The ache and the anger: Boulderites look back on a year of COVID

Tuesday, April 13, 2021 (Updated Friday, April 16)

For this article, a dozen people who live and/or work in Boulder share what life became during COVID, in their own words. This piece is not meant to be representative of every way that life changed during the pandemic, or of these individuals’ complete experiences. Each entry focuses on one particular aspect or feeling, but most of the people shared multi-faceted and complicated stories of loss, grief, joy, solitude, togetherness and much more.

These interviews were conducted before the March 22 King Soopers shooting, to coincide with the one-year anniversary of local lockdown orders. Publication was postponed following that event. When possible, interviewees shared additional thoughts related to the tragedy that have been added as postscripts.

Stress on the front lines

The stress on healthcare workers was really great, even though we weren’t overwhelmed. We never did run out of beds or ventilators, or PPE. We never got anywhere near using the 40 additional beds the state gave approval for, but we were at full capacity for a lot of the days during the fall surge. 

We still had to deal with other things. It’s fearful when as a health care provider, you believe you’re doing the right things, except no one really knew about this virus. 

This is unprecedented. We’ve never had a crisis or emergency last this long for any organization. At an organizational level, you feel so helpless. We know there’s going to be really high need trying to figure out how we can support our staff in the next months to years.

We do an annual engagement survey with questions to measure burnout. It hadn’t changed a lot in July when we conducted it, but I think when we redo that this year, we’ll see a lot more heavy burden.

We are starting to see in the community more mental health issues, and certainly our staff as well. We’ve done a lot with wellness programs and resiliency programs. We stepped that up after the shootings. But that doesn’t mean it’s helping everyone.

Here in Boulder, we had some additional staff stressors and community stressors: the wildfires and the shooting. We actually started a pandemic recovery task force. We knew we needed to go deeper from events like 9/11 or natural disasters. We know what it’s like being the frontline workers, the people who are the rescuers. 

Once a week, food is delivered to the staff.  We have sound baths. If they need a therapist, they need to talk to somebody, we’re trying to facilitate that as best as we can. We do something called Schwartz Rounds where healthcare workers get together around a topic that’s emotionally charged: taking care of somebody who’s homeless, taking care of somebody who died, who we couldn’t save. We get together and talk through our experiences and our emotions and what that feels like. We just did one this week on the shooting. It’s care for the caregivers. 

Our manager of spiritual care has talked with all kinds of national experts. We want to prevent what we’ve seen in other situations which is a higher rate of suicide or people leaving the healthcare profession. 

I can tell you the community should be so proud of our staff here at BCH. They stepped up and they continue to do so. There was so much retraining, so that, for example, physical therapists who weren’t seeing their usual patients could help the ICU nurses doff and don PPE. Or they’d be runners so the nurse didn’t have to take off all that equipment when they needed something. 

That’s stressful in and of itself because it’s unfamiliar; you’re not doing the job you’re used to doing. They were amazing. Everybody was willing to say, ‘How can I help, what can I do? How can we take care of this community?’ 

— Jackie Attlesey-Pries, MS, RN, CENP, our Vice President of Operations and Chief Nursing Officer for Boulder Community Health

Permission to stop performing

The weight of having to consider every activity is definitely a lot, so I am looking forward to not having to do that. There’s (also) this feeling of I’m not ready to give up this space that I’ve created for myself. 

The pandemic has given me permission to turn inward. I probably have more of an introverted side, but the world expects us to be more extroverted. I’ve created my routines or little survival strategies. One of them has been painting.

The pandemic has for all of us, given us permission to not have to go out or perform or show up.. What happens when now there’s the choice between do you go out with your friends to the restaurant, or do you stay home and paint? 

As we come out of it, we’re going to have to be so tender with people, to be so much more cognizant that people have been through a trauma.  When we start to interact with people, we’re just going to have to be so gentle (and) give each other a lot of space to not be perfect, to not to be their best selves for a little while. 

My mental chatter has been I should be feeling hopeful, I should be feeling more optimistic. With the vaccine and everything out there, I should be feeling a lot better. And I’m not. Why am I not? 

When you’ve been through a lot, maybe you don’t want to get your hopes up. There’s a safety in not hoping, so you feel like you can survive whatever’s coming next. The show is not over til the fat lady sings. 

— Angela Bowman

When a mass shooting happens outside of your city, you can have a false sense of security. You feel as if it could never happen where you live for whatever irrational reasons you have for that, such as a thriving economic center, friendly neighbors, beautiful mountain backdrop, and low overall crime rate. But when a mass shooting happens where you live despite all of the factors that made you feel safe, you realize it could happen anywhere.

