COVID-19 story by Diane Schwartz, 2020

Diane Schwartz discusses her experience with the Safer at Home social distancing measures during the spring of 2020. Diane talks about being a property owner and landlord at a time when unemployment is high and rent was not able to be collected. She discusses the preparations she underwent to make sure she would be okay financially, including taking a second job at Costco. Diane and Danny discuss the different forms of governmental assistance that is recently available to cover rental expenses.

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  • Identifier: covid19-055
    Narrator Name: Diane Schwartz
    Interviewer Name: Danny Atwater
    Date of Interview: 5/23/2020

    [00:00:00] - Start of interview
    [00:00:46] - Where are you right now, physically, mentally
    [00:01:36] - What have the last few weeks looked like for you in the context of this COVID-19 pandemic and the Safer at Home order
    [00:03:25] - What does your neighborhood look like right now
    [00:04:58] - What is it like to be a landlord during this time
    [00:06:20] - How did you first learn from your tenants that they would not be able to pay you their rent
    [00:08:31] - Introduce your furry friend
    [00:09:10] - How might the rental assistance program or eviction relief fund be able to help you or your tenants
    [00:11:16] - Will you or your tenants research the programs
    [00:13:07] - Working at Costco
    [00:15:27] - Are there news stories or images on social media that stand out to you from this time period
    [00:17:22] - What good things do you think might result from this time
    [00:19:20] - Is there anything else that you want to talk about that we haven't touched on at this point
    [00:21:03] - Should we add in the haircut story before we go
    [00:23:58] - What sorts of precautions were taken during the haircut

    Interviewer: My name is Danny Atwater and I'm a library assistant for Madison Public Library. This interview is being recorded as part of the Madison Living History Project: Stories From a Distance series. Today's date is Saturday, May 23, 2020, and this interview is being conducted via the video-conferencing software Zoom. I'll have our storyteller introduce themselves. Please tell us your first and last name and describe your connection to Madison.

    Diane Schwartz: Hi. My name is Diane Schwartz. I'm fifty-eight years old. I have lived in Madison most of my adult life; I went to school here. I grew up in Middleton, and I've owned a property on East Washington Avenue for the past sixteen years.

    Interviewer: Thanks for joining us and for being willing to share your story. Could you describe for our listeners where you are right now, physically, and mentally, how you're feeling right now.

    Diane Schwartz: I am in my living room. How am I feeling? I feel pretty good today. It's a beautiful day. It's May, so I can't complain. I always have a little bit of anxiety these days. I'm not sure what that's all about, but I do go to work at my second job today at Costco, so that could have something to do with it. I'm kind of hoping it does start to rain later because I'm going to be inside most of the day. But I'm just looking forward to talking with you and about this project.

    Interviewer: Great. Thank you for sharing that, and we'll definitely want to dive into your work and some of the things that you do. But I'm just curious, in general, what have the last few weeks looked like for you in the context of this COVID-19 pandemic and the Safer at Home order?

    Diane Schwartz: Well, what it looks like for me is I have a job with the State of Wisconsin, so I've been working from home. I have a basement office, which is not that attractive (laughs). But that's where I've been working and since the middle of probably—I don't know if it was late March, you know, kind of when this all hit the fan—I've also picked up a part-time job working at Costco, working ten hours a week, just to provide a little extra income while this has all been going on. So in addition to my full time job, I've been spending ten hours a week there over the last couple weeks. I spend as much time as I can outside. I still go for walks. I still have been seeing some friends; we do outdoor things. We don't do anything indoors. That's gone. (laughs) That's been gone. But I do go for walks with people, so that's a big part of my day is getting outside, to get some fresh air and get some exercise. So that's—you know, it's basically working, getting outside. I am looking for new tenants on my properties, so I've been spending a lot of time showing the property, to get new tenants. So that's a big part of what I've been doing the last two weeks.

    Interviewer: You mentioned walking around outside, and I just want to get to that real quick because it is such a beautiful May day. What does your neighborhood look like right now?

    Diane Schwartz: Well, right, today it's gorgeous. Everything is blooming. It's, you know, about 70 degrees. It's a great time to get outside. I walk. My neighbors have dogs, so I spend a lot of time in the dog parks, and that's always a fun place to go to enjoy the outdoors. I enjoy dogs a lot. I don't have a dog, but I enjoy dogs, and that gives me a lot of joy to go to the dog park and watch the dogs running around and having fun, and that's really helped to lift my spirits since I can't really do much. There's so few activities that we can do nowadays.

