Mark Schultz has been hit on both sides of this pandemic.
For six months it was his Oshkosh bar and restaurant, both of which are closed for now after being hammered under state coronavirus restrictions.
Now it is Schultz himself, infected with COVID-19, lying in a hospital intensive care unit, laboring to breathe, unsure of when — or whether — he’ll go home.
“I don’t worry much about me, but I got a 10-year-old son and my fiancée — that’s all I care about,” he said through tears. “My family is all at home. They are all worried about me. I don’t want them to worry about me.”
As he spoke by phone, he struggled with short breaths and was interrupted at times by fits of coughs.
“I don’t want them to go through this,” he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “I hope I get to go home.”
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Schultz, 64, is the co-owner of Oblio’s, a bar in Oshkosh that is beloved by a city that had the highest rate of COVID-19 infection in the country as of Sept. 30, according to a New York Times analysis.
At Oblio’s, Schultz said he has three simple rules before people can belly up to the bar: Don’t talk about politics. Don’t talk about religion. And don’t talk about someone’s wife.
Now, as he receives oxygen from a machine, Schultz says he has been pushed to break that first rule by President Donald Trump.
“I always had to keep my politics to myself, but from where I’m sitting now? Those days are over,” Schultz said.
“I shouldn’t be here.”
Trump, he said, should have been more upfront with the public from the beginning about the dangers of the coronavirus, should have acted quicker and promoted wearing face masks. If he had, Schultz believes, maybe the pandemic would not have struck his community so hard, might not have wound up at his door.
Schultz says he started to feel sick last Friday, the same day the White House revealed Trump tested positive for COVID-19.
On Monday, Trump told Americans “Don’t be afraid of COVID.” On Tuesday, Schultz checked into the hospital.
“I’m just frustrated with the president — the nonchalantness of this virus,” he said. “They should be afraid. It’s nothing to mess with.”
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‘If you can’t breathe, you can’t sleep’
Schultz thinks it’s likely he and his fiancée, Sandy Ashenbrenner, caught the virus from his business partner. But he hopes, God willing, it hasn’t been passed to his 10-year-old son, who hasn’t received his test results yet.
“I couldn’t breathe anymore,” Schultz said about his decision to go to the hospital. “I couldn’t breathe and I had a fever. I had aches and pains. I had headaches … I never get headaches.
“And the tightness in my chest …”
After arriving at the hospital Tuesday, doctors told Schulz he had developed double pneumonia, affecting both his lungs. He is now in a negative pressure ICU room receiving supplemental oxygen.
At times, Schultz lies on his stomach to help reduce his symptoms and blows into a machine to exercise his lungs. He tries to go without oxygen, but when he does, alarms attached to a blood oxygen monitor ring, then the tubes must go back into his nose.
He said he’s barely slept in five days.
“I cough or I get the sweats and the chills,” Schultz said Thursday. “I just get these hot flashes. I stay hot for hours, then last night when my oxygen thing went off, I couldn’t get warm. I couldn’t get enough covers on me.”
Thursday was the worst night.
“I just can’t sleep,” he said Friday. “If you can’t breathe, you can’t sleep.”
Schultz is on steroids, Tylenol and blood thinners. He said his oxygen has been more than doubled, and if he continues to need more, his doctor is going to try experimental treatment, including Remdesivir and convalescent plasma therapy.
Schultz spoke to a Journal Sentinel reporter during what he called a “good spell” — coughing hard a few times but generally was able to chat.
“This lasts about an hour,” he said. “It comes and goes and when it comes back, it hits you hard.”
His blood oxygen level has at times dipped below 85% — normal is at least 95% — but generally, he’s feeling the same, which he hopes, at least, is not bad news.
“I’m just kind of floating along,” Schultz said. “The doc says that’s better than going the other way.”
But Schultz is not sure he’s going to leave the hospital. His voice shakes when he talks about his family being at home, worrying about him, but unable to see him.
‘I don’t like playing politics’
Schultz is documenting his time in the hospital through a series of videos taken by phone and shared on YouTube. They’re titled “Covid 19 ramblings of a pissed off Armenian.”
The first begins with this message, aimed at Ashenbrenner: “Sandra Jean. I don’t know if I’m going to make it.”
He takes a few breaths.
“This s—- real. I want people to know that.”
The videos are part diary and part therapy. Schulz airs his grievances against the president and calls on viewers to support efforts to eliminate racial discrimination and the Black Lives Matter movement. Especially, he calls on them to take the threat of the virus seriously.
“You’ve gotta wear masks. You’ve gotta social distance. You’ve gotta wash your hands. You’ve gotta sanitize. You have to follow the rules. They’re very simple.”
Schultz’s newfound activism does not appear partisan — just angry.
Schultz backs Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ mask mandate but doesn’t agree with his order to require restaurants and bars like his to limit customers to 25% of their capacity. Schultz said business at both his bar and restaurant is down 60%.
“These people do not have a concept of running a business,” he said. “It’s unbelievably hard right now. … You’re trying to keep people employed and now I got two places that are closed.
“These people are out of work right now. They’ve got families.”
Schultz said Evers’ orders are suggesting to the public that the problem is with the service industry: “They put too much blame on bars or restaurants.”
But Schultz also wants people to follow the safety rules put forward by Evers and public health experts.
“You’ve got to follow their guidelines,” he said. “People have to feel comfortable going out. I don’t blame anybody for not going out.
“I kind of commend it — it’s being safe.”
Follow Molly Beck on Twitter at @MollyBeck.