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The Lost Year: A year in the life of a mail carrier (the year is 2020)

“It feels like I’ve never stopped playing Russian roulette because I never stopped working.”

Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

This is The Lost Year, a series of stories about our lived experiences in 2020, as told to Vox critic at large Emily VanDerWerff.

Natalie is a rural mail carrier in Nevada, and the United States Postal Service has had one hell of a year. When I set up our interview for this series, I was particularly interested to hear how she was handling the increased focus on the USPS in 2020 as Postmaster General Louis DeJoy made changes that drastically slowed delivery times amid both a pandemic and a presidential election. (You can read way more about those changes here.)

The slowdown affected Natalie a bit — some of her customers’ packages were delivered much later than they normally would have been — but what really affected her in 2020, she said, were the ways in which so many people in her community hadn’t taken Covid-19 seriously. She told me she felt like she was playing Russian roulette every day on her route, just wondering when she might contract the virus.

As someone who has to come in contact with other people on a daily basis and never had the option to quarantine or stop working, Natalie’s perspective on the pandemic underscores just how fraught this year has been for the many essential workers who’ve kept the country going. And since I’m from a rural area, Natalie’s thoughts gave me new insight into just how America got to a place where it allowed the virus to spread basically unchecked.

Here’s the story of Natalie’s 2020, as told to me.

I’m a rural carrier. I deliver to the downtown corridor of our little town. Most of my route is businesses, and then there are a few homes and condos. But I’m not out driving on dirt roads.

From the start, it was like Covid-19 barely existed. Even now, in the worst of it, people are acting like it’s not a problem and like it doesn’t exist. Somebody asked me a couple months ago if I knew anybody who’s had Covid. I was like, “Yes, I know several people, because I talk to more people than the people who live in this town.”

It’s starting to get pretty bad around here. [Natalie told me this in late November.] I’ve had businesses where I deliver close without warning. I’ll show up one day, and there’s a note on the door that says they’ll be back in mid-December. The way the community has responded has been driven by the politics of Covid, and it’s really sad. One woman in particular had to close her medical office for a month because one of her clients gave her Covid. She was never hospitalized, but she told me she was laid up for about three weeks.

In the post office, we didn’t receive any guidance or clarification from above for a really long time. The week in March when things started shutting down and the NBA went on hiatus, I remember going into the office and asking, “What’s the plan for this?” I thought there must be something in place, because we have to deal with things like hurricanes and floods.

There wasn’t. We were without a paddle. The first week everybody was really scared, and the news coming in was very inconsistent. We have scanners to scan packages, and when you need a signature, you hand that scanner over to your customer. I was like, “So we’re not letting our customers touch the scanners, right?” And they said, “No, it’s fine.” I said, “We’re not supposed to be sharing spaces! We can’t be passing scanners back and forth.” But there were no protocols for disinfecting them. And about three weeks after I had all these concerns, we finally implemented a policy where if I needed a signature, I could get verbal consent to sign for the customer.

The response has been slapdash. We get little notifications to disinfect our vehicle. But they’re not providing us with disinfectant or alcohol wipes or anything like that. The onus is put on us. I’m assuming a lot of that comes from the top down. It feels like I’ve never stopped playing Russian roulette because I never stopped working. I never isolated. I never quarantined. I never had to go into lockdown. I was an essential worker from the start, because obviously the mail needs to go out. And all they gave us in those first few weeks was a letter that said it was okay for us to be out driving, in case we got pulled over.

People weren’t even taking it seriously in my post office itself. A lot of people here don’t want to wear their masks, and we didn’t get a mandatory mask mandate in Nevada until June. Once that was in place, there was significant pushback from the people on staff. My postmaster, to her eternal credit, has been fantastic about it. She will pull people off the floor if she sees them not wearing a mask. But the minute she’s out of the office, those masks come off and people are shouting across the floor. It’s like this thing isn’t happening.

I keep my mask on and put my head down. I try to keep to myself. But it’s terribly frustrating. If we don’t take care of each other, all it takes is for one person to come into that office who’s symptomatic, and the whole office gets shut down. I don’t know what would happen if that were to occur. I’ve asked, “What would happen if we got Covid?” And most of us would still have to come to work. If a workplace has an outbreak, the workplace should close. But you can’t close the post office and have an entire community not get mail for two weeks.