Boulder is much safer than many other places from daily gun violence. That is a function of white privilege and wealth. But nowhere is safe from mass shootings in the United States.

It’s definitely along the lines of “what does it mean to return to nomal?” Do we want to return to normal? There is so much that is not normal about gun violence, mass shootings, and many other issues we are facing as a society that have become normalized.

Essential but not protected or respected

After a year of working and being called an essential worker but not getting any pay raise for that, no hazard pay, no real benefits from being classified as an essential worker … I’m quite resentful of people who have been able to work from home. 

What really gets me is a total lack of respect that has been shown to me by a lot of these people. They answered the door with a mask on their face, but they’re working in an office right around the corner — not a mask in sight. It just felt like they mentally classified us as the help and then immediately their brains pre-wrote us to be part of the background. 

It’s been very demoralizing. I like my job, but none of us feel like we have any power over our workplaces. We don’t feel like we have any autonomy. We don’t feel like we have any means to make our workplaces safer to work in. 

Especially walking around at night, walking by restaurants. The first thing I see is the wait staff running around in masks, serving people who are unmasked. I feel resentful toward everyone who goes in and exposes that poor barista.

I try not to blame individuals. I blame the government for completely fucking up the response. I don’t try to blame the individual for what should have been a collective effort. I think this is just what happens when you have a country that is less than 10% unionized, that doesn’t have any real working class organizations capable of standing up for the little guys and gals and nonbinary pals.

Seeing the lack of care for everyone … I love Boulder, I really do. I’ve lived here for the past decade, I don’t want to live outside of the shadow of the mountains ever again. I really do love living here. I plan on one day being buried here. At the same time, this is a deeply, deeply diseased city, and god damn do I hate it. 

Every time I’m remodeling some rich fucker’s fifth bathroom, I just think to myself, Why is it I’m not building a hospital? Why am I not building a quarantine center, an expanded homeless shelter, more housing for working-class people like myself? Why am I building an ADU for someone who owns a $1.2 million house in Boulder that’s only going to be Airbnb’d for someone who has more than they could ever use?

— Austin Bennett

I love them, but they’re hurting the community

I had a friend die from COVID. He was one of less than 10 people I have seen socially this year, probably about four or five times. We talked about COVID and mask wearing, and he seemed pretty safe; he definitely wasn’t doing much. He had been vaccinated. It’s so weird.

The hardest thing has really been with my family. My brother, who lives in NYC, was a bike advocate like me. We were very close for many years. With the whole pandemic, he got all anti-mask. I haven’t really talked to him in a year. It’s too upsetting to talk to him.

There’s friends who went into restaurants and didn’t wear masks. They’re not as big a deal in my life. 

There’s this divide of people who have been cautious and people who have not been cautious. I don’t think about these people normally as people who don’t care about their community. You really have strong feelings that they are hurting their community. And yet they’re people you really care about.

That’s a whole other weird layer that still needs to be dealt with. 

I talked to a friend yesterday, and he said ‘It’s been a hard year. I don’t judge anyone anymore.’ I like that and I think I can live it. 

I resolve to give everyone a pass for the pandemic, even if their actions were harmful. It’s been such a tough year, and you don’t know what others had to do just to cope. Even my brother. Not for everything ever, but for whatever you personally needed to do to cope with the pandemic.

— Sue Prant

The shooting was beyond horrible in every way. You never think it will come to your town, but of course it does. I have only been in that store twice, so I did not feel any connection to that store — it’s over 5 miles away and I shop by bike — but I know it was a huge part of that neighborhood, so it feels additionally awful for south Boulder. 

‘There will never be a normal again’

I’ve actually lost over 30 lbs. during the pandemic. There’s the two extremes of folks who have gained weight — which is totally fine; we’re all going through trauma. I’ve just had the opportunity to move more. Usually I can’t. I’m chained to my desk. 

I also took up roller skating as one of my pandemic hobbies, and I’ve been walking my dogs around Longmont. It’s been fun to explore different parts of the city, versus just going to Boulder, going to work, coming home. Longmont has so many outdoor parks. There’s always people outside, playing basketball or little kids playing on the playground. 

It’s something I wasn’t thinking about before. I didn’t know how important those spaces were to have. 

There’s the good days where I’m like this is great, I don’t have to drive to work. Then there’s other days where I’m just so over it. I’m kind of at the end of my rope when it comes to working from home, doing the same thing every day, not having anything to look forward to. 

We’re almost there, but there’s still so many unknowns — all these new variants, how long this vaccine will last. It’s hard to think realistically about what the future might look like. I’m starting to see a little light at the end of the tunnel, but realistically I think it’s a ways away. 

