Cincinnati's Strangest Spring

The Queen City continues to wrestle with a tragic pandemic that has called up echoes from our past, magnified divisions in our present and raised haunting questions about our future. Can hope follow?

click to enlarge Alicia Boards (left) and her daughters. The family is quarantining at their home in Delhi during the pandemic. - Photo: Nick Swartsell
Photo: Nick Swartsell
Alicia Boards (left) and her daughters. The family is quarantining at their home in Delhi during the pandemic.

Spring Grove Cemetery was lush and green on the second day of spring this year, and small carpets of violets were starting to wake up between patches of old graves and older trees after sleeping through the winter.

Yes, we were not supposed to really go anywhere because of the governor’s orders to maintain social distancing, but the permanent residents of Spring Grove are definitely at least six feet away from you at all times.

It has been almost two months since Ohio effectively shut down due to the pandemic coronavirus that causes some people — up to 60 percent or more — no symptoms at all and kills others after weeks of increasing agony. Things have been strange, to say the least.

Spring Grove was the perfect place for these weird times, so perfect in fact that the rush of thousands of visitors — bored, anxious, out of work or looking for a break from newly stressful realities — forced its closure in early April.

As one of the nation’s largest cemeteries, Spring Grove, like all beautiful burial places, is an in-between space — a place where known and unknown coexist, where, as some of my more spiritually inclined friends would say, “the veil is thin.” It occupies both the worlds of the living and the non-living. Its verdant grounds are natural, but they are not. It is bursting with life — flowers, blooming trees, wandering turkeys and giant fish in a koi pond — but it is also and primarily a place for the dead.

Many of us are in a similar in-between place now. The veil between known and unknown when it comes to the outcome of this pandemic is very thin and constantly grazing our faces in the form of protective masks. We are alive in a literal manner of speaking. But we have also been stuck in some kinds of “alive” that humans have not experienced before, frozen in place, hidden behind doors or masks, spread apart on purpose and by fear but also connected by gooey strands of internet and radio and, for some of us, TVs that blare Fox News or reruns of Rosanne.

More things separate us than just the social distancing. This strange, tragic spring between pre-COVID life and post-COVID life has been and will continue to be much harder on some of us than others, perhaps more so now that the state is opening back up.

Some essential workers will risk their lives for less than others will make a week in unemployment benefits, or work in hospitals with the dead, the dying and the saveable but miserable. Others will get a needed break from the increasingly blazing pace of modern existence to take time to contemplate their lives, painfully, maybe, but safely.

This time presents itself as a study in the extremes already present in our society, but before now often hidden from some of us: almost unbearable pain and almost unbelievable comfort, panic and respite, deep mourning and vast potential for negative or positive change ahead.

Two things unite us: the fact that this virus is shaking the framework of the society we live in, and, in the sleepless moments when we’re most honest with ourselves, the terrifying uncertainty about how much of that framework can hold.

As we prepare to open back up in the face of the virus’ continued, if measured, spread, we will continue to test that framework.

Viruses, technically I guess, are not alive. Or they are. It seems like it depends on which pop-science website you read. “First seen as poisons, then as life-forms, then biological chemicals, viruses today are thought of as being in a gray area between living and nonliving,” an article from Scientific American I just Googled says.

So there. We and our enemy have this in common.

A 100-Year Contagion

click to enlarge A Cincinnati barber wearing a mask while shaving a customer during the 1918 flu pandemic - Photo: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Immunization and Respiratory
Photo: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Immunization and Respiratory
A Cincinnati barber wearing a mask while shaving a customer during the 1918 flu pandemic

Despite the weirdness of all of this, this pandemic isn’t the first time a microscopic, neither-living nor nonliving virus has shut Cincinnati down, though no one 102 years ago knew to call the virulent flu that swept across the world and claimed as many as 100 million people a virus.

Cincinnati struggled greatly during the fall of 1918 due to the so-called Spanish Flu pandemic, which offers some eerie parallels to our current situation. The lethal wave that hit Cincinnati was the second of three waves of the virus to tear across the globe — a discomforting historical fact as America gears up to open back up.

