As a group calling itself Free Idaho held a mask-burning outside the statehouse in Boise last weekend, the three Pugel sisters took turns visiting their COVID-19-stricken father in a hospital ICU across town.
The mask burners were a bizarre mix of recklessness and caution as their kids joined in feeding protective face coverings to the flames in a steel barrel.
“Not too fast, kids,” a grown-up called out. “Be careful. Watch the fire.”
Over at St. Luke’s Medical Center, Tony Pugel lay intubated and unconscious. A pandemic fueled over the past year by people who are reprehensibly less careful about COVID-19 than they are about fire had reached his home in early February even though his family followed CDC guidance.
Tony and five others of the seven who live in the house tested positive. His 96-year-old mother-in-law, Peigi Duncan, fell ill but miraculously recovered. His 25-year-old son, Christopher, was hit harder and due to a congenital heart defect was flown 600 miles to a hospital in Seattle that was better able to care for him. Tony, who is 65 and a wood scientist, was admitted to the ICU in Boise and intubated.
For a while, Tony’s condition improved and he was moved to a COVID floor. But his oxygen level dropped to where he was returned to the ICU. He was still intubated on Friday, but he tested negative for COVID-19.
That meant his daughters could visit him. Peggy, 34, named after her grandmother and a full-time mom with four boys, was first. Jesse, 32, an oncology nurse, came on Saturday, the day of the mask burning. And Callie, 31, a public school Spanish teacher, was there on Sunday. She was the lone member of the household who had not tested positive, likely because educators in Idaho qualify for vaccination and she had received her first dose of Moderna.
When The Daily Beast asked Callie about the mask burning, she hesitated and made a teacher’s choice. Rather than excoriate those who set masks afire, she simply said why she and her family feel people should wear them.
She acknowledged that her family learned firsthand that masks do not guarantee protection. But face coverings have been proven to lessen the chance of infection. And a basic principle remains.
“We just believe that sometimes we have to do what is best for the common good,” she said. “We view wearing a mask as an act of love for ourselves and others. We have vulnerable people in our family, and as an act of love we choose to wear our masks and just take care of each other.”
She and her fellow teachers impart the same message at the Meriden Middle School, which is virtual on Mondays but in person the rest of the week and observes the precautions recommended by the CDC.
“That’s what we try to teach in our classroom every day,” Callie said.
To show its support for the Pugel family, the school posted a group picture of the faculty wearing not just their usual masks but also Christopher’s favorite color, red.
“We love you and are sending you healing thoughts,” the March 1 posting on Facebook read.
After some scary setbacks, Tony and Christopher both began to improve. But Tony was still intubated and unconscious when Callie got her turn to sit with him on Sunday. She arrived at 9:30 a.m.
“The nurse said, ‘Just talk to him like he was sitting there talking. Don’t be afraid to touch his hands or his feet. You can touch his face,” Callie recalled.
With no way of knowing if he could hear her, she updated him on how everybody was doing.
“He’s reading a book about the Romanov daughters, so I talked to him about Rasputin,” she later told The Daily Beast.
At one point, she took out her iPad. She had school papers to grade.
“Life doesn’t stop,” she later said.
The work gave her at least a semblance of something essential in the time of COVID.
“Normalcy,” she said
At 7:30 p.m., she bid her father goodnight.
“I just told him that I loved him and I’m glad we had a great day together,” she later said.
She was of course wearing a mask as she headed home.
“Always,” she said. “We’re just mask wearers and sanitizers.”
On Monday, she taught remotely. Her brother continued to improve. And there was exciting news about her father.
“He sat for nine minutes with assistance and stood for 25 seconds with assistance,” she reported.
She understood her father still had a long way to go, but he and her brother were moving in the right direction.
“We’re heading toward healing, health, and home soon,” she said. “When I say soon, whenever that is, it is just baby steps every day, which we’re OK with.”
And meanwhile, their family is blessed with normalcy’s royal cousin, a power that is all the more important in a pandemic where there is so much reckless selfishness.
“We love each other,” Callie said.
She added, “Though we’re not perfect, I think our love for each other is.”