COVID-19 story by Beth Sluys, 2020

Beth Sluys describes her experience working as an environmental advocate during the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting social distance measures. Beth talks about the impact of the pandemic on her household, including her husband, who works in the railroad industry, and on her neighborhood on the north side of Madison.

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    Interviewer: Hello. My name is Andres Torres. I'm here with Stories From a Distance, part of the Living History Project. Today is Monday, May 18, 2020, and now I'm going to let the narrator introduce themselves.

    Narrator: My name is Beth Sluys, and I am a recent resident of Madison of about three years, and I live on the north side of Madison.

    Interviewer: Hello, Beth. Nice to have you here.Thanks for being with us.

    Narrator: Thank you.

    Interviewer: So what I'm going to ask you today is to just kind of share a little bit of your experience of the Covid-19 Safer at Home order and how the last few weeks have looked for you.

    Narrator: Sure, ah, well, it has, Covid has, really, what I can say is it has impacted my life in every single aspect of my life. (laughs) That's the best way I can describe it. I'm a community conservation activist and an advocate. And I have been working with a–forming a group called The Friends of Hartmeyer Natural Area, and it's a property, it's around a thirty acre parcel on the north side on the corner of Roth and Sherman Street. And I'm a birder; I've been a life-long birder, and I started noticing this property because of the bird life I would see there when I would be out and about walking, pre-Covid really, and there are often sandhill cranes, which are my favorite bird, that nest there every season. So this year in particular there is a special area planning process going on happening right now with the city of Madison and so there is an effort by this Friends group to conserve all thirty acres of this privately owned property and have the city take it on and to create a nature conservancy where people can go and hang out and see birds and take their kids there to learn about, you know, wildlife, and just have a green space along a pretty seriously previously industrial site. It's just adjacent to the old Oscar Meyer facility there.

    So, as a result, the Covid stepped in, sort of mid-March, we were looking at having a bunch of public meetings and meeting with people and it has just transformed the way in which one can do advocacy work and, you know, a lot of the people that are in this Friends group are older or elderly, I would say–not all of them; there's a lot of young people, too, but the older people, it's harder to get them to make that transition to using technology. But we've all been learning about Zoom meetings and WebX meetings and ways in which we can navigate these waters that are so new to all of us, really. So at this point in time we've gotten pretty good about meeting online and also recognizing the importance of showing up at city-hosted meetings also and continuing to speak out; albeit, it has changed the way in which we can advocate in a significant way. Like, I had a conversation this morning with somebody talking about making a paper flyer. You know, back in the day, pre-Covid, you would make flyers and posters. You could go to the library and put things up. Well, they're all closed. All the local restaurants with bulletin boards, they're all closed. So, it really has forced us to become more tech-savvy in many ways. We do have a Facebook page for Friends of Hartmeyer Natural Area. So that has become something that I've kind of taken on administering, I think that's the word, and we have people taking photos, etcetera. So I think we're learning, as we go, some of the challenges we're facing.

    In addition, my husband and I moved here at the end of 2016. He is a lifelong railroad employee with the Wisconsin Southern Railroad. He was born with railroading in his blood. You know, as a young kid he would–he grew up in Sauk City and would see the trains and go crazy. So he has, his whole life, worked for the railroad and his life has also changed in that I have asthma and I don't feel safe going out into highly populated areas, really, right now especially now that there's–not everybody wears a mask in stores or out in public spaces, so he has taken on, you know, the role of going out and doing some of the critical shopping for us and I just appreciate that. But it also has influenced my connecting with my neighbors. I have great neighbors here in my neighborhood. But, you know, I can't–I like to give baked goods and things and, you know, I give treats to their dogs and now I'm always hesitant to, like, to do that with my neighbors (laughs) which sounds silly but you know you never know. But we do social distance at the curb. Last fall I planted a bunch of big, huge yellow daffodils along the front there by the sidewalk just thinking it would be fun, and, God, it was just great this spring they all bloomed and, you know, people would stop and if I was sitting on my front porch they would say something like, "Oh, this is so neat," so, I mean, it was just a nice little way to give back, like, a little sparkle, you know.

    Things like that, you know, I find now that the small things of life have become things that I really no longer take for granted at all. Our godson moved to Arizona last year with his parents who we deeply love, and he always comes for like three weeks in the summer. Well, it's killing us because he's going to be 16 this year, and he can't come for summer, you know. We taught him how to paddle board up at Devil's Lake, and, you know, so it's impacting us in ways that we really could never have even imagined, you know. Going to local restaurants, supporting them. We have a new local florist here on the north side–Nelly's Flower Shop. Trying to figure out ways to support her business. Yeah, it's just been a complete turnaround in how you get things done and try to be creative and trying to stay optimistic and hopeful–That, I think, that for a lot of my friends at this point. I've got several friends that–we have agreed to do–I get to host–-ooh! Zoom meetings on Wednesday mornings with my two friends now because we used to meet in a cafe on the north side. You know, now we can't do that. But they both have, you know, figured it out with me and now we meet on Zoom and so (sighs) yeah, there's a lot.

