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Life in quarantine, how Tampa Bay endured isolation

A portrait series by photographer Tina Russell, special to the Times

In the first weeks of the outbreak, Tina Russell felt so many emotions, from boredom to sadness to anxiety. She wondered how others were doing.

That led the freelance photographer from St. Petersburg, to launch a project that proved to be therapeutic.

Through social media, it gained speed. She was happy that so many wanted to be a part of it and so grateful that people were comfortable sharing their stories.

In her images and their words, there is a shared resiliency and hope for the future.

Robert Beltran, left, and Johnny Johnson Jr., right, pose for a portrait outside of Johnson’s home in St. Petersburg on May 17, 2020.
Robert Beltran, left, and Johnny Johnson Jr., right, pose for a portrait outside of Johnson’s home in St. Petersburg on May 17, 2020.

Robert Beltran, left, and Johnny Johnson Jr. have known each other for 41 years. Johnson worked two full-time jobs for 20 years, so they didn’t really become close until 2004 when they ran into each other at a store.

Before quarantine, Johnson had a job and could pay his bills. But then, he was out of work for weeks.

He stayed home, feeling unsafe out in the world. Beltran, already retired, would check on him, help him get supplies from a food bank.

Now that he’s back at work, Johnson is counting the days to retirement, two more years. The friends plan to travel together then.

“My destination is next year I’m going to Colorado. That’s my dream,” Johnson said. "My daughter is going to move there, so I’m going there.”

For the first time in his life, he’ll see snow.

Morgan Laurie at her home in Tampa on May 2, 2020.
Morgan Laurie at her home in Tampa on May 2, 2020.

Morgan Laurie’s life has been in limbo.

“Before quarantine, I was a student at (St. Petersburg College’s) downtown campus and health education center and a bartender/server at a sports bar,” she said. “Now, I am currently laid off from my job in the service industry. I have no clue when I will be returning. My college has temporarily canceled all on-campus classes and turned all current classes to an online format.

"I have been trying to keep busy by doing an at-home yoga challenge, learning an instrument, and cooking more. My feelings and emotions during quarantine have been up and down, like a roller coaster. Some days, I am very thankful for this time to focus on my education, my partner, my home and my hobbies, but some days, I feel a lot of anxiety. All of this is so uncertain and not knowing when life will return to normal is stressful. There have been a few breakdowns, including cutting and dying my own hair.”

Sara Johnson and Eric Holland at their home in St. Petersburg on April 30, 2020.
Sara Johnson and Eric Holland at their home in St. Petersburg on April 30, 2020.

Before quarantine, Sara Johnson taught indoor cycling and yoga and managed a small online business. Her partner, Eric Holland, commuted daily to Tampa, where he sold corporate sponsorships for triathlon and running events.

Johnson’s cycle studio allows her to teach from home, so she records a class once a week in her bedroom.

“I find myself losing track of days fairly often, but I’m trying to be more present and intentional with my time,” Johnson said. “I’ve definitely been grieving my former life and the plans that have been changed or canceled.”

Holland has taken this time to become more structured and organized. But he worries, “about my job and our finances being in a new home. I’ve taken a pay cut, as my work has been highly impacted by the pandemic, forcing us to postpone races.”

They are trying to focus on the positives: spending more time with their dogs and each other.

Brigitte Whitaker waters her plants outside of her home in St. Petersburg on May 11, 2020.
Brigitte Whitaker waters her plants outside of her home in St. Petersburg on May 11, 2020.

Brigitte Whitaker closed her coffee shop, Brew D Licious, in the midst of the pandemic.

“It was extremely emotional,” she said, "having to tell the people who have supported you, cleaning and packing everything up. It was physically and emotionally exhausting.

"It was also very eye-opening."

After so much time in the same place, you can lose sight of why you do what you do, she said. But then, after the closing was revealed, the response was overwhelming. "And it awakened me to how much that little shop meant to so many. It revitalized me. It demonstrated just how important connection really is."

