What it’s like to be a first responder family living in a coronavirus hotspot

March 24, 2020, 11:30 AM UTC

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We all know first responders—including EMTs, paramedics, firefighters, and police—are on the front lines of the fight against the coronavirus. Their jobs regularly require them to put themselves at risk to help those in need—and when that risk involves a contagious virus, it can spill over into their home lives as well.

Last week, Fortune spoke with Margaret Arakawa, CMO of Seattle-based tech startup Outreach. Arakawa’s husband, Brad Schmidt, is a firefighter and paramedic in Everett, Wash.—the town that saw the first U.S. hospitalization for COVID-19.

The family lives with their 12-year-old son, Logan, in Kirkland, 10 minutes away from the nursing home where about two-thirds of residents have contracted the virus. Arakawa’s 80-year-old mother, who has heart issues and diabetes, lives next door. As of last week, 27 Kirkland firefighters and three police officers were in quarantine, with 12 showing flu-like symptoms.

We spoke to Arakawa about what the past few weeks have been like for her family and how they’re thinking about the future. Fortune initially corresponded with her over email, then followed up by phone. The following is an edited version of those exchanges.

Fortune: How have the past few weeks been for you?

Arakawa: In January, when the news broke that the first novel coronavirus patient in America was in a hospital in Everett, Washington, I was scared. In February, when nursing home residents in Kirkland, Washington, were diagnosed with the coronavirus and families had to deal with the loss of their loved ones who were living there, I got even more scared.

Typically national news doesn’t make me scared. But this news was not national for me. It’s very, very local.

How is the family coping with your husband’s job as a firefighter and EMT?

We just had a talk as a family about what happens when my husband gets exposed and when he comes down with the coronavirus. We’ve come up with a plan. It’s not a great plan, but it’s a plan nonetheless.  When my husband gets exposed, my son and I will move to my mom’s house, and my mom will move into my sister’s apartment. Then we’ll all stay put for 14 days until, hopefully, we’re all cleared and reunited.

If my husband gets really sick, I’ll take care of him, and we’ll keep away from my mom and son. We figure this could last weeks or maybe months. And I think to myself that this is nothing compared to all the men and women whose brave relatives, spouses, and significant others are in the military. They can go for over a year without seeing their loved ones when they are deployed. So I feel quite lucky. We can climb a tree in the backyard and say hi to each other. We can maybe eat dinner together with us sitting on the back porch and my husband sitting behind glass inside. We’ll figure it out.

How have you talked to your son about your plans?

He’s had some questions: “If we isolate ourselves, how are we going to see Papa? Will we have picnics or dinners separated by glass or FaceTime from next door?” No more hugs, no more check-ins. We talked about the sacrifices that families of first responders and military families make. He totally understands it.

Did you consider a more extreme plan, like isolating in advance of your husband showing any symptoms?

I did consider it. The most drastic thing we’ve done is my husband’s not allowed to see my mom at all.

How are you tackling homeschooling while you’re working from home and your husband’s at work?

Unfortunately, the teachers didn’t have enough time to create a complete distance-learning curriculum [before the school was closed]. I think by this week though there will be more materials available online and more structure for Logan.

In the meantime, we’ve been letting Logan “choose his own adventure,” and then we talk about what he’s learned. Since he has online textbooks and suggestions for what to read or watch, he has been picking the chapters and subjects that interest him the most.

My son is also reading books that pique his interest. And we have “PE time,” which is basically just running or biking outside, or if it’s raining exercising for 30 minutes on an indoor bike.

I’m not going to lie. I struggle with allowing my son to play Xbox during the day. During a typical school day, kids don’t play video games or have their phones turned on. But how will our kids socialize if they don’t get access to devices during the day? So, we’re letting my son schedule times with his friends for “recess.”

With the current situation, [her employer, Outreach] is offering $100 per week to employees [that] they can use to purchase materials, classes, educational supplies, or additional childcare to support everyone working remotely while our kids are home.

More coronavirus coverage from Fortune:

—Why the extraordinary dollar surge spells more trouble for the global economy
—Japan finally admits the coronavirus might disrupt the Tokyo 2020 Olympics
Which stores are open—and closed—during the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S.?
—What medical experts say about Everlywell’s home coronavirus testing kits
—How to defer your mortgage payments due to the coronavirus
—How Emmy season is proceeding, with caution, amid the coronavirus crisis
—Listen to Leadership Next, a Fortune podcast examining the evolving role of CEOs
—WATCH: World leaders and health experts on how to stop the spread of COVID-19

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