My Life Under Covid

By Covid Czar Jen Shepard

Under Covid Agent – A Life of Uncertainty
The world changed drastically in mid-March. We all know this.
I had just had a milestone birthday. My mom and her husband moved to Bangor and I’d just returned from Chicago where we held auditions for the 17th season at ImprovAcadia, my theater in Bar Harbor. I was preparing for a very busy spring. I was slated to play Dr. Ruth at PTC and then directly after that to open ImprovAcadia.

While we were in Chicago holding auditions, we started hearing more about cases cropping up in Chicago. On the way home, we sanitized everything we touched. We heard others talking about Covid and watched as they also sanitized everything.

When I returned from Chicago, I didn’t know that our entire season would eventually be canceled. I started casting the season. I saw my Mom. On March 7th, I taught an improv workshop with Kae Cooney for 250 people. Later that day I found out that 250 was considered the threshold of a “dangerously infectious” gathering. I nervously waited the 14 days to see if I was safe to see my Mother who is in the high risk catergory.

In the following days, that number kept shrinking until the end of the month when it was down to only 10 people allowed to gather at one time.
Dr. Ruth was canceled and ImprovAcadia’s season was in jeopardy. Over the proceeding weeks, it became clear that our small 50 seat theater would not be able to open for the 2020 season. I lost my entire income. I wasn’t unique. That happened to millions of Americans.

I spent April in shock. Alternating between intense crying jags and complete numbness to avoid panic. I was kept afloat by the emotional support of friends near and far as well as my family and husband. I had one family that offered no overt emotional support – my cat.

I barely left the house. I became a Zoom expert. I visited my Mom in Bangor through a glass door. I ate dessert everyday because what else was I going to do?

One day I was in my pajamas on the couch watching The Birdcage. I felt completely lost. I didn’t have a job. I couldn’t get through to Maine Unemployment, like, ever. I couldn’t see a way forward. Then a thought entered my head, “I should contact Bari. PTC is lacking an Executive Director. Maybe she needs help? I could be of use.”

I wrote to her immediately. She wrote back with this message – “Yes, we need help but I can’t tell you what help we need because we don’t know what’s going on.” That was the whole world in March/April 2020.

I understood. I told her that I was available and to call me if I could help. I realized that I had to get moving. This broke my depression. Larrance, my husband and business partner, and I carried on. We created ImprovAcadia Virtual Singing Telegrams for Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Graduations and Birthdays. In 6 weeks, we made 300 custom songs. The Song Project was very affirming. People were still interested in seeing us create. More than interested, enthusiastic even! We were swamped with orders and continue to make songs even now.

The Song Project got me reconnected to my creativity and to the world. I could see a bigger picture than just my personal issues. I felt the yearning of families wanting to be together but making the hard choice to be safe. When I neared the Father’s Day deadline, June 21st, Bari asked if I would join the PTC Administration. I started on June 22nd. She asked me to come onboard as the Special Covid Agent. I was to examine all the various news items, current thinking/opinions and create enhanced cleaning and safety protocols. I would be in charge of all things Covid.

I dove into the world of preparing the 100 year old Opera House so the staff of PTC would return on August 3rd. This meant many things….
The first was hours of reading articles, other businesses’ covid procedures, calling anyone who would talk to me about what they were doing/handling x, y and z. I spoke with many other theater owners, the covid team at College of the Atlantic and medical professionals. The second was researching cleansers that would kill the virus on hard surfaces. This meant spending quite a bit of time reading the CDC’s covid checklists, suggested procedures and scouring the internet for good sources of things like isopropyl alcohol. Hard to find these days. The third was going into every cleaning procedure in excruciating detail. I started with a walk through the theater with Tricia Hobbs. Tricia is our Technical Director. She and I walked through the entire building starting with the HVAC system all the way to the top floor thinking our way through what was needed where and trying to evaluate trouble spots where social distancing wasn’t possible. Then we talked through potential solutions – trying to brainstorm creative solutions to thorny obstacles to safety.

The fourth was ordering a staggering amount of additional cleaning supplies as well as tracking down KN95 masks to keep our staff safe.
It was my job to take all of the information and synthesize it into an action plan, a set of protocols that we could all follow. I examined each potential interaction, arrival, departure, etc step by step. Here’s an example – Lunch/Breaks If you want to take your Lunch/Breaks inside PTC, you will need to stagger your off time with your co-workers. There will be a designated eating area. You can only eat lunch in this area. Please sanitize the table before you sit down. After you sanitize the table, wash your hands. Enjoy your lunch. Clean and sanitize the table. Wash and sanitize your hands. Put your mask back on and return to work.

This was an easy one. Don’t get me started on the Arrival at Work protocol. We’re planning to welcome back the Production Staff on August 3rd. When they come back, I’ll have a Covid Procedures Manual, multiple hand sanitizing stations and ppe for all staff. The months of August and September will be devoted to preparing for our upcoming season and completing projects that have been on the back burner for years.

Next Time on My Life Undercovid: The Same Two Steps or That’s just Deja Vu!