    Oh, and the one thing I did (laughs), that I did in the last two weeks is that I did get my hair cut. I drove to Sauk City where things are open already. We're opening up next week, but I just couldn't stand it anymore. (laughs) So I felt a little defiant by crossing the border to get my hair cut at a salon that was open in Sauk City, so I—you know, what can you do? (laughs)

    Interviewer: Better than taking out the clippers and giving yourself a buzz cut, right?

    Diane Schwartz: I was not willing to do that, right? I had clipped my bangs several weeks ago, but it was getting ridiculous, and I just couldn't stand it anymore, so.

    Interviewer: You mentioned doing some showings on a rental property. I'm curious what it's like to be a landlord during this time.

    Diane Schwartz: Well, it's interesting. Not a whole lot has changed. I'm still showing it. Some people want video showings, or virtual showings, so I've been willing to do that. I do require people to wear a mask if they have it. If they don't, we just—it's okay, too. That's about the only thing that's changed, and of course there's the issue of income nowadays. You know, my tenants are currently not working as much as they were, and income is not coming in—you know, they're behind in rent. So, that's an added twist; I've never had that happen before, and so I have had to explore all the various—you know, am I going to evict? Am I going to—what am I going to do? How, what, what do you do when people don't pay rent? It's never happened to me before. So that's something that's really different. Hold on, just one second. I've got to let my cat in. There. All right. I'm back.

    Interviewer: Okay. How did you first learn from your tenants that they would not be able to pay you their rent?

    Diane Schwartz: Well, in March, like March 23, or whenever the governor's Stay at Home order came through. I was at work when I heard about it, and I just had a sinking feeling in my stomach when that happened that my tenants lost—that they were going to lose their jobs. I don't know why, but I did, and I reached out to them by text, and I asked them if they still, you know, if they heard about the Safer at Home order and if they still had their jobs, and at that time they told me they had both lost their jobs. One works in food service, so of course she lost her job, and the other one works in construction, and he lost his job, too. Just like that. Gone. So, that was the point at which I was like, oh, that's (laughs) interesting. That's at the point at which I took my lunch hour that day to apply to Costco because I was like, well, what am I going to do? I knew that I would still probably be okay, if I didn't get a second job. (cat meows) You know, I would probably be okay, (cat meows) but I felt uneasy. (cat meows) I just felt uneasy; I didn't really want to dip into savings (cat meows) or anything like that, so I applied to Costco. I had an interview, like, the next day, and they hired me, like, within fifteen minutes. That was at the peak of the mad rush, (cat meows) where people were (cat meows) buying toilet paper, and they were just, they were just swamped. They wanted me to start right away, (laughs) and I'm like, No, I—like, right at the interview, they were like, "Well, do you want to start now?" and I’m like, No, I can't! But, yeah, that's how crazy it was there.

    Interviewer: We should talk more about Costco, but I know our listeners can hear a furry friend who has just joined us, so if you could introduce your furry friend, so that they know who this is.

    Diane Schwartz: Oh, yes. Buddy. This is Buddy, and he's very vocal, and he's in my lap, so hopefully he'll be quiet. (laughs) But, yes, Buddy is about a thirteen-year-old male black cat, and he's very vocal.

    Interviewer: Well, nice to meet you, Buddy. We definitely heard you (laughs) when you announced your presence in the room, so we'd better acknowledge him.

    Diane Schwartz: Yes, he definitely doesn't like to go unnoticed. (laughs)

    Interviewer: (laughs) All right, well, we'll keep him on during the interview, and if he has anything interesting to say, we can cut to him. I'm curious, Diane—and this is something we talked about just briefly before the interview—earlier in the week, Governor Tony Evers announced that there would be a $25 million Wisconsin rental assistance program, and then just another day ago, Dane County announced that there would be a $10 million eviction relief fund. And so I'm wondering—it sounds like that could be a source of assistance for either you or your tenants, and I'm curious if—this is very new information—but I'm curious if there's anything that you know about it, and how it might be able to help the situation that you described.

    Diane Schwartz: Yeah, I heard about both of those programs, but I think you know about as much as I do. I haven't seen any applications or who can apply, whether it's the landlord who can apply, whether it's the tenant that can apply. I would assume that could be very helpful. And I'm glad that it's going to be available, because I know that I'm not the only one who's in this situation, and I know that my tenants aren't the only ones. This is a massive crisis. I mean, so many people lost their jobs. We're at—I don't know what the unemployment rate is, but I know that it's as high as it was during the Depression. So, it's just a lot of people are out of work, and I know that I'm probably not in as worse a situation as some people are because I'm still working; I still have a job. You know, there are people who don't have jobs and so, I think, I look forward to hearing more about the programs and how you can apply. That, I think that's the next step.

