As one family navigates COVID-19, they ask whether it’s safe to disagree during a pandemic

Left: 3 women wear face masks. Right: masks hang from a rearview window.
COVID-19 has become a pathway to hard conversations about personal risks and responsibilities for many families. Sisters Tiffany Hochstetler Dillon, 33 (seated), Carmen Shannon, 42 (left), and Kayla Hochstetler, 32, wear masks at their respective jobs and choose to wear masks when frequenting indoor spaces like grocery stores. The three women live in Grand Forks, N.D. In the photograph at right, a pair of used disposable masks hang from the rear-view mirror in Kayla Hochstetler's vehicle.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR News

When Minnesota's stay-at-home orders eased up earlier this summer, Tiffany Hochstetler Dillon started spending more time in Ogema, the tiny northwest Minnesota town where she and her seven siblings were raised.

And while Tiffany was there, visiting from her home in Grand Forks, N.D., she went to church — something she's done countless times with her family.

The first time she went, Tiffany, a nurse, thought nothing of wearing a mask. But when she walked in, she and her husband were the only ones wearing them.

“It felt like I'd accidentally stumbled into making some sort of political statement,” she said.

It wasn't the first time the pandemic had made Tiffany feel like an outlier at home. Her parents hadn't been wearing masks or socially distancing at all — a source of concern and frustration for Tiffany and her siblings.

Like so many families, the Hochstetlers have been navigating the unfamiliar social rules of COVID-19, which raises all sorts of uncomfortable questions: When some family members take the virus seriously while others don't, is there a safe middle ground? And what's socially acceptable in a pandemic when personal beliefs about coronavirus collide with politics, culture, religion — and daily life?

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A person holding four bottles of hand sanitizer.
In the age of COVID-19, hand sanitizer has become commonplace. Here, Kayla Hochstetler, 32, holds a collection of hand sanitizer that she keeps in her purse.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR News

A few weeks after that first church visit, Tiffany was back visiting Ogema. She tried to convince herself of what her parents believed: That it was safe to go to church without a mask.

"I remember mentally saying, 'Tiffany, you're being paranoid,’” she recalled. “Things are getting better, things are opening up again. You need to relax a little bit. You need to be culturally sensitive.”

Neither her husband, nor her siblings Landon and Kayla, wore a mask to church that day, either — and that one decision dramatically changed the family's summer.

Within days of that visit, Tiffany's husband and her parents — who hadn't even gone to church with them that day — tested positive for COVID-19. So did Landon, who has a traumatic brain injury from a car accident a decade ago that makes him medically vulnerable.

Landon's two personal care assistants became ill, too. And the Hochstetlers say they know of more than a dozen people who were at church that day who have tested positive for COVID-19.

‘Rural bubble’

Tiffany's mother Gayle said that, like many people in her community, during the early months of the pandemic, she and her husband weren't too concerned.

"We just felt like we were just in a very rural bubble here. And I didn't know anyone who had COVID,” she said. “It was somewhat of a joke, really.”

Gayle said her skepticism of Minnesota's response to the coronavirus has, in part, been informed by her faith. She says it’s taught her to be an individual — to use her own intellect to make decisions, not to blindly follow the government.

"God has given us a brain,” she said, “So how do we submit to the governing authorities without being sheeple?"

A woman in a wedding dress surrounded by family members.
The Hochstetler family poses for a picture at daugher Tiffany Hochstetler Dillon's wedding in September 2017.
Ashley Christine Photography | Courtesy of Tiffany Hochstetler Dillon

The attitude frustrated some of Gayle’s children, three of whom work in health care.

Gayle's daughter Jonae is a nurse who was treating COVID-19 patients hundreds of miles away in Virginia earlier this summer, and caught the virus on the job.

She recalls admonishing her mother for being so blasé about the virus.

"She had texted me and said, 'Virus? What virus?’” Jonae said. “It was hard for me to hear, because I was in the middle of taking care of the COVID patients, so I was like, 'There's still a virus.'"

Gayle's daughter Shanda, a social worker in Oregon, said that the patchwork of state policies and inconsistent messaging from the federal government has made it that much harder for the entire family — spread all across the country — to get on the same page about how to navigate the virus.

"Because there's not one message, that just leads to more of this kind of conflict,” she said. “When you don't have that clear message, everyone is out on their own."

Can you agree to disagree?

Gayle says her bout of COVID-19 in July was enough to knock her out for a few days, but was otherwise relatively mild and short-lived.

Still, it was scary.

Gayle was especially worried about Landon, who’s unable to eat or dress without assistance. She watched both his personal care assistants get sick with COVID-19 — one landed in the hospital — making it nearly impossible for her and her husband, Les, who was also very ill, to take care of him some days.

"There's really no predicting who's going to get hit hard by this,” she said.

A man and woman hugging.
Gayle and Les Hochstetler in 2017
Ashley Christine Photography | Courtesy of Tiffany Hochstetler Dillon

Gayle says now she wears masks more often when she’s in public without complaining — even though she still doesn't like the way they feel.

But the whole experience, she said, has made her less judgmental of how other people are dealing with the pandemic.

“It has also made me more mindful of what other people's boundaries are and what they need to feel safe,” she said. “If it seems ridiculous to me, it doesn’t matter. That’s what they need to be safe, and I need to respect that.”

The Hochstetler kids say one of the most sobering aspects of this entire experience has been seeing their dad navigate the situation.

Tiffany said he’s not typically a fan of seeking medical help.

"I genuinely don't know how many times he's put a nail through his hand using a nail gun, and I don't know he's gone to the hospital any of those times,” she said.

Her siblings agreed.

They said their dad was raised to be self-sufficient and to power through difficult situations — a quality they see in so many of the older members of their Ogema community.

So when he allowed his family to take him to the emergency room while he was sick, Tiffany said, they knew things were serious.

“Honestly, I think this really scared the crap out of my dad,” said Tiffany.

Now, he’s wearing a mask regularly. Of all the people in her family, Tiffany said her father seems to be the most transformed by the pandemic.

The Hochstetler family says they've grown even closer throughout this ordeal, helping each other through sickness, letting go of judgment, working through differences around mask wearing and social distancing.

But Tiffany says she's still grappling with a nagging question that has no clear answer: "In the age of a pandemic can you agree to disagree? Or do we need to let go of this notion of individualism when we are so interconnected?"

A screenshot of people in a video meeting.
Members of the Hochstetler family talk with MPR News reporter Catharine Richert over a video call. From upper left: Gayle Hochstetler; Richert; Jonae, Brittany and Kayla Hochstetler; Carmen Shannon; Shanda Hochstetler and husband Peter Epp; Tim and Tiffany Hochstetler Dillon
Catharine Richert | MPR News

COVID-19 in Minnesota