P.D. Clarke, Italy
“We are so thankful to be home, together and not in an apartment. I can swing open my back door and my kids can run out and play and just be happy. We have so much faith here as opposed to before, in a foreign country where we didn’t feel comfortable.”
P.D. Clarke was met with a frenzy as she scrambled to flee Italy in early March. Her hand was forced, no choice between fight or flight, as the novel coronavirus, otherwise known as COVID-19, swept the country that her family had called home for months. Italy was locking down. She had to get herself and her three children out, back home to Fayetteville. And the small window of time she had was closing fast.
P.D. is the wife of Rotnei Clarke, former basketball star for the Arkansas Razorbacks, who currently plays professional basketball for Pallacanestro Mantovana in Italy’s Serie A2 league. Since the two wed in 2014, they have been around the world and back again, as Rotnei has played professionally in Australia, Belgium, Germany and multiple stints in Italy. But no matter where their latest journey begins, it always ends in Fayetteville. They’ll spend roughly nine months overseas — usually during the school year — then spend the summers home in Northwest Arkansas.
The Clarke family is used to the long way home, accustomed to traveling heavy with enough bags to appease their extended absences. But this abrupt departure was something even they were not ready for.
Italy’s ongoing chapter in the coronavirus story is unique and heartbreaking. The virus spread in a snap in the European country, from 150 positive cases on Feb. 23 to almost 60,000 on March 22. By mid-April, Italy’s COVID-19 related deaths accounted for nearly 20 percent of the worldwide death toll. And the Clarkes were living in the region of Lombardy, one of the hardest-hit in the entire country.
The call they’d been dreading came at 10 p.m. on March 7, a Saturday.
“At midnight tonight, they’re quarantining the entire Lombardy region,” the general manager of Rotnei’s basketball team told him. “So if you want your family out, you need to be outside of the region by 12 o’clock.”
Two hours notice was all they had to frantically pack bags, wake up their three children — Canon, a 1-year-old; Dre, 3; Kyah, 4 — and prepare for emergency international travel without dad. The Serie A2 season had not yet been canceled, merely postponed indefinitely, so Rotnei felt it necessary to stay in Italy. Basketball is his job, how he provides for his family. He didn’t want to put that employment in jeopardy. The two did not want to have to split up their family, which is part of why they waited until that call came to make a move. Should she and the kids leave him behind, the family could have been apart for months.
So Rotnei rushedly drove his wife and children out of Lombardy in the middle of the night to an airport in Bologna, the capital of the Emilia-Romagna region. By 6 a.m. Sunday morning, P.D. and her children were airborne from Bologna to Amsterdam, then to Atlanta and, finally, Fayetteville.
As they left one of the hottest spots in the world for the virus, they arrived in a place where it was still in its infancy; Arkansas’ first confirmed case of COVID-19 was announced on March 11. The Clarkes were home, but even here it was a world that was far from normal.
Immediately after arriving home, P.D. contacted the Arkansas Department of Health (ADH). She did not think that her family had been exposed since they had been isolating socially in Italy, but coming from a hotspot and traveling internationally through multiple airports, she did not want to take any chances. Their families wanted to pick them up from the airport and help them get back home, but Rotnei’s dad has diabetes, and P.D.’s mother has a weak lung. ADH was able to help her through this uncertainty, advising her to restrict all interactions with the outside world for at least 14 days.
“[ADH] really guided us through what to do,” P.D. says. “Then we got home, and me and the kids were on total quarantine. We didn’t see anybody. We didn’t see our family, got our groceries delivered and didn’t leave the house.”
But throughout her first week in Arkansas, her youngest, Canon, was sick. He began showing symptoms of diarrhea and a low-grade temperature the day they left Italy, and it just would not break. Some days later, he showed signs of congestion, with a runny nose and a mild cough. P.D. wanted to get him tested for COVID-19 as soon as possible, but with the virus being so new to the state, ADH only had a couple dozen tests available. At first, the department sided against testing Canon, since no one else in the family had displayed symptoms and the four of them were already in quarantine. Finally, however, a mother’s perseverance prevailed, and she was able to get her son tested, on the condition that if he tested positive, the state would treat her entire family as COVID-19 positive.
“It took three or four days to get the results back,” P.D. says. “It came back negative.”
Fortunately for P.D. and her children — now assuredly coronavirus-free — dad was not far behind. A little over a week after sending his family halfway across the world amid a pandemic, Rotnei was coming home, too.
