Bayside Gourmet server Jennifer Oughton getting into her car before a shift. CHARLOTTE TWINE/Keys Weekly

Editor’s note: A coronavirus pandemic that saw some of the first cases in the Keys in March changed life in a way no one ever could have imagined. A checkpoint kept visitors away from the island chain for a time that affected many jobs from servers to hoteliers. Policies were changed to address coronavirus spread in the community. Ultimately, the Keys reopened to visitors as workers in the tourist industry returned to work. Each week, the Weekly will highlight a local who spent some time to share their 2020 year. This week, Charlotte Twine met up with Jennifer Oughton, 50, who serves at Bayside Gourmet in Islamorada.

Describe the year 2020 in one word. (Widens eyes in surprise.) In one word? I want to say, “frustrating.”

What was your worst moment of 2020? It wouldn’t be a moment, more like the reality of what this was going to mean for everybody long-term. Meaning the shutdowns, the masks, the social distancing, the cancellation of events and parties … everything became hard.

Was there a moment in particular that brought that realization home? My first time going out to shop at Publix. Experiencing having to wait in line to enter. Also, when my husband’s calendar went from fully booked over the summer to almost completely empty. That was a shocker for me. He’s a back-country guide.

Do you know anyone who got sick from COVID-19? I do. My brother-in-law in Pennsylvania, age 54. And he recovered in a very timely fashion. And one of my friends in Cape Coral. She’s early 40s. She’s on the mend and things are looking good for her now.

Do you know anyone who died from COVID-19? No.

What got you through the stress? My higher power. And focusing on the good in people. The sharing amongst my friends and I of uplifting quotes during the day [on social media]. It’s refreshing and enlightening to see an uplifting phrase that carries you throughout the day. [Reads from her phone.] “Life will always be complicated. Learn to be happy right now. Choose joy.”

Did you experience financial stress in 2020 due to the pandemic? Absolutely. Just like everyone else. I was worried about what the future would hold. I was okay for the here and now. However, we know that may change in an instant.

Do you practice social distancing personally? For the most part, yes. I’m aware of who I’m coming in contact with and in general who they have been in contact with.

Do you practice social distancing at work? As much as possible, yes. I work in a restaurant that’s quite small. And it’s a challenge, but I believe we do the best we can under the circumstances. 

Did the social distancing at work cause stress? Yes. Some patrons that come in don’t seem to respect the social distancing requirements as much as I feel they should. But we do the best that we can. I had someone try to get in my face and yell about not wanting to wear the mask, and I had to put my arm out to prevent them from coming closer to me. On some level, though, I get it because not everyone likes to be told what to do. However, it falls under respecting other people’s health issues or ailments.

Do you think the social distancing works? I don’t know. 

Then why do it? Out of respect for others and their well-being.

Did you notice any physical symptoms from stress? We have a joke at work. When we can’t come up with words, we come up with, “Words are hard” as a joking phrase a lot. Your brain’s working faster than your mouth. Throughout your day or week, you can have a moment or two, but I’ve never witnessed it day after day with so many people. 

What was your best moment of 2020? Not so much as a moment, more like a gratitude for my health and my family’s health, and that I still have a job. At Bayside, owners Anthony and Jaclyn Boffice didn’t skip a beat. Other places didn’t fare as well. I believe the Bayside crew and customers appreciate our ability to continue working. Our locals proved their appreciation by helping to carry us through thus far.

Did you gain the “Quarantine 15?” No, I did not.
How did you avoid that? Sheer luck and genetics.

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