The woman who found out she had breast cancer amid a pandemic. The martial arts instructor who had to move classes from a studio to a garage. The leader of a charity that found itself supplying dozens of households with food.
These are just a few of Burbank community members who found themselves grappling with the coronavirus pandemic. Their stories are by no means uncommon. By the time the first COVID-19 case in Burbank was confirmed on March 19, 2020, businesses had closed, events had been canceled and schools had shut down.
Just over a year later, the virus has killed more than 200 residents and infected more than 8,500. While many businesses have adapted to the pandemic, and restaurants are able to offer limited indoor dining again, others have closed permanently.
“We’ve absolutely lost businesses as they could not survive the economic impacts and we’ve lost jobs as businesses have laid off people,” Mayor Bob Frutos said in an email. “This is sad and why it’s so important to focus on making the recovery happen as quick as possible.
“At the same time, we have gained a stronger relationship with our community as they have come together to help each other from simply delivering groceries to a senior citizen to assisting decreasing the spread of the virus by wearing our masks.”
In interviews with the Leader, many community members hit similar notes, explaining ways they’ve adapted to the pandemic while describing periods of intense anxiety. Many balanced caution against predicting a too-early end of the pandemic with hope spurred by vaccination efforts.
None had been unaffected by the pandemic.
LISA PEREZ, RESIDENT
The first time Lisa Perez started her car after the world seemed to shut down, the battery was dead.
It was proof of how infrequently she left the house. Like many, she took to baking early on in the pandemic, making banana bread and carrot cake. But she missed talking to people.
She also missed the theater. She and her husband were “A-list” members at AMC, watching movies three times a week. For most of the past year, that hasn’t been an option.
Perez, who works for a local credit union and lives in Burbank, explained her caution comes from what she’s seen — her sister-in-law died after contracting the coronavirus, as did two other people her husband was close to.
“Some people have not had a close COVID death … it seems like a fog [to them],” Perez said. “For me, I’m more conservative because it’s touched our family so much.”
Two things helped Perez combat feelings of loneliness and worry. First, she joined a Facebook group that helped local community members donate items to each other. Though the interactions the group’s drop-offs allowed were simple, they gave Perez the chance to chat with strangers, even if from a distance.
The second thing came through a phone call. After her parents told her they had scheduled vaccination appointments through their health care provider, Perez was concerned. The information her parents gave her was sparse, and she wanted to make sure they were correct.
But when Perez called the hospital to ask about it, she learned that her parents were right — they were going to receive the coronavirus vaccine.
“I broke down crying, because … my parents finally getting protected was a weight off my shoulders,” she said.
Many of her friends have asked her whether she plans on going to the theater or Disneyland once it reopens at the beginning of April. Perez admits she’s not sure — it will depend, like many other things she decides whether to do, on whether she feels safe.
BARBARA HOWELL, FOOD BANK CEO
When Disneyland announced it was closing, Barbara Howell knew the coronavirus was going to be a big deal. Something about the “happiest place on earth” shutting down was striking, she said.
As CEO of the Burbank Temporary Aid Center, Howell is responsible for managing a food drive and other services for local families in need. But with a small staff and a group of volunteers who are mostly seniors — Howell said the center went from 80 volunteers to 18 overnight — she and her team had to make some major adjustments.
“When you make a plan for an emergency in California, you don’t do it for a tornado or a pandemic, you do it for an earthquake,” Howell said.
BTAC now offers drive-thru food distributions, with Howell estimating that about 45 new households have received groceries every month in the past year. Some people the center served years ago have had to return, she added.
Those distributions are fueled by community donations, Howell said, which were especially needed after the center’s fundraising gala last year — scheduled for March 13 — had to be canceled.
Other BTAC services saw more drastic changes. The food bank cut its hours to mornings and has had to close its laundry facility and computer labs because social distancing was impossible in those rooms.
The vaccine rollouts do provide a measure of relief, Howell said — she received her first dose just a couple of weeks ago — but she’s worried about what will happen after the pandemic. Even when businesses reopen and people return to work, many people will likely have rent and utility bills to catch up on.
“I do think that the recovery isn’t going to be as quick as people would hope,” she said. “You can get back to work, but if you’ve got $25,000 worth of debt … that’s a problem.”
For a family struggling to pay rent or other bills, Howell explained, saving a few hundred dollars with free groceries can help a lot. And she believes that if the community continues to support BTAC as it has for the past year, Burbank’s neighbors might be able to keep providing that help.
CYNTHIA MADERA, TEACHER
When Cynthia Madera told her third-grade students to empty their desks last year, it felt like the last day of school. It was a strange feeling to have in March.
She had seen plenty during her 20 years teaching at Joaquin Miller Elementary School. This new coronavirus that was being talked about on the news would blow over in two weeks — maybe a bit more, if things went poorly.
A year later, more than 500,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, workers have been laid off and she has been forced to master virtual systems she didn’t have experience with.
A single mother who moved from Burbank years ago after finding she could no longer afford rent, Madera also watched as some of the programs she worked — such as instructional intervention — were canceled, lessening her income. Then, last July, she and her son tested positive for the coronavirus.
