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A year after surviving COVID, business is flourishing

Darryl and Joe Ciarlante-Zuber on facing death — and the birth of Rehoboth’s Square One

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Darryl and Joe Ciarlante-Zuber at their new bar and restaurant Square One in Rehoboth Beach, Del. (Blade photo by Daniel Truitt)

Last year, Darryl Ciarlante-Zuber nearly died from the novel coronavirus while his husband, Joe, sat in quarantine.

After 40 days of intensive care at Beebe Medical Foundation and a year of support from their friends and the community, the duo have since opened a second restaurant and are thriving.

Joe, who was in Mexico, received a call on March 28, 2020, from his husband complaining that he was having difficulty breathing. After instructions from his doctor, Darryl packed for a supposed three-night stay at the emergency room.

“It was like [my doctor] really wants me to go to the ER, and I don’t really feel that sick,” Darryl said. “I said, ‘I’m just out of breath, up and down steps, but other than that, I really didn’t feel sick.’”

Three nights turned into a call from clergy, asking Joe if Darryl would like some prayers. The second call Joe received was from a doctor in the ICU.

“They said Darryl has 30 minutes to live and is severely ill,” Joe said. “[They said] his lungs are nearly totally collapsed and filled with stuff, and we want to put him on a ventilator.”

Joe’s impromptu and urgent flight from Mexico back to Rehoboth was filled with anxiety, especially since not much was known about the coronavirus that early in the pandemic.

“Is he going to be alive? Is he going to be dead? It’s COVID, what is this COVID thing?” Joe said. “I was on a plane, and I was one of the only ones with a mask. The reason I had a mask is because my friend who drove me to the airport had a mask from his maid and said, ‘Here, use this.’ It was a whirlwind experience.”

Darryl spent 23 days on life support, while the recommended time for a ventilator is a maximum of six days.

“The doctors told [Joe], ‘We just don’t know how he’s going to come out,’” Darryl said. “But at the time, the doctor said, ‘Well, that seems like it’s the only solution at this point.’ So he pushed it for Joe until the 23rd day.”

Prolonged time on a ventilator can prove dangerous, Joe said, as he was warned about potential negative effects on Darryl’s brain.

“They routinely told me that he would have brain damage and he may or may not be the same person that I knew,” Joe said. “And I said, ‘I’m OK with that.’ When I took my vows, we said that we would be partners forever, husbands forever. If he has brain damage, I’m the one that’s going to deal with it, nobody else.”

Darryl was the third patient in the Beebe ICU to be diagnosed with COVID-19. While in the ICU, Darryl’s white blood cell count fell to only nine, according to Joe.

“They basically said to me, ‘Look, it’s been 20-some days. There’s no recovery, you need to let it go,’” Joe said. “And by some goofy chance, his [white blood cell] numbers jumped from 12 to 25,000, and they went up to 50,000. They have to be 80,000 to take the trach out, and Monday morning, they were at 83,000.”

Darryl said he does not remember much after being led into the ICU from the hospital waiting room.
“I had Joe on FaceTime the whole time just to make sure I was getting there OK,” Darryl said. “I was like, ‘OK, they’re probably going to take me in soon, I’m going to probably lose reception in the hospital and I can’t call but I’ll call you when I can.’ And I just remember hanging up. They took me out of [the entrance] and that’s all I remember after that.”

After 23 up-and-down days on life support, Joe said the Beebe team members spent 40 days dedicated to Darryl’s treatment and that he was constantly given updates, since quarantine protocols were in effect.

“Darryl’s nurses in the ICU were my link to being with him when I couldn’t actually visit,” Joe wrote in a Feb. 9, 2021 essay for the Cape Gazette. “They would assure me that he could hear my voice, even though he made no response. They would tell me that sometimes Darryl would move his feet in reaction to certain things I said to him.”

While Darryl received treatment, Joe updated family and friends through Facebook.

“If I didn’t post something by 11 in the morning, people were calling, ‘What’s happened, how come? Is everything OK?’” Joe said. “Sometimes you just didn’t hear and I didn’t have any information from the doctors or the nurse, they were full, and they had these patients.”

Darryl’s 40 days of treatment finished with physical therapy and rehab.

“I had no movement, I had to relearn walking,” Darryl said. “I had lost all my strength in my arms and so the first two weeks was to try to get me, at least somewhat capable, to move forward to the rehab center.”