Now, her life has slowed down. She works in the yard, plays with her grandson and her dogs.

"Perhaps this time in my life is all about slowing down and learning more about connection. It is, after all, what we truly need in our world.”

Daniela Gomez at her home in Tampa on May 2, 2020.
Daniela Gomez at her home in Tampa on May 2, 2020. [ TINA RUSSELL | Tina Russell ]

Daniela Gomez graduated from law school at Stetson University on May 16th. She worked hard and would have liked to walk in the ceremony.

Before finishing school, she’d interned at the Pinellas County courthouse, working with juveniles in the system.

“Life now is a struggle to make myself feel busy and important," she said.

She will be taking the Florida Bar exam on July 28-29, as scheduled, but they’ll have to wear masks during all 12 hours of the test. "If you take it off for even one moment, you’ll be told to leave. That’s a lot of pressure."

These days, she said, "walking to the mailbox feels like a joy.”

Khiem Khiemosabi Nguyen at his home in Tampa on April 26, 2020.
Khiem Khiemosabi Nguyen at his home in Tampa on April 26, 2020.

When life changed, Khiem Khiemosabi Nguyen was in the middle of moving from St. Petersburg to Tampa.

He wanted to be closer to work and save money by having a roommate.

But now, there’s no commute. He’s been working from home for weeks.

“I love being around people, and I’m an avid dancer, going to a dance event probably 2-3 times a week. Since social distancing, I’ve been either practicing by myself or teaching my roommate the other roles, so we can dance with each other. I think I am one of the luckier ones, as I moved in with someone that has similar hobbies and is laid back."

They even celebrated their shared April birthday with friends on Zoom.

Jessica Serapiglia and Nina Serapiglia at their home in Largo on May 1, 2020.
Jessica Serapiglia and Nina Serapiglia at their home in Largo on May 1, 2020.

Jessica Serapiglia and her daughter, Nina, 8, of Largo used to be busy with school, work and family. When quarantine happened, Jessica lost her job.

“Now we spend more time finding things to keep us busy at home, like gardening and homeschooling,” Jessica said. “Nina likes it at home, where it’s not as strict as school every day. We are lonely. We need interactions. We miss our family.”

Anachemy Middleton and Noah Middleton outside of their home in St. Petersburg on April 25, 2020.
Anachemy Middleton and Noah Middleton outside of their home in St. Petersburg on April 25, 2020. [ TINA RUSSELL | Tina Russell ]

Anachemy Middleton has been juggling her real estate business and taking care of her 2-year-old son, Noah, by herself for weeks. Her husband, a mechanical engineer, was away on a job that was deemed mission critical.

Middleton said it’s been stressful being away from family who live in New Jersey. She’s kept in contact, especially with her mother, who works in the medical field.

During this time, Middleton has been going on frequent walks with her son.

Jordan Martin, Madison Massey, (left) Betty Jo Massey and Stephen Massey in St. Petersburg on April 26, 2020.
Jordan Martin, Madison Massey, (left) Betty Jo Massey and Stephen Massey in St. Petersburg on April 26, 2020. [ TINA RUSSELL | Tina Russell ]

Madison Massey and her boyfriend, Jordan Martin, live next door to Madison’s grandparents, Betty Jo Massey and Stephen Massey. They’ve all been taking quarantine pretty seriously and have kept 6 feet from one another.

Madison Massey’s life completely changed when the safer-at-home order went into effect. She lost her internship and her income. Her college classes also were moved online.

Betty Jo and Stephen Massey, both retired, haven’t been impacted financially, but they do have to remind themselves to keep their distance and wear masks when they go to the grocery store. They consider themselves lucky, both in excellent health.

Julie Seals with one of her foster children at her home in Tampa on May 2, 2020.
Julie Seals with one of her foster children at her home in Tampa on May 2, 2020.

Julie Seals is a foster mother and works full-time for a technology talent placement company.

