Erica Hainz describes working at the Central Library on the day before the Safer at Home order went into effect in Madison, Wisconsin on March 17, 2020. Erica describes working as an election worker assisting with curbside voting on Election Day for the presidential primary election.
COVID-19 story by Erica Hainz, 2020
Narrator Name: Erica Hainz
Interviewer Name:Laura Damon-Moore
Date of interview: March 17, 2020
[00:00:36] - Experiences just prior to Safer at Home shutdown
[00:06:06] - The library closes
[00:08:46] - Apartment hunting as Safer at Home is announced
[00:10:34] - Working from home
[00:11:40] - Working the polls during spring election
[00:15:30] - Polling communication difficulties
[00:16:48] - Central library as a polling place
[00:21:51] - The neighborhood vibe
[00:23:06] - Wrapping up/Feeling fortunate
[00:24:37] - Positive impact on social life
[00:26:13] - Thanks for sharing
Interviewer: My name is Laura Damon-Moore. I am here today on Friday, April 17, 2020 recording for the Living History project for Stories from a Distance. I am going to have our narrator introduce themselves now and tell us their connection to Madison.
Erica Hainz: My name is Erica Hainz. I live in Madison, and I work for Central public library. And do I just dive in?
Interviewer: Sure thing. Yeah, Erica, if you could tell us your COVID-19, Safer at Home pandemic story. Whatever, whatever you want to share today.
Erica Hainz: Sure, yeah, I mean definitely going into this I was one of those people where, you know, people were shutting down events. Like there was a weekly fun club that a friend of mine hosts and he canceled that, and I am, like, that seems like an over-reaction. Yeah, there’s a couple cases in New York, but who cares? And then a week or two later a big, much anticipated party in my friend group got canceled and I’m like, “Aw, this sucks.” That was, I think, the Friday before Safer at Home went into effect, and at that point it was like, oh it sucks but, you know, it’s probably okay. Like at that point we had three cases in Wisconsin. So it was, okay, it makes sense to want, maybe, be on the side of caution but I was, (laughs) like, I hope we don’t quarantine too soon and then run out of stamina on it. At that point, I had just no concept of what we were headed into. I was afraid that people were going to quarantine for a week or two and be, like, I can’t handle it anymore and that we were all going to go off into the world right when stuff was starting to get real.
And then, you know, working over that weekend at the greenhouse store and we were only allowed ten people in the store at any point in time and we were trying to keep everybody six feet apart from one another. Which if you have ever been inside the Madison Greenhouse Store it is puny. (laughs) And, like, especially over the weekends the manager ended up telling a few people not to come in because, you know, with three employees then you can only have a top of seven customers.
And then I went into kind of that Monday and I was working at the library and I was really worried about going in, because I was, like, oh god, especially as a security monitor, it is just going to be so hard trying to keep people social distancing when it really just wasn’t practical and especially to start out with there was hardly anyone in the library, so that wasn’t terrible.
But as the day went on we got just full of people, full of people, and we were making accommodations throughout the day. So, right away when I came in I was informed security monitors are cleaning the study rooms after each use. So, cool, okay, will do. The print copy pages were supposed to—I forget what they were supposed to do. I know Amanda ended up cleaning, trying to clean the computers, the physical PC’s after each and every use. Which is kind of insane to try to keep track of that all. And just everyone was so tense. And Sean started putting down tape lines so people would know how far back to stand from the desks. Which was also super weird because, you know, especially for circ you can’t do anything. Like it doesn’t, it doesn’t work like that. And at the self check stations they had a tissue box, so that you could use the tissue to use the touch screen. And I mean, obviously, there is already hand sanitizer everywhere, but they still put more out. And it was just the weirdest day, and I was just tense all day long.
And, yeah, and for the most part, patrons were doing their best to separate. Kind of right—four to five, our busiest period of the day. One person in each bucket chair. One person on each end of the couches. I mean, it was only, like, closer to four feet apart, but they were trying their best. I know we shut down a PC at each pod to try to encourage distancing. Although I’m not super sure how much that helped. I remember being very thankful to go home, and I was supposed to be in the next day to work another eight-hour shift. And I was really dreading doing this two days in a row because it was so draining to be on all the time and be, like, any study rooms in us? Was that a sneeze? Is everyone six feet apart? Like, and there is just so much you can’t control.
