The Past Year of a Pandemic: Community reflects on living life in the time of COVID-19

·19 min read

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic. In Haliburton County, 51 cases of COVID-19 and one death due to the virus have been confirmed by the Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge district health unit since the beginning of the pandemic, in which to date, almost 117 million cases of COVID-19 and more than 2.5 million deaths have been reported globally. Here, residents of Haliburton County share their experiences after living through a year like no other.

The last pre-pandemic experience Grade 11 Haliburton Highlands Secondary School student Olivia Johnson remembers having was the last day of school before March Break, March 13, last year.

“We were all excited to have an extra week of holidays, which never ended,” she said.

The subsequent cancellation of events and programs, and restrictions to gathering with people have kept Olivia – and the rest of her family – close to home.

“During the past year, I’ve spent more time with my family since we haven’t been able to go anywhere,” she said. “It’s been nice to feel so much closer with all of my siblings.”

While the past year has been life-changing for everyone, extroverts have found it especially tough to miss out on socializing in the way that they are used to doing – those who know Olivia know her smiling face and outgoing personality.

“Most challenging for me was not being able to go to school like normal and see my friends,” she said. “I’m a very social person, so not being able to see my people was a very big adjustment.”

That interest in seeing people extended beyond school and her social circle, and into the greater community.

“What I’ll remember most is not being able to see people’s faces,” said Olivia. “I always loved passing by someone in a store and smiling at them to see them smile back. Now that everyone wears masks all the time, I miss seeing everyone’s faces.”

She’s also missed the experience, so far, of being able to get her driver’s licence.

“As far as my age group, 16 and in Grade 11, this year was the year that everyone gets their driver’s licence and gets that extra freedom,” she said. “Of course with COVID, it’s been harder to actually get licences and now all of us feel like we’re stuck in Grade 10.”

Olivia knows that life won’t always be like this – with vaccines being more widely distributed throughout the province, the end of so many restrictions for so many is potentially near.

“I just think it’s important to remember that pandemics don’t go on for eternity,” she said. “All of the common viruses we have now were once a new one that had its own pandemic. I’m just looking forward to getting vaccinated and going on with my life.”

Judy Toye arrived home from Florida last March on Saturday the 14th, when there was still talk of closing the Canada/U.S. border – it would close on March 18, 2020, to non-essential travel and continues to be closed now, until at least March 21, 2021.

“We had been watching the news while we were away and knew things were becoming serious,” said Toye, who settled into her 14-day quarantine at her Minden home as the province began shutting down.

At the end of June, after a long career as a registered nurse, Toye was able to begin her planned retirement. Frontline healthcare workers have been applauded for their work during the COVID-19 health crisis and have also lived through the general population’s stress as it came to terms with ever-evolving public health restrictions and guidelines.

“Life as a nurse is very challenging,” said Toye. “It is frustrating when people complain about wearing a mask to go into a store yet nurses – and all others in the department, housekeepers, x-ray technicians, etc. have to wear a mask for 12-hour shifts, as well as face shields, gloves, gowns. We went in for scenarios so we would be comfortable looking after a COVID positive patient and you would have all the PPE on and you would feel like you were going to pass out from being so hot. No one understands what this is like day in and day out. It’s hard to do that everyday and people think it’s all made up or won’t follow the guidelines.”

Making the transition and beginning retirement during the pandemic had challenges of its own.

“Summer is always busy for me, I have a huge vegetable garden, many flower gardens, and a pool to enjoy,” said Toye. “I make many preserves so am always busy. My plan on retirement was to make pies and sell them, as well as do knitting/crocheting orders. I was incredibly busy doing all these things. We had Thanksgiving with lots of orders and then Christmas that I had lots of orders for. A lot of time was spent sitting instead of my busy career, and as many people have found, the weight started to add on.”

Toye said it was very difficult to be home all the time after being immersed in a stimulating environment, and not even be able to stop into work to visit with her work colleagues.

“I had worked with some of the doctors for 25 years and I always felt a strong relationship with them,” she said. “I had enjoyed my career and was well-known in the community as I had worked at Minden hospital for 35 years. It was a huge change from working to being locked up at home. Despite being busy with all my hobbies, I missed the people.”

