When it comes to precautions against the spread of the coronavirus, Ehrin Van Marter has adopted a maximalist, take-no-chances-whatsoever approach.
Over the past six weeks, she and her husband have sheltered in their home in Los Angeles. When they go to the supermarket, they don’t just wear gloves and a mask, but also long-sleeve shirts and pants, too. They vigorously wash their hands, wipe down groceries with alcohol, and routinely throw their clothes in the laundry. Non-food deliveries are left on the front porch. Pilates is done over Zoom. Beauty services are self-mastered through YouTube tutorials.
“I have not physically interacted with a human other than my husband for five weeks,” she explains.
COVID-19 has injected a type of fear into her life that Van Marter never thought existed. Not just fear for herself, mind you, but for those she loves, too. She has, she says, “massive anxiety about my parents getting sick.”
And yet, while Van Marter, at 43 years of age, rearranges almost every conceivable part of her life, the parents for whom she fears have resisted doing the same. They do take precautions, including checking their temperatures and, in the case of the mom, getting her hands on an antibody test to put the family at ease. But they’re also hosting weekly parties with “other boomer couples” nearby in Arizona, Van Marter says. They visit her great-uncle nearly every week and talk about the crisis in remote terms that suggest they think it’s all a tad overblown.
This divergence in approach has sparked a bit of tension and even some modern-day sleuthing. Van Marter’s sister got her mom to download an app so she could track her phone and text them if she thinks her parents are going out too much. She sent vitamins for her mom to take (Lypho-Spheric, zinc, and Vitamins A, C and D) and the siblings have encouraged their parents to contact their primary-care doctor for “science-based guidance.” Twice a week, Van Marter says, they jump on the line to have a 30-minute conversation that inevitably devolves into a debate over the merits of social distancing. Often, it feels as if they’re living in alternate realities.
“If we can’t even agree that COVID is a public-health crisis, not even that basic fact, then there is literally nowhere for the discussion to go,” Van Marter told The Daily Beast. “So basically I waste my energy talking about all the things that won’t persuade them, become demoralized, promise myself I won’t engage in this nonsense anymore, and think about how we will handle/help them when/if one of them gets sick.”
The spread of coronavirus is pitting family members against each other over the severity of the pandemic and the steps needed to combat it. The fault lines are generational and geographic. But mainly they appear determined by news appetites.
For Van Marter, the hurdle that seems impossible to overcome is Fox News and related right-wing media, which have routinely downplayed the severity of COVID-19 or editorialized about the need to not let public health measures overwhelm economic concerns. Her parents, she explained, watch Fox News and YouTube videos from Prager University and The Patriot. Her mom “loves” right-wing activist Candace Owens and The Five. When Van Marter points her parents toward other outlets, they invariably describe them as “fake news.”
“They still prefer the messages telling them it’s no big deal and it’s being exaggerated,” she said. “Until someone they know is sick or dead, I don’t think their perspective will change.”
In interviews with other COVID-divided families, a similar dynamic becomes apparent. Younger offspring expressed concern than their parents are stubbornly set in their ways. Family members based in urban areas experienced panic that their relatives in the ex-urbs don’t share. And those who don’t watch Fox News felt it impossible to relate to their family members who do.
Danielle Misiak, of Washington, D.C., previously worked in progressive politics and is an avid MSNBC watcher. She described herself as “a Dem millennial with boomer, Trumper, Fox News watching, AOC-hating parents.” She said it has been a “daily struggle” to convince them of the merits of social distancing. Her mom, based in New Jersey, goes shopping multiple times a week and her stepfather goes to Home Depot just as often. In lengthy text threads—which she showed The Daily Beast—they debate articles detailing the contagion and lethality of COVID-19, the advice public-health experts are dispensing, and the latest announcements of business closures. It’s a veritable symphony, filled with notes of frustration, empathy, humor, love, and mutual bewilderment, but almost always ending with a frustrated recognition that they are speaking different languages.
“I genuinely believe that if Fox started reporting something as ridiculous as ‘only people with naturally red hair can get coronavirus,’ my parents would believe it,” said Misiak.
