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Coronavirus fears ignite a civil war as families, friends, neighbors clash over what's safe

By Samantha Melamed, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Senior Living Features

PHILADELPHIA _Justis Freeman, 23, is taking the threat of the coronavirus, and calls for social distancing to stem its spread, seriously - working from home, staying indoors, trying to limit any in-person contacts.

There's just one problem. Freeman has roommates.

"I have asked them to stop inviting friends over as frequently, but that hasn't changed much," he lamented in an email Monday. "Their attitudes about everything have been too lax in my view, because they aren't worried about getting sick because of their age."

That same civil war is being waged within families, friend groups, and neighborhoods across the region, as people clash over what's "safe" during a pandemic unlike anything else in their lifetimes. The battles are playing out during pleading phone calls to aging parents, vitriolic tweetstorms, and fiery family group chats. One side is armed with a bottomless supply of statistics, frightening news stories, and personal pleas from those most at risk; the other with skepticism and an understandable desire to maintain some normalcy.

"My husband is being a real dumba - about this whole thing," said a Montgomery County woman in her 50s, who did not want to be named to avoid further marital strife. "He's like, 'Flights are really cheap!' ... He's seeing it as a snow day, and that's really not what's happening here."

As Philadelphia announced the closures of nonessential businesses on Monday, many residents were left pleading with their aging parents, both locally and out-of-town, to put away the golf clubs and suspend their regular bridge games.

"My parents just emailed us that they went out to dinner over the weekend and they're 80 - and my father is in the high-risk category because he's diabetic," said Margaret Betz, 51, a Swarthmore resident and philosophy professor at Rutgers-Camden. "They're Catholic, and they were weighing whether or not to go to church on Sunday. I have three siblings, and we all kind of had to urge them to take it seriously."

She's having a similar running argument with her 15-year-old son, a real-life variation of the hypothetical ethics debates she's used to engaging in with students.

"Teenagers feel invincible," she said. "What I've been trying to impress upon him (is): The worst it will be for us is boring. For other people, it's life-threatening."

Still, even for adults, the changing rules and rapidly spreading threat have made behavior that seemed reasonable one day feel shockingly reckless the next, said Rachel Ezekiel-Fishbein, 55.

The Elkins Park resident was taken aback when a friend reprimanded her for taking an unnecessary risk by inviting her friends over to share dinner outside around a fire.

"Even the email exchanges with friends are heated," she said.

She's been firing off texts to her son Adam, 21, who lives in Washington and desperately wants to stick to his routine of doing work at a neighborhood Starbucks. "I spotted a picture with him out on social media, and immediately I lambasted him," she said.

 

He went out again anyway Monday, bringing his laptop to a mall food court - a necessary mental-health field trip, he said. He tried to maintain a safe distance from others, and it felt safe.

"I'm already being shamed by people because I went out this weekend," he said. "I'm at the point where I don't want to have the conversation anymore."

Facebook groups have sprouted from nowhere like early-spring daffodils, with groups of allied individuals sharing information about flattening the curve and best practices for social distancing. The rules for one group read, in part, "No downplaying this as the flu."

On a different group, Penn Wynne resident Erica Windisch, 38, shared images of fliers she and others had created to post around their neighborhood, to remind those who aren't obsessing about the new rules of engagement.

"We noticed a lot of children walking around with basketballs and in groups, and realized that the message of social distancing wasn't really spreading very well through the neighborhood," said Windisch, a software engineer whose two grade-school children were helping post fliers.

Not everyone on the receiving end of these messages is receptive.

"Now more than ever, I think the concerns are overblown," Cheryl Ellis of Hatboro said by text message Monday, amid her still-busy work schedule. "Thankful to see cars on the road again today and business continuing as usual."

But for those with immune deficiencies, there is the sense that their neighbors' negligence could be what kills them.

That includes Cambria Hooven, 35, of Germantown, who has an immune disorder that makes her extremely susceptible to infection. She's had both chickenpox and scarlet fever twice - and she fears the coronavirus could put her in grave danger. She has not left her home since Wednesday.

"People continue to not take this seriously," she said. "Therefore the virus keeps spreading. For people like me watching this unfold, there is a lot of fear and anxiety about when we will we ever be able to leave again."

Visit The Philadelphia Inquirer at www.inquirer.com

 

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