Interviewer: So then how did you, what was then Tuesday like? When did you hear things are closed down? Don’t come in? You know, that sort of thing.
Erica Hainz: I was going to say, because that was the other thing is we assumed—there was a library board meeting that was supposed to take place at, like, 10 p.m. the next day.
Interviewer: 10 a.m.?
Erica Hainz: Sorry, yep, 10 a.m. the next day. And so, we were assuming that we would all have to come into work the next day. And that either that would be the last day the library was open or they might even have us try to close at noon or something. Which, that would have been really miserable to try to clear out the building. You know, before normal closing time, oh my god. But, luckily, we got that email from the mayor being, like, nope, libraries are closed. Which I was so thankful that I didn’t have to come in.
But I was really worried about our patrons. Just because of how many people were at the library that Monday before. I was, like, where are all of those people going to go? Can the Beacon stay open? It’s mostly volunteer-run. And most of those volunteers are older; that does not seem sustainable. They are not really set up for that, to be the only place to go and then to have proper social distancing. I was almost on the side of, I kind of wish the library would stay open. Like as much as I was glad that, you know, myself and my coworkers, we did not need to put ourselves on the front lines like that anymore, I really did worry what would happen to all of the patrons. Because, I mean, at least the library does have some great options for social distancing.
One of the things that surprised me the most is that on that Monday we were open, hardly anyone even used the study rooms. And I am, like, that is where you can really get your social distancing on. Every single one of these study rooms should be full. Well, in use I should say. (laughs)
But, yeah, that is how that kind of came into being and then that first day working from home. And I was, like, you know this is cool, I am sure we are going to do this, you know, for a little while. You know we will see how this goes. And I, actually, that morning that Safer at Home got announced. I actually had a showing, I went to see an apartment. (laughs)
Interviewer: What was that like?
Erica Hainz: Yeah, so I went to go see the apartment and it was pretty normal. I definitely thanked the tenants. Like, thank you for letting us in, we are really glad we can still see the place. And luckily they were two young healthy-seeming individuals. And they were like, oh yeah, it’s no problem. And, I was very mindful to just try not to touch anything. I had the realtor open any closets and stuff and touch any door knobs. Just to be polite more than anything.
But, yeah, then so, after that I was making up some lunch and then we got the email about the press conference at which Safer at Home was announced. And so, you know, I pulled up that press conference and I was watching it live and that is when things got really kind of scary. Like it was a very, very drastic shift right then. And then even during this press conference, the press conference was’t even over. It was, like, while this was happening, all of a sudden all of the other appointments we had made for that week call saying they canceled, call saying they canceled. I think we got three calls saying that they were canceling our showing. It was, like, oh that sucks and also, we are going to not be able to leave our homes? Yeah, that was wild.
Interviewer: Yeah. And what has work and just your home life been like since then? Which is now about four weeks or so.
Erica Hainz: Yep, we have been doing this about four whole weeks now. I mean, I’ve been doing a lot of training videos. Luckily, the library lets me work from home. So I have been doing a lot of those professional development videos. (cat meowing) Sorry, my cat is tunneling. And, I also got trained to use Wisvote to be able to enter absentee ballots. However, I finished the training Friday afternoon. Got my login on Saturday or Sunday. I don’t know because I did not work over the weekend. But then by Monday morning they sent out an email saying, we actually don’t need your help anymore.
Interviewer: Oh, no.
Erica Hainz: Everything has been assigned to the people. It is like, oh okay, but I mean if nothing else it ate up some time. (laughs) I did volunteer to work the polls.
Interviewer: How was that?
Erica Hainz: That was an experience.
Interviewer: Oh, yeah. Wow.
Erica Hainz: I actually worked the morning shift. So 6 a.m. to one thirty at the Madison Municipal building. And there was the protest that went on that morning and I did curbside. (laughs) So for two and a half hours at the start of the shift there was just honking and you could barely hear yourself think. We had hardly anybody actually curbside vote during that time. There were some people who came to in-person vote because they were trying to avoid the lines. But, yeah, it’s not a whole lot of point coming in that early to curbside vote. It’s not really advantageous. So there is a lot of news footage of me standing around. I was waving at the protestors because then if they waved back they wouldn’t be honking. Because as much as I support the cause, it really got maddening. Again, two and a half hours of them just driving around the block and honking.
