A year after the shutdown: Faces and voices of hardship and hope
The Post checks in with subjects of some of our most popular stories of 2020 to see how they are doing today.
A year after Florida shut down its economy to stave off a COVID-19 outbreak, the Palm Beach Post checked in with some of the readers we profiled throughout 2020 to see how they are faring today.
There isn't an official date on which Florida, cumulatively, froze its economy. But a landmark date was March 15 — the day Disney World and major state attractions shut their gates. Hundreds of thousands of other businesses, from car dealerships to department stores to coffee shops, soon followed suit.
A year later, Florida's economy has yet to fully bounce back, and many residents continue to experience economic hardship
From tragedy to triumph, these five stories of hope and hardship represent some of the economic challenges many Floridians have overcome, or continue to face, during this once-in-a-lifetime pandemic that is entering its second year.
Renewed hope for desperate family
Darry Tunick doesn’t return calls as quickly as these days. His job as a television installer keeps him busier than he's been in a year since becoming one more of Florida's pandemic-related unemployed.
After losing his job last March, the single father spent much of his time battling the state for unemployment benefits while trying to figure out how to put food on the table for his four children.
“I don't know how to actually put it into words for anyone to ever understand it,” Tunick recalled, teary-eyed. “That feeling of despair, having your hands tied and not having a damn thing you can do about it — especially when you look at your child knowing they don’t deserve that.”
Tunick, whose wife, Kelly, died of sepsis two days after giving birthin 2011, grew depressed, despondent. Late on rent and utilities, and one of the millions of jobless unable to get through to Florida's unemployment department, Tunick felt like he was running out of options. Out of sheer desperation, he wrote to the Palm Beach Post.
Ninety-three readers from across the country stepped in to help the family with food, gift cards, cash and even a job offer. But it was their words of support, love and encouragement that Tunick said touched him the most.
“That was the mind-blowing part of it all,” he said. “For total strangers to come forth and open not only their hearts but their wallets to assist somebody they don’t even know, have no relationship to ... well, being grateful is an understatement.”
Tunick returned to work at the end of January. It's only part-time, but he has confidence things will pick up as more people get vaccinated.
He said he knows customers are uncomfortable having him in their homes during a pandemic, but he said he wears a mask and takes every possible precaution to keep them safe. He even changes his clothes before walking in the door when he arrives home each night to protect his family, he said.
“They are glad that I am back working,” he said of his children, the youngest of whom is autistic. “They can see the difference in me, which I know makes a difference in them. I don’t feel that desperation that I had back then.”
Strangely enough, Tunick said, the hardships the family faced during the pandemic have drawn them closer to one another.
“Throughout all of this, we learned that holding things in isn't helping anybody,” he said. "Especially when you have five of us all holding our feelings in. It was like a wall surrounding our family but built from within.”
The children have even begun to open up to their father about what has been the most taboo and painful subject over the past nine years.
“I know how I felt losing my wife, but I never realized how much pain my kids were going through because they lost their mom,” Tunick said. “It’s brought out a lot of discussion between us, which we’ve been needing for a long time. It made us listen to each other's feelings and help each other and work together. We’re mending it.”
A bit of ingenuity, a leap of faith and a pinch of magic
When life gave Heidi Ferguson lemons, she made a voodoo wishing temple.
One, as it turns out, that just might contain a little magic.
Ferguson found herself down, but not out, when her vintage store in Lake Worth Beach — Stitches and Rust — was forced to close in March 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Unable to qualify for the federal Paycheck Protection Program or Small Business Administration loans, she said, the single mother of two and sole employee of the shop did the only thing she could think of to clear her head and regroup — she flew to Los Angeles with her 14-year-old daughter, rented an SUV and hit the open highway.
The pair spent long days traveling Route 66 back toward Florida, batting around ideas about how Ferguson might earn a living during the economic shutdown.
Ever-positive, she said, they stopped at interesting sites across the country and packed the SUV with unique finds Ferguson hoped to sell when her store eventually reopened — if she could hang on that long.
Then, a few blocks off Bourbon Street in New Orleans, they came across something they had never seen before: a voodoo wishing temple.
“You go in, and they have a mantel, and there’s a wishing stump where you can leave an offering if you want, but you don’t have to,” Ferguson said. “You write your wish on parchment paper and say a prayer and knock on the stump three times and then leave your prayer on the mantel.”