As the cases continued to rise in Italy, and the United States began gatekeeping international travel with bans to and from certain countries, both Rotnei and P.D. agreed that he needed to join them in Fayetteville. He had the full support and encouragement of his team to join his family, which certainly helped curb their initial anxieties. But a lot had changed in just a week.
The ban initiated by President Donald Trump on March 11 suspended travel from Italy and other European countries for 30 days. While Americans coming home from these countries were not included in this ban, it meant flight cancellations ran rampant in these countries, and the prices of tickets soared.
“It was really hard to get through, no one was answering the phones,” P.D. remembers. When she finally got through to someone, she was told that flights were between $13,000 and $17,000. “I thought that was a joke. I was like, ‘You mean $1,300?’
“It was just crazy. And we feel so blessed that we got on the phone with somebody who was able to move his round trip that we had already paid for, from him coming there. But he had to go to some crazy lengths.”
On the day of his departure, there were only two flights leaving the Bologna airport, and Rotnei was blessed with a ticket on one of them. From there, it took him two days to finally make it home safely to his family, going from Bologna to Germany to London to Chicago before ultimately arriving in Fayetteville.
But Rotnei returning meant that the entire family’s 14-day quarantine started over, as directed by ADH. In all, the Clarke family was under this supervised quarantine until the end of March, nearly an entire month with no face-to-face contact with anyone but each other.
Since reuniting and reaching the end of their quarantine requirements, the Clarkes continue to practice stringent social distancing, their extended families included. That’s been difficult for everyone involved, as they have been in Italy since last summer, and this would usually be the time of year when both the Clarkes and the Elliotts (P.D.’s family) could spend much-needed time with each other for a few months. But they all know that it is simply precautionary for the bigger picture. P.D., determined to stay positive and reflective, doesn’t let it get her down.
“Honestly, no one should feel bad because we are so happy,” she says. “We are so thankful to be home, together and not in an apartment. I can swing open my back door, and my kids can run out and play and just be happy. We have so much faith here as opposed to before, in a foreign country where we didn’t feel comfortable.
“So we don’t feel bad at all … We don’t really see the negatives. We are just so thankful to be out of the situation that we were in.”
Susan Weinstein, Washington, D.C.
On March 11, Susan Weinstein, president of Agudath Achim, a Jewish congregation in Little Rock, was en route to Washington, D.C., to visit her son, his wife and their 5-month-old son in Arlington, Va. In the days leading up to her scheduled flight, a sense of worry festered beneath her excitement as COVID-19 continued to become more and more prominent in the United States.
The entire trip can best be summed as a grandmother’s love, something the good grandmas just do. Her son was to be away from his wife and child for 10 days while out of town for work, and his wife works full time in addition to her nightly studies in pursuance of a master’s degree.
“So they needed a little extra help, especially in the evenings,” Weinstein says. “They asked me to come, and, of course, I said yes. I bought a nonrefundable ticket — you know, the cheap fares that we all get, frankly.”
But before her departure date, she got word that her son’s trip had been canceled due to the growing pandemic. Even still, she figured, “Well, I might as well go anyway ‘cause I could see the baby, and my ticket is nonrefundable.”
When Weinstein landed in D.C., a news alert pinged to her phone. Arkansas had just reported its first case of COVID-19. “Already, that was a little worrisome,” she says.
Just outside of D.C., Arlington’s confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus were rather light in comparison with some of the other hotbeds across the country at the time, but the Weinsteins still took strict precautions. Her son and daughter-in-law would not let the 71-year-old grandmother go out in public, so she was limited to nearby walking trails and soaking up family time at home with her grandson — which garnered few complaints from her.
But quickly after she arrived, the situation in the United States broke loose of its constraints. States began issuing stay-at-home orders, businesses were shutting down, flights were being canceled. The entire country turned off a never-before-flipped switch to fight back against this contagion.
“The day after I got there, I decided I’m going to stay long enough to enjoy the baby, and I’m leaving early and going home,” Weinstein recalls. “I didn’t want to be stuck if they decided to shut down domestic flights. Things were changing so much every single day.” She was not able to get a refund for her original roundtrip ticket, instead being forced to buy a one-way ticket back home (at quite an expense). “I just really wanted to be home. I did not want to be stuck there.”
On March 16, Weinstein left for Little Rock.
Her first flight of the double-leg journey was empty. She and the other passengers were told, “It doesn’t matter what your seat number says, everyone can have their own row.” Weinstein picked her place of relative isolation and felt calm in that safety blanket of having no next-door neighbors, until the coughing fits began — and not hers.
