When Esther Tiferes Tebeka and her 15-year-old daughter returned home from Wuhan, China, last month after being on lockdown, the Palo Alto mother was relieved to escape the epicenter of the novel coronavirus outbreak and get back to a normal life.
She thought the ordeal was behind her, but now weeks later, Tebeka is trapped for a second time by the virus that has spread across the globe. She is among the nearly 7 million residents in six Bay Area counties who were ordered to shelter at home at the start of this week to prevent the further spread of COVID-19, which has spiked in the region.
The coronavirus outbreak has created a new reality along the Midpeninsula: Schools have shut down, Stanford University students have been ordered off campus, all concerts and sports events have been canceled, tech campuses are empty and most residents are now stuck at home. Life as we knew it has come to a screeching halt.
As residents adjust to the new normal over the next few weeks, we’ll update this page with personal stories of how ordinary people are coping during these extraordinary times.
We talked to Tebeka as well as a health care worker on the frontline, a gig worker weighing the risks of making deliveries, an older adult living behind closed doors, Stanford University students facing eviction, an artistic director who had to cancel his first premiere and a restaurant owner offering discounted and free meals to those in need. Here are their stories.
'Right now, I'm praying.'
— Serkan Karabacak, restaurant owner
By Lloyd Lee
For Palo Alto restaurant owner Serkan Karabacak, shutting down his business during this crisis is not an option.
As a small business owner, the community has always been there for him, Karabacak explained. Now, he wants to do his part. Instead of scaling back operations at his restaurant Tuba, Karabacak has chosen to keep all of his employees on the payroll and is offering discounted and free meals to those in need.
“People have always come to support me … we have to help each other,” Karabacak said.
Along with offering takeout and delivery, Karabacak will be serving free meals that can be picked up from his Turkish restaurant at 535 Bryant St. for the duration of the stay-at-home order. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., customers in need can come to Tuba for a free lunchbox, which will have rice, hummus and chicken satay. The offer also applies to his San Francisco Tuba restaurant at 1550 California St.
Customers won’t have to provide any income statement or proof of need.
“They just need to mention what their situation is,” Karabacak said.
On the other days of the week, the restaurant offers the same lunchbox, all day, for $5.50.
Karabacak, who also owns the Pastis and Cafe Brioche on California Avenue, opened Palo Alto’s Tuba in January 2019, replacing Tuts Bakery & Cafe. He also manages a third Tuba location in San Francisco’s Nob Hill neighborhood.
The restaurant owner said he’s used to challenges. Before he claimed his humble stake in the Bay Area food scene, Karabacak was a fresh college graduate from Turkey who arrived here in 2012 without knowing much English.
He enrolled in a language program, pursued his master’s degree at DeVry University, and with his penchant for food and talking to people, soon decided to venture into the restaurant business.
“I started in this business as a waiter at Cafe Brioche,” Karabacak said.
During the pandemic, sales at his Tuba restaurant in Palo Alto have fallen about 65% to 70%, Karabacak said.
“Sales are really down,” he said. “And (there are) no people. No one can come in. Customers can’t come order in the restaurant.”
Despite the decrease in sales, Karabacak refuses to let go any of the approximately 35 staff members he employs at his five restaurants.
“I can’t fire anyone,” he explained. “We’re trying to stay strong. Right now, it’s time to support each other.”
Karabacak also is serving donated meals to around 120 seniors at Palo Alto’s Stevenson House.
How long he can continue his operations under the financial strain of the new restrictions is still uncertain.
“I’m really worried about rent and my employees,” he said. “I’m hoping our government will solve this earlier, but I don’t know. Right now, I’m praying.”
Email Palo Alto Weekly editorial assistant Lloyd Lee at firstname.lastname@example.org.
'There's no such thing as overreacting to this.'
— Esther Tiferes Tebeka, Wuhan quarantine survivor
By Sue Dremann
For Palo Alto resident Esther Tiferes Tebeka, the current COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak in Santa Clara County is deja vu. Tebeka was in Wuhan, China when the coronavirus outbreak began back in January. She and her eldest daughter arrived there for a one-month visit starting Jan. 1, just one day after the first case was announced.
The panic, fear, isolation and bare grocery store shelves in the Bay Area are all too familiar, she said. Although she remained positive throughout her initial ordeal and two weeks of quarantine on an air reserve base in southern California, she feels less positive back in the U.S.
“When I’m shopping, I no longer feel safe. I predicted what’s happening now. This crazy shopping has created the best chance for the coronavirus to spread out,” she said.
She sees the aisles packed with frantic shoppers at the Mountain View Costco, and she can’t understand why people aren’t protecting their faces.
