The alarm goes off at 4 a.m. and Kylie Widhelm presses the snooze button. Just once.
She gets up, nurses her 9-month-old girl and checks on her other two daughters. She makes a breakfast smoothie, packs lunch and leaves her Gretna house in her CHI Health scrubs, Caribbean blue.
The forecast says 70 degrees, but it’s hard to believe at 4:45 a.m. Fog condenses on her windshield. A cold south breeze whips flags beside the highway. She could count the headlights on one hand.
Widhelm didn’t used to go to work this early, but then COVID-19 came to town and she moved to the front lines.
On her 20-minute drive to Creighton University Medical Center-Bergan Mercy, she plays a podcast, a Christian sermon titled “This is how I fight my battles.”
We all have our ways.
To capture the emerging pandemic and its effects, more than a dozen World-Herald staffers fanned out across the metro area Wednesday to document a day in the life of Omaha. Hour by hour, we spoke to dozens of ordinary people adapting to an extraordinary moment in history.
We visited retail shops and donation drives, churches and schools, parks and cemeteries, the airport and the river.
We found a city unsettled by what’s happening and frightened of what’s next. Grocery store shelves are empty; homeless shelters are full. School buses are gone; Amazon trucks are everywhere.
In a span of 24 hours, we found emotions leaping from one extreme to the next. From resilience to anxiety. Sorrow to inspiration.
When spring finally squeezed through the clouds Wednesday afternoon, you could almost see the grass greening and spirits lifting. But back at 5 a.m., when Bergan Mercy’s main doors opened, it still felt like winter.
Upstairs in the maternity ward, a Vietnamese immigrant arrives for a long day of labor. On the fifth floor, a 51-year-old father spends his 12th week away from home. At any given moment, a hospital juggles hundreds of responsibilities. But everything revolves around the coronavirus.
Widhelm enters at the hospital’s staff door and exchanges her personal items for a surgical mask. Her expertise is occupational therapy — she supervises rehab — but now she spends the first chunk of her 11-hour shift screening incoming patients.
At one of Bergan’s six increasingly secure entrances, Widhelm settles in behind a table stocked with sanitizer. When the first patient walks through the automatic door, Widhelm greets the elderly man with a smile. Then she asks the first question on a COVID-19 checklist she knows by heart.
“Have you experienced any fevers or chills?”
• • •
On Omaha’s riverfront, five college girls enter an empty parking lot and spill out of a white sedan. They put on their coats and stocking caps and hike shoulder to shoulder toward the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge.
Their purpose? Adventure.
COVID-19 cost two of them part-time jobs this month. It cost them all a second semester and spring break trips.
Olivia McMahon was supposed to fly out to Arizona today. Sarah Harrison booked tickets for Denmark, Ireland and Italy. Yikes. When her trip got canceled, Harrison considered joining her church group in Texas. Sorry. How ’bout California for her friend’s wedding?
“That was a no,” Harrison said.
A mile away, at Eppley Airfield’s north terminal, the 7 a.m. security line should be backed up to the Scooter’s booth. Some 300 passengers per hour should be flowing through the checkpoint. Instead, the Scooter’s manager has seen just two passengers all morning.
Southwest 2531 to San Jose? Canceled.
Delta 2003 to Atlanta? Canceled.
American 2540 to Dallas-Fort Worth? Canceled.
So the five college girls hunker down in Omaha, social distancing from most everyone except each other. If one of them has the virus, they figure they all have it. And surely a dawn trip to the riverfront can’t hurt anything.
At 7:24, they reach the crest of the bridge, where a sign documents the Missouri River’s history of change, where a bright orange ball should’ve warmed their faces. Instead, their noses are cold and they can’t see a thing.
“We were trying to watch a sunrise,” McMahon says. “The forecast looked promising!”
They keep walking. Maybe they’ll find something.
• • •
In downtown towers, skeleton work crews — more casual than usual — go to their corners on awkward elevator rides. Who wants to touch the button?
