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To Protect Our Families, Lose That First-World Entitlement

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California hills
Tony V,
California

“The more comfortable we are, the more we try to live in the perfect seventy two degree weather and not have worries or concerns and not be slightly uncomfortable; I think the more problems we're going to have as a society, because life is not easy. Life is hard.”

At the turn of the millennium, Tony was paranoid there would be a terrorist attack on American soil. His fears became real. On that September 11th he was in the World Trade Center when the first plane hit.

“I didn’t panic. I made the decision to get out. I was surrounded by all these people staring upwards. I said, I think I should get out of here. And as I descended the staircase to the subway, I heard that second plane hit and accurately knew that we were under attack.”

Tony has a survivor mentality. He is a man who worries about everything so he will panic about nothing. As he got older, he got married and had two boys, and that meant protecting them too.

At the start of 2020, Tony was living in a house in Los Angeles. In order to make ends meet so that he could support his family, he was working four jobs. In the evenings, he was a VIP suite attendant at stadiums around the L.A. area. During the days, he was doing some talent management. He had 20 clients. He was also recording audio for erotic books and was actively auditioning for film and TV roles. Then, on top of everything, he was co-parenting his two boys.

The fight to survive in Los Angeles was real. Gas prices were absurd and auditions were expensive.  His son’s preschool costs were steep. It was a never ending struggle, and it was exhausting. But he had dealt with discomfort his whole life. Unlike many, he didn’t fear discomfort. At the beginning of 2020, he finally felt like he was making inroads with his career.

That feeling didn’t last long. When the lockdowns happened, nearly all of his sources of income dried up. Stadiums shut their doors. Production sets closed, and nobody was asking for his clients’ talents.

With the pandemic, though, money took second priority to his family’s health.

Tony particularly worried about his oldest son. From the time his son was born, his son had always had digestion issues. His son just didn’t want to eat. He was the one baby who the doctors needed to be woken up and fed. His son had always been very skinny. His health was so fragile.

He was also worried about his father-in-law, who had pulmonary fibrosis. The doctors long ago had given him only eight year to live, but he’s now been alive 21 years since the diagnosis. He was vibrant and a pleasure to be around, but Covid would be hard for him to survive. It would be hard for Tony and his wife to completely isolate from him. They were regularly delivering groceries to his father-in-law and providing other services. 

Keeping his family safe was a top priority, but doing that was hard without a job. Tony had been relying on his association with the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) for his family health insurance. He had a job lined up for a pilot in March. It would have brought sufficient earning eligibility to maintain his health insurance. Unfortunately, when the job disappeared, his family’s health insurance also disappeared.

Acquiring the same health insurance with COBRA would have cost him 1800 dollars a month, which was way too much for him. He opted for health insurance with the Affordable Care Act, instead. Still, it was three times more than what he had been paying. And it was also only for him and his wife. His sons had to move on to Medicare. There would be a very worrisome gap in their coverage. 

Tony became desperate to gain back his eligibility into his insurance plan with SAG. A game show, which he had previously worked at, contacted him to do a stand in. He was impressed by the protocols put in place as explained by the emails he got. Everybody on set also had to have a Covid test two days before production. He took the job.

When he got there, the first appearances were good. The craft services were impressive. It was set up in a parking garage. Food orders were placed to workers behind plexiglass, and food was put into enclosed containers. Hand sanitizers were everywhere. There were also one-way walkways to the set, taped with arrows.

The problem was the set. He found himself filling in as a family member. Producers were sitting right next to him. Seating was not spaced six feet apart.

 “I just made one comment like, that’s not six feet. And it turned into this big. ‘Oh, he’s uncomfortable. He’s uncomfortable.’ And he alerts the stage manager. And he said, ‘OK.’ And over his walkie, ‘OK, we need a folding chair next to where they need to be, just for the purposes of this rehearsal. Only we have a stand-in who is uncomfortable with assists.’ I mean, it just turned into this huge thing and I’m just there going, ‘I’m okay, I’m okay.’ I mean, it’s not six feet. It’s about three feet. But I don’t want to ruin the shot.”

Tony was willing to ignore that. However, similar bending of rules happened three or four times during that day. The situation went past his comfort level. Social distancing was weakly enforced. Empty chairs were put in to maintain social distancing, but then a producer sat on one. Two producers on opposite sides of him talked across him with their mouths exposed. Even with the walkways, he saw people walking on both sides. It was hard to avoid people.

He made a decision. He was desperate to gain eligibility for SAG work, but he needed to prioritize the health and safety of his family. The set was clearly not safe

At the end of the day, he went to the person who was making the schedule and told them that he felt that he had made the incorrect decision for coming. He then later called the associate director to apologize. He didn’t want to burn bridges. He recognized that the production set was trying. A lot of people were fine with it, but it still felt too risky for him. Not everyone was on the same page and those controlling the production weren’t strict enough. 

