COVID Conversations: Year in review

COMMUNITY VOICES: Throughout 2020, residents shared their individual COVID-19 stories with Xpress in our new series COVID Conversations.

This year, in response to the pandemic, Xpress launched COVID Conversations. Our reporters and freelance writers spoke with everyday citizens, capturing a wide range of responses to the health crisis. From a high school senior whose final year was cut short to a community elder living in isolation, we hope the series provides insights and glimpses into how our community has coped with COVID-19. Below is the series in its entirety.


Barbara Gravelle; photo by Thomas Calder



Fear and hope: Living through COVID-19 at the Battery Park Senior Apartments, published in our April 29 issue

For the last two decades, Barbara Gravelle has called the Battery Park Apartments in downtown Asheville her home. Like many right now, she is anxious about the current COVID-19 pandemic.







Laura Anderson; photo by Tracy Calderon-Colon




Split ends: Local hair stylists discusses life without her salon, published in our April 29 issue

Prior to COVID-19, hair stylist and salon owner Laura Anderson viewed her industry as recession-proof. These days, with her business temporarily closed, she is finding ways to adjust to life during a shutdown. STORY UPDATE: Notch Collective has since reopened.








Rev. L.C. Ray; photo by Thomas Calder


Preach it: Rev. L.C. Ray adjusts to online sermons during COVID-19, published in our April 29 issue

With 49 years experience as a pastor, the Rev. L.C. Ray adjusts to life as an online preacher during COVID-19.






Yulon Ferguson; photo by Brooke Randle


A place to be: Shelter ‘a blessing’ during pandemic, published in our May 6 issue

In April, Yulon Ferguson sheltered at the Harrahs Cherokee Center. “I am a worrier, but I’m trying not to be anxious and not worry,” he said at the time.






Meagan Taylor, right, and her 7-year-old daughter, Fred; photo courtesy of Taylor


Separate but together: Quarantine creates hard choices for a single parent, published in our May 6 issue

Meagan Taylor and her seven-year-old daughter, Fred, are missing out on hugs and cuddles right now. The two have found themselves forced to face the challenges of the pandemic while living physically apart.






Cleaster Cotton; photo by Joe Pellegrino



Public service art: COVID-19 inspires creative instruction, published in our May 6 issue

Local artist Cleaster Cotton confronts COVID-19 on the canvas.






Eligh Ros; photo courtesy of Ros


No time to say goodbye: High school seniors miss out on milestones, published in our May 13 issue

Eligh Ros, a dual-enrollment 12th grader at Martin L. Nesbitt Jr. Discovery Academy, was on track to graduate as part of the class of 2020 with both a high school diploma and some college credit from A-B Tech. Early this spring, he was busy with classes and multiple club activities, his sights set on studying computer science or engineering at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York in the fall, when he suddenly found his life upended by Gov. Roy Cooper’s March 14 executive order to close schools.







Chuck McGrady; photo courtesy of McGrady



Uncovered: McGrady notes political differences on face coverings, published in our May 13 issue

‘I had to laugh when I heard a staffer quip that he never expected wearing or not wearing a mask would become a partisan fashion statement,’ observes state Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson.











Nicora Gangi; photo courtesy of Gangi



Lady with a camera: Local resident documents COVID-19, published in our May 13 issue

Local resident Nicora Gangi is on a mission to photograph the impact of COVID-19 on the city’s urban landscape and residents.






Carol Young Wood; photo courtesy of Young Wood


Managing uncertainty: Therapy in the time of COVID-19, published in our May 13 issue

Clinical social worker Carol Young Wood has shifted most of her therapy sessions online; however, she still meets with a handful of clients in-person. The impacts of COVID-19 dominate most of the conversations.








Lucy Ortiz, left, with members of her family; photo courtesy of Hola Carolina.


In it together: Hispanic family tests positive for COVID-19, published in our May 13 issue

No one ever plans on getting sick, says Lucy Ortiz, a mother of six in Henderson County. Four members of her family have been diagnosed with the coronavirus, including her 17-month-old son.





Tim Orson; photo by Jim Halterman



Rain or shine or health crisis: Mail delivery during a pandemic, published in our May 13 issue

“People are so friendly right now, it’s unbelievable,” said Tim Orson, local mail carrier, back in May. Along with expressing their gratitude for his services, Orson said residents have offered him hand sanitizer. “I’ve got so much stockpiled in my front windshield right now.”









