Danny Atwater shares his experiences working as a multi-site library assistant at Madison Public Library during the lead-up to the Safer at Home social distancing measures, and what work looks like during the library buildings' closures. Danny shares about the process for decision making to cancel Perfect Harmony Men's Chorus' large-scale annual fundraiser.
COVID-19 story by Daniel Atwater, 2020
Narrator Name: Danny Atwater
Interviewer Name: Tyler Furo
Date of interview: 4/22/2020
[00:00:03] The narrator will introduce himself and his connection to Madison
[00:01:20] What was your experience with work at the library when everything started happening in terms of the coronavirus?
[00:05:48] What happened with the choir you’re a part of, and the concert you had in March 2020?
[00:16:25] Is there anything else you’d like to share?
[START OF RECORDING]
Interviewer: Hi everyone. My name is Tyler Furo. I work for Madison Public Library, and this is part of the Living History Project’s Stories from a Distance. I’m here today with Danny Atwater, who is also an employee of Madison Public Library. Danny, welcome. You want to go ahead and introduce yourself and maybe just say something about what your connection is to Madison.
Danny Atwater: Thank you, Tyler. Again, my name is Danny Atwater, and I am a Library Assistant for Madison Public Library. Specifically, I’m a Multisite Library Assistant, which means that I move around to the different Madison library locations on an as-needed basis. My connection to Madison is that—I actually grew up in Middleton till I was ten, moved away for a little bit, and then I’ve been living back in Madison since I graduated Whitewater; that would have been 2006. I work for the City of Madison as a library employee, and then I’m also part of a large community organization which is actually a men’s chorus called Perfect Harmony Men’s Choir.
Interviewer: Great! Danny, I was wondering if, first, you would tell us a little bit about your experience with work at the library when everything started happening in terms of the coronavirus—information coming out, and the potential closure of the library that did go through. If you could just tell us what your experience was with that.
Danny Atwater: Yeah, I was trying to think back, sort of a timeline, as to when coronavirus started to get onto our collective radar. I feel like that was in February, late February. I think then is when a lot of library staff started doing really general things, like increasing the number of times that we either wash our hands or use hand sanitizer. I know for me, I tried to do that pretty regularly. Also, any time I went to a different computer station—which is often, because we don’t have our own desks—anytime I touched a new keyboard or mouse, I cleaned it off first. The same thing with the phone. We had Clorox-type wipes, and I would just wipe off the keyboard and the mouse and the phone. That practice just continued. Then, I want to say early March, the library started getting on board with some sanitary practices like distributing a public hand sanitizer station to each location, and also making sure that staff had enough wipes to wipe things down. It just kind of generally continued to increase.
I can remember the last day that I worked was Friday, March 13th, and I was working at Sequoya Library. I was scheduled for a half shift that day because that night I had a choir program scheduled, and we can talk about that in a little bit. I remember working that morning and early afternoon, and emails were kind of flying back and forth related to the coronavirus, and what best practices should be—if we should start wiping down public computer keyboards and mice. And the public telephones—whether we should allow the public to continue to use those, or if that was unsafe, and if we would be taking that away. It was lots of communications that kept flying around during that time.
Friday I had a half day, and then I was off that weekend, and—I’m trying to recall if I stayed home sick on Monday, I want to say. I can’t quite recall. By Tuesday, the order came down that we would be closing down the library. That weekend, I was very much in touch with my coworkers, just to see what the general feeling was like at the library, and what was going on. The new Pinney Library had just had its grand opening, and so they were seeing such increased traffic there. I was in communication with people who were working there and what it was like.
Saturday night, I want to say, I wrote a letter to the library board indicating I felt it was unhealthy for the library to remain open. I laid out my perspective on that. I know that a number of other staff were writing to our management and the library board, and some people to the Mayor as well, to try to get things shut down.
Interviewer: Great, yeah, thank you for sharing that, Danny. You had mentioned having a concert that Friday night for your choir, Perfect Harmony Chorus. Can you tell us a little bit more about what happened with that and what happened with your choir you’re a part of?
Danny Atwater: Yeah, I’ve been a member of Perfect Harmony Men’s Chorus. This is my ninth season with the chorus—so a very long time. I sing second tenor with the chorus and I’m also involved in various leadership capacities in terms of different committees, things like that. Perhaps my biggest recurring role is to be the overall leader for our cabaret fundraiser event. So what that means is I’m coordinating the work of many other people to help make sure this event takes place. Our cabaret fundraiser is our biggest annual fundraiser so it’s very important to us. What it is is a cabaret-style show that we put on, and we also have a silent auction and a raffle. There’s hors d'oeuvres and desserts. So it’s a really large event and it takes dozens of people to put it together. To pull this show off, it usually means that we’ve been planning for about a year to make sure that the event can take place.
On Thursday, March 12th, my partner called me after I got off from work. I was working at Hawthorne that day—it’s funny how these memories kind of sit with you, because on a regular day I wouldn’t be able to tell you where I had worked the previous day, just because it all mushes together, but these memories lock in there. So I had just gotten off of work at Hawthorne and he called me right after my shift, and I was sitting in the Hawthorne parking lot and we were just talking on the phone for a long time. He was saying how he had been hearing more about coronavirus concerns and that he had just listened to a news conference with a well-known doctor that his friend had sent to him. My partner was saying that he was really beginning to think this thing could blow at any time, so he was encouraging me as the leader of this event to consider closing it down. This was something that my leadership team and I had been in discussions about all week. Obviously coronavirus was on our radar at the time, and certain events were starting to get canceled here and there, but it wasn’t that wide-spread at the time. On Wednesday night, we had even sent out an email to our audience who had bought tickets saying, “We’re keeping an eye on the CDC and health practices. At this time we’re going to continue with the event for Friday and Saturday.” It was a two-night event. That went out Wednesday, and so our plan was full steam ahead.