Prior to the safer-at-home order, she had two brothers living with her. One week before quarantine began, she accepted a third child into her home.

The brothers spend two days each week with their parents, for four to eight hours. “My other child was doing in-person visits prior to quarantine but doesn’t do that now,” she said. Only virtual visits.

With the brothers’ parents, she had established a bond. “It took time, of course. A lot of trust has to be built up in these relationships. I was really proactive in wanting to do that, because I became a foster parent to see families reunited.”

But with the new child, she hasn’t been able to meet the parents. They don’t even know her name.

Seals considers herself lucky, though. She’s still working full-time remotely and even accepted a promotion before the shutdown went into effect. She looks forward to the day she can take the kids to the park and the zoo.

Lisa Rowan at her home in St. Petersburg on April 13, 2020.
Lisa Rowan at her home in St. Petersburg on April 13, 2020.

Lisa Rowan has been working from home for the past year, so the shutdown didn’t faze her.

“Sometimes I forget what’s happening until I remember that I can’t go the gym because it’s closed, or I can’t go to the beach because it’s closed, or I can’t go visit my family because it’s too dangerous. Some days, I go through the motions and I forget, and some days, I remember I have to sit with that.”

Jason and Nicole Marlow at their home in Tampa on May 2, 2020.
Jason and Nicole Marlow at their home in Tampa on May 2, 2020.

Prior to quarantine, Nicole Marlow was finishing up classes in a doctoral program at the University of South Florida. She was doing a clinical rotation at an audiology practice and preparing for a yearlong externship.

"Once the virus situation intensified, we were asked to stop attending clinic, and our classes shifted online. In some ways, I was relieved, because I know it was a decision made with my safety and that of my patients in mind."

She was concerned for friends, family and neighbors. Disappointed to not be able to say goodbye to classmates, who have become some of her closest friends. And scared about an uncertain job market.

Her husband, Jason, works from home now.

“As someone who thrives on the company of others, cavorting about and networking, it’s definitely been a lonely adjustment being apart from my friends,” he said.

Both appreciate the extra time they have had together and with their two dogs.

Moving forward, Jason said, he plans to spend more time appreciating the things he’s thankful for and making time for what matters most.

Heather Comparetto in her backyard, the beach, in Redington Shores on April 14, 2020.
Heather Comparetto in her backyard, the beach, in Redington Shores on April 14, 2020. [ TINA RUSSELL | Tina Russell ]

Heather Comparetto was two weeks into a new job that she was excited about when her business closed to the public. They stayed busy for a while, “thinking of ways to virtually deliver an art experience," but eventually, she was furloughed.

She doesn’t know if she’ll get her job back.

Luckily, she had moved home, temporarily, to save a little money while looking for a place closer to work.

"I can’t think of a better place to have to shelter in place. I have resident access to the beach, where I’ve been spending a lot of time paddle boarding, walking, planning art projects and thinking about possibilities for the future. Right now, there are many days I struggle to stay motivated to get moving, but in that way, I am very fortunate to be with family.”

Paul and Barbara Eifler with their dog, Lily, in the backyard of their home in St. Petersburg on April 25, 2020.
Paul and Barbara Eifler with their dog, Lily, in the backyard of their home in St. Petersburg on April 25, 2020.

Paul and Barbara Eifler have rearranged their daily activities since their quarantine began. They go on 7-mile bike rides, have morning walks and spend time in their garden.

Paul used to be a substitute teacher and Uber driver, but that work is gone now.

“I kind of think we get it more than a lot of people,” Paul said. “In 1918, when my mother was 1, she lost her mother and her mother’s sister to the swine flu. I always heard growing up the stories about a third sister who had no children who had to raise all the kids. This sure sounds like that type of thing, so we’re fully expecting the second wave to come through, especially as things open back up. We’re taking this isolation pretty seriously. We’ve never had food delivered. Now, that’s all we do is have our groceries delivered and our pharmaceuticals delivered.”