At first, public officials — then-Cincinnati Health Director Dr. William Peters and Mayor John Galvin — assured the public there was little to worry about, even as the flu tore through other parts of the country. But by early October that year, according to newspaper accounts from the time, Peters was convinced there were thousands of undiagnosed cases in the city, despite just 15 patients diagnosed as having the new virulent flu strain.

click to enlarge A sign from the Cincinnati Board of Health on a streetcar during the 1918 flu pandemic - Photo: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Immunization and Respiratory
Photo: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Immunization and Respiratory
A sign from the Cincinnati Board of Health on a streetcar during the 1918 flu pandemic

The Board of Health ordered schools shuttered, then reopened, then shuttered again. Sporting events were canceled. Theaters were closed. Bars, being the places where many working class Cincinnatians took their meals, remained open but were restricted to selling bottles of alcohol for carry-out only. Gatherings were forbidden. Even churches were ordered to close.

Officials framed the measures as preventative, and assured Cincinnati there was no pandemic here as of yet. But it was coming, as they probably already knew from watching the East Coast of the United States being ravaged.

The city’s caseload grew unsteadily, in spurts and lulls, through October and into November. Then, as now, people pushed against the restrictions and protested. Even the mayor tired of them after five weeks and advocated for reopening. The city’s Board of Health did so November 11, 1918.

“The people are tired of hearing of influenza and want to forget it,” Mayor Galvin said, according to a Nov. 12, 1918 Cincinnati Enquirer article. “The psychological time for raising the restrictions has arrived. You can no more control the people’s enthusiasm nor regulate their actions on the street than you can control the Ohio River.”

But over the following weeks, cases began spiking again and the health department instituted more targeted bans — children were forbidden from public places and businesses had to shutter at specific hours.

At one point, officials believed burning leaves fueled the contagion. They ordered a ban on that practice.

By the end of the pandemic, the toll Cincinnati sustained was brutal. An estimated 1,688 residents lost their lives to the flu between September and December that year — 60 percent of them between the ages of 20 and 40, according to the health department at the time. Later deaths would raise the total toll to more than 2,200.

But survivors developed immunity to that strain of the flu. Life went on. Things changed in some ways — more than a dozen public health stations opened in Cincinnati the next year to serve those who had lingering complications from the virus. After the dust cleared, cities and countries around the world got serious about more robust and exacting public health measures.

In other ways, life and society stayed the much the same, at least until, just a couple years behind schedule, the next 100-year pandemic came and shut everything down.

Quiet in the Heart of the Queen City

click to enlarge An empty Washington Park in Over-the-Rhine - Photo: Nick Swartsell
Photo: Nick Swartsell
An empty Washington Park in Over-the-Rhine

For at least a few minutes the night before Ohio Governor Mike DeWine’s stay-at-home order went into effect in late March, Over-the-Rhine’s Washington Park was completely silent. Usually at 8 p.m., there would be at least a few folks taking their dog for a quick walk or crisscrossing the park to go to one of the bars or restaurants just a few blocks away on bustling Vine Street. If there was a concert at Music Hall or an event at Memorial Hall, you’d see a steady stream of people going past the park’s central gazebo.

But in those evening moments, there was no one. Not on foot. Not zipping by on a rented scooter. Not in cars gliding past on Elm or Race streets. Not much in the way of sound, either. The gentle whoosh of distant traffic, maybe, or the wind through the trees.

For years, people have gathered or passed through here for one reason or another. It has been the heart of multiple communities, and the city, for a long time.

It’s anecdotal, of course, and that few minutes of silence melted away quickly. But it was also fleeting evidence of the beginning of a new normal in this time of pandemic.

click to enlarge Usually bustling Findlay Market, nearly empty - Photo" Nick Swartsell
Photo" Nick Swartsell
Usually bustling Findlay Market, nearly empty

After the first three cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in Ohio early in March, events were canceled or delayed. Concerts. Whole sports seasons. Organizers shut down Cincinnati’s iconic Opening Day Parade March 12, the day after a man in Stark County tested positive for the virus even though he had not traveled or come in contact with another confirmed case.

Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton told Ohioans — and the rest of the country, after her words made national news  — that such a thing is called “community spread.” She said she believed that, beyond the handful of cases officials had confirmed, there were likely 100,000 undiagnosed cases of the virus in the state. In her pronouncement, you could hear echoes of Cincinnati Health Director Peters’ 1918 fears.