But there will never be a normal again, at least for me. I just think I will probably always wear a mask, because I don’t want to get sick.

— Rachel K.

One thing I keep thinking about in regards to the shooting is how bizarre it is that we’ve grown used to this terror and how now I have to revert back to old ways of scanning a building for exits, like I would do prepandemic. I got my vaccine on the Friday the week of the shooting at a King Soopers and immediately looked around for the exits, just in case.

Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

The ache for love ones

I’m feeling hopeful and optimistic. 

In general, it hasn’t been as awful as I was anticipating. I remember reading stuff saying you will know personally someone who dies in this pandemic. I have family members in Oklahoma and Ohio who got it. My son’s girlfriend got it. I don’t know anyone personally who’s died. 

Of course, I’m a white woman, so the statistics are better for white people, but I really expected a year later that more of my immediate friends would have gotten really sick or have died.

My last aunt died last November, not from COVID, but from dementia. But there’s no question that her dementia was accelerated by not being able to see her family. And now there’s really no good way for the family to grieve. You can’t grieve the same way. 

I’m in the 65+ category. So pretty much all of my close friends, they’re my age, are getting their second vaccine. We plan to wait for two weeks, per CDC guidance, and then get together. I plan to have dinners for people, have my mother over for dinner. Just real, basic human connections.

I look forward to my mother being able to meet my grand-daughter. She’s 92 and in a senior living place in Louisville. I’ve been really worried (about) that. It’s just not normal to be completely isolated.  

It’s an ache in knowing how much that means to your own health, to be able to get together with my friends and family. And hugging. My son, he’s such a great hugger, and I miss that so much. 

Being with other people that I love — I’m really going to treasure that moving forward.

— Gina McAfee

The shooting affected me more than I was anticipating. That King Soopers is where I have shopped for the last 35 years. We knew two of the people killed. For me, it just increases my feeling of vulnerability.

Introvert’s paradise

Being more on the introvert side, I feel like I was made for this. Working and doing the tactical things I have to do on a day-to-day basis without being interrupted by the goings on in a very young tech office. For me, it’s made my life balance a lot better. I probably would have left where I was by now, otherwise.

Unlike many, many mothers and women, I wasn’t in the position of having to juggle my job on top of educating my kids at the same time. I had a few days I had to do that and I ended up in the fetal position crying. My husband’s job was so slow, he took that over. I feel a little guilty saying that, because many people have lost their jobs. 

It’s given me more visibility into what kids go through (with) awful online testing and their day-to-day curriculum. It ended up being really good, because I was able to take some of the pressure off, to tell them ‘I don’t care how you do on this test. I don’t give a damn about these tests.’

The kids have gone back to this 1980s childhood where kids play outside. They’re not ultra scheduled with all these activities and then they never meet each other. It really feels like a return to something that’s a little more sane in some ways. I hope some of that will stick.

I can’t be vaccinated. I’ve had severe reactions to vaccinations in the past. It just means I’ll wear a mask for a lot longer than others. 

I was already wearing one and feeling like a freak. Then COVID hit. It really helped me not feel alone in some of the (health) stuff I was having to deal with. It made it feel like I didn’t stick out.

— S.H.

The last year has just made me really grateful for simple things. The shooting was really earth-shattering, clearly. I took for granted the (false) safety I felt in that store. My children (6 and 9) would rummage, alone, through the bins of Hotwheels while I picked up a prescription — the only place in the world I’ve ever let them do that. And now that is gone, too.

Somehow, COVID and the changes we went through hunkering down and “isolating” now feel trivial. It’s only by an absolute stroke of luck (and forgetfulness) that one of us weren’t in the store at that very time. My heart hurts, every day, for the families and friends who weren’t so lucky, when we drive past the store on our way to and from school.

You can’t keep your kids safe

I’ve been so emotional. I wrote a cookbook this year. It’s a weird moment to have such professional success in such a deeply grieving world. I’m so proud of myself, but how can I be having success when so many people are hurting and struggling? 

That also is kind of that juxtaposition that I’ve felt all along with having little kids in the pandemic. When it started a year ago, my daughter was about to turn 2 and my son was 4.5. They were blissfully unaware. 

We had a strict no watching the news policy, in a way we could shut off the world and live blissfully in little kid land. That was such a relief to not have to live and breathe it all the time. It shows you how resilient kids are, but also how the innocence of children can actually be a survival tool.

My son is so sensitive, he understands a lot. We haven’t shied away from what’s happening in the world or in our hearts. To explain what was happening, we went for a hike. 