Beth Bary; photo by Jote Khalsa

Motherwhelmed: Author Beth Berry teases out the myths around motherhood, published in our May 20 issue

In her recently released debut book, Motherwhelmed: Challenging Norms, Untangling Truths, and Restoring Our Worth to the World, Berry ⁠— mother of four daughters, ages 12, 15, 19 and 25 ⁠— examines the stressful state of modern motherhood and how an unsupportive culture keeps mothers from thriving.





Scott Groce; photo by Thomas Calder


Condolences: The life of a funeral director during COVID-19, published in our May 27 issue

COVID-related deaths in Buncombe County are low, but dying remains a part of daily life. Scott Groce, funeral director at Groce Funeral Home & Cremation Service, discusses the unique challenges of memorial services during the pandemic.






Diane Allen; photo courtesy of Allen


Wheels go round: ART driver feels the stress of COVID-19 changes, published in our May 27 issue

“The No. 1 thing that has increased with the drivers — and I’m sure with the passengers as well — is stress,” said Diane Allen in May. Allen has worked as a city bus operator in Asheville for 14 years.






Ruth Pike-Elliot, right, and her wife, Bren; photo courtesy of Pike-Elliot




Pandemic pregnancy: Couple quarantines while awaiting first child, published in our May 27 issue

Ruth Pike-Elliot and her wife Bren are expecting their first child on June 4. Quarantining during a pregnancy presents obvious challenges, says the mother-to-be. But the couple has also discovered many benefits in the process.









Chama Woydak; Photo by Destinee Blau




Breathe in, breathe out: Local doula offers virtual guidance during pandemic, published in our June 3 issue

When Buncombe County’s stay home, stay safe mandate went into effect, doulas were deemed nonessential. The classification was a hard pill to swallow for business owner Chama Woydak, who has nevertheless found ways to remain connected with her expecting mothers and partners during the pandemic.









Rebeccah Rojas; photo courtesy of Rojas



Surprise! Turning 21 in quarantine, published in our June 3 issue

Turning 21 is a milestone. And for many, the celebration is often a raucous event. But for one Brevard College student, her big day was spent in quarantine on the school’s campus.






April Bennett; photo by Bill Fox

Downtime: Musician April Bennett gets creative in finding her ‘new normal,’ published in our June 3 issue

Instead of a packed house, musician April Bennett and local hip-hop band Lyric played to a nearly empty space at the Orange Peel for the May 15 livestream of Downtown After 5. “It was definitely weird playing in one of the biggest rooms in the city with no people in it except for the staff who were recording it,” she remarks with a laugh. “But I was really glad for that [opportunity]. It was definitely a much-needed morale boost during these crazy, crazy times.”




Horus Runako; Photo courtesy of Runako


Restaurant rush: Servers adjust to new protocols as restaurants reopen to customers, published in our June 10 issue

The work didn’t stop for server Horus Runako when Wicked Weed was forced to stop in-person dining. After spending the last two months helping with delivery food and beer orders, he — along with most customers — is excited to return to the restaurant setting.






J Hackett; photo courtesy of Hackett




‘Why is being black such a bad thing?’: J Hackett on wounds old and new, published in our June 10 issue

J Hackett spoke with Xpress on June 2 about his experiences as a black community leader during the coronavirus pandemic and, now, the protests and grief experienced locally in response to George Floyd’s death on May 25 at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis.









Aisha Adams; photo courtesy of Adams



Beyond protest: Aisha Adams on doing the work during a pandemic, published in our June 10 issue

Entrepreneur Aisha Adams urges community to broaden its efforts to promote equity beyond recent outrage and protests focused on police killings of black people. “I didn’t see people up in arms that the tourism fund didn’t include people of color,” she noted this June.








Brian Ngatunga, second from right, with Hannah family members, starting left, Bob, Danielle, Bryce and Caryn; photo by Sheila Mraz Photography


Extended stay: An international student calls West Asheville home during health crisis, published in our June 17 issue

In August 2019, Brian Ngatunga enrolled at Asheville High School. The international exchange student planned to be here for just a year. But COVID-19 has delayed his return home, postponing his long-awaited reunion with his family in Mwanza, Tanzania.