At 180th and West Dodge Road, Kiley Gerdes washes little hands at Small Miracle Preschool and Childcare. She normally welcomes 135 kids; today it’s roughly half. Parents can remove their kids but reserve their spots by continuing to pay a fourth of the normal tuition rate.
At 131st and L, a Nebraska Medicine labor and delivery nurse sanitizes the inside of her van while her husband pumps gas at Sam’s Club — wipe your hand, dear. They head home and Robyn Stephen crashes from a 12-hour night shift. But not before sealing her clothes in a plastic bag and taking a hot shower.
At 51st and Center, the Hy-Vee doors opened at 7 a.m., but only for “high-risk” customers. The regular crowd is supposed to wait for 8. By then, the run on Charmin is over. Toilet paper and paper towels are gone.
Downtown, a breakfast icon sits quiet. Pettit’s Pastry, 66 years in business, has cut back production on everything from eclairs to birthday cakes. COVID-19 took away the NCAA basketball tournament, the College World Series, Berkshire Hathaway meetings and the Olympic Swim Trials, all events that should’ve brought customers through the door.
“I’m trying to stay optimistic,” says Mark Pettit, who co-owns the shop with his brother.
That means staying open. Pettit is doing his best to take care of his 40 employees. What he doesn’t sell, he donates to homeless shelters, first responders, even the nearby brewery that recently began making hand sanitizer.
“We want to make sure nothing goes to waste.”
And no loyal customer goes unrecognized. Like Darryl, who years ago walked a mile from Central High to get his sugar rush. Wednesday morning, he comes in with plans to deliver to his friends.
I’ll take a dozen, he says.
There aren’t enough Darryls to keep everyone afloat.
At 19th and Vinton, giggling groups of 14-year-old girls should be picking out quinceañera dresses. Bridesmaids should be combing through racks of satin and lace.
Maria Kaczor’s Modest Bride shop is open, for now. She’s kept busy altering dresses and suits. But she closes the shop an hour or two early. No need for her husband to swing by after work to help out.
“I can handle it myself.”
Proms are off. Weddings are on hold. How can you celebrate when the Douglas County Health Department restricts gatherings to 10 people?
Even browsing isn’t the same. Kaczor can’t allow customers to try on dresses for sale. They must put on disposable gloves before touching the sparkly earrings.
“We’re praying everything is done soon, but we don’t know when it will all be OK.”
At 16th and Farnam, S.Y. Cleaners planned to stay open only two more days, despite racks full of clothes waiting for pick-up. When people work from home, owner Soon Kang said, they don’t need dry cleaning.
She’s hopeful she’ll reopen eventually. Her native South Korea has rebounded from COVID-19 and her relatives have even offered to send help.
Not money. Not clothes.
There’s no silver bullet to beat the virus. No medicine to heal shuttered windows and pink slips. How can Omahans feel some sense of control?
Cecilia Saavedra devotes hours to shopping and delivering groceries for the elderly, the ill, the immunocompromised. Her mission today at Supermercado Nuestra Familia on Vinton Street is a family with three young children, two of whom have asthma.
The 26-year-old University of Nebraska at Omaha student spends nearly 5 minutes wiping down a shopping cart before filling it with broccoli, lettuce, potatoes, bananas, 5-pound bags of dried pinto beans and rice, six cans each of tomato sauce and green peas, a box of Frosted Flakes — a tiny treat for the kids.
The bill: $51.52. It comes out of her pocket.
At the Red Cross on 132nd and West Dodge, donors line up to get poked. There’s Greg Stolp, who knows the importance of healthy blood — his son Raef has bone cancer. And Paul Wortman, who’s donated blood for 46 years. And Ken Stier, who felt a divine duty to help.
“I’ve been given a gift, and it’s not a gift if you don’t share it.’’
At Holling Heights Elementary, Connie Goeser shoves a thermometer inside a piece of meat and studies the display: 160 degrees.
