Editor’s note: This is the first in a multi-part series examining how the Covid-19 pandemic has affected the lives of Cuencanos and Cuenca expats.
By Robert Bradley and Sylvan Hardy
The Covid-19 virus has changed lives around the world. Besides infecting 35 million and killing more than a million, it has caused economic hardship and radically reconfigured how people live their lives. Despite the promise of a vaccine, experts say the virus will continue to spread for many more months and possibly be with us for years.
In Cuenca, pandemic lockdowns and social distancing restrictions have closed hundreds of businesses, some of them for good, left mass unemployment and created a crisis of homelessness. Dozens of local charities struggle to feed thouands of refugees, many unable to leave due to travel restrictions and lack of money.
For a few forunate businesses, Covid has created new opportunities and opened new markets.
Among the city’s expat community, Covid has rearranged lives, kept many at home, curtailed social agendas, altered daily routines and travel plans. Some expats have left for their home countries to be closer to family and additional health care options. Others, trapped overseas by travel bans, have returned. Tragically, the disease has killed at least four foreign residents, including two U.S. citizens in their 60s. Many more have been infected, most, fortunately, recovering.
We begin our Pandemic Series with the stories of three local residents, an expat and retired phamacuetical researcher who misses the “human touch,” and two Cuencanos who have struggled to keep their businesses afloat.
Missing the human touch
“One thing I’ve really missed are the Ecuadorian hellos and goodbyes,” says Ray Hemming, a retired pharmaceutical researcher and five-year Cuenca resident. “They’re important everywhere but they’re really special here because the community is so close-knit and family oriented. And that feeling spills over to the expats. I miss the warm handshakes and kisses on the cheek, the sincerity and the warmth.”
During the pandemic, he says, he doesn’t always know how to approach his friends and acquaintances. “Sometimes it’s the elbow or fist bump, sometimes you just nod and stand back a few feet and talk. A lot of time it seems almost like a joke.”
Hemming says he is careful not to judge how others are handling the pandemic, by way of greetings or otherwise. “A lot of the foreigners here are older, like my wife and me, so there are good reasons to be careful,” he says. “The situation is hard on all of us and the last thing we need are the nasty arguments you see in the U.S.”
He adds: “Personally, I’d be inclined to get out more and do things but my wife has health problems that make her vulnerable. She encourages me to see my friends but I try to limit my trips out of the apartment for her sake.”
Trained as a pharmaceutical chemist who worked for years in labs in New York and Switzerland, Hemming takes special interest in the science of Covid-19, the public health policies designed to control it, and especially the development of a vaccine and other drug therapies to combat it. “I spend way too much time on the internet, reading everything I can. What I find especially interesting is the range of opinions scientists have and confusion it causes. On the one hand, there’s a need for a consistent public health policy but on the other, you have to allow the contrarian views, especially when they’re from reputable people, and you need to adjust policy to fit the new information.”
Hemming is skeptical about the effectiveness of the first Covid vaccine. “I worry that the political pressure for a quick fix is screwing up the process and creating unrealistic expectations. Even under the best circumstances, a vaccine will be only 70 percent effective and 60 percent is just as likely. And then, you’ll need two of them. I’m extremely cautious about the entire project.”
Putting the science aside, Hemming worries most about the social toll of the pandemic. “It’s not just handshakes and kisses that I miss,” he says. “Right now, we have to social distance to protect ourselves and other people. My sincere hope, though, is that social interaction returns as soon as possible, either through a vaccine or by the disease simply running its course. Restoring the human touch is just as important beating Covid, probably more important.”
Paying the price to keep his cafe open
Chef Jose Brito will rise early this morning just as he does every morning, except Sunday. On Sunday he sleep in — until 7 a.m.
Today, like every day, Brito will arrive at his restaurant and art gallery, Casa Azul, on San Sebastian Plaza hours before opening, to bake desserts, prepare ingredients for his menu, set out the tables and chairs, and stock the refrigerator with beer and sodas.
His routine comes at a cost. His relationship with his girlfriend and business partner came to a sad and blistering end in the midst of the pandemic — a boil-over due to the endless hours of worry and work.
Even in the most perilous times, Brito was obsessed with succeeding, and for this, he has paid dearly. Still youthful, he looks older than he did a few months ago, his demeanor has become more formal, a little more guarded. The border wall called Covid 19 has extracted a heavy toll but Brito endures it with a strength that is inspiring.
The months of mandated closure and the pressure to reopen have made Chef Brito more reflective of his priorities. When asked how he was handling the pressure cooker of being a business owner in a volatile industry, he replied, “I’ve learned to be patient and humble and don’t mind the hard work. I take pride in the quality and presentation of my food and pay personal attention to my customers. I want to make sure they’re safe and feel at home in my restaurant during these difficult times.”
Although his business is picking up, there is a mountain of debt looming in the background that will take years to overcome, Brito remains committed to growing Casa Azul. “I am fulfilling my dream,” he said smiling through the steam of a cafe con leche. “I’ve been given this opportunity to build my own future. I am a very fortunate man.”
Chef Brito will host an art show opening and concert beginning at 6 p.m. this Friday, October 2, at Casa Azul, and is celebrating the occasion with a special menu. He plans on being in the kitchen and attending to guests from early morning until late at night. It is what he does every day.
After six months, his gym reopens
“We were closed for exactly six months,” says Diego Plasencia, speaking of his Art Gym on Calle Alfonso Jerves, a block from Calle Larga. “I was open on Saturday, March 14 and we were ordered to shut two days later, on March 16. “It feels good to finally be open again. Really good.”
Although the doors of Art Gym are open again, the routine is not what it was in March. “We operate under new rules, some of them from the government, some of them my own, with the objective of keeping everyone safe and healthy,” says Plasencia. Those rules include a temperature check of members as they enter the gym, a face mask requirement, social distancing and protocols to wipe down equipment after each use. “We’re restricted to 30 percent capacity, so we only allow six people for each hour session,” he explains.
How did he survive? “It wasn’t easy. I rented out some of my equipment and used all of my savings. I was also lucky to have a girlfriend who was still working and who shared her own savings with me.”
Many other Cuenca gyms are not reopening, Plasencia says. “How can you close for six months and survive with no income? It’s not just gyms but all kind of businesses that suffered. I was fortunate. I know of other gyms that didn’t make it, which means there are a lot of people out there who want to get back to their workout routines who can’t.”
Plasencia, who worked in the U.S. from 1998 to 2004 as a flower arranger and personal fitness trainer, says he doesn’t blame the government for his hardships but believes the response to the pandemic could have been handled more fairly. “At first no one really knew much about Covid but as we learned more I think the restrictions should have changed to meet the situation of particular businesses. If you noticed, some of the big stores like Coral and Kiwi were allowed to reopen and there wasn’t much effort of social distancing. Obviously, money and influence played a role in the decisions.”
He adds: “I’m not complaining. It doesn’t do any good to look back. I’m just happy to be back at work and happy to see my old friends again.”