So she did. And an idea came to her — she would make mini-videos of her treasures to market online.
“We were inspired by a lot that we saw,” she said of the trip. “When we got back, I rolled the dice and said, we can either go for the dream, or we can close up completely.”
With the help of the videos, she was able to sell enough products online to stay afloat until the store reopened in mid-May. Then, in another fortunate twist of fate, she relocated to a larger space in a high traffic area on Lake Avenue that she never would have been able to afford before rents dipped after the economic shutdown.
At the new location, she replicated the voodoo wishing temple that had so inspired her in New Orleans.
“We had a healer come out and bless the whole area like they would have done it with the voodoo religion,” she said. “It adds character and meaning to our whole vision of the store.”
And whether credit is due to voodoo magic or good old-fashioned hard work and determination, Ferguson does not know, but she said her business has tripled. She still sells online for those who don’t feel comfortable shopping in stores and has even crafted her own line of one-of-a-kind facemasks.
“I almost feel like it’s too good to be true," she said. “I wonder whether the other shoe is going to drop. I’m so paranoid about being shut down, but I take it day to day.”
No matter what happens, Ferguson said, she has learned that her ingenuity and drive to succeed is greater than any obstacle life can throw her way.
“The silver lining that I took out of it is seeing that there were areas that I neglected,” she said of her business. “I realized that there's a whole other element with my online sales. It was a huge chunk of business that I was missing out on that I would not have seen otherwise if I would not have closed down.”
Landlord left high and dry as tenants stay on for free
Paul Vota feels like he has fallen between the cracks of pandemic relief programs.
As the owner of a rented duplex in Riviera Beach, he said, he has struggled financially since the eviction ban was enacted while fighting a legal system designed to help tenants stay in their homes during the pandemic.
Almost a year later, he said, his tenants are living for free and he is the one facing economic hardship.
“There is no relief for the landlord,” he said. “I wish I had some podcast or some type of megaphone to get the attention of somebody in authority to ask, 'What are you thinking when you extend and extend without giving the property owners any sign of relief?'”
Vota said he is paying an attorney $250 an hour to try to evict one of his tenants who is employed but refuses to pay. Meanwhile, Vota said, that tenant’s lease expired months ago and the man is getting excellent legal advice for free.
“He is using any nuance, any loophole, that he can use to keep this man from being evicted,” Vota said of his tenant’s legal aid. “And try to get a court hearing in today’s climate — you don’t get your fair trial or opportunity to address the judge face to face.”
Vota said the tenant bought himself a new motorbike for Christmas while forgoing rent payments and allowing the unit to sink into disrepair.
“We loathe each other,” Vota said of the resulting stress. “And who created it? The government, because they gave him a free pass. He just smokes pot all the time and tells me, ‘You’re never going to get paid.’”
Vota said he received a $20,000 judgment against the tenant in the adjoining unit. She eventually vacated in the fall, he said, but he does not know where she went, leaving him no way to collect. That unit now sits vacant, he said, because it is a better option than ending up with another destructive tenant who refuses to pay.
Vota said he understands there are people legitimately struggling who need a temporary stay from eviction. But that is simply not the case with his tenants, he said.
“The federal government has given them a get-out-of-jail-free card,” he said. “There are people out there who will always take a free lunch if they can get it for free.”
Even if landlords have tenants who need assistance staying in their homes, he said, the government should be shouldering that economic burden, not the landlords.
“I am not required to fund the welfare division of the State of Florida,” he said. “It is the government’s responsibility to care for people in need of housing. In perpetuity I got this guy now. Enough is enough.”
Vota said that many landlords, like himself, are not real estate tycoons, but simple people just trying to make a living. Managing properties and collecting rent is their business, he said, and without it, they are just as financially vulnerable as anyone else.
Mortgage companies will foreclose on landlords for past due payments, insurance companies will cancel coverage for overdue policies, and counties will seize properties for unpaid taxes, Vota said, but the only folks the state wants to help are the tenants.
And while some people are bouncing back from the economic hardships of 2020, Vota said, he does not foresee relief coming his way any time soon.
“You can’t ask a bird to fly with no wings, but you are asking me to continue my business with no revenue,” he said.
From Harvard to almost homeless
A doctorate from Harvard University was not enough to keep Karin Smith, her 14-year-old disabled son, Daniel, three rescue cats and a dog from being evicted from their Jupiter apartment after she lost her job due to the pandemic.