It’s 9:30 and the first batch is hot enough to serve. But Goeser, 57, gives it a few extra minutes, just to be safe.
Goeser manages the kitchen at Abbott Elementary, another Millard school. She had to cover today at Holling Heights because the usual cook had his car broken into overnight.
The plan is to serve 144 meals. She wraps the first batch in foil and packs them into foam trays with cucumber slices and a mustard packet.
Just before 10 a.m., cars start pulling up to the curb. Goeser pushes carts of meals.
“Here you go, sweetheart.”
“How many do you need? Six?”
“Thank you. We’re here every day. Whatever you need.”
Seven-year-old Kemma Grace lays eyes on the day’s offering and grins.
• • •
The foggy murk mixes with the exhaust of idling semis. Above them blinks the red lights of the giant Sapp Bros. coffee pot marking one of Omaha’s best-known fuel-and-eat spots for truck drivers.
They pull their rigs into the plaza for diesel fuel, their license plates spanning from Florida to North Dakota. One truck, a lubricant hauler out of Wisconsin, features a finger-drawn message on its dusty backside:
DRIVER CARRIES NO TOILET PAPER.
Around the service center, Sapp Bros. posts a long list of coronavirus changes. Self-serve doughnutsare out. Bathrooms are sanitized hourly. New Plexiglas hangs down from metal chains in front of the counters.
Opposite one of the cashiers is Ron Gruhn, a Sapp Bros. Petroleum driver the past two decades. He delivers fuel to service centers within 150 miles.
He walks outside to his cherry red cab clutching work orders, climbs inside and reaches for his Clorox wipes. Too much depends on his industry; 18-wheelers can’t slow down now.
But truckers can’t carry a whole economy. Look at Village Pointe, the crown jewel of suburban shopping centers. Late morning, it’s nearly a ghost town.
Eric Molina, 40, emerges from Scheels toting a small white bag. He works for a construction equipment company and worries he’ll soon shift from salary to commission.
But right now, he’s thinking about a lake. He shows off his purchase: fishing lures.
“I should probably be adapting to quarantining,” Molina says. “But I just can’t help it. Gotta get out.”
So do world champions. At 11 a.m., inside his boxing academy at 30th and Sprague, Terence Crawford hammers out a light workout. Weightlifting. Stair-stepping. Treadmill.
No punching today. And no prizefighting anytime soon.
Crawford flew to New York two weeks ago to plan his next bout for June or July. The meeting never happened. Now one of America’s best athletes will likely lose months of his prime and potentially a seven-figure paycheck.
B&B Boxing Academy, which draws several top fighters from around the country, has already lost roughly $250,000 from event cancellations.
“Lot of f—ing money,” says Brian McIntyre, Crawford’s trainer and partner. “We’ll get it back.”
• • •
Back at Bergan Mercy, Kylie Widhelm finishes a morning of staffing, training, rounding and meeting. COVID-19 changes procedures without notice; there’s no such thing as a routine day anymore.
In maternity room 3, My Du and her husband, Fabricio Diaz, share a video game on their phones as they wait for their first child to arrive.
He’s from Omaha; she’s from Vietnam. They met online, first as friends, then something more. They married two years ago in her home country and she came to America in May 2019. Now they’re washing their hands every time they leave the room and discussing how life will be different in 24 hours.
“Not the best time to bring a child to this Earth,” Diaz says, “but I guess God has his reasons.”
On the hospital’s east wing, Jenny Daup spends Day 80 away from home.
Her husband, Alan, is a 51-year-old occupational therapist — just like Widhelm — who reluctantly entered the hospital in January with intense stomach pain. Emergency surgery broke up the clot between an artery and his small intestine. He hasn’t been home to Gothenburg, Nebraska, since.