Then, when the cases swelled into double digits, schools shut down for the school year. You couldn’t sit in bars and restaurants anymore. Finally, the order came to stay at home except to get food, medicine and exercise.

The day Washington Park stood still for a moment, just a couple weeks after those first confirmed cases, Ohio had confirmed 442 cases of the virus and six people had died from it. Seven weeks later, the state had more than 21,000 confirmed cases and more than 1,270 deaths.

So we have isolated and waited if we can. If we are laid off or working from home, we cut our own hair. We hoard snacks. We go to the park again and again. If we’re not, we brave the public — including the unseen threat of asymptomatic carriers of the virus — so we can continue to afford the essentials.

Two Pandemics

click to enlarge Brittany Pitts (right) is a frontline worker at a grocery store in Cincinnati - Photo: Nick Swartsell
Photo: Nick Swartsell
Brittany Pitts (right) is a frontline worker at a grocery store in Cincinnati

A few blocks away from silent Washington Park the night before Gov. DeWine’s order kicked in, there were the usual signs of life: a few neighborhood kids, a few smartly dressed couples walking purebred dogs. A man in his 40s, maybe, sitting alone at the bar in one of Vine Street’s newer restaurants, cellphone pressed tight to his ear, mouth moving quickly. Most of the lights were off inside, the chairs sitting upside down on the tables.

You could walk north to Liberty Street and, likely for the first time in your life, cross without waiting for cars speeding through the yawning river of road that divides Over- the-Rhine between the part that has redeveloped to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars and the part that has not so much.

Here, at the gas station and the corner stores, work continued because it had to. At Tina’s Carryout, workers huddled over cellphones to repair them as customers waited on the other side, only now the men wore face masks. People from the neighborhood grabbed food and beer, trying not to touch the door with their bare hands as they left.

The cruelty of the pandemic is not just biological; it is also sociological. Those who have to work have done the risky work if they can find it, or hustle some other way if they cannot. Those with the means to avoid that — jobs that allow telework, savings accounts or the support of a financially-able family — have hunkered down. More of the former, many of them people of color, are getting sick, even though they have less access to the things that will make that easier and more survivable.

Brittany Pitts works at a Kroger customer service desk.

“I’m essential,” she laughed a little darkly through her light blue mask as we stood six feet apart for a brief interview outside Findlay Market in late April.

Mostly, she said, her job right now is a source of fear.

“I do check cashing and bill payment, so I’m in close contact with people all day,” she said. “It’s scary, because I deal with a lot of people, and people are still coming to the grocery store. Of course people need food, but I see people coming in every day. It’s become the local hangout. It’s pretty scary. I wish people would stay home and only come out for what they need.”

But staying home is very difficult for some.

Jerry Davis is a janitor who also writes for and sells Streetvibes, a newspaper put out by the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition.

He began having trouble breathing at work after the pandemic started, though he never developed a fever or other signs of the virus. He was diagnosed with COPD, a breathing disorder, and told to stay home for the time being — he could be especially vulnerable to COVID-19 with the condition.

Davis said he isn’t receiving hourly pay in the meantime. He was waiting on the now-famous $1,200 stimulus check sent out by the federal government.

“Work told me they can’t let me come back with everything going on,” he said. “They just said, we can’t let you come back. I’m doing the floors and you’ve got cubicles nearby. I’m in close proximity to that, the cafeteria, all that. I’m used to working. Now I have to sit around the house and watch movies, maybe drink a beer. There’s nothing else to do.”

The wave of economic pain is real, though it will not sweep everyone away the same way.

At the Brighton Center, a social service nonprofit in Newport, Kentucky, those seeking food or other assistance have increased 300 percent since the pandemic started in earnest, Tiffany Neri said in late April as a team of workers set up a drive-up food distribution center in the nonprofit’s parking lot.

click to enlarge Social service workers prepare to distribute food at Newport's Brighton Center - Photo: Nick Swartsell
Photo: Nick Swartsell
Social service workers prepare to distribute food at Newport's Brighton Center

“It’s tough,” she said. “We’re seeing a lot more need as far as people needing shelter. A lot more need as far as people needing resources to pay their bills. A lot more need for people to get connected to unemployment, or figuring out how to get their stimulus checks. The first few weeks we were out here, we were seeing 70 to 100 households a day… I wasn’t sure if we would have enough. But we do. It may not be everything people want, but it’s healthy nutritious food.