“Luckily we did not have any severe symptoms but … it made it serious because as a single mom, if I’m gone or if something happens to me, we’re in trouble,” Madera said.
After about two semesters of distance learning, Madera is attending staff meetings where teachers and administrators are trying to figure out how to safely resume in-class instruction. She’s adjusted somewhat, too, supplementing her income with her Etsy gardening store Cyn’s Succulents. She also recently received her first vaccination.
But while Madera said being vaccinated lifted much of the weight of returning to school from her shoulders, she’s worried parents will think students are going “back to the way it was.”
“Things have changed, and we’re not going to go back to traditional ‘anything’ for quite a while,” she added.
Though she doesn’t live in Burbank anymore, Madera still very much considers herself a part of its community. Besides teaching residents’ children, she used to be an executive member of the Burbank Teachers Association, where she remains a representative. Her son attends John Muir Middle School and trains with other children at Inspire Martial Arts and Fitness.
And yet, Madera feels like what she has to offer is sometimes forgotten because she doesn’t have a Burbank address.
“I feel that sometimes Burbank forgets that there is a group of people that … can’t live where [they] work,” she said. “We’re leaving out valuable volunteer resources sometimes … because, like for my son and I, we’re spending the time commuting.”
CIARRA JOHNSTON AND JARROD MOORE, RESIDENTS
Ciarra Johnston was just starting to adjust to the pandemic when she found the lump.
She waited a couple of weeks, hoping it wasn’t anything serious. Besides, the Burbank resident thought, who would want to be in a hospital right now? It was July, and between the coronavirus and the curfews prompted by widespread protests, she didn’t want to see a doctor quite yet.
But after the lump didn’t disappear, Johnston gave in. She had breast cancer, she learned. Surprisingly, the hospital soon started to feel like the safest place to be. It was a “ghost town,” the human relations coordinator said, since she underwent treatment before hospitals began to be overwhelmed in the fall.
What also helped was the support of her boyfriend Jarrod Moore, a production manager and fellow Burbank resident. He was sometimes able to accompany her when she went to receive treatment, and they often alternated taking care of each other emotionally.
“I think for us,” Moore said, “after the diagnosis, navigating the pandemic — it didn’t become secondary, but it definitely wasn’t the primary thing we were worried about.”
Johnston had her last chemotherapy treatment just a few weeks ago, and soon she’ll be starting radiation therapy. The process that kills cancer cells, however, also makes her susceptible to the coronavirus. Watching the community’s response to the effects of COVID-19 while being immunocompromised allowed her to see the extremes of compassion and apathy, she said.
“It’s complete polar opposites. You have people who are taking care of each other, who are making sure that it won’t happen to anybody else,” Johnston explained. “[And] there are people who just don’t care.”
Johnston and Moore said their experiences have made them a bit less trusting of people, believing now that many community members appear to have a disregard for public health.
But despite the apprehension they’ve developed, Johnston said, they’ve also seen the community support her in small but moving ways. She recently left a message in chalk on a sidewalk that has served as something of a local message board during the pandemic, telling neighbors she had finished chemotherapy.
The next time she was there, she found her message was surrounded by written congratulations from other residents.
“We wouldn’t have had that, I think, if the pandemic hadn’t been here, because that sense of community is a bit stronger,” Johnston said. “When it’s stronger, it’s very strong.”
KEITH WINKLE, GRANDMASTER
In the past year, Inspire Martial Arts and Fitness has hosted classes in a garage, on the street, in parks and soon — due to recent health orders — back to a studio.
Through it all, founder and lead instructor Keith Winkle has tried to remain flexible and steadfast. The grandmaster said he moved to California in 2008, meaning this is the second widespread economic crisis his business has faced. So when the pandemic forced him to vacate his studio, he tried to keep a positive outlook.
“I’m a martial arts instructor, I’m a health and life coach and I’m on earth to influence people,” Winkle said. “That’s what makes me happy. I’m not going to let a building define that.”
Like it has for many small business owners, “adapt” has found its way into Winkle’s regular vocabulary. He and his family set up a makeshift studio in their garage to offer classes online. They later offered lessons on the street in front of their studio before pivoting to the local parks. But even those, now that school athletics are resuming, may not be the best option.
Fortunately, following the county’s recent announcement that gyms and fitness studios could reopen indoors at 10% capacity, Winkle will soon be able to return to Inspire’s original location. Surviving this long hasn’t been easy, particularly with fewer students able to afford classes.
“We are in the business of shifting for the next obstacle and [finding] what is the opportunity for us,” he said. “On a personal level, it’s completely changed our lives because [we have] that mindset of not creating these stories in your mind and not creating these ‘what ifs’ and scenarios that can bring on depression and anxiety.”
The grandmaster admitted he was somewhat worried about the future of his business — and some of what he’s facing as its owner, when it comes to the pandemic, is out of his control.
But Winkle added, as he wants to remind other business owners, that there is little benefit in obsessing over what one cannot control.
“I have some trepidation, I have some concern. … I think that’s normal — I don’t want to be blind to that,” he said. “But I also [know] that we’ve come a long way, we can handle it and there’s always going to be a next chapter.”