After talking to my partner about it and him really relaying his concerns to me, it helped solidify my position on it. I had mixed feelings about it, in terms of what it could mean, and that helped solidify my position. So I got home and I began contacting various leaders within the chorus, just via text, taking their temperature to see where they were at with everything. It wasn’t my sole decision to make; it’s really the decision of the organization. So I wanted to see where people were at with it, and it allowed people to express their concerns as well. Most people had been in agreement with the full steam ahead, we’re going to do the show. But when I reached out to them individually, they were saying, “Yeah, I’m having concerns about this too, and I don’t know what that means, but I’m concerned.”
I was starting to get enough information from individuals that I sent an email to our leadership committee, which is all the committee chairs, and then to our board of directors. I just laid out the fact that this seems to be getting more serious. After asking individuals, it sounds like they are concerned as well, and I think we might need to reconsider our position as an organization and perhaps not go forward with this event for this weekend. I spent probably from 7pm till about midnight totally connected to my phone, either texting, emailing, or having phone calls with various people within the organization, and by about midnight, we had made the very difficult decision to pull the plug on this. And it was difficult because, again, this is our largest annual fundraiser, not only the monetary aspect of it but, as far as a performance goes, the performers have been putting in work since November, so four months of really hard work and preparation, hours and hours of rehearsal time. So it was not easy to make that decision. But by midnight, we decided to do that, and so we put together an email and sent it out to our audience members saying, “Look, we know yesterday we told you the event was going on, but today we’re here to tell you that it’s not.”
I think that was an opportunity for our organization to act as a leader in the community. Then, the next day, Friday the 13th, everything started to get canceled. Everything. I’m on a lot of email lists for the Overture and the Majestic and High Noon, and I was just getting a barrage of emails. This event’s canceled; this is canceled; that’s canceled. Hour by hour and day by day, more and more cancellations were coming in, and that really helped reassure me that we had made the right decision to cancel our fundraiser event. It still feels a little emotional talking about it, because it’s something we worked very hard on.
Choir right now is obviously also canceled. At first we were meeting and considering the possibility of postponing our cabaret show and running it at the end of May. Nobody knew what the timeline would be like on this thing. We had our regular spring concert scheduled for the end of May. We thought, well, we can just plug our cabaret show in there, and that would be that. As the days and weeks continued, we determined that, no, we’re not going to be able to have our cabaret event and we’re not going to be able to have our spring concert at all. Our rehearsals were canceled indefinitely. Even our rehearsal space was closed off to us, because we rehearse at Capitol Lakes retirement community, and so as a retirement community, they were very concerned about their residents, so they had canceled all outside events anyway, so we were a choir without a home anyway. Now we didn’t have any reason to continue to rehearse, so that was that.
Also, in terms of the chorus, in July, we were scheduled to have our gala music festival, which is an international festival that happens every four years, sort of on the Olympics’ summer schedule. It’s kind of the Olympics of gay and lesbian choirs. And so we were scheduled to have a week in Minneapolis where we would come together. There’s typically about 6,500 people from around the world who come together and sing with their choirs. It quickly became very apparent that holding an international festival in July after a world-wide pandemic would not be happening. That has also been postponed at this point, officially now. For a few weeks it was just talk, but it’s official now that that’s been postponed until next summer. So that again is another thing that is something that I have been looking forward to for four years, and it’s really hard to try to let that go. I know that it’ll be there a year from now, but it’s still a really big, big bummer.
Interviewer: Absolutely. It sounds like you had some challenges to face. Thank you for sharing that, Danny. I think we’re going to wrap up here. Is there anything we didn’t touch on that you’d like to talk about, any experiences you’d like to share that we didn’t get to?
Danny Atwater: Those have been the big things. The canceling of my choir event was the major kickoff for me to this whole coronavirus thing. Since then, I’ve been able to work at home. The library has been incredibly supportive of efforts for us to work at home. There are a variety of things that we are all able to do. It started out as a lot of professional development, which meant a lot of paths of learning: watching webinars, things like that. Then it started to transition to different work groups. Those groups were tasked with different things that we wouldn’t normally have the time to do in our daily jobs, but now we had the time to do it, so let’s sit down and talk about these things and flesh them out.
At first, it was grueling the first couple of weeks, trying to get my work hours in. I was so grateful to have a job that was keeping me on, and, at the same time, it was like beating my head against the wall because of how frustrating it was, because it was so different. Now, five weeks in, I am busier than ever. I don’t have—I don’t feel like I have time to do all the things I’m supposed to be doing, all the different projects and committees, and different things I’m supposed to be learning. It’s a challenge to fit it all in each day now. I’m happier now that I’ve settled into a work routine like that. That’s been interesting.
Daily life has been kind of surreal. I feel a little bit adrift. But it’ll be okay if we all just keep doing what we’re supposed to do: stay home, not be around each other. Then we should be able to beat this thing.
Interviewer: I think that’s a wonderful note to end on. Thank you so much, Danny.
Danny Atwater: Thanks, Tyler. I appreciate it.
[END OF RECORDING]