Denise Rowe could tell from the moment her grandma got on the phone that the 98-year-old wasn’t happy.
“I have a bone to pick with you,” Juanita Davis declared.
Davis had been the driving force behind three decades of Winrow family reunions, which draw up to 200 people from 30 states every other summer. For two years, she had been preparing to host in Oklahoma City what she feared might be her last gathering.
Then the pandemic hit. And when the family conducted a Facebook poll in late May, Rowe said she didn’t feel comfortable attending the Labor Day event.
Rowe, an attorney and yoga teacher in Potomac, Md., tried to explain she was worried she might get her grandma sick. But Davis said her faith had kept her healthy for almost a century.
“My soon-to-be 99-year-old grandmother is ready to write me out of the will,” Rowe said half-jokingly, “because I told her covid is real.”
Across the country, families are facing fraught decisions – and fierce disagreements – over whether to see one another this summer. From California to Chicago to Charlotte, family gatherings of all kinds have been linked to coronavirus outbreaks that have sickened scores of people. But as the pandemic drags on, it is testing relatives’ resolve to remain apart.
Summer reunions offer a preview of what could happen later this year, when Americans celebrate their first Thanksgiving and Christmas since the pandemic’s start.
The debate about whether to hold reunions has been especially difficult for African American families, for whom large summer reunions are important rituals given extra urgency from the national reckoning on racism. At the same time, Black families also have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
When Rowe reminded her grandma that a relative in his 20s had nearly died of covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, Davis replied with scripture.
“You can’t live in fear,” Rowe recalled her grandma saying. “Faith is what you have to rely on.”
– – –
As the coronavirus began its deadly march across America, it forced families to make painful concessions. Birthday parties, graduation ceremonies, weddings and funerals were canceled, postponed, downsized or streamed online.
Family gatherings that were held anyway sometimes sparked outbreaks.
A covid cluster at an Idaho onion-ring factory was traced back to a family reunion.
A party of two dozen relatives in Charlotte led to 41 infections.
And a family dinner for six in Dallas resulted in 14 people getting sick, one of whom died and another one of whom remains on a ventilator.
“You cannot imagine the guilt I feel, knowing that I hosted the gathering that led to so much suffering,” the dinner party’s host wrote.
Last week, Maryland’s Republican Gov. Larry Hogan warned people not to assume spending time with relatives was risk-free.
“The number one activity of those who have tested positive recently, reported by a staggering 44 percent . . . was attending family gatherings,” he said at a news conference in which he tightened mask and travel restrictions. “We have people saying, ‘We’re not going out. We’re going to rent a beach house together with 20 or 30 of our family and we are staying home.’ But they are spreading the virus.”
Dane Riley was still debating whether to host the biennial Ruffin family reunion at Gum Springs Community Center in Northern Virginia when he learned that a cousin had been hospitalized with covid and was on a ventilator.
“That pushed me over the edge,” said Riley, 58, who postponed the reunion until next summer.
“I see people having gatherings in their homes, in their backyards,” he said. “I don’t feel safe putting my family in jeopardy that way.”
For Phalba Smith-Reid, canceling the Lollis family reunion for the first time in 32 years felt like a personal betrayal. Before her mother died in 2016, she had asked Smith-Reid to take over from her in organizing the gatherings.
“She said, ‘Promise me you’ll be the one to keep things going,’ ” Smith-Reid recalled. “Part of me feels like I’m letting her down. That’s the most disappointing thing.”
This year’s reunion was scheduled for the Fourth of July weekend in the capital, and was jokingly billed as a “March on Washington.” The family was supposed to visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture, watch the fireworks on the Mall, and celebrate Smith-Reid’s uncle, a civil rights activist named Rance A. O’Quinn.
O’Quinn was going to speak about how he fled Mississippi as a child after his father was murdered, a crime that – according to family lore – was committed by the Ku Klux Klan in retaliation for hosting NAACP meetings.
Instead, O’Quinn died of heart failure on June 28 – the day Mississippi legislators voted to remove the Confederate emblem from its flag. Another relative died around the same time. The family was too overwhelmed to hold a virtual reunion, Smith-Reid said.
When Chandler Powell Sr. suggested canceling the Anderson-Brown-Carroll family reunion on the Fourth of July weekend in Annapolis, Md., younger relatives initially pushed back. But opposition vanished after a relative ended up on a ventilator with covid-19 before eventually recovering, he said.
The retired Annapolis police officer, who now lives in North Carolina, was looking forward to talking to the younger generation about the protests rocking the nation.
“These reunions are about being able to share our stories, talk about our heritage, being able to understand who we are as a family and our origins,” he said. “They are a lifeline.”
