We may be over it, but we’re still in it.
Three years after COVID-19 upended nearly every aspect of our lives, people have adjusted to change in ways they never could have imagined.
They lost loved ones. Struggled with sickness. Quarantined and quarantined again. Sat the kids down for video school. Became best friends with the delivery guy. Stopped shaking hands. Learned to smile with their eyes.
They stood in line for vaccines and put on masks. Or refused to do either.
They shuttered businesses or reinvented them. They lost jobs, started new ones or just dropped out.
“I’m so glad I don’t have to change my business model every 20 minutes anymore,” says Scott Hayward, owner of Tupelo Music Hall in Derry.
For the stories that begin here and on Page A6, we talked to Hayward and several other people about how they experienced the pandemic and how they are living their lives now.
The crowd has returned. But the show has changed forever.
— Mike Cote
Unplanned intermission: Scott Hayward
February turned out to be the best month for Tupelo Music Hall since the pandemic forced the Derry venue to close three years ago, when owner Scott Hayward had to scramble to save his company.
While the concert business was in limbo, Tupelo sold to-go food — and toilet paper, which it offered at cost.
“We were basically selling food and making food for people. A lot of people ran out of toilet paper,” Hayward said last week. “Anything we could do for our patrons, we wanted to stay in their minds.”
By the summer of 2020, Tupelo was hosting shows in the parking lot and generating enough income to pay the bills.
“The first year, we did 115 shows in our parking lot,” Hayward said, about 60% more than it would have hosted indoors.
After a brief run holding half-capacity indoor shows in December 2020 — which turned out to be a money-loser — the venue began hosting regular indoor shows again in August 2021, when Three Dog Night appeared after several COVID cancellations.
Tupelo hasn’t had a cancellation in six months. Now Hayward faces the usual challenges — like competition.
“We’re known for big bands in a small space, and we haven’t been able to do as many of them because they’re aren’t as many out there,” said Hayward, whose venue can hold nearly 700 people.
“Instead of having 30 decent-sized artists come up to our area in a month, we’re getting maybe 10. Well, guess what, everybody else is trying to get the same artists.”
Tupelo also is competing with other venues hoping to draw an aging audience.
“Our crowd – 55 to 75 is really the meat and potatoes of our demographic for our patrons,” Hayward said. “A lot of those people, they’re still slowly coming back.”
— Mike Cote
‘We’re resilient’: Liv Brannen
Liv Brannen was looking forward to softball season, prom and graduation, when the world hit pause.
Even then, the 18-year-old senior at Goffstown High expected everything would return to normal in a few weeks.
It did not.
Brannen was working as a nursing aide at Hillsborough County Nursing Home that spring, a job she had started when she was 16. As the pandemic spread nationwide, hitting the elderly hardest, the fear was palpable.
One of the toughest things, she said, was watching as family members had to stand outside to glimpse the residents within. They brought signs, mouthed “I love you” and prayed their loved ones would not succumb to the silent killer.
That June, her school held a graduation ceremony of sorts outside, at the Fisher Cats baseball stadium in Manchester. But no graduates walked across the stage. “When we got there, the diplomas were already on our seats,” she recalled.
“That’s one of the moments you think about growing up, and so it was weird having it like that,” she said.
After graduation, Brannen moved to South Carolina, taking a year off to work before enrolling at Coastal Carolina University near Myrtle Beach. Now 21, she’s majoring in interdisciplinary studies and wants to go to law school and practice human rights law.
When she looks back on three years ago, she said, “Honestly, it’s a little bit of a blur.”
Nothing worked out as she had planned, she said. “But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, just taking it day by day, and just enjoying the things that we have while we have them.”
She remembers a shared sense of community, despite the lockdowns and remote learning.
“It was kind of comforting, that everybody’s going through it,” she said. “As a community, we got through it. We’re on the other side of it.”
That’s what she learned from the pandemic, she said: “That we’re resilient.”
“I think it helped me learn that life throws things at you and you’ve just kind of got to roll with the punches.”
— Shawne K. Wickham
‘Stronger together’: Jenn Gillis
Manchester Superintendent Jenn Gillis took the reins of the state’s largest school district during the pandemic, charting a course through the uncertain waters of remote learning while she learned the ropes of her new position.
For her, Gillis said, the pandemic highlighted everything good about the city and school district.
“It pulled people in — who might have previously worked in a disjointed fashion — to work together,” Gillis said. “We were all facing the absolute unknown. And trying to keep kids connected to learning, keep kids fed, keep staff connected, in a time where things were so confusing — the information was changing on the fly — it was hard just to keep up.
“What I’ll remember about COVID, when I look for a silver lining to it, for me it’s that return to community, that return to people looking to the left, looking to the right and knowing we were stronger because we were working together rather than trying to solve it on our own.”
One aspect of the school district’s response she is most proud of is the delivery of meals using school buses.
“That was a clear indicator of the dedication, the passion those members of our team have for the kids, have for our community as a whole, because that then contributed to Chromebooks being pushed out, academic materials going out, food going out,” Gillis said. “From a real small moment of possible panic, we flipped it and turned it into an opportunity to stay connected.”
Gillis said she gets protective of students and staff when hearing national news reports that the pandemic caused historic educational setbacks for children across the U.S.
