“It’s like a horror movie. This city is always bustling with sidewalks full of people and traffic stuck in gridlock. I am usually bombarded with sights and sounds as soon as I step outside my apartment,” says Matt Hemesath, who lives in an epicenter of the United States COVID-19 pandemic — New York City.

Hemesath, a 1997 South Winneshiek graduate, adds that now when he ventures outside, there are few people and no cars honking, as there is little traffic in Manhattan.

“One can actually hear the birds now,” he said. “Yet it’s eerie because it is such an overwhelming feeling that something like this virus could decimate the city and shut it down.

Living in what is known as “Hell’s Kitchen” between Times Square and the Hudson River, the freelance costume designer has seen numerous changes throughout the city since the March 16 shutdown — also the day Hemesath was to be on the NBC set for the filming of “Dr. Death.”

Shutting down

Although the South Winn alum had always dreamed of designing costumes for Broadway shows, he turned to the television industry 10 years ago. In March, Hemesath was set to begin what he calls a “big deal” for his career as the head designer for an NBC miniseries, “Dr. Death.” 

Hemesath had spent hours researching costumes for the NBC show, based on a true story about a neurosurgeon from Texas. Among his research, he also toured Winneshiek Medical Center during his most recent visit to his family in Decorah, which includes his parents, Phil and Carol Hemesath and two sisters, Sarah (Wiltgen) and Andi (Hemesath). During his tour, he gathered information on how hospital employees look — from scrubs to shoes and protocols in the operating room. 

During the time he began to create costumes, he noticed Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) was becoming increasingly harder to find.

After working five weeks designing the costumes for the miniseries, Hemesath had just finished final costume fittings with actors Alec Baldwin and Christian Slater days before producers called a meeting Friday, March 13. Having seen the rapid increase in the coronavirus cases, NBC felt it necessary to take two weeks off and then reassess the situation for the safety of the crew and actors.

“At the time of the meeting, I thought it might be possible for us to resume after two weeks. Over the weekend, I realized the pandemic was going to be a really big thing, I didn’t expect how much so. One of my thoughts was that I wanted to get back to work and I really wanted to do this show,” says Hemesath, who has lived in New York City for 15 years.

Falling ill

As it turns out, the break to assess the situation was a good thing after the medical advisor for the Dr. Death show tested positive for COVID-19.

A week after Hemesath’s final day on the set, he woke up to what he thought was a cold — a scratchy throat. By day’s end, he began to suspect something more as he quickly became tired and experienced muscle aches. By nightfall, the on-the-go designer succumbed to bed, which he didn’t leave for two days. Feeling a fever, he took ibuprofen at regular intervals to bring the fever down to sleep and turned on a humidifier.

When the fever broke on day three, Hemesath continued to experience fatigue for a week, sleeping in 12-hour intervals at night and taking frequent day naps.

“I have to admit that if life had been ‘normal,’ I would have returned to work the third day because I don’t have someone to do my job if I’m not there,” notes the longtime New York City resident. “That is what is so scary about the coronavirus — a person doesn’t know if they have it and it’s unpredictable.”

Antibodies found

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an antibody test is utilized to determine those individuals who have been exposed to SARS-CoV-2 and developed a potential immune response. If individuals have caught the virus—no matter whether he/she experienced a flu-like illness recently or haven’t even felt sick — the body will have produced proteins (antibodies) as an immune defense. A finger-prick blood test will detect these antibodies.

Antibody testing in New York City began Tuesday, April 28, and Hemesath was one of the first in line at CityMD, a walk-in urgent care clinic, soon after it opened at 7 a.m. Individuals whose symptoms had been relieved two to four weeks prior were eligible for the testing. After checking in, he noted how different the waiting room was compared to other times he had been to the same clinic.

“Everyone was standing six feet apart and not using the chairs. When my name was called, the nurse, who took my blood, was in a full gown, face shield, mask and gloves,” he says. 

Several days later, he received the phone call that affirmed what he believed — he had the antibodies to the coronavirus, as did his brother, Brian, who also lives in New York City with his husband, and had no symptoms other than a severe headache. 

Simply knowing he has had a mild case of COVID-19 and recovered at home on his own, Hemesath feels lucky and confident that should he happen to get infected again, he has the ability to fight it off. 

Currently still on indefinite hiatus, the Coe College graduate is putting his “immunity” to good use: volunteering at local food banks delivering items — safely, by carrying hand sanitizer in his pocket and applying often.

Future outlook

The instability of the illness is just one of the many things Hemesath notes about the future. He also questions what the future of his job will look like when he steps back into show business. 

“Will it include PPE and face shields?” he asked. “I work so intimately with the actors for fittings and so many others are on the set; how do I protect myself as well as them?”

For now, he is leaving that question to the producers in the Union — United Scenic Artists 829 — as they work to develop new protocols to resume production the first week of September. As restrictions continue for individuals and families outside the home, the entertainment industry knows hours are spent streaming shows on a daily basis.

“Everyone is wanting to get new content available to the public,” said Hemesath.

Final thoughts

“I think people have gotten numb to the numbers. I have had a friend’s doorman and an actor I worked with die from it. Another friend lost her mom, an aunt and an uncle, none of whom lived near each other. It is difficult to grasp this concept because it is an invisible enemy. I know it is tough for people to stay home but I am proud of how serious people are taking this unpredictable illness here,” said the designer, who earned his Masters of Fine Arts from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

As a freelance costume designer, Hemesath spends an average of nine months a year working normally and plans for what he calls dry spells; however, he acknowledges that despite unemployment and the extra income from the CARES Act, this period of inactivity will stretch his funds. Despite this, Hemesath continues to focus on what he’s witnessed the human spirit accomplish. 

“One of the beautiful experiences from this is seeing people helping others. My brother and numerous friends from the costume industry are sewing masks and surgical gowns from their apartments,” he notes.

Another daily event he experiences is the symphony of noises that ring out throughout the city that never sleeps at 7 p.m. — air horns, shouts of gratitude, the banging of pots and applause for the healthcare workers.

“It is so beautiful to know people are around for those three minutes and we are doing this together and we are all a little stronger every day,” he concluded.