Four more surgeries followed. And 79 nights on the east wing of the fifth floor, the Heart and Vascular Institute. The nurses of 5E have tried to ease the stress. They surprised Alan with a gift on his birthday. They’ve even let his dog, a Shih Tzu named Dobey, stay in the room. Before Alan’s last surgery, nurses brought in the hospital chaplain and they all prayed together.
“Alan cried and cried and cried,” Jenny says.
Because of COVID-19, she can’t hug the nurses anymore. Can’t shake their hands. Wednesday, though, Jenny noticed the afternoon forecast and called her daughter Maddie with an idea.
• • •
In a quiet, small room next to the main sanctuary at Papillion’s St. Columbkille Catholic Church, Joan Norman bows her head.
She prays for God to watch over his people and for the silver linings of the pandemic, such as her husband working at home.
The main church is silent and dark. Banks of votive candles, lit by the hopeful and the mourning, blaze in a corner.
The sanctuary can’t hold services, so the pews are empty. But the dim light reveals faces.
Parishioners taped photos of themselves on the backrests of the pews, facing the altar. A note to the priest hangs in the front row.
“Dear Father, We wish we were here. This is the pew we like best. We’re with you when you celebrate Mass on YouTube.”
North of downtown, it’s lunchtime at Omaha’s largest emergency shelter. Rice-beef casserole and canned peaches.
Also on the menu at Siena Francis House: warnings about social distancing and changes to meal times to avoid logjam lines.
So far, so good. Four hundred twenty-five people sleep nightly here. No positive COVID-19 cases.
Staff members in surgical gloves clean tables and chairs as Director Linda Twomey motions to red tape spaced about 6 feet apart on the gray walls. That’s how far apart you should be standing in lines, she explains to residents. Wash your hands as much as possible. Use the sanitizer stations.
“Thank you for your patience. We’re all in this together.”
But Twomey can’t cure sickness, nor can she separate residents 24 hours a day.
Kelly Behrens, who’s been staying at Siena Francis since August, felt a jolt of paranoia one night last week as her bunkmate made a sound that may have gone unnoticed before COVID-19.
Cough. … Cough. … Cough.
“I’m scared,” Behrens says.
• • •
The blank headstone, a light gray, weighs 800 pounds. That’s why the yellow Swinger tractor is here at Voss Mohr Cemetery to help lower the stone into its final resting place near a barren tree.
James Hawkins and Terry Webb — who work for Milacek Monument Company — dig the hole for the stone. Four inches deep, with an even deeper auger hole in the middle to make sure the stone doesn’t settle into the earth.
Rap music blares from their truck as they pack dirt around the stone for a snug fit. These monuments men set stones at any cemetery within a 100-mile radius. Three to set today.
“I’m not worried about the virus,” Webb says. “I’m just going through my everyday life.”
“It’s not much worse than H1N1, bird flu, swine flu,” says Hawkins, the taller of the two, with a full beard creeping up his cheeks. “All this has been coming around for the entire time I’ve been alive. I’ve watched tons of these sicknesses blow by us and nobody really cared as much as this one.”
“The media’s blowing it out of proportion,” Webb says.
Hawkins, who has a wife and daughter at home, says he’s tired of seeing COVID-19 all over Facebook. But he recognizes the worst is yet to come.
“We haven’t peaked yet,” Hawkins says. “We have not peaked.”
At Cedardale cemetery nine miles down the road, Karen Walters and her three grown children sit beneath a canopy, grieving.
Richard Vernon Walters died six days before his 74th birthday. Complications from kidney disease. Social distance restrictions prevented a church funeral, or even a visitation.
Just a handful of mourners gather at the graveside, surrounded at a distance by small groups scattered on the old cemetery’s greening grass. More sat in their cars.
Two granddaughters read Scripture passages. A niece tells a favorite family story about fun-loving Rich chasing her and her kids in a supermarket scooter.
The pastor gives a sermon and offers a closing prayer. The musician sings “Amazing Grace.” “My chains are gone, I’ve been set free.”