Esther Eugene at her home in St. Petersburg on April 29, 2020.
Esther Eugene at her home in St. Petersburg on April 29, 2020.

Esther Eugene days used to begin at 6 a.m. and sometimes ended at 10 p.m.

"I was busy overseeing three homeless services programs. I didn’t have time to cook, talk to my children or find quiet moments.”

Now her mornings start with tea, breakfast and a conversation with her daughters. Then she has Zoom meetings and writes grants from home. The pace is slower, she said, there are moments to breathe.

Social distancing isn’t a challenge for her, but she worries about the economy and her family’s health.

"If my daughters complain about a pain, I immediately get worried. Things that you would normally brush off, you find yourself focusing on them down to the smallest details.”

Jessica Noel with her two children, Braden Noel, 10, and Nola Noel, 9, in St. Petersburg on April 27, 2020.
Jessica Noel with her two children, Braden Noel, 10, and Nola Noel, 9, in St. Petersburg on April 27, 2020. [ TINA RUSSELL | Tina Russell ]

Jessica Noel is newly divorced.

“We just moved here in August from Tampa," she said. "I was a stay-at-home mom before.”

Upon moving to St. Petersburg, she found a job she loved at a hair salon. Since quarantine, she’s back home in a two-bedroom apartment she shares with her children, Braden, 10, and Nola, 9.

“It’s a big bummer. We just got into a new routine."

She feels a little isolated and sad over that.

“Every day is a new emotion. I’ve enjoyed slowing down the first week. Now, I just want all of it back,” Noel said. "I want the busy and the responsibilities and my kids being able to play with with their friends.”

Allie and Matt Taylor pose for a portrait with their children, Aspen, 3, and Everest, 1, outside of their home in Tampa on May 2, 2020.
Allie and Matt Taylor pose for a portrait with their children, Aspen, 3, and Everest, 1, outside of their home in Tampa on May 2, 2020.

Allie and Matt Taylor started quarantine on March 12 with their children, Everest, 1, and Aspen, 3.

They were used to being together. Matt worked at home, and Allie was a stay-at-home mom.

“What has changed is what keeps breaking my spirit,” Allie said.

They had relocated from Maine after their son was born to be closer to both their families. They wanted the kids to have grandparents in their lives.

“It’s been painful for the whole family,” she said. "Some of our family members have expressed concern that because our children are so young, they won’t remember them when we can all get back together."

Family afforded her respites from mothering, “kept me sane.”

"When we all quarantined. I knew it would be hard, but I didn’t expect how intense my anxiety and depression would sporadically be. It’s so hard never being able to recharge. Quarantining has meant that our workload tripled. No parks, no Busch Gardens, no babysitters, no grandma sleepovers, no breaks.”

Francesca Daniels at her home in Clearwater on May 1, 2020.
Francesca Daniels at her home in Clearwater on May 1, 2020.

“Shortly before COVID-19," Francesca Daniels said, "I heard the news my company would be closing its doors.

“This place I went to every day was more than just a job. It was a significant source of my identity. My co-workers became friends and felt like family. COVID-19 made its appearance and life changed. Not only was I dealing with grief, but I was also now dealing with my anxiety.

"My fear of loss was greatly triggered. I had already lived through the recession in 2009 when I graduated from college and fell behind my peers. Would this happen to me again? Would I even be able to network to find a new opportunity? How would I start? By taking in each moment and bringing myself back to the now. By being present and allowing myself to feel the pain or vulnerability and simply allowing that sorrow to coexist with the joy. And by reminding myself that it is not shameful to not feel optimistic 100% of the time.”

Rob and Ashley Davis pose for a portrait with their children, Aniya, 5, and Mikayla, 3, at their home in Brooksville on May 7, 2020.
Rob and Ashley Davis pose for a portrait with their children, Aniya, 5, and Mikayla, 3, at their home in Brooksville on May 7, 2020.