John Henry Gloyne; photo courtesy of Gloyne


Fresh ink: Tattoo parlors draw on experience with safety measures, published in our June 17 issue

John Henry Gloyne, tattoo artist and co-owner of Serpent & the Rainbow Tattoo, notes that reputable tattoo parlors had numerous safety precautions in place even before COVID-19. “A good rule of thumb in tattooing is, and not to sound outlandish, but you want to treat every person you tattoo like they have HIV because that means that you’re going through every step to protect yourself,” he said, back in June.







Mark Capon; photo courtesy of Capon


On the record: Mark Capon brings an analog pastime into the digital age, published in our June 24 issue

While Harvest Records remains shuttered, the business has started offering curbside pickup, mail orders and the occasional local delivery as co-owner Mark Capon tries to reimagine the usual record store experience through a virtual platform.






Kate Whittier, center, with husband Andy and daughter Nela; Photo by Margaret Graton


Teachable moment: The end of the school year is bittersweet for teacher Kate Whittier, published in our June 24 issue

“I feel like our relationships got a lot deeper, because we were holding Zoom meetings in our living rooms,” said A.C. Reynolds Middle School sixth-grade math teacher Kate Whittier back in June. “We got to see a different side of [the students].”





Elise Guillemet; photo courtesy of Guillemet




Bonjour! International exchange group visits Asheville on the cusp of COVID-19, published in our June 24 issue

In February, Elise Guillemet and several of her students traveled from Saumur, France, to Asheville as part of an exchange program. Shortly after their return home, a nationwide lockdown went into effect.









Kevin Bischof; photo courtesy of N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation



Peak season: Clearer but busier days for Mount Mitchell superintendent Kevin Bischof, published in our July 8 issue

Kevin Bischof is in high demand. Now in his 13th year as a ranger with the North Carolina State Parks, he’s transitioning from serving as superintendent of Mount Mitchell State Park to assuming the same role at Grandfather Mountain State Park. But COVID-19 is delaying the hiring of his replacement, so he’s juggling both jobs.






Gary Ray; photo by Linda Ray



Finding a way: Local resident discusses the challenges of being blind during COVID-19, published in our July 8 issue

Throughout his adult life, Gary Ray has been visually impaired. COVID-19, he says, has created new obstacles for himself as well as others in the blind community.










Daniel and Gloria Pincu; photo courtesy of Rachel Pincu-Singer



Living a nightmare: Gloria Pincu reflects on her battle with COVID-19, published in our July 15 issue

East Asheville resident Gloria Pincu lost her husband, Daniel, to COVID-19 while she also battled the disease. As she slowly regains her strength, Pincu is struggling to make sense of everything that’s happened since the pandemic began in March.





Roy Harris; photo by Thomas Calder


Hoe in hand: Local resident contributes to his community through gardening, published in our July 15 issue

Six years ago, Roy Harris helped launch the Southside Community Garden. The initiative has taken on greater meaning in the wake of COVID-19, he says. Food insecurity is a particular problem in the predominantly low-income Southside neighborhood. Gardening, he continues, is one way to combat the issue.





Mary Wells Letson; photo courtesy of Letson



Say it with flowers: Teen spreads joy, awareness with free bouquets, published in our July 22 issue

Mary Wells Letson has been giving away free flower bouquets from a stand on Kimberly Avenue since June 1. The arrangements also include a flyer that highlights the work of social justice organizations the teen supports.






Desiree Delbert; photo courtesy of Delbert




Hands off: Deaf educator teaches, learns remotely during pandemic, published in our July 22 issue

Desiree Delbert, who works as an American Sign Language teacher at Asheville’s Franklin School of Innovation, normally runs her classroom with lots of student-to-student conversation and feedback — an experience that proved hard to replicate online.








Oliver the cat; photo courtesy of Melissa Meyer



On the tail: Family cat returns months after house fire, published in our Aug. 12 issue

What could make living through a house fire worse? How about lost pets, a struggling business and a pandemic that canceled a family member’s high school graduation ceremony? Melissa Meyer faced all these and more, but there’s a bright spot: After nearly four months’ absence, Oliver the cat was found. The Black Mountain community pulled together to support his recovery, and now the beloved feline is back home and on the road to health.








Janet Vail, left, and Roy Parvin; photo courtesy of Parvin



Escaping to Asheville: Why we moved to WNC in the middle of the pandemic, published in our Aug. 12 issue

Roy Parvin is the author of two books of fiction and more recently a funny yoga book, Yoga for the Inflexible Male. In this short piece, he describes his recent long-distance move to Asheville during the coronavirus pandemic.