There was a drastic decline in the volume of mail. That has a lot to do with the fact of the entire economy being affected by this thing. We saw that right away. And when Louis DeJoy got put in and started slowing the mail down over the summer, you could see that a little bit. I had customers ask, “Are we getting all of our mail every day?” And I said, “Every piece of mail that I get, I deliver to you.”

When the stories started coming out about the machinery in the distribution centers getting literally dismantled for supposed cost-saving measures, I couldn’t understand. It takes away the most efficient tool in the toolbox. The mail literally cannot be processed without those machines. No human can do 10,000 pieces of mail in a minute.

The thing about the mail is, it’s not like you can just get rid of it. It still needs to get delivered. Every piece of mail you don’t deliver today is a piece of mail you have to deliver tomorrow. I would look at those full tubs stacked up in cases [in the photos posted to social media] and say, “That’s three weeks’ worth of work right there.” But frankly, it could have been a lot worse. I’m lucky that we have whistleblowers and that people paid attention.

Even out here in a conservative area, everyone that I come in contact with has been pretty supportive. I don’t think that people were like, “I support the president, and that means I support his postmaster general.” For the most part, people were like, “We want our mail. We want our prescriptions to show up when they’re supposed to show up.” My customers would see the news stories and say, “We love the post office. We support you guys.” It was a strange feeling, but it was a nice feeling. People would wave at you and honk their horns that week when it was basically the main story in the news.

My customers like me, and that’s one of the dissonant things about it. You can kind of tell a person’s politics by delivering their mail. You can guess what side of the aisle they’re on. Maybe they get a conservative publication like the Epoch Times or something. But when you meet them in the street, you’ll have a lovely conversation with them. It’s one of those things about life in America these days: The politics are so poisonous and so crazy, but people are often still friendly to each other.

It’s like what they say: “Congress is awful, but my congressman is great.” Once you have a personal relationship with someone, it’s harder to demonize them or say, “All of these problems are because of what you do.” Once people form a personal relationship with something, it becomes much harder to criticize it with a blanket statement. I am pretty much the only federal employee most of my customers see on a regular basis. I don’t know if it would change people’s minds about the government if there were outreach from other agencies. But once you can personalize an agency or a group, you can’t really attack them and feel okay about it.

Among my coworkers, it was a different story. I would ask some of them what they thought about the slowdown, and they would say, “What are you talking about? That’s not happening. It’s fake news. We’re still getting our mail, aren’t we?” I would ask if they had customers complain to them about missing stuff, and they would say, “Yeah, but customers always complain.” I guess that’s why I don’t talk about these things at work. If you don’t have an actual relationship with something or the problem isn’t directly affecting you or someone you know, the problem may as well not be there. I can say, “3,000 people died yesterday,” and nobody at work is saying anything about it. We’re all walking around like, “Sure sucks that I have to wear a mask because the boss is here.”

It has to do with the strong independent streak in rural Americans. These are people who don’t want the government to tell them what to do. They want to live their lives and think it’s ridiculous to be asked to wear a mask. When Donald Trump tells them, “Masks are great. Everybody should wear masks. But I don’t,” that’s a big cue to people around here. When people around here see a business is closed because there’s been a Covid outbreak, they’re more likely to say, “Well, this sucks for me.”

When stores were closing, when Walmart closed — people were like, “Okay, this is a big deal.” But there seemed to be so much denialism about how big a deal it was. A lot of it had to do with the fact that the worst parts of it, at first, were in New York. So around here it became a Democrat disease that we didn’t have to worry about because none of us travel that much, and it’s never going to come here. So why do we have to be forced to do all of these things?

When the mask mandate was put into effect, within a couple days, half the businesses I deliver to had a sign posted on their doors that said, basically, because of the governor we have to do this. And it’s not because of the governor! It’s because of the virus. And then plenty more had a sign up on their front door, like, “Masks are mandatory, but according to HIPAA, we cannot ask you if you have a condition preventing you from wearing a mask. So if you’re not wearing a mask, we will assume you have some sort of condition that prevents you from wearing it.” So you could go in there without a mask, and it’s perfectly fine. That’s still the case. I walk into a business to deliver mail, and nobody’s wearing a mask. They’re not even pretending to try.

I don’t know what it would take to get people to change their behaviors in my town. The normalization of how this has all gone down will never cease to blow my mind and upset me. For the rest of my life, I’m going to wonder how we let that happen. How did so many of my fellow Americans decide that this is just the way it is now? To just let people die? I hope I’m not one of them.

[A week after Natalie and I talked, she sent me an email saying she had contracted Covid-19. She is recovering.]

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