The degree to which coronavirus has sparked these types of internal family combustions depends, of course, on the nature of the family. Some individuals who spoke to The Daily Beast about their own experience described nuisances more than rifts. But many confessed to having an almost overwhelming anxiety as they balance their familial love with pandemic fears.
“My parents are in the suburbs of Pennsylvania signing petitions to re-open Pennsylvania and any time they hear about a death they ask how old the person is, to confirm their bias that it’s all old people. Meanwhile, I live in Brooklyn and am dreading taking the subway ever again,” said Emily, who declined to give her last name. “I’ve reached a point of having to accept I’d rather them get to be smug and think they’re right than be proven wrong by someone in our family getting sick.”
John from Massachusetts, who also asked that his last name be withheld, said that his mother-in-law, a retired nurse, was refusing to stay at home even though both her daughters gave birth at the end of February. Instead, she continued to hang out with her friends, who are still working as nurses. Fearful of what might happen, the family “shamed her into staying home by threatening to not let her see her grandkids,” as John put it.
Sabrina J. from Minneapolis said that her mother, sister, and brother-in-law attended a protest demanding that the state loosen its stay-at-home restrictions. After that, she resolved that they would “not see each other again until we are vaccinated.” It wasn’t an idle threat. “We share a cabin home and I am changing the locks,” Sabrina said. “I told them I thought they were being reckless and uncaring… they really did not want to hear any of my pleas. I was called a ‘loony lib’ and basically told to get over it.”
For some families, the breakdowns are not generational.
Tommy Stallings of Lubbock, Texas, runs a 24/7 fitness center that’s been closed since late March. He’s fearful of what the virus means for his 80-year-old mother, who is not in good health. By contrast, his twin brother’s angst has been directed at government “overreach.” The two text almost daily and it’s become so heated that they’ve mutually agreed to tone it down.
“We have gone sideways on each other about how to approach this crisis and he thinks it’s ridiculous that I won’t allow anyone to visit my mother right now,” Stallings explained.
Donna Lovern, of Jacksonville, Florida, said her two sons in their forties have been nonchalant at best about public-health guidelines, deciding, for example, to decamp to the beach when the experts said not to. They’re “intelligent responsible adults with families, who choose to believe in Fox News and Trump,” she explained.
Josh Kitchen, 30, lives in L.A., and does work for a civic education nonprofit group. He said his parents, both Trump supporters, have split over coronavirus. His dad has turned on the president and grown disenchanted with his usual Fox News diet of Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham. “He knows the death rates and testing rates don’t match with what’s coming from the administration,” said Kitchen. His mother, by contrast, has gone in the opposite direction: “New world order, COVID was created in a lab in North Carolina, Bill Gates is doing population control, comparing deaths to flu and AIDS.” There is, he offered, “lots of strife between my parents right now on this.”
Others interviewed by The Daily Beast also described scenarios in which family members, like Kitchen’s father, changed their viewpoints about coronavirus as the crisis has lingered.
Nick Bonfiglio, 22, of Westwood, Massachusetts, said that his grandfather in Florida initially viewed the entire pandemic as a hoax. But once neighbors in their gated community began canceling events, he took it more seriously. “It’s actually the first time he’s deviated from the Fox News talking points,” said Bonfiglio. “He’s still concerned about that economy and frustrated, but no longer buys into the faux medical personalities on Fox downplaying its severity.”
But more often than not, family divides have worsened over time—leaving those who are taking the pandemic seriously with a sense of helplessness that nearly matched their feelings of dread.
Liz, 33, from Raleigh, North Carolina, said her father, a Fox News watcher who was a physician before he retired, had become “almost a nihilist” about the coronavirus, stubbornly refusing to stay at home even after his wife got sick (it ended up being non-COVID-related). After Liz pleaded with him for weeks to take it more seriously, he called her “hysterical”—a remark that stuck with Liz to the point that she seemed almost tearful reflecting upon it. She refused to talk to him for two weeks.
“What I’d like him to know if he saw this and figured out it was me and called is that I’m not judging him,” Liz said. “I’m not a smug liberal or anything like that. I just really want him to be safe. My partner and I are planning on getting married and starting a family in the next couple years and I wish I could make that more distant thing seem more important than that immediate feeling of wanting to defy the government.”