    Interviewer: Is that something, will you research yourself and get information to your tenants, or do you hope that they will do it on their end and then come to you?

    Diane Schwartz: Well, theoretically they should be doing this on their own. (laughs) I don't like being parental to my tenants. That's not my job. My job is to collect the rent and take care of the property. Their job is to pay the rent. So I, at this point, am not going to be sending them information. You know, I guess, you know, it's their job to pay the rent. And they have social media just like I do, so I'm—this news is pretty widespread, so I have faith that they will take advantage of the program if it's something that they—you know, if they think that it can help them. And of course if I can apply, then I will apply. But my sense is that it will be the tenants that—because they're the ones that are behind in the rent, not me, so I'm thinking that they're the ones that are going to have to apply. Because what I've read is that the money is going to go directly to the landlord; it's not going to go to the tenant and then the tenant pays the landlord. The money is going to go directly to the landlord. So that's kind of what I'm thinking is going to happen, but again, we’ve got to wait until all the information comes out before, you know, before anyone can apply.

    Interviewer: Let's jump back to Costco a little bit because working in a retail environment in this time is perhaps a stressful thing.

    Diane Schwartz: (laughs) Yeah.

    Interviewer: (laughs) Right?

    Diane Schwartz: It's weird.

    Interviewer: Tell us about working at Costco, just picking up a new part-time job two months ago.

    Diane Schwartz: Yeah, it's not exactly my dream job, let's put it—(laughs) I mean, I wrote about it. I'm not entirely sure why I thought Costco. That I should get—why, you know, why Costco? Well, I shop there. I like the store. They're good to their employees, so I applied there. I'm a seasonal employee, so I don't get any benefits. I just work there ten hours a week. I work the front end. So if you've ever been to Costco, I'm one of the people who puts your groceries into the cart, (laughs) or I'm cleaning, or folding clothing in that crazy clothing department where it's just all these big giant tables of clothing, and people just mess them up, and it's not a glamorous job, let's put it that way. (laughs) It's just a pretty—it's the kind of job you just do, and you come home and, you know, you get your paycheck. But right now, it's providing that little extra security while we get through this period. They are paying—they pay fifteen dollars an hour, and they've been paying a two-dollar hazard pay for the last couple months. So the wages are pretty good for a part-time job, and they are—it is a pretty decent place to work. People are pretty nice, they provide—you know, everybody has to wear a mask; customers and staff have to wear masks all the time—so they really do take care of their customers, and I feel like they take care of us. Every time I start a shift, they have a checklist that we have to go through. You know, have we been around somebody with COVID? Have we traveled? And then we have an option to take our temperature to see if we have a fever. And I, I've been doing that, just for my own sake because, you know, everybody hears that you can be asymptomatic, and I thought, well, maybe I have a fever and I don't even know it. So I do have them take my temperature every time I go in.

    Interviewer: I'm curious if there are news stories or images that you've seen on social media that really stand out to you from this time period, like when you look back, what is it that you think will stand out to you?

    Diane Schwartz: Well, the things that are the most interesting, slash disturbing, are the political ramifications of all of this. People have become polarized around how to best prepare. I mean, on the one hand you've got people who think this is all a hoax and don't want to wear a mask. They feel like that's a threat to their freedom, and then you have people who are still—like I talked to a friend yesterday, and she basically hasn't gone to a store since this started, and works in her yard, but she's had pickup—picked up groceries, has not set foot in a store, has not set foot anywhere since this all broke out, and probably is not going to be changing her habits for a while. So there's such a diverse reaction to this, and I find that a little disheartening because wearing a mask has become kind of a political statement, and it really shouldn't be. It's just a good precaution to take when you're out and about when there's a deadly virus. But that's exactly what it's become. So I've been following that, and it'll be interesting to see how things unfold. I've been following what other—what's happening in other states that have opened up earlier. Are we going to see a second wave of this thing happening? You know, there's just a lot of stuff going on that I've been following.

    Interviewer: What good things do you think might result from our learning during this time?