I explained it also in the sense of privilege. His day care accepted kids to come back for the summer. He wanted to know why can’t we go back? I was like buddy, we don’t need to. I don’t want to take someone else’s spot.

Sadly, it’s shown him the disparity in the world, the unfairness in the world, at an early age.

It breaks my heart in a way that I couldn’t protect my kids from experiencing a trauma. I know  people have lied to their kids. That’s just not how we operate. My hope for them is that they can meet the next thing and be stronger.

Kids have so much natural empathy, you just want to harness that. That sense of empathy and understanding, it helps, it gives me hope, frankly, for moving forward, and how he’ll treat people in the world.

I have hope for Boulder, I have hope for our community and I have hope for our state. I hope people can hang in there together so we can actually get to a point of actually living again. 

I was diagnosed with an autoimmune condition in the fall. I physically cannot go back to burnout life. For our physical health and mental health, we have to slow down.

— Jessica Benjamin

The shooting shook us big time. We live a half mile from King Soopers, and I had rolled through the lot right before the shooting, bailing on going in since I had too much stimulation at lunch. Hard to process how close it is/was.

It was a traumatic few hours of watching live, following tweets and listening to helicopters all while trying to keep a straight face around the kids. My husband and I went to the memorials the next morning; we have to drive by to get out of our neighborhood, so I had to peel that bandaid quick. By Wednesday we knew we wanted to share it with Mason.

There is a lot of beauty in the fence memorial, love and community is literally covering up the terror behind it. His father took him to the farewell processional for Officer Talley, and I took him to the memorial at King Soopers. We talked for two days about all of it: What happened, love, grief, guns… we worked on signs to add to the memorial and then biked down. He was quiet but asked what signs said, pointed out drawings from other kids, petted the therapy dogs and collected their “baseball cards.” He was very particular where we hung each sign, and every day when we drive past he’s proud to announce that he saw them, and to acknowledge how much bigger the memorial gets each day. 

It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to share with him. To have to simultaneously be honest on what happened, be authentic in my grief and anger, and to also not pass on fear to him — to tell him that his father and I do everything we can to keep him safe (and to omit the part that it may not be enough).

I choke on tears even writing it now. The hardest part of parenting through all of this is that there’s a plain truth that you can’t keep your kids safe. You can’t protect them from the evils of the world. I will fight like hell to try though.

In the meantime, we focus on what we can do, which is to teach love. 

Mason Benjamin visits the memorial for the King Soopers shooting in Boulder. (Courtesy of Jessica Benjamin)

The gap: COVID with kids, COVID without

Some days feel fine, and some days feel terrible. It seems kind of up and down right now. The news of vaccines is good; the news of variants is bad.

There’s a lot of grief: It hits in weird ways at weird times. My sister asked if we could maybe go on a ski trip next year. It set off this trigger of grief for my own life, (for) not being able to look into the future. The thought of not being able to was really sad. 

I feel like I’ve made such a safe association with home and being home. It feels kind of hard to think about anything else.

My kids are 3 and 6. We had an au pair, but we couldn’t come to an agreement on restrictions that allowed her to live her life and us to keep our family safe. We have the financial resources to hire a nanny or baby sitter, but it felt like at that point in the pandemic, that we’d be dealing with somebody else’s exposure and trying to run somebody else’s life.

I felt really trapped. It didn’t feel like there was another good option for childcare. My husband works in tech, so his job is much more demanding. He works longer hours and gets paid more. It was a tough decision, but I decided to leave my job and figure out what to do with the kids.

My job and my boss were awesome. It was an awesome job, it was flexible, it was fun. I loved my job, and it wasn’t a job I could go back to later. It felt like definitely the right thing for my family; it made the most sense at my time. Part of it felt like a weight off, like relief. 

I want to work again. It’s really hard to do both because we have this really rigid idea of the 40-hour workweek where the work day doesn’t match up with the school day. I think of all the women who have left the workforce. There’s a pretty enormous untapped potential of women and people who would like to work but can’t, because of that. It would be a better deal for everyone if there was just more flexibility.

It feels like this pandemic has really opened up a wide gap between people with kids and people without kids. Not to say that everyone hasn’t been dealing with their own problems, it feels like people who don’t have kids have been able to work harder, get ahead at work. I have friends who don’t have kids who have kind of used this opportunity to go on interesting travel adventures. Whereas people who have kids are totally burning out and haven’t been able to do anything. 

A lot of people who have kids have built up a network of parents and friends and caretakers in school. That all kind of help spread the burden, spread the joy around a little bit. Those networks aren’t available right now. That’s been the hardest thing.