“If they were in Wuhan, trust me, they would put on a mask. Do you think the virus is going to spare you because you are rich or because you are strong?”
In Wuhan, everyone wore face masks. Tebeka also still wears one when she goes out. She doesn’t agree with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s advice that wearing a mask won’t help prevent contracting the disease, she said.
Tebeka is a healer, a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner and acupuncturist. Her business, Tiferes Medical Acupuncture, experienced cancellations due to coronavirus fears.
“Overall, there’s a big hit. It’s going to be a challenge this year. But we still have to pay the rent,” she said.
Her children are doing alright with their home schooling, using online services for their lessons. She is managing her household by paying the children for their chores and making sure they do their homework, she said.
Tebeka didn’t wait for her children’s school to officially close. She took her younger daughter and son out of their private school even before the mandated school closures; she purchased a plane ticket and flew her eldest daughter home from boarding school in Chicago after classes were suspended. On short notice, the one-way ticket was costly, she said, but higher costs and inconveniences are things she takes in stride in the COVID-19 age.
“You can’t take a chance,” she said.
The same concerns she felt in Wuhan she feels today in Palo Alto, and she expects things to get worse as the virus expands and people become more scared.
“The danger is not necessarily the coronavirus, per se, but the panic and chaos,” she said.
After seeing what happened in China, Tebeka said people can’t be too careful.
“There’s no such thing as overreacting to this,” she said.
As one of the first people to return from China and to live in quarantine, Tebeka also faced people’s concerns after her release. She had outed herself publicly, granting multiple interviews while in quarantine and afterward, so everyone knew she had come from infected Wuhan.
At first, she felt the eyes upon her of some people who were a bit wary. Tebeka sought to assure people she was safe to be around by self-quarantining for an additional week at home.
Those concerns seem to have abated, she said. “That’s a good sign,” she said.
Email Palo Alto Weekly reporter Sue Dremann at email@example.com.
'Yes, we are scared'
— Kerry Boynton, health care worker
By Linda Taaffe
On most days during her 22 years as a medical assistant on the frontline at a medical clinic in Mountain View, Kerry Boynton has greeted a steady stream of patients at the front desk, gotten them settled into an examination room and taken their vitals.
Not this week: The lobby is empty. The halls are quiet. And nobody off the street is walking through the doors.
On Tuesday, March 10, the internal medicine clinic locked its downtown doors and canceled most in-person appointments scheduled for the next two months as a precautionary measure to protect potentially at-risk patients from contracting the coronavirus. (Many of the appointments will be conducted over the telephone instead.)
“Suddenly, it’s a ghost town,” Boynton said. “We only have one door open, and it’s monitored by our managers. And you’re not allowed to even enter the building if you have any cold or flu symptoms. So unless there’s some emergency, we don’t want people coming in.
“But if we don’t have patients coming in, what are we doing here? All of us employees are very worried. It’s a big concern.”
The sudden change seems especially amplified because during previous weeks, the clinic saw increased foot traffic from people worried that they may have come down with the disease, she said. Boynton estimated that the clinic screened about four people a day to see if they should be tested for COVID-19.
“And mind you, I have a small clinic compared to the big hospitals,” said Boynton, whose clinic does not provide emergency care, urgent care or after-hours care and is not a testing site for the coronavirus.
Boynton said the stress level has been the most noticeable change at work.
There’s conversation about the disease all the time, she said. About every four hours, the staff has to huddle with management to get updated on the newest information that is coming out and figure out new workflows and processes depending on what kind of symptoms people coming through the doors had.
“So that’s constantly changing,” she said. “First they told us to stay 3 feet away. Then they told us 6 feet away in the early stages when they weren’t sure if it was airborne. Now we are being instructed to try and stay 3 feet away from (patients), but how do you do that when you’re taking their vital signs, doing EKGs on them, swabbing their throat for strep cultures?”
Everyone is washing their hands so often that “we all have hands that are like sandpaper,” she added.
Boynton said, at one point, many of the health care workers had to do their jobs without disposable protective masks after the clinic decided to put all masks under lock and key because of a supply shortage. The clinic needed to conserve the masks for people coming in with the cold and flu, she explained.
Early last week, her department received a box of masks, which she said was enough for about 13 staff members and eight doctors.
To avoid bringing potential work hazards home at the end of their shifts, Boynton said, “All of us at work, we decided that our scrubs come off almost before we even come in the door because they do get contaminated, and we don’t want to bring anything into the house with us. We are washing and washing and washing with hot water as soon as we get home.”
This has created anxiety among everybody, she said.
“And yes, we are scared, but there’s plenty of people out there with lots of health problems that still need us … so that’s what gets me motivated to go in.”
Email Palo Alto Weekly associate editor Linda Taaffe at firstname.lastname@example.org.
