The walls of Anita Greenwalt’s barber shop just off the old U.S. Route 66 in El Reno are covered with four decades of family photographs.
Nick’s Barber Shop has been a constant in El Reno since Anita’s father opened the business in 1983, but the coronavirus pandemic has changed everything for her and her family over the past year.
Since the earliest confirmed cases of COVID-19 were first reported in Oklahoma on March 6, 2020, the virus has claimed the lives of more than 8,000 Oklahomans. Four of those belonged to Greenwalt’s family — her mother, her father, her brother and a cousin.
She finds herself changed, not only from losing loved ones, but the hit her business took from the pandemic and the reaction from some in her community. Customers have spat and cursed at her for requiring masks inside the shop.
“It has been so difficult as a business owner and someone who has buried so many family members from this virus to listen to people dismiss this, and discount masks and discount the scientists,” Anita said. “It is so incredibly difficult.”
There is no going back to the way things were, she said. Too much has changed. Her family will never be the same. And neither will she.
Her cousin was the first person in the family to fall ill.
Shineesta Emily Bushyhead Adams or “Shine,” to those who knew her, came down with a fever, cough and headache in March 2020, just 20 days after Oklahoma recorded its first case of the virus.
Shine’s health declined at a staggering pace. At age 60, she was a breast cancer survivor and underwent her last chemotherapy treatment just days before testing positive for COVID-19.
“I think if she hadn’t had that chemo shot that drained her, I think maybe she would have beat it,” said Tomi Bailey, Shine’s daughter. “It took everything out of her and the COVID took over, and took over her whole thing.”
Shine was taken to a Ponca City emergency room on March 26, where she was confirmed to have the disease.
Her family was communicating with her via text message and encouraging her to stay strong, but they were not allowed to visit her in the hospital because of the pandemic.
By March 28, Shine was in a medically-induced coma and on a ventilator.
Bailey said she later met the nurse who put her under, who told her that her mom had said she was scared. The nurse tried to reassure her.
“She said ‘I know I’m not going to come out of it. Tell my family that I love them,’” Bailey said. “Those were the last words she said.”
Shine was later transferred to an Oklahoma City hospital, but died on April 20, 2020.
For Shine’s extended family, and the entire state, the pandemic had just begun to inflict its tragic toll.
Joe and Emily
Anita’s father and mother, Joe “Nick” Ramirez Jr., 84, and Emily Ann Bushyhead Ramirez, 82, would have celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary on June 5 this year.
But it wasn’t to be. Both died of COVID-19 within six days of each other in September, 2020.
Anita started work at her father’s El Reno barber shop in 1989, and in 2003, she purchased the business from him. He continued working there until 2010, when he retired following a stroke, she said.
On Sept. 4, when her father began running a fever and developed a cough, Anita’s first thoughts were about what her cousin Shine had gone through. It was a worrying development. She took her father to a local clinic to get tested for the virus.
Though Joe was showing symptoms, Anita was allowed to sit with him in the clinic as they waited for the results. After a couple of hours, the results came back — he had tested positive.
Because her father was hard of hearing, Greenwalt took her father’s hand and told him what the nurse had said.
“Pop,” she told him, “it’s going to be OK. I don’t know how, but it’s going to be OK.”
When he heard what she said, he pulled his hand away.
“He said ‘Mija, go wash your hands!’ I said ‘I will wash my hands whenever you leave,’” she said, taking his hand again. “He was afraid to give it to me. He was afraid to touch me. We didn’t know what the hell was going on with this virus, but we knew it had taken a cousin.”
She stayed with him until the ambulance arrived to transport him to Saint Francis Hospital in Oklahoma City.
She called her mother and told her the news. Emily was worried. She knew what had happened to Shine after getting it, and Joe was an octogenarian who had already had a stroke and suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
After speaking with her mother, Anita hung up the phone and sat for a long time in her car in the clinic parking lot, crying and trying to figure out what to do.
“I didn’t know what to do—do I go in my house and possibly expose my husband?” Greenwalt
Emily eventually also tested positive for COVID-19, as did Anita’s sister, Veleah Snow, who had been caring for Emily.
Veleah took Emily to a special dialysis clinic in Moore to receive treatment when Emily began having difficulty breathing. The clinic’s staff called an ambulance, which took her to Norman Regional Hospital.
Emily, who was unable to speak, had a nurse take a picture of her waving and sent it to the family with the text “tell daddy I miss him and love him,” Anita said.
“Whenever she sent that picture and message to us kids, I think maybe she knew she was going,” Anita said. “She reached out to us.”
The family tried to set up a FaceTime call between Emily and Joe, but it was not to be.
“They said she was too far gone to move and that they were going to try to get her treated and stabilized so mom and dad could talk. We were really wanting that, to get them together on the phone. We never got that,” Anita said.
On the morning of Sept. 15, Emily had to be resuscitated and then intubated. She died shortly afterward.
The family asked the chaplain at Saint Anthony’s about whether they should inform Joe that his wife of 59 years had just died.
The chaplain told them they should do what they felt was right.
They decided to all get on a Zoom call and break the news to him.
“That was the worst phone call I’ve ever made in my life,” she said. “It was horrible. The chaplain was in there, so I was grateful for that. But to hear my dad yell…” she trails off, her voice breaking with emotion.
Afterwards, the family spoke to the doctor, who told them to try and keep Joe’s spirits up through video conferencing calls with his family.
And it seemed to work. for three days, his decline stopped.
“For those three days,” Greenwalt said, “he stayed right there, like he was treading water.”
Meanwhile, Anita’s sister, Veleah, had been admitted to the hospital with COVID-19, just two doors down from her father.
It seemed like everything was spiraling out of control, Anita said.