“Before quarantine, my oldest was in preschool, and I spent my days between working part-time at the library and hiking or running with friends,” Ashley Davis said. “Now we stay home the majority of the time, even having groceries delivered.

"I homeschool, and we have zero contact with anyone outside of our immediate family. I run in our neighborhood, and nothing enters the house without being wiped down with bleach solution first, and we eat all of our meals at home. I go back and forth between feeling hopeless and hopeful. I am grateful, but I am afraid. Being high risk during this outbreak is terrifying to say the least.”

From left: Andrew Signore, Sawyer Signore, 8, Valeria Brieba, 10, Yamaira Acevedo and Diego Signore, 15 months, at their home in New Tampa on May 2, 2020.
From left: Andrew Signore, Sawyer Signore, 8, Valeria Brieba, 10, Yamaira Acevedo and Diego Signore, 15 months, at their home in New Tampa on May 2, 2020.

Five years ago, Yamaira Acevedo moved from Puerto Rico to Tampa with her daughter, Valeria Brieba, now 10.

Three years ago, she met her partner, Andrew Signore, and his son, Sawyer Signore, 8.

They now have a son together, Diego Signore, who is 15 months old.

“Our lives were pretty active,” Yamaira said. “Valeria used to have art, violin classes and Girl Scout meetings. We used to go out to parks and the beach. All that stopped. It’s very different now. It’s hard to keep the kids entertained all day at home. The first week was hard for my daughter, because she used to have so many things going on. She cried some nights asking why all of this was happening. I always told her we are lucky we are healthy and together.”

Yamaira and Andrew have felt a range of emotions, from stress to peace.

“We are learning to be more patient, especially with the kids,” Yamaira said. “We used to live in a rush all the time and finally, we can just stay calm and breathe and enjoy the things that matter.”

Samantha Kosobud at her home in Seminole on May 1, 2020.
Samantha Kosobud at her home in Seminole on May 1, 2020.

Samantha Kosobud is a nurse in a COVID unit at Morton Plant Hospital.

"I’m always afraid to bring something home to my family. I’ve always been careful, but I felt it was necessary to be extra careful. I’m grateful that our hospital gave us a place to shower and lockers to keep our things in so we didn’t have to come home in contaminated scrubs.

"It was scary in the beginning because the rules about PPE were changing every day, so no one ever knew if we were actually protected. Now I feel pretty confident we are okay, though. None of my co-workers have gotten sick. I work for a great company, and I’m thankful for the support they provide us.

"People keep calling me a hero. I don’t feel like a hero. I feel like I’m just doing what needs to be done. I feel for our patients. Locked in the same room for days on end with the news playing mostly bad news. I just try to keep everyone in good spirits.”

Nick and Whitney Fox with their daughter, Everly, at their home in St. Petersburg on April 30, 2020.
Nick and Whitney Fox with their daughter, Everly, at their home in St. Petersburg on April 30, 2020.

Whitney and Nick Fox had made plans for the birth of their first child, Everly.

They hired a doula. Whitney’s mom was supposed to be there. Family from New York purchased tickets to visit after the birth. All that changed.

By the due date, Nick was the only one allowed to be with Whitney during delivery.

She remembers the nurses wearing masks at all times and taking their temperatures constantly. “It was a little bit scary,” she said.

Her parents camped out at the hospital in their R.V., held signs welcoming Everly into the world and even made the news. But they won’t be able to hold their grandchild until she is 8 weeks old.

The joy and excitement of having a newborn has been tempered by the sadness of not being able to share their child with family. And they’re worried about the future, what it will look like for Whitney when she returns to work.

But Nick Fox is grateful that they have settled into a routine with their baby. “Working from home means I’m much more involved, and there’s no feelings of missing out that there would be otherwise,” he said. “Fathers need this time to bond as much as mothers."

He said his worries are fleeting. “Will I be more protective of Everly in the future because we went through this? Will we become too accustomed to the isolation? Luckily, these thoughts don’t last long, as I usually have to run off to change another diaper. "

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