From shuttered venues to a public that’s justifiably hesitant to return to events, the COVID-19 pandemic has been brutal on Asheville-area artists. But for creators who’ve contracted the coronavirus, those struggles have intensified in ways they never expected.
Xpress recently caught up with Bob “Zuzu” Welsh, guitarist/songwriter for the Zuzu Welsh Band; Barrie Barton, artistic director of performance art theater company Story Choreography Projects; and Jeff Catanese, artistic director of Attic Salt Theatre Company, to learn about their recoveries and the lingering effects COVID-19 has had on their creative process.
After Gov. Roy Cooper’s “Stay at Home” order was issued in mid-March, all three artists remained healthy for the next six months. But as the year wound down, each contracted COVID-19 within a matter of six weeks — beginning with Welsh, 61, getting sick in mid-September. He believes he was exposed at his day job by someone who was inconsistent in wearing a mask. Welsh soon developed a fever, which peaked at 103.5 F, and remained sick for 23 days before he was able to obtain a negative test result.
“I was frustrated because I was unable to be around people at all, and I was angry that someone who cared so little about others could infect me. I also know of one person I directly infected because of it,” he says. “My emotions and my anxiety during and since having COVID have been very different and very much less under control. I find myself with a short fuse sometimes, and I worry about things I normally would not. I also get emotional and will cry at random things that never would have made me do that before.”
Though Lillian Govus, Buncombe County director of Communications and Public Engagement, reports that no coronavirus clusters — defined as five or more cases that are epidemiologically linked — have been traced to voting, Barton and Catanese both point to their time working with Buncombe County Election Services as the likeliest causes of their illnesses. Barton, 60, is the precinct chair of the county’s Democratic Party in the Reems Creek area and was in charge of coordinating poll greeters. Stationed at Weaverville Town Hall for the first five days of early voting, she wore a mask but says that many of her Republican counterparts did not, and in the exciting process of being engaged in numerous conversations, she admits that she “lost sight of social distancing.”
Her first symptoms appeared on Oct. 20 and consisted of two weeks of fever, plus nausea, intense fatigue and the loss of her sense of smell, plus minor pressure on her lungs. Numerous times a day, she also experienced what she calls “grief leaks,” during which the knowledge of being “part of this global community of people who were suffering” would overwhelm her, causing her to burst into tears. The feeling was part of an overall “sense of existential emptiness” that made it difficult to mentally focus, to the point that reading a New York Times article felt overwhelming.
Upon having three consecutive fever-free and symptom-free days, Barton’s doctor cleared her to exit quarantine, but days later she was walking up a short flight of stairs and felt completely out of breath when she got to the top. She returned to her doctor and was prescribed two varieties of inhalers that provided relief, though even with an ongoing program of gradually increased exercise intensity, she says her lung capacity still isn’t what it was pre-COVID-19.
Catanese, 52, worked early voting at a precinct in Leicester, where he says “the voters weren’t taking mask-wearing too seriously.” On the evening of Nov. 5 — two nights after Election Day, which is when he believes he contracted the coronavirus — he felt “off” and registered his first fever. It lasted for three days, mostly at night and got as high as 102.4 F on multiple occasions.
“The feeling of being both hot and cold at the same time, finding it impossible to find a moment of comfort, and a fatigue that kept me couch-bound for the duration far overshadowed any of the more typical maladies like the sore throat and cough,” he says. “With the fever abating during the days, I also had to steel myself for its return each evening and cried at the onset, just not wanting to spend another night in that sort of agony. It was all so emotionally and mentally exhausting, in addition to the toll it took on my body.”
Catanese never lost his sense of smell or taste but experienced diarrhea immediately after eating. Still, he says the “absolute worst part of the ordeal” was the intense fear of the unknown. Hospitalization, intubation and death were all possibilities that crossed his mind. As far as he can tell, however, he wasn’t the source of anyone else getting it.
Living in the shadow
Consistent with having the longest and most intense illness of the three artists, Welsh has faced the toughest road to recovery. He’s had ongoing issues with kidney infections, battled strep throat and has had to adopt a specialized diet to accommodate a compromised urinary tract. He says he has to contact his doctor “at even the slightest hint of a fever,” and is struggling in his return to music.
“My memory is not what it was, so I have a hard time remembering how to play some songs or remember the words to songs — songs I wrote,” he says. “[COVID-19] has impacted my relationships with people personally, and it has had an impact on my professional life in that I have to refer to books and notes to do things I did without thinking before. I worry more about things, because there is no guarantee that I won’t get it again. So little is known.”
A frequent swimmer, hiker and dancer prior to contracting COVID-19, Barton now goes to the YMCA twice a week to rebuild her muscles — but can currently only handle 30 minutes of sustained exercise before she becomes tired. Her decreased energy levels force her to pause more than usual and take stock of which new projects she can handle. And though she feels “ready to get back to political work” and is teaching a course called The Art of Public Speaking and Presentations at UNC Asheville two nights a week this semester, she’s not doing a Story Choreography Project until September.
“It’s really the luck of the draw, right? You never know if you’re the one that’s going to end up dead in three days or someone like me,” she says. “It just has a cumulative effect on so many different things within your unit, within your family, within your community. It’s just so easy to take care of each other.”
As for Catanese, he feels “back to normal heath-wise, for the most part” but continues to experience occasional fatigue two months later. He was told by others who’ve had COVID-19 to expect this effect, but was also assured that it does go away. When fatigue arises, he finds it “even harder to get motivated to do the things you used to do.” Yet he’s working on some filmed projects, both with Attic Salt and outside of it, that he says may not satisfy him the way theater does but keeps “the brain nimble.” Additionally, though he’s vocal about the difficulties of weathering the virus from a mental standpoint, he echoes Barton’s sentiments of feeling lucky he was able to escape largely unscathed — at least as far as health professionals can tell at this juncture.
“I have to wonder and worry about what the scientists are going to find out about how this particular disease affects people in the long term,” he says. “I’d rather not find out I have lesions on my lungs in five years and have to be on oxygen for the rest of my days.”