“There was someone behind me coughing so hard, just a gut-wrenching cough, and quite frequently,” she says “So, I’m sitting there in my row, by the window wondering, ‘Oh my gosh, he is immediately behind me. Am I better off moving over to the aisle seat, or will droplets go between the seats, and that’s worse? Maybe I’m better with the seatback protecting me?’ The whole flight, I kept wondering what I ought to do. I decided I’d stay put.”
When she finally made it home to Little Rock, she was not sure if she had done so safely. Weinstein self-quarantined for 14 days, feeling that the person behind her might have had COVID-19.
Before Weinstein semi-retired and took her place at Agudath Achim, she was the state veterinarian at ADH, often working with zoonotic diseases, though none quite like this coronavirus. Still, her experience and list of contacts she accumulated then came in handy now.
“I was sharing this story with some public health friends, and they were all saying, ‘Well, the first five days is the most serious,’” she says. “I literally didn’t go anywhere. I was not about to risk transmitting if I should come down with it. So, I did my part.”
To her relief, Weinstein has experienced no such symptoms of COVID-19 since that anxious flight — not even a sniffle.
Holding true to her roots as a public health professional, Weinstein worries less about herself than she does the well-being of others, hoping that this crisis can provide an opportunity.
“I hope we get back to a new normal where families talk to one another more,” Weinstein says, in reference to this time of social distancing, which has resulted in more family time. “I don’t know if that will happen, but I certainly hope it does.”
Laura Leigh Turner, New York City
Laura Leigh Turner was riding one of the highest waves of happiness she had ever experienced. The North Little Rock native had just recently packed her bags for New York City, pursuing her dream of performing on Broadway. As quickly as she arrived, that dream became reality. But as soon as it did, the world fell apart.
As far back as her time at North Little Rock High School, Turner has been infatuated with theater. After graduating in 2015, she took her talents to Oklahoma City University where they would continue to develop through shows such as Hairspray and Sister Act.
Over the years, she has showcased her skill set on the stage in a number of different ways. In addition to her brilliance as an actress, Turner has achieved local stardom for her achievements in pageantry, being named Miss Arkansas’ Outstanding Teen 2012, and first runner-up for Miss Arkansas in both 2018 and 2019. When word traveled that she had moved to New York in August of 2019, there was little surprise felt from those who know her. It was destiny, an expected and earned pilgrimage.
But even she was shocked by how quickly she rose through the ranks in the City of Dreams. After just six months, she was cast as a leading lady in one of Broadway’s hottest shows — Karen Smith in Tina Fey’s Mean Girls.
“It can take people years to break into that,” Turner says of the Broadway scene. “I just was in the right place at the right time.”
Even quicker than the opportunity was her being thrust into it. She auditioned for the role on a Monday, sat before the entire creative team — Tina Fey, Casey Nicholaw, Mary-Mitchell Campbell — on Wednesday and was offered the role on Friday.
“A week after that, I was in my Broadway costume fitting,” she remembers. “I just kept saying, ‘Guys, I was babysitting 6-week-old babies and changing their diapers two weeks ago, and now you’re putting me in costume for Broadway.
“I learned the whole show in two weeks before going on stage. It was a very fast rehearsal process, and I felt like I was in a wind tunnel.”
Unfortunately for her starstruck and humbled eyes, the hastiness to this chapter of her life would not stop there. Her Broadway debut came on the night of March 10, followed by two shows on March 11. But on March 12, just three shows into her big break, Broadway went dark — Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered a shutdown of all the city’s theaters to help slow the spread of COVID-19.
“I keep telling people that it felt like someone gave me a Christmas present and then was like, ‘No, no, no, you can’t have it anymore,’” Turner says.
But as heartbreaking as this news was for the young thespian, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise, in hindsight. New York’s cases of COVID-19 had risen exponentially during that week, but were still low enough to where Turner was confident she had not been exposed, and travel to and from the city had not been restricted near as much as it was just weeks later. Her mother called her that Sunday, March 15, and told her it would be best if she just came home so as to not risk being stuck in a bad situation. Turner flew home to central Arkansas that afternoon.
As it stands, Broadway’s closure will last until at least June 7.
Turner is not down about it, however, putting others before herself as she believes a proud woman of faith should. She continues to update her blog, Love, Laura Leigh, with weekly messages of hope and encouragement, which she calls “love letters.” Soon, she will have a podcast available featuring her interviews of Christians in the performing arts industry.
“Something that excites me about the shutdown of Broadway is that theater always has such a big comeback when things like this happen,” Turner says. “The Broadway world is such a uniting part of New York City, and I have a lot of hope that it will come back in a really beautiful way after all of this passes.”