Although working curbside, at least at my location, was strange. I actually didn’t help that many people do ballots. I think that I did a total of somewhere between three and five ballots during that entire shift. Most of what I was doing was accepting absentee ballots.
Interviewer: Gotcha, okay.
Erica Hainz: Yep, yep. I really like accepting absentee ballots because, I mean, at first they didn’t have this, but eventually they set up a drop box across the street at the clerk's office because a lot of people were headed to the clerk's office because that is the address on the absentee voting envelope. So a lot of people were going there. And I would shout at them from across the street, I would be, like, “Hey is that an absentee ballot? I can take that.” Because then at least when I accept it I can check to make sure the signature is on there and that the witness info is on there.
Because I had heard from Leo; Leo did a lot of absentee ballot processing, in-person at the clerk’s office. And they were talking about how many ballots had to be sent back out because they didn’t have a voter’s signature or they didn’t have a witness signature or they had both the signatures but the witness didn’t write down their address. And, you know, when you are talking the day of the election, we can’t send these back out. They have got to be right the first time.
So I really liked I got to be witness for so many people’s ballots. It was a really, really cool part of the gig that way to be, like, I’m going to make sure that every single one of these votes count.
Interviewer: Absolutely, oh my gosh.
Erica Hainz: So that was really lovely.
Erica Hainz: And then also a lot of answering questions. A lot of people were confused; they didn’t know where their polling place was. So I felt really, really bad, like, a lot of times they would go to their usual polling place, and it would be closed. And so then they would be confused and they wouldn’t know what to do or where to go. So they would go to the Madison Municipal building. And they would try to vote and it’s like, you can’t vote here. Like this is not your ward, this is not your polling location, and so then you would have to send them to a third location. Which is really sucky, you know. I hate sending people away because each time you have to, you know, do another step you’re less likely to get that person to vote, you know.
Interviewer: Right. And I will say that frequently, I would imagine that the library would have been a place that people could call. In that case to find out where their revised polling place was and so not good communication. Not able to have good communication.
Erica Hainz: And a lot of people tried to call the clerk’s office, but you can’t get through. Or at least you couldn’t get through at that time. So there was really no way to verify what your polling address was supposed to be unless you were able to check it online. And so if you don’t have the internet, you are s-o-l, you know. It’s really awful and I did submit a complaint to whatever federal board regulates elections telling them about, you know, the stuff I saw because I am, like, you know, that’s not acceptable that you know half of all of these polling places changed at the last second and not notify voters. Because then in the afternoon five to nine I worked security at Central for the polls.
Interviewer: Central was open as a polling place?
Erica Hainz: Yep, they had two wards there. One ward was downstairs in the Bubbler, and that is where I was stationed. And then they had another ward by the Fairchild entrance and John Masters was up there at that time doing security work up on that level. So that was interesting to kind of see how another polling place was handling it. And for the most part everyone was fine.
But there was this issue; they kept sending people away to go vote at the senior center right there, just a couple blocks away. They were, like, “Oh no, you can’t vote here you gotta go, gotta go to the senior center.” And right away when I got there I said aloud I was, like, “That’s weird I wouldn’t expect the senior center to be open.” You know, because all other assisted living homes and everything else that are usually used as polling places aren’t, you know, for pandemic reasons. And the woman who was working the check-in was like, well, that’s where we have been sending them all day. And I’m like, well, it’s 5 p.m. you know; if it was an issue they would have figured it out by now.
No joke, that same person she had sent away came back with a picture on his phone of a sign on the senior center door saying, this is not your polling location, go to Central library. So who knows how many voters had been stuck in this loop of, well where do I vote if I went to Central and they told me to go here and here is telling me to go there and, like, what do I do? (laughs) Really quite awful and so, yeah, trying to get those kinks worked out as you went.
And watching the close-down procedures, it was crazy. The upstairs ward was a lot bigger. They were there until 11 p.m. processing absentee ballots. And like they ran out of—
Interviewer: (talking at the same time) processed on election day, is that?