Darryl also said that Joe kept a lot of information from him so as not to worry him or worsen his condition, including the severity of the coronavirus in the United States.

“One of the things he had asked me when he was in the hospital, he said, ‘Why aren’t you working?’ and I said, ‘Darryl, everything’s closed,’ and he looked very confused,” Joe said. “You know Nicola Pizza? They never close, never. I said to Darryl, ‘Nicola’s is closed, because of the pandemic.’ He said, ‘Nicola’s is closed?’ [Darryl] got really sad in his eyes and he said, ‘It’s bad, isn’t it?’ So I said, ‘But everything’s getting better, so don’t worry about it, just get yourself better.’”

Darryl and Joe opened Diego’s Bar & Nightclub in 2018, the name a nod to Darryl’s nickname. The bar closed in 2020 like all other businesses due to the pandemic, however the duo did not let Darryl’s condition or the lockdown procedures keep them down.

“Some of the positives about Diego’s is, we were able to create a beach. We took over some of the parking lot and created a beach atmosphere, tables and chairs and umbrellas and transporting nine tons of sand, and socially distanced all the tables,” Joe said. “It really made a lot of the customers feel even more safe, especially being outside.”

Darryl was unable to return to his typical work day, as pinched nerves were causing pain from standing for too long.

“That’s kind of an emotional thing, because you’re used to doing something then all of a sudden, you can’t,” Joe said. “Everybody looks at him and says to him, ‘You shouldn’t be here,’ and he says, ‘I know,’ and they said, ‘Your charts, you are truly a miracle.’”

Before the pandemic, Joe and Darryl made several attempts to open a new restaurant location. In February 2021, the timing worked out and the two opened Square One Grill.

“Fortunately, we found our head chef in December and we just talked about opening up by the end of January, to get it in time for President’s Day weekend,” Darryl said.

Square One general manager Trish Carlin said the restaurant began with experimental takeout dishes for the community, since lockdown efforts kept indoor seating to 50 percent capacity and the team decided to keep the dining room closed.

“[Darryl and Joe] just reached out to so many people that they knew and they set up [takeout] for a group of days, where people could order food and pick it up for free,” Carlin said. “They would want comments on it, how did this work? What did you think about that? They got a lot of feedback.”

Diego’s dance floor opened in late May and the dining room in Square One is also open for customers. Darryl, Joe and Carlin all discussed the community’s positive efforts and support in keeping the businesses alive.

“I felt like the community was waiting for Joe and Darryl to finally be able to do this. And maybe that was part of their motivation,” Carlin said. “I was never worried, honestly, that it wouldn’t work, because it’s them. I think the community really backs them. They really, really love Joe and Darryl and they follow them wherever they go. They want them to be successful and it’s a wonderful thing to see.”

(Washington Blade photo by Daniel Truitt)
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LGBTQ Democrats briefed on D.C. ranked choice voting bill

Council may already have enough votes to pass it

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Stein Club, gay news, Washington Blade
Jatarius Frazier of the Capital Stonewall Democrats was among officials briefed on the ranked choice voting bill. (Photo courtesy D.C. Government)

Members of D.C.’s Capital Stonewall Democrats, the city’s largest local LGBTQ political group, received a briefing Monday night from the chief of staff for D.C. Council member Christina Henderson (I-At Large) on a bill she introduced in July calling for a “ranked choice” voting system for D.C. elections.

The bill, called the Voter Ownership, Integrity, Choice, and Equity (VOICE) Amendment Act of 2021, calls for D.C. to join about 50 other jurisdictions across the country, including New York City and San Francisco, in giving voters the option of ranking up to five candidates for a particular office in the order of their preference.

Under the ranked choice voting system, if a candidate receives more than 50 percent of the “first choice” votes, the candidate is declared the winner. But if no candidate receives greater than 50 percent of the first-choice votes in a race where there are three or more candidates, the system provides an instant runoff.

“The candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and voters who picked that candidate will have their votes count for their next choice,” according to a statement released by Henderson at the time she introduced the legislation. “This process continues in rounds until there’s a majority winner,” the statement says.

T.J. Maloney, Henderson’s chief of staff, told Capital Stonewall Democrats members during a virtual Zoom meeting that studies of the ranked choice voting system in jurisdictions where it has been adopted show that overall voter turnout has increased and, following a voter education process, voters appear to adjust and support the system.