Jared Wheatley with his children Ezekiel, left, and Alexis, right; photo by Thomas Calder



School of Dad: Single parent Jared Wheatley keeps the focus on education, published in our Aug. 19 issue

The divorced dad and entrepreneur recently reconfigured his office layout to include a dedicated educational space for his two school-aged children.






Jamie McMinn; photo courtesy of the City of Hendersonville


Pay it forward: Hendersonville residents offer random acts of kindness, published in our Aug. 19 issue

Inspired by an article about the city of Hendersonville’s efforts to help community members struggling to pay for utilities during COVID-19, resident Lia Barth called the city’s customer service department to contribute to a randomly selected water customer with a delinquent bill. Other residents soon followed suit.





Amanda Jo Cary; photo courtesy of Cary


Plugged in: Amanda Jo Cary starts nonprofit to bridge digital divide, published in our Sept. 2 issue

When everything shifted online, Cary quickly realized the need for reliable computer access. Now, she works to distribute donated laptops to recently incarcerated people.







Merri Alexander; photo courtesy of Mills River Presbyterian Church




Prayer fence: Local church spreads hop, published in our Sept. 16 issue

Kathy Ziprik, an elder at Mills River Presbyterian Church, receives daily prayers in her email inbox as part of the congregation’s ongoing prayer fence project.









Jessie Landl; photo by Will Hornaday




Welcome aboard: Preservation Society quietly announces new executive director, published in our Sept. 23 issue

Jessie Landl, the new executive director of the Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County, discusses the challenges of stepping into a leadership role during COVID-19.











Tom Elmore; photo courtesy of Elmore





Road warrior: Tom Elmore marks 70 years with 700 miles, published in our Oct. 7 issue

Elmore rode a variety of routes around Leicester and north Buncombe County, beginning and ending at his own doorstep at Thatchmore Farm in Leicester. “It started off pretty slow — maybe 30 miles a week — and worked up to over 100 miles a week,” he told Xpress in September, noting that he ended the tour with a 100-mile day.







Marisol Jimenez, left, and Tamiko Ambrose Murray; headshots courtesy of Jimenez and Ambrose Murray



Paving the way: Local equity consultants open up about their work, published in our Oct. 21 issue

From breweries to clothing lines, businesses are clamoring to address internal biases and racism in the workplace. As inquiries pour in, local equity consultants Marisol Jiménez and Tamiko Ambrose Murray are busier than ever.






Kalesha Ruth; photo courtesy of Ruth


Need wheels, will travel: Kalesha Ruth opens car dealership during pandemic, published in our Oct. 21 issue

Asheville native Kalesha Ruth returns to the mountains to start her own used car dealership specializing in low down payments. To her knowledge, she’s the first Black women to own a car dealership in Western North Carolina.






Kelly Palmatier; photo courtesy of Palmatier


Channels of communication: Local clairvoyant discusses remote psychic readings, published in our Oct. 28 issue

Asheville-based clairvoyant Kelly Palmatier discusses remote psychic readings, channeling the dead and learning new skills during COVID-19.









Featured, from left, are Corbin, Taryn, Lily and Gavin Duncan; photo by Thomas Calder


Trick-or-treat: North Asheville family prepares for unconventional Halloween, published in our Oct. 28 issue

COVID-19 may have derailed some Halloween plans, but the pandemic also inspired one local family to take their holiday decorations to the next level.







Madelyn Schmidt; photo courtesy of Schmidt





You got this: Local resident creates care bags during COVID-19, published in our Nov. 4 issue

Unable to volunteer at local nonprofits because of COVID-19, local resident Madelyn Schmidt launched her own initiative to assist those in need during the pandemic.









Robin Greene, Beau the Labrador retriever and Leon Mimms, left; photo by Ed Greene


Good boy! Challenges of training service dogs amid a pandemic, published in our Nov. 11 issue

For the last seven years, Robin Greene has worked as a volunteer puppy raiser for the nonprofit Southeastern Guide Dogs. After relocating to Western North Carolina in March, she launched the organization’s Asheville chapter. Training a puppy amid a pandemic, she says, is extremely challenging.


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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. His writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, the Miracle Monocle, Juked and elsewhere. His debut novel, The Wind Under the Door, is now available.

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