Like others were experiencing during provincial stay-at-home orders, Toye felt she needed to make changes to cope with the pandemic restrictions – staying busy with a hobby wasn’t enough, she needed to get out and get moving.

“As of the new year I decided I had to get out,” she said. “I hate winter and our retirement goal of going to Florida for a month got squashed. There wasn’t anything to look forward to. I began snowshoeing. Now I’m out everyday getting the fresh air and much-needed exercise. I still miss visiting people and seeing my oldest son and his family but that’s the way it is for now.”

Larry O’Connor was in a warmer climate – Mexico – when he said he and his wife Christina received word from the Canadian government to return home.

“Having been on a board of health for over a decade, I know that public health agencies have predicted a pandemic for years now,” said the Minden Hills resident. “Well, it finally arrived.”

Travelling home, he and Christina worried about driving home safely and avoiding the virus along the way, which thankfully, he said, they did.

O’Connor said he recalls that his grandmother died during a tuberculosis epidemic at the Muskoka Sanitorium – later known as the Muskoka Regional Centre – in 1943. In October, O’Connor’s mother died in North Bay – during the pandemic, but not of COVID-19.

“We had a very small funeral for her and still grieve,” he said of his loss.

O’Connor said that the government has failed to protect vulnerable people in long-term care. He’s also feeling unsafe in these times, himself.

“I miss visiting with so many family and friends, that sense of being confined to home to be safe really hit home,” he said. “I have found things like grocery shopping once a month has been nerve-wracking, and I just don’t feel safe.”

The pandemic and resulting cancellations and restrictions have changed what O’Connor has been able to do as host of Tales from the Big Canoe, an Indigenous radio program on Canoe FM.

“Having face-to-face interviews have been nearly impossible,” he said. “Almost all community events have not taken place, like powwows, where I typically chat with many of my guests.”

O’Connor has, however, been able to share some of his traditional Métis experiences during two week-long virtual summer camps for Indigenous kids in the area. He’s also used the time he has at home during the year to immerse himself in the Indigenous art of beading.

“I have completed many Métis regalia type projects and have as well established a new passion,” he said.

And while they might need to enjoy their time together in less warm climates at the moment, he’s also been able to spend more time with his wife of 40 years.

“Like most married couples, I spent more time with my spouse than I could have imagined, and we still really like each other’s company,” he laughed.

Though the year hasn’t allowed for all of the same opportunities as before, for O’Connor, it’s given him the chance to pursue other interests. He hopes he might be able to have more face-to-face interaction again, soon.

“As an advocate for good public health, I definitely plan to get vaccinated as soon as I can,” he said. “In the meantime, I will bead and stay safe.”

Jane Austin remembers the excitement of the days before March Break last year, the same way it always feels in the school with that week-long vacation approaching.

“There is an energy that ripples through the building,” said Austin, the principal at Archie Stouffer Elementary School in Minden. “The holiday is approaching, the days are getting longer and people are keen for some spring weather. The moment that brought about change happened in that week as well when we heard on the news that the schools would be closed following the March Break. That was the tipping point in my consciousness with the realization that things were changing.”

After March Break was extended by two weeks, and then eventually until the end of the school year, educators very quickly pivoted to take their learning online for students who could complete assignments from home on their own devices or laptops borrowed from the school. In September, brick and mortar schools opened, as did virtual learn-at-home opportunities, with some teachers and students being physically in a classroom, and some teaching and learning online from home.

“Life as an educator during the pandemic has been challenging,” said Austin. “We are given a gift each day to spend with young people and to help them to learn, be good people and to be leaders. We take our responsibilities seriously. The pandemic has created many obstacles that add an increased level of stress to educators. Expectations shift and evolve as new information and data inform politicians and health officials. However, because these amazing educators, and particularly the staff at ASES are so dedicated they continue to work hard each day, these obstacles never get in the way of our intention to make each day a good day for our students. We pledged when we returned to work that we would focus on synergy, success, well-being and wonder and that has grounded our work. We are so proud of our school and our community.”

Austin said in her personal life, her family has spent more time together with “less running around and general busyness;” they’ve had the opportunity to be more collaborative and supportive of one another and their community throughout the pandemic; and they have taken the opportunity to connect and reconnect virtually with people they haven’t connected with in years. Professionally, she said she has had the opportunity to witness the very best of people as staff works together in the school community to keep each other safe and healthy.