Fortunately, sharing her story on CNN and MSNBC about the terrible problems with Florida’s unemployment system and the struggles her family was facing, was enough.
Smith said she doesn't know how viewers found her, but they did, and along with food stamps, pet sitting, and money from selling her personal belongings, their donations have helped keep the single mother afloat.
“I’ve seen the best of people,” Smith said. “We’ve also seen the worst, of course, but on the ground level, people are helping people. The government isn’t coming to save us, and we need to help each other.”
Smith, who holds a Ph.D. in educational psychology, in March lost her job as a data compliance specialist with the Florida Department of Education, she said. After fighting months for unemployment benefits, she eventually received them but has been unable to secure a job that pays enough to cover her overhead and health-care expenses.
“It’s like 'Groundhog Day,'” she said, referring to the popular Bill Murray comedy. “It’s coming up on a year, and the jobs just aren't there. They haven’t come back. There are jobs for teachers where you can risk your life for crappy benefits, but all of the higher education sectors are suffering.”
Now, she is considering leaving Florida.
“Everybody I know in this state is looking for something remote, or out of state, because they are not paying what they used to pay in Florida,” she said about jobs in higher education.
Political opinions aside, she said, she cannot believe that Florida’s legislators have yet to fix the unemployment system or expand Medicaid while families continue to suffer almost a year into this pandemic.
“I’m appalled by the legislative agenda,” she said. “They are expanding ‘Stand Your Ground,’ and fighting Facebook is really a big issue, but they are not taking care of actual Floridians.”
With a 25-pound bag of flour in her pantry right now, Smith said, she understands why her grandmother, who was born in 1912 and lived through the Great Depression, became somewhat of a hoarder.
“I get that now,” Smith said. “I think we all kind of understand it a little better.”
And while hoping for the best, Smith admits she is preparing for the worst. With $1,200 of donated money, she bought an old recreational vehicle she refers to as “Plan B."
“It wouldn’t be fabulous long term, but it can keep us together, and it can keep us safe and dry, which is our biggest fear,” she said. “That, or going to a shelter and what would happen to the pets. At least we don’t have to worry about that.”
Still, she is not totally at peace with the RV sitting, unused, waiting for her to be evicted.
“I feel terrible, because I’ve run into a couple people now, one who moved from their van into a garage and another girl who is about to be homeless with her dog,” Smith said. “I’m so tempted to let other people have it, but I’m too worried it can be us soon.”
“Nothing is the same. It’s terrible, terrible, terrible, terrible, terrible.”
Almost a year after the coronavirus pandemic first hit Florida, Alberto Diaz, the owner of Polo Cuts Barbershop in Wellington, is still struggling.
In July, Diaz contracted COVID-19 from a customer, he said. Almost immediately, all five of his employees, as well as his daughter who lives with him, fell ill. Diaz spent a month in the hospital when his lungs almost collapsed.
“I came to the point where I was about to die,” Diaz said. “I am still struggling, but I am so grateful to God and the doctors that they did their best.”
With no one to run the barber shop, Diaz was forced to close his business for two months. This, he noted, only six weeks after reopening on the heels of a three-month shutdown ordered by federal and state officials.
Today, Diaz said, he still does not feel 100%. And Polo Cuts is only operating at 40%.
“Nothing is the same,” he said. “It’s terrible, terrible, terrible, terrible, terrible.”
Equestrian season, typically when his shop makes the most money, drew fewer people this year, he said. One employee did not return after getting sick, he said, and there is not enough business to go around for the ones who remain.
“We’ve been losing business because people don't understand,” he said of customers. “They get upset when masks or distancing is required. We don’t want to reject business, but the circumstances push us to do these things for our own protection.”
Customers get angry, Diaz said. They say rude things and storm out.
“I am talking with my employees, telling them we need to be polite, we need to understand that customers are desperate, in a bad mood, afraid,” he said of trying his best to manage the difficult situation.
Today, Diaz no longer accepts walk-in customers. He can’t, he said, because if the shop gets too crowded, it puts everyone at risk. Appointments only, he said, and clients must have their temperature taken and wear masks.
“At the beginning, people thought this was a joke, and some still think that,” Diaz said of the virus. “People, in general, have a hard time following instructions. But we have to protect each other.”
After nine successful years, Diaz no longer feels confident in the viability of his business.
“We are living one day at a time,” he said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen.”