    Interviewer: Yeah, we're figuring out new ways of doing business and pleasure at the same time.

    Narrator: Yeah, and recognizing the importance of the connections, like you don't want to lose those connections, and it takes a little bit more work now to stay connected with people than, you know, before and it's just a different way of connecting. I mean I'm a real tactile, I like to touch, I like to, you know, see people's faces, and so having this versus just talking on the phone is a great opportunity to be able to at least see my friend's faces or my godson's face, you know. And my husband's mom, who is another aspect, is in a nursing home up in Lodi, which is about a half-hour from us. And we would, he would go up every weekend and see her, and we'd go up together, and now we can't do that. So we now are actually–she is now Zoom calling–well, we do it on Skype–with us, and it's like the Beth and Dave TV show (laughs). She has early dementia, so it's a little confusing for her at times, but it also has been a great way to help her, you know, rather than going outside of her window–I think that would confuse her to see us there and not come in to see her, but seeing us on the TV and it allows us to talk about how this flu, you know quote-unquote flu, is keeping us apart but we can still see one another. She seeing his face gives her such comfort. So, you know, it's–I would say every single aspect of my life has been impacted.

    Interviewer: Yeah, that's something that's come up in a lot of conversations, is, you know, What if this happened before the internet, you know, before we had this technology that's allowing all this communication.

    Narrator: Yeah, I'm a big–I love writing letters, and I have just a few people left in my life–one of them is a lifelong quilt master. She's an amazing quilter who lives in Azle, Texas named Flora ”Butch” McManus. She has made the most magnificent quilts, and I still write her letters. I write her letters now more than ever because that's our mode of communication and she lives alone, so–

    Interviewer; Yeah

    Narrator: You know, letters are important, too. And sending little packages. I send little packages and hope that, you know, just keep them simple

    Interviewer: Yep, those old ways of communication still work just as well as they used to.

    Narrator: (Laughs) Yeah! Well, I grew up in a household–My mom was a big a–well, I would call her a Hallmark mother. She loved sending Hallmark cards, you know, and she was a big letter writer. And she hated doing email but she did do it. But, I mean, she was a bank secretary in her lifetime and she learned shorthand, so her letters were–you'd get a letter and they were sort of longhand/shorthand (laughs). Oh God. So, yeah, you have to, you have to get creative, you know.

    Interviewer: Yeah. I have another question for you. I just wanted to ask you about, kind of, the time leading up to the Safer at Home order and if you feel like you had, if you were prepared, or if it kind of took you by surprise and caught you off guard? How was that time kind of leading up to the Safer at Home order for you?

    Narrator: I can say that we, you know, were pretty information savvy. We understood, you know, that things were unfolding in China when we first found out about it early in the year. We were both concerned. I, actually, at one point, there's a thing called a Ninja Science Nerd and I watched the video of the Ninja Science Nerd because when I heard this virus impacted your lung capacity, and having been in the hospital as a three-year-old for a severe asthma–I was in, like, an oxygen tent for a week in the hospital as a three-year-old–I immediately went back to that memory. It was powerful, and so I thought I'd better learn everything I can learn about this bug that was out there anyway–not a lot, but there was some–-but I'm aware that by–I want to say like into March–yeah, I felt that there was a shift in how I started to do things. Like I was less–I'm a big walker; I was inclined to go out less and less and less.

    Interviewer: Yeah.

    Narrator: And once the, you know, the public sources of information really started feeding information to us, you know, my husband and I had a very serious conversation about my fear and about continuing to live well, as well as we can. And the things that he would pick up in the–-during this time. So he's been great. He's been doing the groceries, he comes home. Every day after work–he's essential, working for the railroad–-he comes home, gets down to his skivvies in the garage, throws it in a bag, you know, trying and then takes a shower, so it has shifted, it has shifted.

    Interviewer: Well, it's good to hear that you are taking those precautions.

    Narrator: Yeah, I mean mostly what I can say is my great disappointment in the politicization of a public health situation and the impact that has had on people's outlook on this highly contagious disease we're facing.

    Interviewer: It's kind of mind-boggling isn't it?

    Narrator: It's extremely painful to live in a time when we need strong leadership and a cohesive message and we're just not getting it. And I appreciate Gov. Evers and all that he's doing in trying to steer a strong ship in a really bad storm.

    Interviewer: Yes, I agree. Well, thank you, Beth, so much for being with us. Is there anything else that you'd like to elaborate on or anything else that you'd like to share with us today?

    Narrator: Well, just that I'm hopeful that we can pull through this and not forget about it but also learn from it.

    Interviewer: Yeah, wise words. Thank you so much, Beth.

    Narrator: Thank you, and good luck with the rest of the project.

    Interviewer: Thanks.