“I have gained a new appreciation of togetherness and connection that I refuse to take for granted when things go back to ‘normal,’” she said.

As for so many others, for Austin, the year has also been filled with worry.

“I try to mitigate this worry by focusing on those things that I can control and can affect but the worry is always there,” she said.

She worries for her family, especially those loved ones who might be high-risk, and also her school community trying to always ensure everyone has what they need to be safe and healthy.

In a report released last month by advocacy group People for Education after surveying principals at 1,173 schools across the province, 57 per cent of principals at virtual schools and 49 per cent of principals from in-person and hybrid schools said their levels of stress were not manageable.

Asked what she will most remember of this time, Austin said it’s the creativity that she sees everywhere.

“People have harnessed the power of their creativity to make their lives work in the midst of this pandemic,” she said. “I see it in the local business and in the arts community. I see creativity in the play that students are engaging in on the school yard. I see it in the staff members’ approach to teaching the students in brick and mortar school and in virtual school; while we are open for business and when we were shut down and learning from home. I see it in our families who help support their students boomerang their belongings back and forth each day. I see it in the displays of thanks for front line workers in windows and front yards. It is energizing and amazing. I hope we continue to harness its power even after this pandemic has ended.”

At Molly’s Bistro Bakery, staff misses Santa popping in for a visit on the annual parade day, ice racing and the truck pull, the county fair, family and friend get-togethers, an open arena, sitting and chatting with customers in the “office,” and “anything normal.”

“Some of us thought it was just a bad flu that would go away like all the others and a couple of us said that they thought this was going to be bad, really bad,” said comments from staff to the Times on their thoughts and reflections of the past year.

Last year in March, staff were largely laid off while the business remained open promoting take-out meals, frozen meals and soup during the first provincial state of emergency declared March 17, when bars and restaurants were closed to service outside of take-out food and delivery.

“Business wise we had to get a little creative,” said Molly McInerney, who owns and operates the bistro with Guy Dumas. “Molly’s isn’t really a take-out place; more a meet up with friends place. So we expanded our frozen food offerings and added the weekly ‘Date Night’ experiences.”

They’ve also promoted holiday meals “with all the fixin’s” and held giveaways on their Facebook page.

And through it all, they’ve supported each other through challenges that have come up for each other throughout the year: interacting with people who are confused about what restrictions are currently in place, sending kids to school while feeling they don’t get to experience the fun that kindergarten traditionally has been, even through interesting hairstyles when hair appointments were on hold.

“Our staff has grown closer,” reads one comment from staff. “We were a ‘family’ before but now I think we might actually be related.”

Noelle Russell was on a bus to school when an announcement on the news, which she saw through Facebook, alerted the former Gelert resident to a shut-down in her state in Western Australia.

“There was no travelling outside your region, which meant controlled interstate borders, and you needed an actual reason to leave as the roads were blocked,” she said. “It was just over two months at the beginning of the pandemic when we had severe restrictions as in travel, and the whole state closing down. Our state government was so terrified to have an outbreak here, we barely had any cases – therefore, no masks, etc.”

It’s a different situation than the one Russell’s family and friends back home in Ontario are facing, with provincial lockdowns, mandatory masks and virtual meetings and school. Russell said she’ll remember “how weird the world is at the moment.”

“I remember back in May when Western Australia went back to normal life as we hadn’t had a single case in weeks,” she said. “My friend and I went out to one of the clubs in the city for ‘the countdown,’ which was a countdown until midnight – restrictions lifted – but before the midnight strike if you were caught dancing, you were kicked out. It was basically Footloose in real life and I don’t think I can forget that. And the weird phone calls I have to home, about myself and Jamieson [Gilmour, Russell’s partner] headed out for a weekend of fun and my poor family in lockdown. We’re literally in two different worlds.”

Russell said everything opened up back in May, but for their state border which they anticipate to ease up again soon.

“The Australian government had no travelling between states unless for good reason,” she said. “We’ve basically been landlocked here. Which baffles me that people in Ontario have been – up until recently – allowed to leave?”