    Diane Schwartz: Well, I've seen a lot of really good things come out of it. You know, there's always people who are willing to volunteer. There's countless people who've been making masks, people who just like stepped up and started making PPE, personal protective equipment. Just regular people making masks and giving them away for free. My neighbor started sewing gowns, isolation gowns, and has been giving them away, and she's been doing this for several weeks now. So there's just a lot of really kind and caring people who have stepped up to fill in where there are gaps. I think that's always what happens when there's a crisis, and it's always heartening to see that, so I've been trying to focus on those things. And I think, ultimately, we will get through it. There's been a lot of generosity in the community, a lot of funds set up to help people pay for groceries, pay for—like, I belong to a group called—I think it's called Dane County People Helping Other People, and I donated—somebody posted that they didn't have enough money for groceries this weekend, and I sent somebody twenty bucks. And other people are, you know, helping them out with groceries. So a lot of groups like that have started; that has been really heartening to see that there's a lot of people who are willing to help other people. It's good to focus on that because that's very positive.

    Interviewer: Is there anything else that you want to talk about that we haven't touched on at this point?

    Diane Schwartz: Well, I want to give you an up-to-date. My tenants—one of my tenants, the man who works in construction, he did go back to work. So, I should share that. And he has been paying some rent. He's still behind in rent, and I don't know if he will be able to make—you know, he's still, like, $425 behind, but rent is due on the first, so then that rent is due. So he's behind for the month of May, $425, but June rent is due, you know, next week. So, he's doing better because he's back to work but they're still behind. So I just want to give you that update, and I still don't know what I'm going to do about that. Like, I don't know if I'll just take the extra money out of their security deposit when they leave, or how I'm going to get that back rent back, or if they'll apply for the grants—from the one from the state or the county or something like that, you know. That part is still uncertain.

    Interviewer: Thank you for adding that in. Diane, I really appreciate you taking the time to share your story with us today.

    Diane Schwartz: Thank you! Well, I really enjoyed it, and I'll look forward to hearing other people's stories as well.

    Interviewer: Thank you.

    Diane Schwartz: I could also tell the story of me getting my hair cut. (laughs)

    Interviewer: Should we add that in before we go here?

    Diane Schwartz: Do you want to?

    Interviewer: Yeah.

    Diane Schwartz: Yeah, I think this is relevant. I've written about it in my journal because it’s—there are some interesting aspects to it.

    Interviewer: Yeah, haircuts—

    (crosstalk) Diane Schwartz: If you have time I can share it briefly.

    Interviewer: Haircuts are a thing. Let's hear it about it.

    Diane Schwartz: They are. Well, last week—I think it was Tuesday—I decided to get my hair cut. That was when the Supreme Court shot down our Stay at Home order. That meant that every county in the state of Wisconsin could operate under their own rules about what could open and what could not open. So Dane County was still shut down, but Sauk County was open. And my hair was looking pretty gnarly, and (laughs) so I got this idea that I should go get my hair cut in Sauk County. And so I started calling around, and I found a little one-woman shop who was able to get me in right away. So I made an appointment and went to Sauk County to get my hair cut and, originally, had posted on Facebook that I was going to do this. And I got a number of responses, like, "Are you sure?" "Do you feel safe?" and "Oh, my God! (laughs) You traitor!" So I deleted that. I decided I didn't need the scrutiny of other people criticizing my decision to cross the border into Sauk County to get my hair cut. And, yeah, so, I did that, and I calculated that in Sauk County, the rate of infection is one-tenth of one percent of people in Sauk County have gotten COVID, and in Dane County, it's two-tenths of one percent of people have gotten COVID, so even as contagious as this is, it's still really, really low risk for me, a healthy white woman, to be out there. Still taking precautions, of course, but the odds of me getting—it's probably greater odds of me getting in a car accident than it is of me getting COVID-19 right now, so (laughs) anyway. So, I did get a cut, and I'm glad I did. (laughs)

    Interviewer: What sort of preventative, or, you know, what precautions were taken during the haircut?

    Diane Schwartz: Oh, yes, well she wore a mask and gloves, and I wore a mask. There was also an outward facing fan blowing, so the windows were open, and there was a—it was a beautiful day, so it was well-ventilated, and there was an outward blowing fan. Which is what I'm sure, you know, when my stylist—I've got an appointment for June eleventh with my regular stylist here in town, and I'm sure that those are the same precautions that she's going to have to have when I go back to see her, is that I'll be in a mask, and she'll be in a mask, and it'll be the same deal. So, I lived to tell the tale of getting my hair cut in Sauk County. (laughs)

    Interviewer: Well, I'm glad we got that on record here before we left, so, thank you. Diane, again, I want to thank you for your time and for sharing your story.

    Diane Schwartz: You're welcome! Thank you for the opportunity. I really appreciate it.