it’s unclear when the shutdown will lift and how quickly life returns to some semblance of normalcy.
What “normal” will look like is on many minds these days.
Shelonda Stokes, president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, is preparing for the group’s annual look at the state of the city’s central core, where offices have emptied with employees working from home, theaters have gone dark, the sports teams have played to empty or lightly attended stands, and shops and restaurants have closed or gone to limited seating.
Downtown’s previous energy will return, she said, but differently. For one thing, the pandemic and shutdown have changed how people feel about being in crowded spaces, particularly indoors, she said.
“That used to be a measure of success — ‘Our event was standing room only,’ ” Stokes said.
Now, whether you’re returning workers to their offices or reopening a restaurant, she said, “you’re going to be designing with personal space in mind.”
Stokes is heartened by the Hippodrome Theatre’s recent announcement that it would reopen in the fall.
If there was one big takeaway from the shutdown, it was that people felt safe and enjoyed being outdoors, she said. Talks are underway for another Charles Street Promenade, which for one Saturday in October blocked vehicular traffic from Saratoga to North Avenue and drew crowds who strolled the thoroughfare, shopped and enjoyed drinks and meals at sidewalk cafes.
Breaking News Alerts
As the pandemic continues into its second year, glimmers of hope are emerging, whether it’s due to a widening distribution of vaccines or the ways people have adjusted to its demands.
“This has been a very long year,” said Marshall Weston Jr., who as president of the Maryland Restaurant Association has decried what he says were overly restrictive measures.
While he expects the industry’s recovery will take as long as three to five years, some restaurants have received lifelines in the way of government grants and loans.
Additionally, Weston said, restaurants in counties with looser restrictions on dining are seeing an influx of customers from jurisdictions with stricter measures. That, he said, tells him “plenty of people” are ready to eat out again.
Initially, the restaurant association projected that 40% of the state’s eateries wouldn’t survive, but Weston said it’s “dialed back” the pessimism a bit. Now, the association is projecting a third or less will succumb.
After what he calls “the most devastating event” for his industry in recent years, it’s something.
“Eventually,” Weston said, “people will come back.”