weekly feature | Jul 22, 2020 |
Tradespeople are getting sick. Clients are pushing ahead. Designers are stuck in the middle

It was April, the coronavirus was ravaging New York City, and interior design was not happening for love or money. A combination of government-mandated lockdowns, building regulations and widespread panic led to a total shutdown of the design economy—you could show fabrics over Zoom, but they weren’t getting into the building. It was a dark, anxious time for New Yorkers, but there was little confusion about what you could and couldn’t do.

A few months later, COVID-19 has receded in the Northeast, but now it’s surging in other parts of the country—notably the Southeast and Southwest. There, the virus is arriving at a different moment, in a different cultural context. The picture is far murkier, and designers are finding themselves grappling with complicated choices.

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For Arizona designers, it’s the best of times and the worst of times. The mass cancellation of summer vacations, renewed focus on the home, and influx of East Coasters looking to escape the virus have combined to create a booming period for local designers. “I’ve never been busier,” says Phoenix-based designer Jaimee Rose. “We have people who’ve been waiting forever to build that new house, saying, ‘Let’s do it, because—guess what? We’re spending a whole lot more time there.’ We have never had as much demand as we have now. And that’s consistent throughout the Arizona design community.”

Throughout much of the spring, daily infections in Arizona hovered in the low hundreds, and the virus felt very far away. At the beginning of June, daily cases began to explode into the thousands. After observing a few months of increased business, Rose began to notice something else: One by one, her tradespeople were getting sick.

“We had an install, and our drapery installer called and said, ‘Guess what? I can’t come, I have COVID,’” says Rose. “The whole landscape team got COVID as well.”

It’s a phenomenon that designers across the South and West are now experiencing. As the coronavirus spreads, those who can’t work from home—carpenters, handymen, landscapers, movers—are most vulnerable. The trend is disturbing enough on its own. Compounding the problem is a troubling fact: While most clients are understanding, some want installs to go ahead anyway.

Clients are far less likely to suffer than the people who install the draperies in their homes.

“I’ve had people tell me, ‘Well, can’t [installers] just come with masks?’” says Scottsdale, Arizona–based designer Suzanne Rugg. “You have to make a decision as a business owner and say, ‘I’m taking your home into my hands, and that means I have to do what I can to make things safe. I’m not sending people we know are carrying the virus into your home.’”

One of the great tragedies of COVID-19 is how a public health crisis has become a personal, even political issue. In states where the virus was slow to take hold, attitudes around the potential risk hardened, and as a result, even with local cases now on the rise, many people (and indeed, many politicians) have already made up their minds that the coronavirus isn’t a big deal.

Another catastrophe is the way the pandemic’s effects have broken down along economic lines. A study conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that low-income Americans are far more likely to contract and suffer serious consequences from COVID-19 than their well-off neighbors. In other words: Interior design clients are far less likely to suffer than the people who install the draperies in their homes.

The situation exposes the economic divides of the trade and puts designers in an extremely awkward position. Clients typically don’t personally know anyone who has contracted COVID-19, so they’re quicker to downplay the risks.

“Every job site we’ve had, somebody’s aunt, cousin, sister had COVID,” says South Florida–based designer Nicole White. “But [some of my] clients do not care. They’re like, ‘We want 10 guys there.’ It has been the most heartbreaking thing.”

Exacerbating the problem is the fact that vendors often live paycheck to paycheck, and are dependent on in-person work, so they’re incentivized to show up, risks aside. Government regulation has been inconsistent at best. Consequently, designers frequently have to be the ones to make a queasy decision: Delay an install and risk angering the client, or push ahead and risk spreading the virus and endangering tradespeople.

“It’s disturbing to me morally, because [the request to vendors is]: Will you please come to work and put yourself at risk to install this furniture in this second house?” says Rose. “It makes me uncomfortable.”

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There are no perfect solutions. San Francisco–based designer Alison Johnston had a project impacted by numerous COVID crises, ranging from a delayed furniture shipment to a carpet installer who caught the virus and closed up shop for two weeks. Since then, she has taken to letting clients know ahead of time that delays are possible, which helps nip any potential conflicts in the bud.

“When I sent out an email saying, ‘Please give these vendors some grace; we’re doing our best, but it’s not going to go as smoothly as we usually like to have a project go,’ I didn’t receive a response back,” says Johnston. “Everyone understood.”

Of course, it helps that in California, the governor has been slow to reopen the state after an aggressive shutdown, and the messaging from local officials has been fairly consistent. In Florida, where Governor Ron DeSantis has regularly played down the risk of the coronavirus, White has added a clause to her contract stipulating that installation dates are subject to change based on COVID conditions.

It’s not my job to get preachy about [wearing masks], but it is my job to make sure everyone respects me, my team members and my family.
Denise McGaha

Often, however, the enforcement of proper safety conditions is an ad hoc, moment-to-moment experience. Dallas-based designer Denise McGaha has experienced a range of reactions to the potential danger of COVID-19 on the job—from clients who haven’t left their home in months to contractors and homeowners who take a cavalier attitude toward mask-wearing. Her tactic is generally to diffuse the situation with tact and humor. She also takes pains to make clear that she herself has an elderly mother and an immunocompromised stepfather and needs to take special precautions. Framing the issue as a personal one, McGaha finds, often appeals to everyone’s better nature.

“I had a builder the other day that was all up in my personal space without his mask on, and I put my hand on his shoulder and said, ‘I am so sorry, but you are not 6 feet away from me, and you’re not wearing a mask, could you back your truck up please?’” says McGaha. “It’s not my job to get preachy about it, but it is my job to make sure everyone respects me, my team members and my family—when that’s clear, I’ve not had any issue at all.”

However, as long as the country remains divided on how seriously to take COVID-19, the ambiguity will affect the trade, and designers will be forced to make complicated choices. “I think we just need to unify,” says Rugg. “Let’s get over this!”

Homepage photo: Shutterstock

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