“I hear some of the national coverage about how poorly students are doing in assessments post-COVID, and I want to call a hard pause,” Gillis said. “Can we just recognize we disconnected them from traditional learning environments, from human contact for a period of time? Now they’re back, and we’re just now starting to see those glimmers of positive gain from students.”
Gillis said one thing the pandemic taught her is that as a city, Manchester is “stronger together.”
“We accomplished a lot in a really crazy time, and it makes me think, OK, what else can we accomplish,” Gillis said. “I saw us at our best at a time that was really tough. If we can navigate that, if I can navigate that, I can only imagine what else we’ll be able to accomplish in the future.”
“Quite frankly, I think COVID connected all of us and built a level of trust that we’re kind of primed to be able to be more successful.”
— Paul Feely
Appreciating life: Dawn Chapman
When the first patients arrived at Concord Hospital, Dawn Chapman was on the front lines.
Chapman was a veteran registered nurse in the hospital’s respiratory unit, but all her training and experience had not prepared her for the waves of illness and death to come over the months, then years, ahead.
“There were so many heartbreaking times,” she said. “But on the other hand, we had some amazing comebacks too.”
The second wave of COVID in the winter of 2021-22 was the worst, she said, with “absolutely the sickest patients.”
Her father died from COVID in September 2021.
The pandemic has changed everything about the job she loves, Chapman said, with hospital-wide staffing shortages. The patients arrive sicker and remain in the hospital longer, she said, with no beds available in skilled nursing facilities to transfer them.
“We’re tired. We’re stretched so thin,” she said. “You feel like you’re spinning plates.”
So she’s leaving inpatient care, and will work at an urgent-care facility instead. “My heart is breaking,” she said through tears. “I love what I do, and I think I’m good at what I do.
“Seeing a patient at their absolute worst, and being a part of the team that is helping that patient to improve, get better, go home where they belong.”
COVID has changed her, too, she said. After all the tragedies she witnessed, she said, “I appreciate life a little bit more.”
Two years ago, Chapman was one of four New Hampshire health care workers chosen to fly to the Super Bowl in Tampa on the Patriots’ plane. It was an experience she’ll always treasure, she said.
Back then, health care workers were being hailed as heroes — a title Chapman resisted at the time. “We were just doing our job,” she said.
Today’s nurses deserve that title, she said, but society no longer thinks of them that way.
So what does Chapman want future generations to know about these pandemic times?
“I just want the world to know I tried my best,” she said.
— Shawne K. Wickham
Restaurants rebound: Steven Clutter
Early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, restaurateur Steven Clutter heard some disappointing news from his accountant.
“You’re not making money. You are just losing less,” Clutter recalled.
This came after he opened a pop-up butcher shop at the Hanover Street Chophouse and scrambled to fill takeout orders at the Crown Tavern after restaurants in Manchester were forced to close their dining rooms to help stop the spread of the disease. Indoor dining returned with limited capacity and other measures to keep people safe.
Clutter has since received better reports from his accountant, but the margins are tighter because of increases in food costs and wages.
“I’m confident where things are right now, but I am a little skittish about what’s the next challenge,” he said.
He bought The Kitchen on River Road, a North End establishment in November 2021. He now owns restaurants across the board: a fine dining establishment, a neighborhood tavern and a grab-and-go spot.
The coolers at The Kitchen are full of cuts like filet mignon, to-go meals, soups and desserts.
“It’s COVID-friendly,” Clutter said of his latest venture.
The Chophouse and the Crown are closed Sunday and Monday because of staffing. Tuesdays are becoming as busy as a Thursday or Friday night.
The cost of meat regularly goes up during the summer and holidays, Clutter said, but the prices haven’t gone down as they typically do.
“We are trying to hold the prices as much as possible, but they have inched up,” he said.
Rising wages remains a challenge. Clutter is down about 40 employees. Indeed.com and apps like Fliptable haven’t worked.
One saving grace is that workers move around to the different restaurants. Clutter himself often jumps in, alternating between the Chophouse and the Crown.
“People ask me how I get so tan. It’s from walking in the alleyway,” he said.
— Jonathan Phelps
A heavenly setting: Mountain View Church
Mountain View Church sits halfway up Tower Hill in Sanbornton, where it commands a heavenly vista of sunshine through clouds and the Belknap Mountain range crowning Lake Winnisquam.
During the pandemic’s warmer months, when it was possible to be outside with a real-life postcard as a backdrop, up to 60 parishioners sat on blankets or chairs in groups. It allowed everyone to socially distance, 6 feet apart, while singing, praying and hearing the sermon. Friends smiled and said hello across the grass, glad to be there in person.
“We were blessed by having a good field with a gazebo in it, just to stay connected during that difficult time. It was a way to get together when you couldn’t get together,” said Wayne Blackey, a church member who cares for the property. “Part of being a church is connecting with people.”
“The church has needed to adapt to many unusual environments over the past two thousand years, and this was no different,” said the pastor, Rev. Matt Beem. “It was a reminder that the church is ultimately about the people, not the building.”
For 11 or 12 weekends between June and October 2020, it never rained on Sunday morning. “It was beautiful,” Blackey said. “A lot of New Hampshire people don’t want to be cooped up inside. On nice days it was very nice. We’ve had some bicyclists stop by.”
The church continued the practice in 2021 and 2022. This summer’s forecast is for a mixture of indoor and outdoor services.
— Roberta Baker