“Unfortunately, the atmosphere, especially the environment right now, politically, we don’t have everybody on board. And a pandemic like this that happens once every hundred years or so or the last time we had something serious happen hundred years ago, something like this, as serious as this. We all need to find a way to be on the same page in order to make it work, in order to bounce back.”

Getting on the same page has been challenging. Wearing masks and social distancing causes discomfort. But Tony grew up with discomfort. His father was disabled, and Tony spent much of his childhood being a crutch for his father. Tony sees that many people have this first-world entitlement, where they don’t think they should have to be discomforted. Adding onto this, many states are giving different information. Without an authority directing the nation to have everyone on the same page, Tony doubts they’ll ever be on the same page. It’s just become too political.

Not accepting jobs because of the risk brings other problems. Los Angeles is expensive. Right now, he’s still earning unemployment. However, without the six hundred dollars extra, it is hard to pay the bills.

He’s thought of what he can do. He could be a masseuse, but in Covid nobody is massaging. He could drive, but he has back issues that might affect him. He could deliver for Amazon. He’s trying to figure out what he can do online. He’s teaching classes. He has a professor in Florida who used him to teach a class. He’s trying to improvise. He has some more game show auditions. Right now, with unemployment benefits still coming in, he has options.

“I feel grateful that I had the luxury of that choice. But what I see is perhaps in the next few months, I may no longer have that luxury. For survival I may need to find another job.”

Tony has thought about leaving Los Angeles. His kids are learning online, so there are no worries about school. He considered quarantining with his sister in Arizona. His sister has kids and his kids get along well with their kids. His sister’s family invited Tony’s family over for Father’s Day, which seemed like a great opportunity. He wanted to create some positive memories with his kids. It would be a great trip for all to see the Grand Canyon, the Petrified Forest, and other places.

They had apprehensions. Tony knew that his sister had a few different viewpoints than him. California and Arizona also were governed in very different ways. His wife is a personal trainer and she trained his sister online. To preempt any friction, at the end of one training, they all had a quick conversation to forego any possible friction. He explained to his sister about the precautions his family would take, why they would be wearing masks, and why they were on the fence. He knew that there were a lot of vectors where his sister’s family was getting exposed, from her stepson to her stepson’s live-in girlfriend. Her stepson’s mother was also a working flight attendant. Tony’s sister got a little defensive, but her husband came in and diffused the situation. Everyone agreed to get tested. Thus, Tony thought they were on the same page.

Tony and his family drove 470 miles out to Flagstaff. There they met his sister and Tony’s mother, who drove up from Phoenix. A few years back, she had contracted valley fever. She is 73 and has scarring of the lungs. She’s also forgetful, which makes her particularly vulnerable.

“It didn’t work out well. My mom didn’t quarantine. She didn’t keep her mask on as well as I had hoped. And my sister got really offended by our mask-use and very critical and judgmental about me wearing gloves… And it ended with her saying incredibly hurtful things to me on our way out. Probably more hurtful than she’s ever said as we’ve been adults. I’m still unpacking a lot of it.”

Tony had made a mistake. He had thought that he and his sister had similar views but he realizes now that she has been fed truth differently. Like their uncle, he and her sister had different sets of facts than him. From these different facts, she had different opinions.

“I think the question of how can we react to this pandemic if we don’t all have a shared truth is absolutely pertinent to my world right now.”

Tony also sees that his sister also has a certain first-world entitlement. He doesn’t think she can handle being uncomfortable. He sees this in her discipline style and he sees it with her kids. She has a lot of difficulty getting her kids off of their iPods.

“I think that the more comfortable we are, the more we try to live in the perfect seventy-two degree weather, seventy five maybe, and not have worries or concerns and not be slightly uncomfortable; I think the more problems we’re going to have as a society, because life is not easy. Life is hard.”

Tony acknowledges that maybe he is not right. The pandemic is making him check his parenting style. Nobody knows if what they’re doing is the right thing. 

He wants to raise his kids right. He doesn’t want his kids to panic. He doesn’t want them to suffer post-traumatic stress. He wants to have as much fun as he can with them. Yet, he wants them to recognize how serious the pandemic is. And he doesn’t want them to be raised with entitlement. His criticism with millennials still living with their families into their 20s and his own sister’s family is that they kids aren’t given the tools that they need to cope with life. It’s not fair on them.

On July 4th, Tony saw people gathering together in lakes and rivers, partying because they had the mentality that if they got sick, they got sick. He doesn’t believe they weren’t thinking about others. Kids these days have been so sheltered and so protected by their parents who don’t want them to suffer. But some suffering and discomfort is necessary to build empathy and think of others.

“I share that fear of my kids suffering. I don’t want my kids to suffer. So I want to shield them and I want to protect them. But I also know that there is some importance to letting them take risks. We just have to take the right risks and to navigate. That is really hard.”

Learn more about the Faces of Covid.