Some families have taken extra precautions before proceeding with reunions.
When Sierra Jackson began planning a reunion in Charleston, S.C., a couple of years ago, she envisioned the two dozen cousins in their 20s and 30s dining at restaurants and drinking at bars.
But as spring turned to summer, and it became clear the coronavirus wasn’t going away, the cousins faced a decision. Should they cut their losses on the Airbnb, or go ahead with the mid-July event?
“The majority still wanted to go,” recalled Jackson, a 32-year-old from Washington. “From there we said, OK, what we’re going to do is at least a week out everybody needs to go get a covid test. Of course we had a couple of stragglers who said, ‘I don’t know where to go.’ I said ‘I’ll Google it for you.’ “
Everyone tested negative and the four-day event went smoothly, with the cousins cooking at home and avoiding others at the beach. When an elderly relative wanted to stop by to see them, they donned masks but couldn’t refuse an embrace.
“You can’t stop a 70-year-old woman from hugging her grandkids,” Jackson said.
Two weeks later, there are no signs anyone got sick.
“We do have a responsibility to not act recklessly,” Jackson said. “But at the same time, the longer this goes, it is a bit of personal decision. People have to weigh and measure what risks are appropriate for them and their families. . . . I’m going to do what I need to do to see the people I love.”
– – –
Two years ago, the Winrow-Windrow family reunion was held in Washington. Dozens of relatives – some of whom spell the last name differently – wandered the Mall in matching T-shirts, visiting museums and monuments before boarding a cruise on the Potomac. At the end of the four-day event, family leaders met to decide who would host in 2020.
Several people made a pitch. But the contest was effectively over as soon as Davis asked to host in her “limited time on this earth.”
Led by Davis, the Oklahoma City branch of the family booked a hotel downtown and a boathouse along the river that would be turned into a private casino for a night. But the emotional highlight would be a chartered bus trip to the tiny town of Earlsboro, where Davis’s father had owned a large farm and helped found a church. Rowe’s mother would tell the family’s oral history on the way.
When the pandemic hit, Oklahoma initially seemed like a relatively safe place for the reunion, which was originally scheduled for mid-July. Compared with New York and New Jersey, where some family members lived, the state appeared unaffected.
But by May 24, when one of Rowe’s cousins polled relatives on Facebook about moving the reunion to Labor Day, cases were rising across the south and west. Oklahoma would see its numbers begin to spike a few weeks later.
But even after Rowe and some other relatives said they probably wouldn’t come, the family deliberated over what to do.
“It’s one thing to seek opinions,” said Ellisa Johnson, Rowe’s aunt, who lives in Chicago. But relatives in Oklahoma City had already put down more than $5,000 that local businesses refused to refund. “The other issue is the financial obligations.”
For Davis, the dilemma was deeper still. A devout Seventh Day Adventist, she had been devastated when relatives told her she had to stop attending church because of the pandemic. Her faith had guided her for almost a century, in which her family had flourished. Why should that change now?
Rowe reminded her of services that had spread infection and of the young relative who had contracted covid and nearly died.
Johnson, who visited Davis in June after testing negative for the coronavirus and again last month, told her about the Dallas family dinner that had gone horribly wrong and began suggesting alternatives to a big family summit.
When Rowe called her grandma on a recent afternoon ahead of a family committee vote on the reunion, Davis seemed conflicted.
“I take my family serious, and it gets smaller and smaller,” she told her granddaughter, adding with a chuckle: “It’s down to me now!”
“Yes, you’re the queen,” Rowe replied.
Davis said she recognized that postponing the reunion was the safest option, even as she hoped the family would figure out some way for it to go ahead. In the end the family would decide to go forward with a much smaller reunion.
“I’m hard to discourage,” Davis admitted.
She didn’t want to endanger anyone, Davis insisted, but the nonagenarian wasn’t above appealing to emotion.
“The reason I’m so pushy about having it is that I might not be here” for the next one, she said.
Rowe said she admired her grandmother’s drive and relentless optimism.
“I’m not a quitter,” Davis replied. “I’m a believer, and that’s what I believe: that the Lord has a plan, that he will take care of us. He’s done it so many times for me.”
After about 20 minutes, Rowe tried to say goodbye, but Davis had one more question about the reunion.
“Did you ever make up your mind whether you are going to be in town that day?” she asked.
“Well, Granny, you know I’m going to do everything in my power,” Rowe replied carefully. “I’m going to watch how the coronavirus is playing out and I’m going to watch to see what makes the most sense and do whatever I need to do, because you know I also value the reunions and I love you so much and I’ll do whatever I can. OK?”
“Alrighty,” Davis said. “I believe what you say, because you’ve never let me down.”
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