Each workday for the past five months, ICU nurse Kelly Anaas has run the same painstaking drill:
Drive to Abbott-Northwestern Hospital. Grab work shoes from car trunk. Put on cloth mask and rub on hand sanitizer. Enter Intensive Care Unit and change to surgical mask. If caring for a patient in isolation, don N100 respirator mask and goggles.
After finishing a 12-hour shift, scrub down with baby wipes and swap to cloth mask. Return to car and put shoes back in trunk before driving home. Once there, strip off scrubs on front porch and stuff them into separate laundry bag. Shower. Hug daughter, hold baby boy.
It has been this way since COVID-19 first hit Minnesota in late March, a stretch of months during which Anaas’ emotions have morphed from fear of the unknown to an unwavering determination to keep herself, her family and the public safe.
“I wouldn’t say [the fear] has gone away. We all just kind of adjusted — kind of like learning to live with it, learning to continue our normal lives alongside it,” Anaas said. “It’s exhausting. And nursing is exhausting enough as it is.”
That persistence is fueled by sobering statistics — five months in, nearly 75,000 Minnesotans have contracted COVID-19, more than 6,400 have been hospitalized and 1,814 have died. From firefighters to janitors, bus drivers to grocery store clerks, those on the front lines of the coronavirus fight wage a wearying and unending battle to safely do their jobs without the refuge of working from home. While others around them have grown COVID-fatigued, they work to stay vigilant.
Eiluj Starr Ringle admits it can be trying. Over the many months, she’s grown weary of the customers at Linden Hills Co-op in Minneapolis, where she works three days a week as a cashier, complaining about being asked to wear a mask. And she’s tired of the patrons at her mom and dad’s Walker, Minn., bar and grill, where she pulls waitress shifts a few times a week, refusing to tip her because they don’t like her wearing a mask.
“I had a woman [at the co-op] come in with a mesh mask on; my manager asked her to leave. Another customer refused to mask up and refused to leave [the store] for several hours,” she said. “The anger is an everyday thing.”
Ringle suspects the resistance also reveals a disdain for service workers, who don’t have the option of working from home. Until Gov. Tim Walz issued a statewide mask mandate for indoor spaces in July, Ringle said, many customers didn’t wear one. While most now do, she said, many are unhappy about it and don’t like being told what to do.
“I’ve had people tell me, ‘You wearing a mask makes me feel uncomfortable,’ ” she said. “I wear a mask for eight hours straight and for 40, 50 hours per week. It’s frustrating to see people angry and ignoring having to wear one for 10, 20 minutes.”
Danielle Hoppe, who has asthma, has ongoing fears of contracting the disease. A student at MSU-Mankato who works as a cashier at a Cub Foods in Mankato, she’s frustrated that many customers don’t share her concerns.
“It’s real and it’s serious and its just really scary,” she said of the virus that has condensed her world to her apartment, online classes and work.
She said she can’t understand the wrath of customers livid over a mask requirement. Employees wear masks for entire shifts, in addition to doing extra cleaning that includes wiping down checkout belts and shopping carts.
“I just want [customers] to know that we are trying to protect them, even more than we are trying to protect us,” Hoppe said.
It’s not only the public that’s feeling “wariness fatigue,” said Jeremy Norton, a Minneapolis Fire Department captain working out of Station 17.
After the hypervigilance of the pandemic’s early days — when firefighters geared up in maximum protective equipment for nearly every call — the 20-year firefighter said it was inevitable that some would start to relax their guard, at least while in the station. He’s seen some colleagues drop their masks when they aren’t out in public.
Norton, though, said he and his crew wear masks during their entire 48-hour shift unless alone in their rooms.
“I try to lead by example, although I know not everyone is going to follow it,” said the 53-year-old who has a daughter with an autoimmune disorder.
On calls, he said it’s a different story. Knowing that every heart attack, car accident or house fire could bring them into contact with someone carrying the virus, Norton said firefighters continue to approach each situation with caution — and the appropriate gear.
“We are sort of making peace with uncertainty, trying to do our best and looking out for each other,” he said.
Officer Matt Jones, a 10-year veteran of the St. Paul Police Department, said he understands the need for the hand sanitizer, the daily temperature checks, cleaning the squad cars at the beginning and end of every shift. And, especially, the need to wear a mask.
“Policing is a job where we have to adapt and change all the time — changes to the social climate, the political climate,” he said. “I’m aware that I am high-risk [of contracting the virus], but the job still has to be done.”
What Jones said he laments is the loss of human interaction the virus has wrought.
He no longer just pops his head into businesses on his beat, or regularly chats up residents he sees in the neighborhoods. Masks cover up smiles and obscure human expression.
“It’s limited our ability to be social with the public,” said the St. Paul native and resident. “You lose the little interactions that kind of lift the police in the public’s eyes. I can see the toll.”
That doesn’t mean he’s stopped trying to connect. Jones said he’ll still spark a conversation once a scene settles down.
He’s tossed out compliments about someone’s mask or cracked a joke he hopes can be understood even if his smile can’t be seen.
“It’s the new normal, it’s the new thing to discuss” with people, Jones said. “Not the weather anymore, but COVID.”
Some front-line workers remain fearful that the safeguards their employers have put in place won’t actually keep them safe.
Prisly Cerna, a janitor who cleans the Burnsville Macy’s store, is terrified that the gloves and cloth mask her bosses have given her won’t prevent her — or her two children at home — from contracting the virus.
Before the governor made wearing masks in public mandatory, she said, the workplace was even scarier.
“Our job is cleaning. I don’t know how many in the store have the virus, or what is thrown in the garbage,” she said. “I put my life in danger every day. I don’t think I’m going to feel comfortable or feel safe until we have a vaccine.”
To those who tell Cerna to change jobs if she’s so afraid, the Bloomington resident said it’s not that easy.
“I don’t know how many people notice all the people who are homeless and living in the parks. How many people are on unemployment?” she said. “It’s not time to change jobs, not if I want to take care of my family, have a house. I need this job.”
As difficult as these past five months have been for Jessica Kvanbeck, the Columbia Heights resident and Metro Transit bus driver can once again talk to her passengers as they board the bus through the front door.
From March until Aug. 1, she said, that wasn’t possible as the few passengers she had stepped on through the back door.
“I missed people saying, ‘Have a great day!’ ” said Kvanbeck, who has been driving a bus for 10 years. “I love the interaction.”
Kvanbeck said reduced passenger limits — 10 people on a 40-foot bus, 15 people on a 60-foot bus — have been tough. And the need to adhere to those limits creates dilemmas when she approaches crowded bus stops and the prospect of telling passengers they need to wait for the next bus that comes along.
But it feels so much better to interact with passengers again, even if they must wear masks and she can see only their eyes.
“I lost 80 pounds over the last three, four years. Well, I had a passenger who noticed. He recently said to me that he’s lost 50 to 60 pounds,” she said. “He told me, ‘I did that because of you.’ … I love my job. I love what I do.”