'It's kind of on us just to study for the finals at this point.'
— Undergraduate students, Stanford University
By Kali Shiloh
Daniel Nguyen, Kendall Williamson, Haile Michael and Emily Yuan were among the handful of students still living on campus at Stanford University at the end of last week. Most of their 7,000 classmates left in droves on Wednesday, March 11, after the university canceled in-person classes and asked undergraduate students to leave the campus by the end of winter quarter this Friday, March 20, if possible, to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The university announced that classes will not meet in person during spring quarter until further notice.
“If they tell us to stay home, and then they tell us they want us to come back to campus, (plane) tickets are going to be very expensive,” Nguyen said last week as he paused from his four-person game of basketball on the virtually vacant campus.
The freshman said he plans to live in his dorm until his finals are over at the end of the week.
“It’s kind of on us just to study for the finals at this point,” he said. “They’re giving us review materials, so people are pretty much looking at that, but no one really has an incentive to watch the (pre-recorded) lectures.”
Williamson, a sophomore who planned to fly home to Georgia this week, said he has struggled to take advantage of the online resources and lectures that professors have recorded in empty lecture halls for students to watch online.
“That face-to-face interaction is a much better learning experience than online,” he said.
Without classes to attend, Williamson said he has more freedom during the day but spends a lot of time in his dorm. While most of his friends flew home last week, the cost of leaving early was prohibitive for him.
“I would have to buy another plane ticket to go back home,” he said, explaining that he’d booked his flight for after finals week before in-person classes were canceled. “Do I really have the finances to do that right now? Probably not.”
For Michael, going home means traveling halfway around the world to Ethiopia.
“There’s 11 hours difference between my home and here,” said the freshman. Just the thought of managing his finals and the beginning of spring quarter from such a great distance convinced him to continue living in his campus dorm indefinitely, despite the threat of the coronavirus.
Yuan, who lives in the same dorm as Michael, said her roommate faced a similar situation but decided it was better to leave campus.
The moment Stanford announced its move to all online classes, her roommate bought a ticket home to Hong Kong, Yuan said. The logistics are proving to be formidable, she added.
“My roommate was saying she has her final, but it’s at 3 a.m. for her,” Yuan said. “If she’s (in Hong Kong) doing online classes, she has to become nocturnal because all the classes are between midnight and 6 a.m. for her.”
Although the students said they support the measures taken by the university, the disruptions come at a critical time in the school year when they already are under substantial academic pressure.
“There’s a petition being signed by students for the finals to be canceled,” Michael said last week. “There are people being stressed about what they’re going to do, if they’re going to go or stay here — there’s a lot going on.”
When the spring quarter commences on March 30, the students said they are worried where they might be taking classes: Williamson could be taking Stanford classes from his childhood bedroom on the East Coast; Michael could be sitting alone in a desolate dorm.
All of them are coming to terms with the possibility of learning without going to school. None of them have experienced anything like this before, they said. They’re just trying to figure it out.
Email Palo Alto Weekly contributor Kali Shiloh at email@example.com.
'It's a little bit heartbreaking'
— Sinjin Jones, theater director
By Karla Kane
It was supposed to be a time of celebration at the Pear Theatre in Mountain View. Tickets to the opening weekend of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” based on the popular novel, were selling well. Theatergoers, cast and crew alike were looking forward to the reception planned for Friday, March 13.
Instead, on Thursday, new Executive Artistic Director Sinjin Jones found himself alone at the theater, answering emails and calls from disappointed patrons.
Because of the COVID-19 outbreak, the California Department of Public Health had released new guidelines earlier that day recommending that mass gatherings maintain “social distancing” of 6 feet between attendees.
In the intimate Pear space, with around 80% of seats already booked, that simply wouldn’t be possible. So, Jones and the Pear board made the difficult decision to cancel opening weekend, reception and all. By the following day, Santa Clara County had banned gatherings of more than 100 people. And on the following Monday, Santa Clara was among six Bay Area counties to issue a stay-at-home order limiting all activity, travel and business functions to only the most essential need.
“It sucks, but it’s the right thing to do,” Jones told the Weekly. “People are being really lovely about understanding that it’s in everyone’s best interest. I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better. We just want to make sure we’re on top of it.”
Jones said he is holding out hope that the show might be able to go on at a later date, but the nonprofit will take “a pretty big financial hit” regardless.
“It’s not even about money for us. We’ve worked hard; we think the show is great,” he said.
Even if the production does eventually make it to the stage in the future, “There’s no way we’re going to get the number through the door to see the show that we would have otherwise,” he said.
Ticket holders have been given the options of getting a refund or donating the ticket cost back to the Pear.