Karen Walters hears her grandchildren sobbing behind her, but she can’t hug them. Can’t eat lunch with them. Can’t absorb their stories of her husband. She gives a little wave, and her family goes its separate ways.
• • •
Henry Doorly’s vast parking lots are empty. A sign at the front gate says: “Zoo temporarily closed.” Same goes for libraries, theaters and restaurants.
But the city beats a little faster after lunch. A parks crew disassembles a rotting tree on Franklin Street. Two ex-furniture movers toss horseshoes in a front yard off Cuming. At Pittman Animal Hospital, an 83-year-old ex-Marine cradles his new rescue dog, Pepper, who’s just received a clean bill of health.
“She’s a Shih Tzu,” says Richard Christensen, the retired letter carrier. “My drill sergeant called me something a lot like that.”
In Benson, wheelchairs line up in the main hallway of Maple Crest Health Center.
“The first song is ‘PYT’ by Michael Jackson!” a young woman announces. “Can we play it over the intercom?”
Eugenie Ahounou and her bubbly staff organized this dance-off to ward off fear and anxiety and loneliness — no visitors allowed during a pandemic.
The music starts and residents in wheelchairs shake their booties. Workers bust a few moves, too. An animated Kim Britt, who’s endured five strokes, needs oxygen all the time but finds the breath to expound on his back-in-the-day basketball prowess.
“I used to dribble between my legs, dunk over you, come down and say, ‘What you doin’ on this court, man?’ ”
Ahounou is stressed to the limit by a virus that threatens her high-risk population. Stressed by the loss of her brother, who died of leukemia Monday back home in Benin — half a world away. She can’t join her big, crazy Catholic family for the funeral. But she’s smiling now.
“You have to fake it till you make it,” Ahounou says, looking around the room at her staff and residents. “I have to lift them up.”
• • •
That’s a shift change at the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office. According to Capt. Wayne Hudson, social distancing has meant fewer 911 calls, accident reports or foot traffic inside the downtown courthouse.
But COVID-19 has produced a disturbing trend line: rising domestic violence calls. Families don’t leave the house to blow off steam.
Hudson can’t help but compare coronavirus to last year’s devastating floods. But this is worse because there’s no escape from the threat.
“That danger, that hidden danger, you can’t see it, feel it or touch it,” Hudson says. “But it’s everywhere.”
Against that backdrop, pawnshop business is up. At Sol’s Jewelry and Loan on 72nd and Maple, the action feels like a regular weekday. Maybe even busier.
Customers are buying more than selling.
“I have a store full of people,” manager Chris Gillespie says, “and they’re all looking at different things.”
Game systems. iPads. Laptops. TVs. So many TVs.
There’s one more notably popular item. At a glass case, a woman checks out a gun as her two grade-school kids stand and watch. Why buy now?
• • •
The 70-degree forecast was wrong, but 60 feels heavenly enough. Across the city, cooped-up families spill out of hibernation and into the yards and parks.
On Walnut Street, Scott and Abby Jordan mingle with neighbors in their front yard, spacing chairs 6 feet apart, as their kids socially distance on bikes and scooters.
Abby is part-owner of eCreamery and Carson’s Cookies. When her youngest, Frankie, was born prematurely, she weighed just more than a pound. Now the fresh air fills Frankie’s 6-year-old lungs. Soon Mom’s unsold cookies will fill her stomach.
“A really good day,” Abby says.
On Underwood Avenue, dueling front yards attract attention.
On the south side, Beth Engel planted a homemade sign in the ground — “Take what you need” — papered with colorful Post-Its designed to give neighbors a boost.
“Hug,” one says.
“You’re amazing,” says another.
“Patience,” counsels a third.
Across the street, the Nearys went all-in, decorating their turf with holiday inflatables.
The Statue of Liberty and Pumpkin Head Man. Two Santas and one snowman. A google-eyed Thanksgiving turkey and a large polka-dot hat with a banner that said, “The party is here!”