Then, on Sept. 20, the day before Emily’s rosary service, the doctor called Anita. Her father’s condition had worsened. He had also changed his medical plans and signed “do not resuscitate” and “do not intubate” orders. Her father’s head was clear, the doctor said. He knew what he wanted.
Anita was allowed to visit him one last time before the end.
Seeing him in that state was awful, she said, but she was grateful to speak to him one more time.
“It was good and it was awful. It was a blessing and a curse,” she said.
He asked her if she and her siblings would be OK. She said they would.
He pointed to her.
“He said ‘you’re going to be OK?’ I said ‘I am, Pop. I’m not going to like it. I’m probably going to be mad a lot of the time, but I’m going to be OK.”
He took her hand for the final time and told his daughter “I miss mama, mija.’ I said ‘I know, pop. I know you do. Go on to her. You should be with her.”
After saying their goodbyes, Anita rushed from the room. She fixed her mind on just getting outside to her car. But a nurse stopped her and asked if she wanted to see her sister.
Anita started to cry.
Snow was on a breathing machine, but in good spirits. She would survive, but still receives oxygen treatments as a result of the disease.
“I just wanted to grab her and hug her and hold her,” Anita said.
The next day, on Sept. 21, her father died.
On Sept. 25, the family held a double funeral service for Joe and Emily.
Their son, Victorio Ramirez, a U.S. Marine veteran, was presented with the flag from Joe’s coffin. Within three months, he too would be dead from COVID.
Victorio and his wife Carla were both diagnosed with COVID 19 within days of each other, shortly after his 53rd birthday on Nov. 30.
Carla, a licensed practical nurse, said she initially had a worse case than her husband, who had no serious medical issues prior to the diagnosis.
“He just had a small cough and I had the horrible body aches and was running a 102-, 103-degree fever, and lost my taste and smell,” she said.
The couple had tried to take precautions—they stayed at home even during holidays, did curbside grocery pick up, wore masks, and used hand sanitizer.
Soon, Victorio began to decline and had to go to the hospital in Yukon.
“We both thought we were just going to bounce back,” Carla said. “It’s not something we were expecting. We were both getting ready to retire. We were going to take some trips. We were going to see Alaska and then…” her breath catches as emotion washes over her “…we were going to go see Yellowstone.”
Anita and her siblings did not get to visit Victorio in person at the hospital, but were able to see him through a window. They also were able to communicate through text messages until he became too sick to respond.
“We couldn’t wrap our heads around the fact we were in this position with our little brother,” Anita said. “It just felt like a nightmare going on every day.”
With Carla at his side and holding the phone, his siblings were able to tell him goodbye as he faded.
“I was grateful for that,” Greenwalt said. “I got to tell him what a kickass brother he was.”
Victorio died the day after Christmas. He was buried with full military honors.
The loss of her husband has been difficult for Carla. The house the couple had just remodeled now feels empty. She works extra shifts, volunteers and has joined exercise classes to keep her mind and body busy so that by the time she gets home, she’s too tired to ruminate on the memories of Victorio that still haunt the home they built together.
Though she was initially hesitant about the vaccine, she said Victorio was looking forward to its arrival and a return to normalcy. She now volunteers at every COVID vaccination site she can.
“I feel like I’m honoring him,” Carla said. “I think I cried the first time I gave someone an injection, I was just like ‘this is for him. I’m doing this for you. We did it.’”
Nick’s Barber Shop
Each of the five COVID-19 tests Anita has taken over the past year has come back negative, even after several exposures to the virus and working in close proximity to customers at the barbershop.
Anita has taken the pandemic seriously.
On March 25, 2020, Gov. Kevin Stitt amended an executive order requiring that certain “non-essential” businesses close in counties that were determined to have community spread of the virus.
Anita closed Nick’s Barber Shop a week before the executive order was issued, and it remained closed for seven weeks to try and keep her workers and customers safe.
When the state began allowing businesses like Anita’s to reopen with social distancing and other restrictions meant to keep the virus at bay, Anita had to adjust. Nick’s Barber Shop had three chairs, so one chair had to go to meet social distancing requirements. Rather than the normal walk-in services the barber shop once had, she started doing business by appointment only.
And then there was the mask requirement.
For some customers, that did not go over well.
“I can’t tell you how many confrontations I had over the mask fiasco,” she said. “Every day it was something. Every day.”
Several customers have cussed her when asked to wear a mask. One man tried spitting on her after being told they must wear a mask, an incident that prompted her to put security cameras in her shop.
Another woman tried to pass off a fake doctor’s note purporting to exempt her from wearing a mask for “medical reasons,” and threatened to sue when called out on it, she said.
“I’ve been called names I haven’t been called since I was on the schoolyard in grade school,” Anita said. “It’s very disappointing how people have been about this. There have been people who have been coming into my shop for years, but this last year has shown me somebody else.”
It was about two weeks after the death of her mother and father Anita said she finally lost her cool on a customer.
A man came in the shop and refused to wear a mask and demanded to speak with the owner when asked to do so. He insisted she was just “buying into that liberal bullshit,” she said. She tried to tell him it wasn’t about politics.
He said the virus was just a “hoax.”
That was the final straw.
“‘You know what?’” she said. “‘I wish someone would tell my cousin and my mom and my dad that this is a hoax so they could crawl their asses out of the ground and come eat dinner with us again.”
He just stared at her, she said, and then left.
“I’m not tolerant any more,” she said. “Someone comes into the shop and says something to me, I don’t have the nice personality I used to have. I’ve been in this shop for over 30 years. If I was a hateful person, I wouldn’t still be there. But this has just worn me down.
“How can people just be this way? I think I will never be the same. And that makes me really sad.”