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Jim Kenyon: It’s boomerang isolation as adult kids return to Vermont to ride out pandemic

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 3/28/2020 9:48:38 PM
Modified: 3/28/2020 9:48:36 PM

On the day the federal government declared a national emergency over the coronavirus pandemic, Phineas Ellis got a call from his parents.

“You should come to Vermont,” they urged on March 13.

At 31, Ellis had stopped thinking of Vermont as home. His home is now New York City, where he moved after college and recently started a business.

Vermont is now the place he visits on holidays and occasional long weekends to spend time with his parents and three siblings whose careers have also taken them to other parts of the country.

Ellis grew up in Chelsea and Strafford. In 2007, he graduated from Sharon Academy, where he played on the basketball team, coached by his father, Kevin.

Before the phone call from his parents 16 days ago, Phineas Ellis was like many New Yorkers.

“This is all going to blow over,” he told himself. “I’ll just have to stay home from work for a few days.”

But something in his parents’ voices told him that he should heed their advice. The next day Ellis packed his Prius and headed north.

In an interview last week with Vox.com, Lara Fielding, a clinical psychologist and writer, said more and more young adults in urban areas are looking to relocate during the pandemic.

“The most natural thing in the world is to want to bond and affiliate with our safe cohort during this time,” Fielding said. “It’s the desire for familiarity.

“Right now, there’s so much uncertainty, and that’s the biggest stressor for most people.”

Kevin Ellis and his wife, Kimberly Hackett, no longer live in the Upper Valley — they’ve bought a renovated schoolhouse in East Montpelier, and turned the property’s artist studio into a guest cottage that they rent out through Airbnb.

Phineas Ellis arrived in Vermont before New York’s statewide stay-at-home order went into effect last Sunday. But as a precaution, he self-isolated until reaching the 14-day mark two days ago without any symptoms.

With more than 25,000 cases, as of Friday, New York City is now the pandemic’s American epicenter. Phineas Ellis is relieved that he left before the surge, but there’s a lingering sense of guilt as well.

Many of his friends in New York are restaurant workers who have lost their jobs and remain stuck in their tiny apartments. Meanwhile, he’s building birdhouses on his parents’ property, surrounded by woods and apple trees in the back yard.

“It’s obviously a tremendous privilege to have this space to escape to,” he told me in a phone interview. “I have this little oasis up here to use while other people in New York are trapped in their high-rise apartments with hundreds of other people.”

Last week, he began sharing the guest house with his 25-year-old sister, Freeland. A regional press secretary for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, Freeland was working in Washington. She’s on Day 10 of self-isolation at her parents’ home.

Ellis and Hackett have two other children. Jackson, who is married, stayed in Washington, where he’s a school counselor and basketball coach. Their youngest son, Keenan, is a writer in Los Angeles.

The Ellises have enough self-awareness to realize which side of the haves-and-have-nots divide they live on.

“Most families can’t do this,” Kevin Ellis said. “We’re lucky enough to have this place. We’re incredibly privileged.”

After starting out as an environmental reporter at the Burlington Free Press, Kevin Ellis became one of the most powerful lobbyists in the state. He did some of his best Statehouse work in the late 2000s, advocating for legalizing same-sex marriage in Vermont, which the Legislature passed in 2009.

Now 61, Kevin Ellis heads up his own communications and public relations consulting company. He’s also on the governing board at the Vermont Journalism Trust, VtDigger’s parent organization.

Bringing their children back to Vermont during these scary times was the “instinctual thing to do as parents,” he told me. “You want them close.”

Sometimes, it’s a little too close. “We spend as much time outdoors as we can,” Phineas Ellis joked.

On Wednesday, while I talked with Kevin Ellis on the phone, his daughter was outdoors, tossing snowballs at his home office window.

In her job with Sanders’ campaign, she often worked 18-hour days, but now that she’s “off the campaign trail” and living at home, “she’s actually sleeping and eating decent food,” her father said.

Being home for an extended period is “almost a rewind back to high school,” Phineas Ellis said. His parents have even assigned him “dish duty.”

He can’t get his head around how long his stay will need to be. Last year, he opened a podcast production studio in downtown Manhattan. What will New York be when he can get back in two or three months? Will he need to reinvent his professional life?

“There’s all this anxiety that comes with reading the news and worrying about your future,” he said.

But he hasn’t lost sight of how lucky he is: “I’m here in Vermont, and my friends in New York are suffering. It’s much more challenging for them.”

Eric and Teresa Bauernschmidt made it home. Last week, I wrote about the West Windsor couple getting stuck in Haiti after the country closed its two international airports.

The Bauernschmidts are in the process of adopting three boys — all brothers under the age of 10 — from an orphanage in Haiti.

After the airport reopened for U.S.-bound flights, the couple arrived in Miami on Tuesday night. The three boys must remain in Haiti until the adoption process is complete in the next year or so.

The couple, however, escorted two boys, who were adopted by a Montana family, to Miami.

The Bauernschmidts arrived home Wednesday. This week, they’re set to return to their jobs at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, where Eric is a nurse anesthetist and Teresa is a nurse practitioner.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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