Laurel Schneider had a decision to make, and it was a difficult one: where should she stay-at-home during the COVID-19 pandemic? She could stay on Martha’s Vineyard where she’s been since last April working on two books during her sabbatical, and have her spouse, Emilie Townes, join her in Oak Bluffs. She could leave the Island and head back to Tennessee to be with Townes. Or they could each stay in place.
Schneider, a professor of religious studies at Vanderbilt University, and Townes, dean of the Divinity School at Vanderbilt and a professor of ethics, made the difficult decision to stay apart.
Initially, Schneider wanted her to come “so we wouldn’t go through this alone.” They purchased an airline ticket. “Then the hospital came out with their statement and we took a huge step back. She’s got some underlying conditions,” Schneider said. The 25 beds, three intensive care beds, and shortage of supplies all made that decision easier. “She can’t come here.”
But what about Schneider going back to Nashville? She thought about it. But how to do it safely and not bring the virus to her spouse. She would have to stop at gas stations for fuel and use public restrooms. Where would she sleep?
One option in Nashville would have been for Schneider to stay in a friend’s apartment during a 14-day self-quarantine to make sure she didn’t infect Townes. But that friend’s house was destroyed in the tornadoes that devastated Tennessee in February. “It seemed like the safer thing for me was for her to stay there and me to stay here,” Schneider said.
Though she’s been on-Island for a year, Schneider is conscious of the Tennessee license plates on the car. “It’s hard to interpret looks,” she said. “I wish I could roll down my window and say, ‘I’ve been here all year. I didn’t come to escape the virus.’”
So she stays here. She continues to try to write, though it’s been difficult to concentrate. And Townes is in Nashville, where she has Vanderbilt Medical Center nearby to meet her medical needs. Schneider connects with Townes three times a day using FaceTime. On Saturday, they had a “cocktail party” through What’s App with her sister, Bethany, and Bethany’s spouse, Kate Thomas, who are working in Ireland.
The issue of seasonal residents coming to the Island has been debated in online comments and on social media. A seasonal resident of Aquinnah from Manhattan, who asked that her name not be used because of some of the hostilities, told The Times her son went for an oil change appointment only to be turned away when the employee spotted the vehicle’s New York license plate. The woman clarified that she thought it was more out of concern about personal safety than animosity.
The woman said she understood the hospital’s limitations, but felt like coming to the Island and following the proper protocols of social distancing and staying home would limit her family’s risks of needing the hospital. She wants to make it clear the family arrived well before the hospital made its public appeal. “The way we thought about it, we consider ourselves low risk, if we take every precaution advised,” she said, noting that’s what is being asked of all U.S. citizens — Islanders or not.
The Steamship Authority released statistics that show more traffic than the previous year on-Island. According to the data, compared with the first 15 days of March last year, there have been 264 additional vehicle trips to the Island with Massachusetts addresses and 102 additional vehicle trips by customers with New York or New Jersey addresses. Customers from other New England states, besides Massachusetts, were down 21.
According to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, there are 11,200 second homes on Martha’s Vineyard, which account for an estimated 64 percent of the housing stock.
The woman whose son was refused an oil change told The Times she understands the anxiety about people coming to the Island to seek refuge, as well as the hospital warning about its limitations. “I am truly sympathetic with these fears and realities. But I think the Island and its leadership should, despite these fears, strike a slightly different tone. The whole country is strained. Can’t we work together, taking proper precautions?” she wrote.
Many folks on and off the Island have that difficult decision to make, and part-time Aquinnah resident Jack Fruchtman, a frequent Times contributor, recently made the decision to leave his life on the Island and head to his home in Maryland.
While some folks are coming to the Island in an attempt to escape the close quarters of urban living or the anxiety of living in a heavily infected area, Fruchtman decided to leave because he thought that if he or his wife got sick, they would be taking away from the already limited resources of the hospital.
“It was a very tough decision. We decided there are no right answers, but we had to make a choice, and we did,” Fruchtman said.
Although many of Fruchtman’s friends urged him to stay put, Fruchtman packed up all the food in the pantry and refrigerator of his Aquinnah home and headed for the city.
Fruchtman noted that even though he is in the age group that is considered especially vulnerable to this virus, he decided to alleviate some of the pressures put on medical staff and free up some vital resources for Islanders.
“Among other things, this decision has caused a whole lot of fear, which makes sense, this thing is deadly and terrifying,” Fruchtman said. “But we decided if we got sick and had to go to the hospital on the Island, we would be taking the space from some people who have been on the Island for generations.”
Currently, Fruchtman said he is reading a couple good books and taking lots of walks with his wife, although he said he does miss the wide open spaces of his home on the Island.
“We are just hunkered down and trying to stay safe,” Fruchtman said.
In a time when decisions on whether to stay or go could drastically affect the entire Island population, Fruchtman said everyone has the responsibility to make their own choices using their own best judgment.
“You can call it altruism, but I think it was just the right thing to do. It seems like we did not belong there,” Fruchtman said. “Everyone has their own judgment to make, I’m not going to condemn people for deciding to go to the Island or stay there.”
Joel Sheveck is one of those folks who decided to forego his visit to the Island in order to avoid putting additional stress on the community’s already strained resources.
For five years, Sheveck was the general manager of Swordfish Enterprises, which runs the Homeport Restaurant, the Menemsha Inn, and the Beach Plum Inn.
In November of 2018, he moved to New Hampshire to work in the hospitality field.
He planned to visit his former co-workers for a week in April, then his elderly parents in New York, and his girlfriend in Rhode Island. Instead, he’s staying home.
“I will not be going to the Vineyard this time around, nor will I be going to visit my elderly parents in New York. I have asthma and bad environmental allergies in which Martha’s Vineyard hospital has seen me a few times,” Sheveck said in an email. “I would not jeopardize any others should I happen to carry this, nor do I feel comfortable taxing the hospital there with helping me should I become ill.”
Sheveck said his experience in the hospitality industry has allowed him to “fully feel the pinch of the situation we’re in.”
“The best thing is to stay isolated and at home whenever possible,” he said. “I’ll set my sights on a visit in the fall, which is my favorite season anyway.”
Reporter Lucas Thors contributed to this story. -ed.