“So far, we have had a good number of folks who have chosen to donate their tickets. It’s a nice feeling,” he said. “We can only hope that if and when this production gets up and running, the patrons are still as excited to see the show. Right now, the health concerns are going to far outweigh that.”
Regardless of what happens, “We will continue to pay anyone involved with the show what they’re owed, whether the show opens or not,” Jones said, adding that the people working behind the ticket counter and at concession stands are a mix of staff and volunteers.
Though the organization will suffer financially, “Emotionally, the actors and the crew have been most impacted,” he said. “It’s a little bit heartbreaking to be working so hard on a show and then to have it be ripped out from underneath people. We have a phenomenal cast; they’ve been really thoughtful and kind during this whole process.”
As news of the coronavirus pandemic has steadily spread and escalated, he said, the possibility of having to cancel performances became very real, very quickly.
“It wasn’t a surprise, but that doesn’t make it less painful. We have to keep repeating the mantra that we want to do what’s best in terms of health,” he said.
Jones said they have discussed other options for presenting the production, including recording or livestreaming performances, but due to the complications involved with theater copyrights, it is not feasible at this time.
As he worked alone in the thoroughly sanitized theater last week —”I don’t think it could smell any more like cleanser” — Jones said he was putting some things, including grant proposals, plans for an upcoming season gala and ticket sales for next season, on hold to concentrate on answering patrons’ questions and handling ticket issues.
“It’s quite the whirlwind,” the Redwood City resident said. Since joining the Pear in January, curve balls such as the coronavirus and California Assembly Bill 5, which puts new restrictions on freelance workers, have been unexpected challenges.
“It’s part of the work. As long as I feel confident we’re being responsible, it’s all worth it in the end,” he said.
Email Palo Alto Weekly arts and entertainment editor Karla Kane at firstname.lastname@example.org.
'We don't have the option of not working.'
— Vanessa Bain, gig worker
By Kate Bradshaw
Work is busier than ever for Vanessa Bain, a full-time gig worker who lives in Menlo Park. Last week, while making deliveries for Instacart, she did her best to reduce her risk of catching or transmitting COVID-19, sanitizing her hands often and wearing gloves.
Bain is a delivery person providing essential services to those who need food and other necessities, and is exempt from the shelter-at-home order that went into effect on Tuesday in six Bay Area counties, including San Mateo and Santa Clara, to limit social interactions among residents for three weeks.
Bain works primarily for Instacart but also occasionally delivers for Caviar, Uber Eats and DoorDash. Her husband works for Caviar, Uber Eats and Postmates.
Instacart is an app that customers can use to order groceries or other goods and have them delivered.
Demand for delivery services in areas such as Seattle, the Bay Area and New York City has risen about twentyfold recently, she said.
As a shopper and deliverer on the ground, she said, this means that there are more orders placed at higher volumes than usual. Plus, the items many customers request are in limited supply — hand sanitizers, face masks, toilet paper and Tylenol — which can be frustrating for both shoppers and people making the orders.
“Our work has been incredibly busy and incredibly demanding,” she said.
Because of the increased orders, Instacart and other delivery-based app businesses have begun to offer contract workers extra incentives to make deliveries. For the first time in a long time, the demand for shopping and delivery is greater than the supply, she said.
But these incentives have a dark side, said Bain, who’s become known widely as a leader in the campaign for gig worker rights.
“It’s luring us into a situation that’s actually putting us in danger,” she said.
People who work for delivery services on top of other jobs, who have other sources of income in their household, are more likely to weigh the risks of making deliveries in this area — a pandemic hotspot in the U.S. — and, wisely, stay inside instead, she said.
But, she said, “For people like myself who rely on this income pretty much exclusively to live, we don’t have the option of not working for a week, or two or three weeks, until we feel safe to work again.”
Many apps have also launched a “contactless” delivery option for customers that allow delivery workers to drop items off at the door without coming into close proximity with the customers.
But that doesn’t fully eliminate a customer’s risk of exposure to the new coronavirus, she said. The shopper and delivery workers are still coming into contact with the ordered items and with their surroundings.
“We’re still touching all of their items, carts and (pin)pads,” she said.
While a number of delivery-based app companies have issued statements that they will provide workers up to 14 days’ pay in the case of a confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis, she said she wants more clarity about what that really means. What is 14 days’ pay to a contract worker who isn’t even guaranteed the minimum wage? And what about all the people who come down with symptoms that align with COVID-19 but aren’t able to get tested?
*(Note: On March 17, Bain decided to follow the shelter-at-home order and stopped making deliveries.)
Email Mountain View Voice reporter Kate Bradshaw, a sister publication of Palo Alto Online, at email@example.com.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula’s response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.