A Reporter’s Challenge: Maintaining Distance in a Close Community

A Reporter’s Challenge: Maintaining Distance in a Close Community

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In 25 years as a journalist, including a decade spent in Eastern Europe, one of my more challenging tasks came this month: reporting on the novel coronavirus — not from inside a besieged New York medical center, but from bucolic Amish country in Ohio.

Working (and healthy) journalists are exempt from restrictions on travel that apply to most Americans. But our work has necessarily become more solitary, as we protect ourselves and the people we meet. In a field that relies on human contact, we stand six feet away, hiding ourselves behind masks, goggles and gloves, refusing opportunities to interact that we would normally prize.

Reporting on the coronavirus has made me think more deeply than I have in years about the nature of risk. In this case, it’s physically microscopic yet as potentially dangerous as risks encountered in conflict zones. Technological and physical barriers have reminded me of the vulnerability reporters share with the people who are our subjects, and reinforced the importance of human connectedness to reporting. It’s easy to discount the value of a facial expression, a tone of voice or a firm handshake in establishing rapport until such things are obscured behind a mask or prohibited by social-distancing rules.

This month I traveled to Holmes County, in central Ohio, to report on how Amish workers, idled by social-distancing guidelines, had pivoted to make face masks, surgical gowns and protective gear for the Cleveland Clinic and other hospitals across the country. The Amish, whose life centers on communal work and worship, were struggling with the dictates of social distancing in a county that at the time had only one confirmed case of the coronavirus.

So were we.

I had imagined the close-knit Amish would be happy to distance themselves from outsiders. Instead, my colleague, the Times photographer Erin Schaff, and I spent our trip backing off and begging off, refusing invitations from people keen to tell their stories, compelled by faith and temperament to welcome us.

My guide to the community was David Kline, an Amish bishop in his 70s and the author of several books about Amish farming life. Home-based telephones and computers are forbidden, so I passed word through Mr. Kline’s non-Amish daughter-in-law, Martha Kline, who runs his publication, Farming Magazine. Mr. Kline called late one night, and after a long conversation, he said, “Of course you’ll stay at our place,” meaning Larksong, the family’s farm near Fredericksburg, Ohio. Staying there, I could learn more than in a week’s worth of interviews. Miserably, I refused, telling him that it could put the farm’s three generations of Klines at risk. Mr. Kline laughed. “We’ll talk about it when you get here,” he said, hanging up. I booked a hotel.

Erin and I drove separate cars to Ohio. In mine, I carried hand sanitizer and germicidal wipes made for cleaning emergency-room floors and crime scenes. I arrived at the Klines’ pristine farm on a clear afternoon, the braying of Arthur, their neighbors’ burro, audible on the stiff breeze. Times guidelines recommend doing interviews outdoors, and we chatted with Mr. Kline and his wife, Elsie, from the far side of a round wooden table outside their back door. Touring the farm, meeting their daughter and three grandchildren, we crab-walked sideways through barn aisles, ducking and social distancing as the children rigged up their pony cart, showed off their baby rabbits and laughed at our weird maneuvers.

“I tend to play the odds,” Mr. Kline said at one point. “In the flu of 1918 nobody died in my family, and not in Elsie’s family, either.”

As I was leaving, I urged Mr. Kline to wash his hands. He was too polite to roll his eyes, but said, “I think we have soap.”

The next day began at Keim, a lumber and home goods business leading the effort on personal protective equipment. Kelsey Hochstetler, Keim’s communications chief and our guide that day, gave us fluid-resistant, Amish-made masks. She carried a tote bag with a big bottle of hand sanitizer and snacks (most places to eat were closed). My mask pushed my nose to one side, plugging it. Afraid to use anyone’s restroom that day, I sprinted to my hotel room en route to another stop, then stopped drinking water.

In Keim’s parking lot, I placed my iPhone on a concrete wall to record an interview, then stepped several feet away. Abe Troyer and Leroy Yoder, Amish leaders in Holmes County, spoke movingly about coronavirus’s impact on incomes and gatherings.

Retrieving my phone, I logged in to save the recording. But the cold had made the phone seize. As I watched numbly, it went dead, the two men’s words gone. Even around my mask, Ms. Hochstetler saw my pain. “It happens!” she said, except that it never — ever — had to me. “I can bring them back!” Hours later we met again, and I confessed that modern technology and social distancing had gotten the better of me. If I were Amish, I told the men standing across the room, maybe I would have relied on handwritten notes.

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