Come back Friday, implores Amy Farha-Neary. That’s when the new big Easter bunny arrives.
At Bergan Mercy, My Du, the Vietnamese immigrant, is still waiting on her baby. Eleven hours in the room leaves too much time to think.
Do we have the right name?
Kylie Widhelm, who arrived at work moments after Du showed up with her maternity bag, changes out of her scrubs and into a clean set of clothes. She’ll drive back to Gretna and pick up her daughters at day care — the last afternoon before it shuts down. Another coronavirus complication.
As she leaves, Widhelm walks past a young woman hard at work on the sidewalk outside. Is that chalk?
Jenny Daup’s husband is still in 5E, but her daughter, the UNO student, has turned the concrete below into her canvas.
Hurry, Maddie, the nurses change shifts at 7.
• • •
Stephanie Gaston made the plan months ago.
First, hit the casinos. She and her friends wanted to celebrate her 21st birthday across the river. She’d slide her new paper ID across a bar, find a slot machine and sip her first legal drink at 12:01 a.m. on Wednesday morning.
COVID-19 doused her plans. “I got pretty bummed,” Gaston said.
Instead, she picks up margaritas from El Vallarta, showing her ID through a car window. Her first drink comes as Mom prepares her favorite meal, crab legs, before a night of family games.
Without slots, charades will have to do.
As dinner time arrives, Omaha’s temperature rises to its daily high, 62 degrees. The wind ceases and you’d swear the past two weeks were just a dream. An exercise to remind us why freedom and fellowship matter.
In the Old Market, a husband treats his wife to a birthday and anniversary meal from Le Bouillon. They can’t go inside, so he sets up a table, chairs and flowers in the back of their pickup truck.
In Cherry Hills, Mary and Jess Faber distribute 500 flyers, one for every house in the neighborhood, offering to pick up groceries for high-risk neighbors.
In Bellevue, Matt Walter pitches to his son on an empty baseball diamond. The 9-year-old swings the metal bat — ping — and rounds the bases — “Woohoo!” — before sliding into home. Down the street, a black pickup rumbles by a food pantry distribution site, where volunteers had earlier handed out pasta, potatoes, bread and apples to a line of cars three blocks long. The driver asks if the food is gone.
At Memorial Park, women in hijabs chase kids who chase soccer balls. An old man closes his eyes in a hammock oblivious — at least for a few moments — to the world around him. The sun sets over St. Margaret Mary, the oranges and pinks mixing above the 112-foot bell tower.
The church, built during World War II, has offered the city a lighthouse through countless conflicts. From race riots to economic collapses. But this tug-of-war between dread and defiance — this invisible foe — feels new. Different.
Back at Bergan Mercy, Maddie Daup puts the finishing touches on five hours of artwork. She’s covered the sidewalk that connects nurses to their parking lot. Flowers and bicycles and trees and, most important, messages.
Bloom where you’re planted.
The world needs you.
That mask makes you beautiful.
As nurses sanitize one last time and head out the door, they stop and take photos of the concrete. Jenny Daup watches it all from a fifth-floor window, smiling.
In the maternity ward, the nervous husband and wife missed an entire day outside — sunrise to sunset. And 14 hours of solitude hasn’t produced a baby. But just after 7:30 p.m., nurses say it’s time. They wheel 24-year-old My Du into a delivery room, where she labors, her husband holding her hand.
Baby doesn’t want to come out. Doctors almost give up and opt for a C-section. But Mom keeps trying. Three hours.
Finally, at 10:33, a 7-pound, 8½-ounce girl arrives. Her name is Lina and, according to Dad, she looks like her mom.
Moments later, a woman in scrubs pushes a button at the nurse’s station, activating a song that Kylie Widhelm and Jenny Daup have heard hundreds of times, a 19th-century German melody that plays for 15 seconds on hospital speakers — even in the ICU — every time a baby is born. Day or night. Healthy or sick. In peace or panic.
Goodnight, Omaha. See you in the morning.