“We’re seeing a lot of people who have lost jobs, or are taking care of other people, or their kids are home and they can’t afford childcare or childcare places aren’t open,” Neri said.

In the first week of the crisis, unemployment claims in Ohio crushed previous records — 187,000 people in the state, including this furloughed reporter, applied for benefits.

Now, an astounding 1.1 million workers in Ohio have applied — part of a wave of more than 33 million applicants across the country. Lt. Gov. Jon Husted has said the state’s unemployment insurance funds will be tapped out by June without federal help.

The rush of applications sent the state’s website into fits of anxiety it has not yet fully recovered from.

Many applicants are feeling even worse.

Here, as in so many other places, we feel the foundations of daily life — the state, the store, the social spaces — shaking.

Some say the state’s system was struggling before the pandemic. I interviewed journalist Alyssa Konermann, who was laid off from a job in January, about the unemployment system.

She seethed as she talked about waiting for inconsistent benefit payments.

“It was already virtually non-functioning,” she says. “I’ll make a call in, and I’ll vector through for like 20 minutes, and then it will just tell me to call back later. I’ve only ever reached someone on the phone one time out of maybe 10 attempts. I’ve only been able to successfully execute like $1,000 in claims since January. It is absolutely designed to disincentivize people from using it.”

The Politics of Pandemics

When the benefits come — for those who get them — the certainty of work can be replaced with the gift and curse of time. Time to sit at home and read about the pandemic, or time to work on the garden. There is also time now to think about our creaking health care systems, our divided politics and civics, now stretched to their limits, and about the ways in which we will all have to find solutions in this strange new reality.

Our political landscape has shifted in ways that would have seemed unimaginable just weeks before the pandemic started. Hamilton County’s eviction courts were suspended for more than a month along with other non-vital court proceedings. The county jail has cut its population of inmates by more than 400. Police are not detaining non-violent suspects — in most cases, at least — but citing and releasing them.

Gov. DeWine, a lifelong conservative not known for supporting big government, at moments in the crisis began sounding, for just a second, almost like a progressive on issues of spending public funds on health.

“I think when we come out of this, one of the lessons we are learning as a country is that we have to invest more in public health,” he said in late March. “It is not a Democrat problem, it's not a Republican problem.”

Though he has high approval ratings, not everyone is on board with DeWine and the shuttering of many of the places that people gather and work.

During Gov. DeWine’s daily briefings, an indistinct roar can be heard via the livestream. That has been a group of roughly 100 protesters outside the state house, demanding Gov. DeWine open the state back up, let people gather in bars and restaurants again, allow barbers and tattoo artists to ply their trades.

click to enlarge A vacant bar on Vine Street - Photo: Nick Swartsell
Photo: Nick Swartsell
A vacant bar on Vine Street

They’re part of a small but vocal national movement — one that has taken to the streets in many states, sometimes with signs, sometimes with rifles, snarling traffic outside state capitols and being met by health care workers in scrubs and masks silently counter-protesting.

The demonstrators, largely white, protest for access to haircuts, restaurants and the ability to work above all else, mostly untouched by police.

Meanwhile an African-American man arrested after making a viral video of a gathering at the Shell station in northern Over-the-Rhine was briefly held on $350,000 bond for felony charges related to his violation of Gov. DeWine’s stay at home order.

Conversations about race in America were already front and center for years before the pandemic, but the virus has landed another series of sparks in the middle of this and other thorny patches of America’s already smoldering political kindling.

Advocates for opening back up count among their adherents newspaper columnists, radio personalities and elected officials, including some in Ohio and other states.

In Texas, Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick summed up the mood on Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight program.

“There are more important things than living, and that’s saving this country for my children and grandchildren and saving this country for all of us,” he said. “I don’t want to die. Nobody wants to die, but man we have got to take some risks and get back in the game and get this country back up and running.”

Gov. DeWine has taken a more cautious tack, setting the state on a course to open back up gradually. Now, as we approach the middle of May, that plan is well underway. DeWine says that 90 percent of Ohio’s economy will be open as of this week.

Where all these political shifts and tensions land us is unknowable just yet.