— Mariah M.

The shooter took something from all of us in Boulder when he senselessly murdered ten of our beloved community members. I feel incredible grief for the lives that were lost, for the family members and friends of the victims, for the hundreds of people that were traumatized by the shooting, and for our community as a whole. I also feel angry that a mass shooting can happen anywhere and to anyone in the United States, and I think it’s long past time that our elected leaders take stronger action to prevent gun violence both in Colorado and at the national level. 

Never alone

Anyone who knows me knows I am a total hermit anyway, but the hardest things for me about COVID have been the loss of alone time — kids and partner ALWAYS home — and the subsequent inability to work nearly as much as I used to. I had to shutter my business for about 9 months, and it’s stupid trying to work at all hours around kids.

Strange how completely opposite so many quarantine experiences have been between parents and not-parents…I feel like it’s widened an already existing divide to pretty epic proportions. I think my experience summarizes that of almost all parents whose family’s health required them not to return to the classroom: Get these kids some time with people other than their parents or siblings, FFS!!

Modern parenthood was isolating and intense enough before COVID, but this has been insane. I’m looking forward to more human contact for my kids, and less human contact for me, basically.

— Emily KenCairn

Lucky to be home with newborns

It’s been really terrible for a lot of people. It’s been bad for us for some reasons, but honestly it couldn’t have gone any better for us. 

Pre-COVID, I was working 70 hours a week, travelling all the time. My wife and I were trying to get pregnant, so that needed to all go away. I wasn’t going to go through all that to have kids and then not have time for the kids.

I got a standard 9-5, work-from-home lined up. We had our kids in November, before COVID hit. They missed a lot of time with their grandparents and family; we couldn’t take an annual trip to Louisville. But these are small things. They’re all things that will go back in the next year. 

Frankly, we’re probably the luckiest people in this situation.

I feel comfortable saying that to my friends. If they’re struggling, it’s always followed up with, ‘How can we help?’ We’re in the position we can help. 

Mason Roberts

The shooting is traumatic for the community and we’re no exception. Kings is just blocks from us. That shopping center is where we would walk the kids on the weekend to get a pastry and some coffee.

It’s kind of weird that COVID likely saved us from experiencing the brunt of the impacts. We started grocery delivery and pickup once COVID hit, so we have not been inside in months. We feel violated that someone would do this to a community flagship. We feel terrible for those directly impacted. We are angry that there still appears to be no political will to make basic changes to gun laws to keep this from happening again.

With all that being said, we love this neighborhood and will continue our lives, supporting and enjoying our local establishments. It’s going to take a while to feel safe again but it will come.

‘We bled a fortune’

It’s been a wacky year. Before we even heard of COVID, we were smoking. We were excited as hell, just humming along, and that just pulled the rug out from under us. 

This opening and closing and closing and opening, that was brutal. We just bled a fortune over the last year.

We were also lucky. The city was extremely helpful; we got PPE money and a state grant. We managed to pay our staff the first 30 days.

We’re absolutely optimistic. After 25 years, we have a really really good following, a strong base of customers. Now we’re going to have all those apartments on 30th and Pearl. The weather’s going to get nicer, we’ll eventually go back to our regular model. 

I’ve been saying all winter long: April 1, April 1, April 1.

— Bob Baile, Twisted Pine Brewery

The world was burning. Then the house burnt down.

The pandemic alone was jarring.  My 7 year old and 10 year old were trying to figure out the trials and tribulations of learning online. My parents were living with us. So we had a bunch of stuff from my parent’s house at my house: family heirlooms, artwork, photos, stuff from my childhood.

Not only is the world not healthy, but the world is burning. There were wildfires everywhere, smoke in the air. The house smelled like a campfire. Everything felt so heavy, so out of control. 

And then… boom, the house burns down. 

For us, the fire completely overshadowed the whole pandemic. I feel like we could only focus on so much trauma. I’m definitely stil in the ‘what the fuck’ mode. 

And yet, I’m optimistic. My parents have been vaccinated, my kids have been healthy, we’ve been healthy. And that’s all we have.

That literally is all we have. We don’t have anything. All we have is ourselves. And we have our community, this community that has been so amazing and supportive.

Honestly, I don’t think I fucking have a choice. I think that when you’ve lost so much, if you can’t be optimistic, then there’s really no other choice.

So I’m optimistic. I can’t be anything else.

— Courtney Walsh

Interviews conducted, transcribed, compiled and edited by Shay Castle,, @shayshinecastle. This article has been updated to include perspectives from Jackie Attlesey-Pries with BCH.

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