This article is part of a series, Our Pandemic Year, that marks the anniversary of the first quarantine orders in the U.S. Read them all here.
For a few brief weeks last spring, for once, we didn’t really want to hear from celebrities and influencers. Their work, which depends on connecting with others through relatability and authenticity, was ill-equipped to meet the moment. Presenting oneself doing anything that wasn’t personal suffering or giving gobs of money to a cause felt tone-deaf at the time—and even those acts could sound tone-deaf. It was a moment for nuance, and social media is famously not a nuanced place. At the time, I wrote a story about a couple such influencers in the midst of running aground to this effect. Topped with an intense headline— “Is This the End of Influencing as We Knew It?”—it drew the attention of the much-followed Instagram account Diet Prada, and more people found out about it from there.
A year feels way too soon to look back at early COVID in the U.S. It seems like such an arbitrary time marker when in fact, it feels like it’s been 10 years since last March, and also like it was yesterday. For me, looking back means remembering this story, which still looms large in my memory, though most have probably forgotten it. I’ve returned to it many times throughout the pandemic, largely to wince, and I started to dread its anniversary specifically, on top of the generalized dread of this March. Still, maybe, right now, when we’re not quite out of this thing, but starting to conceive of an end, is the best time to take stock of what happened in order to figure out how to move forward.
First, a recap of what happened then. Naomi Davis, known in her online form as Taza, and Arielle Charnas of Something Navy, are two influencer moms who were living in New York City. Both were part of the fledgling influencer cohort that began their blogs and then grew their followings on Instagram; both also became avatars for questionable pandemic behavior just as the novel coronavirus was starting to rip through the U.S. and New York City in particular.
On March 17, 2020, Charnas told her followers she felt sick, and then took them along with her as she went to get tested for COVID. It seems quaint in retrospect. Now, reliable tests are one of the main tools for fighting the pandemic that we have. But—call it recent-history overload—it’s easy to forget that accessing testing in New York, as well as most of the country, was a difficult, confusing experience and a rare one too. Much like vaccines today, there were criteria for who qualified to get tested, and they were rationed for the most vulnerable populations. A few days prior to Charnas’s post, The New York Times published, “One woman in Harlem who wanted to be tested was told by health care workers not to worry about her coronavirus-like symptoms. In Brooklyn, a woman had to wait to get tested until her mother tested positive for the virus. One doctor at a hospital network has turned away patients who probably had the coronavirus because they did not meet the current testing.”
Though obviously ill, Charnas didn’t appear to qualify for testing. She proceeded to find a doctor who would give her a test, eventually posting the video of her nasal swab. She even tagged him, engaging old influencing best practices in a brave new world. There was a contingent that vocalized frustration with her actions (and many who praised her) after she posted again, noting she tested positive. The point she made in a Notes-app post was one that many have made since: “It is the responsibility of our government office to ensure all Americans can access necessary tests,” she wrote.
Around the same time, Davis posted about how she was packing up her family of seven in an R.V. and driving away from the city, which at the time was the nation’s COVID hotspot. Many of her followers condemned her, as health experts shared fears that Davis and social media personalities like her might “influence” others into carrying the virus across state lines.