Russell said she sometimes forgets the rest of the world, and occasionally the rest of Australia, “is in such distress,” as they are living COVID-free in her part of the world. In January this year, with the report of one case, the state returned to what Russell called an intense lockdown for five days, and masks for two weeks – they hadn’t worn a mask or even owned one prior to January.

“Some say it was dramatic of our government to launch us into intense house lockdown panic, but I reckon five days is merely nothing as we were able to control it and a week later, back to normal again. Really normal. I don’t even think we know what social distancing is.”

During the lockdown, the only time in this past year in which Russell and her partner had to wear masks, Gilmour proposed.

“And honestly? I wouldn’t change a thing,” said Russell. “What a story to tell the grandkids about why we had masks on in the photo. It’s a great representation of the times we are in, even if we are less affected.”

(She said “yes”!)

Trevor Brauer, a Kinmount resident, has long been known for being an active member of the community, involved with work, volunteer positions, as an athlete, and as a regular participant in Community Living programs. Cancellations in March 2020 ended all of that, with Brauer noting his life in the community changed – first with the loss of his job at Molly’s Bistro and his volunteer position at the Dysart municipal office.

“I had friends in both of these places that I miss,” he said.

Twice a week he attended Community Living programs – reading skills, exercise, cooking – but those were cancelled, too, and though some programs and activities were online, he didn’t have access to good internet service.

“I also used their WiFi,” he said. “That was cancelled.”

Special Olympics athletic programs, including Brauer’s curling and golf, were also cancelled.

“The most challenging part of COVID-19 was not seeing friends and family,” Brauer said of the past year. “Finding things to do in summer wasn’t so bad, I cut the grass for my dad and I could go swimming anytime I wanted because we live on the Irondale river.”

He also found things to do inside, finding a new hobby in painting bird houses for the garden and wooden Christmas ornaments with his mom’s folk art paints.

“My mom was home more often so we got to do some baking,” he said. “My mom thought I should learn how to iron, so I tried that, too.”

Brauer also adopted Pretty Girl, or P.G., into his life.

“We got a new kitten in July and she has kept me busy, playing and getting into mischief,” he said. “I am very happy that I live at home with my parents and our kitten.”

Still, Brauer is very much looking forward to the day when life once again has more of the purpose that he thinks makes him most thrive, one that includes a job to go to, and group sports with his friends.

“I had a driver’s licence and nowhere to go,” he said. “I hope we will get back to life [like] before COVID-19 very soon.”

A pandemic was not going to stop the Birthday Club from showering Lois Rigney with well wishes.

“Positive things have happened during this past year as I am blessed with wonderful neighbours and friends,” said Rigney, a Canning Lake resident. “On my recent birthday, normally the gals in the Birthday Club would gather at one’s home to celebrate with a delicious dinner and cards. Two of them wearing masks arrived at my door with cards, gifts, plate of cookies and a wee one candle cake. As it was announced on Canoe FM radio the phone rang all day long with well wishers.”

The moment was a bright spot for Rigney, who lives alone after the loss of her husband nine years ago, and has been dealing with isolation over the past year.

“I have learned about Zoom and YouTube as my church eventually closed, and I attend the service on YouTube and board meetings on Zoom,” she said. “I miss my Bible Study in my friends’ home but we phone each other. If I can, weather permitting, I walk the country roads from my home and sometimes meet friends and have a chat with my mask on. I cope by phoning friends regularly. We call it ‘checking in with the elderly’ and it is great to talk to someone when you live alone and don’t use your voice enough.”

While she has seen her daughter and her family, who have come to help with yard work or be with her to celebrate holidays – Rigney hasn’t seen her son’s family, including two grandsons, “since all this began.”

Though they can’t meet in person, Rigney still chairs the Haliburton Highlands Stroke Support Group, trying to keep the group connected and spirits raised by sending a weekly e-mail with a funny picture, inspirational quote, health news, funny jokes, and a reminder to “reply all to keep the chat going.”

“They are a chatty group,” said Rigney. “That keeps me focused and busy.”

She said that, being a “hugger,” she longs for the day when masks can be thrown away and she can hug someone again.

“My faith keeps me going and I pray daily that this will soon end, as well as for friends I have lost through other illnesses,” she said. “We need to try to stay positive and we will get through this. Acts of kindness are everywhere. Let’s keep them going!”

Sue Tiffin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Minden Times