Erica Hainz: Yeah, there are certain things that have to be done. I think, I mean, I was not a poll worker at this time, so I did not super know what they were doing, but I think it had to be recorded in the poll book that you received that ballot. And then I know that they had to go in a privacy envelope that is just an envelope to cover up the name so that you can’t see whose it is. And then they are supposed to go in this secure box. But the box filled up. So they ran out of these privacy envelopes and then they also, they couldn’t fit them all in the box. So for the smaller wards they just had some absentee ballots loose on top of this box. But upstairs, I mean, they were woefully, woefully out of the envelopes and the boxes, so they started just rubber banding the ballots together and then putting them in cardboard boxes. And then the plan was to rubber band the cardboard boxes to provide security because sure.
And all of these poor election workers just trying to make do because the system is just not set up to work like this and then the other weird part from a security standpoint—you know I was working downstairs for the election that happened in the Bubbler and the poll inspector, the chief inspector, came up to me and wanted to make sure that the doors to the Bubbler could lock and wanted me to inform maintenance not to touch the tabulator. Which, you know, that makes sense anyway; you don’t want to tamper with election equipment and everything and everything. And so I was just kind of like, yeah, yeah you know, whatever. And then he was, like, no seriously, because the results weren’t processed yet because they were allowed to process these absentee ballots through April thirteenth. So, the tabulator—which is not set up to work that way, like, there is no save and close. All of the results were just there and if the tabulator hypothetically got unplugged, all of that data would just be gone.
Erica Hainz: Then you would have to redo, recount everything.
Erica Hainz: Yeah, yeah, so not only was it, like, we don’t want anyone tampering with results, but even just such a simple thing as knocking the plug out would have such detrimental results and that was just wild, just wild.
Interviewer: What is, like when you look out your window in your neighborhood right now, what’s the vibe in your neighborhood?
Erica Hainz: See, and my neighborhood is kind of weird. I live pretty far downtown. So, I’m still getting lots of dog walkers, people jogging by my window, like that’s not unusual. It’s mostly the absence of sound at night. Because usually I get every Friday and Saturday night especially, like, people, you know, having a good time, people who are out hitting the bars or out getting food, what have you, and there is a lot more of that. And it’s definitely very, very quiet in the evenings now.
Interviewer: Interesting, so do you normally get student traffic, would you say?
Erica Hainz: Students and a lot of young professionals too because I am not super close to campus, campus.
Erica Haniz: But, yeah, especially people who have left school and are now just kind of, you know, getting their adult footing in the world; lots of that walking by.
Interviewer: Gotcha. Yeah, anything we haven’t talked about yet that you want to talk about?
Erica Hainz: I mean, yeah, I’mjust trying to keep as much positivity going through this as possible. I consider myself to be so lucky. I am not sitting here worried about how I am going to pay my bills. I can pretty much isolate from home, as much as I choose to. I definitely chose to volunteer to work the election because I feel like I have a lot of privilege as somebody who, you know, is young, healthy. I have health insurance, so even if I did get sick, I would be okay. It wouldn’t be fun but I would be okay. So that was definitely a big influencer of that choice. So, I consider myself to be one of the extremely lucky ones through this that I don’t have to live this out, you know, in that high anxiety of what am I going to do if I catch this? Or how am I going to pay my bills? I just consider myself so extraordinarily lucky to have a safe place to stay, for being healthy, or having health insurance and for having a job that will let me work from home because that is definitely not a reality for so many people.
Interviewer: For sure, and I was going to ask, What are you doing besides work? What are you doing to keep busy right now? Anything in particular?
Erica Hainz: Sure, sure, sure. It has actually been funny how much my social life has exploded. I am doing so many, you know, video calls with friends. A lot of them group calls which never would have happened before. You know with friends I would do this weekly Thursday night fun club anyway, and they just kind of took that and switched it to virtual. We just get together over Zoom and play little electronic phone games that you play together through Jackbox. And like last night I had two back to back Zoom meetings. I actually had one Paulina threw together. Paulina, Lucas and I, and so we had that Zoom call. And then I actually had to leave that one to go to Thursday night fun club and I am, like, oh my gosh, what is happening? I consider myself to be quite a bit of a homebody anyway. So, a lot of my crafting, my knitting, reading, tending my plants—that stuff hasn’t changed and it’s just the working from home has been an adjustment. And now just all of my social activities are virtual almost exclusively.
Interviewer: For sure, yeah. Thank you, thank you so much for sharing your stories with us. Your stories from a distance. We really appreciate your time.
Erica Hainz: Absolutely, this is way better than watching TED talks. (laughs)
Interviewer: Glad to hear it.