Will the virus convince federal policymakers to revamp America’s health care system? Will states update their antiquated unemployment insurance systems, some of which are still running on COBOL, a computer program invented in the 1950s?

After entire industries shut down and global and local pollution levels dropped, will we find new ways of curbing an even greater existential threat — climate change — in the wake of the pandemic?

What will our relationship to money, work and government assistance look like after the feds have pumped billions of dollars into some of our bank accounts almost at the drop of a hat?

No one can say for sure, and if they can, they have something to sell you.

Other uncertainties are more immediate. There are limits on how much meat you can buy and there is still not always enough toilet paper or bread sometimes at grocery stores, the empty shelves reading like an immediate and frightening B-movie apocalypse signifier even as we are assured the nation’s food supply chain is robust and able to meet demand.

Less visible but more worrisome is the continued shortage of tests for the new coronavirus — something health officials say is even more a necessity as society reopens.

A woman in my neighborhood fell ill in late March and was advised by her physician she likely had the virus, but that there were not enough tests for her to get one.

Another woman on the West Side I interviewed told me she had been tested for the virus after repeated attempts to convince her doctor she was having severe trouble breathing.

“I am a wreck right now,” she told me while she waited for test results. “They originally told me two to four days. Then they said five to six and then they told me five to seven days. So at this point my quarantine is being extended even further. My anxiety is very bad.”

In the absence of enough tests, the uncertainty about what will come next stretches from the most vulnerable to the most powerful.

Spring in the Cemetery

click to enlarge Spring Grove Cemetery in late March - Photo: Nick Swartsell
Photo: Nick Swartsell
Spring Grove Cemetery in late March

And yet we are still coming together, in ways unwise and careful alike. Via video chats. In direct messages — some friendly, some thirsty, some almost desperate — on Twitter and Instagram.

And in person.

Did relative newcomers in my neighborhood hold a party on their porch wearing tuxedos? Yes. Did a lone man DJ a dance party complete with a light show for himself late one evening in Eden Park? Indeed. Did two young dudes in CUF sit on a balcony with a guitar and keyboard banging out a slow, discordant dirge for the annoyed people waiting at the bus stop below? They did.

In Camp Washington, an art gallery organized food delivery for people quarantining. On the night of the year’s largest, most dramatic full moon, I stood in the middle of a Clifton street and shouted back and forth with a woman sitting on her porch about the wonders of Venus in the night sky.

For better or worse, COVID has suspended a lot of social rules by putting some pretty bizarre but necessary new ones in place.

Toward the end of our conversation at the Newport food bank, Brighton Center’s Neri said something that I kept hearing, in one way or another, from those I’d been talking to. I had asked her, in the imprecise way I’d been asking everyone, what kind of changes would have to come after the pandemic.

“I think the relationships that we are all building because of this are what will change everything,” she said. “I like to think about systemic change all the time, it’s just sort of the way I am. But I think the only way we can have that change is by building the relationships we’re building right now.”

The weekend when spring broke through finally, people filed into Spring Grove to Instagram its improbably perfect magnolia trees and its time-worn, grand stone monuments and mausoleums. The warm, cloudless day was almost painfully beautiful; enough to make you feel guilty and grateful all at once for being alive, even if it is a kind of half-living.

We almost felt bad disturbing that moment with the grandfatherly voice of Gov. DeWine coming through the speakers of my best friend’s car. He told us that the National Guard would come bearing groceries instead of rifles. Health director Dr. Amy Acton told us again that we had to be brave, that we needed to stay inside, that we should fly the flag and flatten the curve.

We tend to idealize spring, to play it up as soft, sweet euphoria instead of the moment of painful rebirth that it is. We remember the sunny days and forget the violent storms and extreme swings in temperature, the gardens lost to unexpected frost and the flooding that claims our hillsides and occasionally, tragically, our lives.

We are in a spring right now, a tragic one full of sadness and horrible death and fear but also, hopefully, of new beginnings.

Whether our coming summer is one of plenty and peace or hot, violent and unbearable will be, to some extent, up to us.

On one of Spring Grove’s roads that first spring weekend, an older man approached my friend’s car from the opposite direction. He appeared to be scowling, unfriendly. From 10 feet away, he motioned for us to roll the window down. We complied.

“Spring is HERE,” he yelled loudly, spreading his arms wide. He didn’t need to explain further.

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