Six other D.C. Council members joined Henderson in co-introducing the VOICE ranked choice voting bill, indicating it may already have a seven-vote majority in its favor on the 13-member Council. However, Council Chair Phil Mendelson (D-At-Large) does not support the current version of the bill, according to spokesperson Lindsay Walton.

Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), the chair of the Council’s Judiciary Committee where the bill was sent, has not scheduled a hearing on the bill, even though Allen is one of the bill’s co-introducers.

Last week, the D.C. Democratic State Committee, which is the governing body of the D.C. Democratic Party and of which the Capital Stonewall Democrats is an affiliated member, voted to oppose the VOICE Act legislation. Some of its members said they believe a ranked choice voting system would be beneficial to the city’s smaller political party candidates, including Republicans and Statehood Green Party candidates, and would place Democratic Party candidates at a disadvantage.

Gay Democratic activist John Fanning, who was an unsuccessful candidate for the Ward 2 D.C. Council seat in the 2020 D.C. Democratic primary, said he favors a simple runoff election system over a ranked choice voting system in cases where multiple candidates run, and none receive at least 50 percent of the vote.

Among the ranked choice bill’s supporters is gay Democratic activist Austin Naughton, who serves as chair of the Ward 2 Democratic Committee. Naughton told the Washington Blade he is not an expert on the ranked choice voting system but his initial research into the system leads him to believe the system has the potential for providing a greater electoral voice for minority communities, including possibly the LGBTQ community and LGBTQ candidates who run for public office.

Capital Stonewall Democrats President Jatarious Frazier said the group was in the process of learning more about the ranked file voting system. No one raised the issue of the group taking a position on the legislation at Monday night’s meeting.

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Lesbian D.C. housing director to retire

Polly Donaldson worked to expand affordable units

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Polly Donaldson, housing, gay news, Washington Blade
Polly Donaldson (Blade file photo by Lou Chibbaro, Jr.)

Polly Donaldson, who has served as director of the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development since 2015 as one of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s first high-level LGBTQ appointments, announced on Sept. 10 that she will leave her position at the end of this month to retire.

A statement released by the mayor’s office says Donaldson has led the design and implementation of the mayor’s housing initiative that has produced more than 14,250 units of affordable housing with another 12,300 units under construction or in the planning stages.

“When I came into office and committed to investing at least $100 million into the Housing Production Trust Fund every year, I knew we would need a leader with a true passion for affordable housing to get those funds out the door and into the community – and Polly was the right person for the job,” Bowser said in the statement.

“Then, two years ago, when we set a bold goal to build 36,000 new homes by 2025, with at least a third of them affordable, I was confident that Polly would have a plan to make that happen,” the mayor said in her statement. “She leaves D.C. government with our city on track to meet that goal, and for that we are grateful, and we celebrate her service to our city.”

At the time Donaldson began her job as the city’s housing director she was a recognized expert in affordable housing and homeless related programs. She had served since 2004 as executive director of the Transitional Housing Corporation, a nonprofit organization that provides services to homeless people and develops programs for transitioning them into permanent homes.

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HRC endorses McAuliffe, Ayala, Herring in Va.

Advocacy group on Tuesday announced statewide endorsements

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Human Rights Campaign, gay news, Washington Blade, Equality March
(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The Human Rights Campaign on Tuesday announced endorsements for three Virginia candidates on the statewide ballot in November.

These endorsements include Terry McAuliffe for governor, state Del. Hala Ayala (D-Prince William County) for lieutenant governor and Mark Herring for reelection as attorney general.

“All Virginians deserve leaders who will fight for their rights to achieve health and success regardless of who they are or who they love,” said HRC in their press release. “The Human Rights Campaign is proud to endorse incredible champions who have spent their careers delivering on that promise of equality.”

McAuliffe, who was governor from 2014-2018, signed an executive order prohibiting discrimination against LGBTQ state employees and vetoed every anti-LGBTQ bill that came across his desk during his tenure.

“Every human being deserves to be treated equally, live free from fear, and thrive regardless of who they are or who they love,” McAuliffe said. “I am grateful for the support of the Human Rights Campaign, and together we will continue to ensure Virginia remains open and welcoming to all.”

Herring, a vocal supporter of LGBTQ equality, in 2017 joined 18 other state attorneys general in calling on Congress to block then-President Trump’s ban on transgender service members openly serving in the military.  

Ayala, a state delegate since 2018, similarly co-sponsored and voted in support of numerous pro-equality bills, including the landmark Virginia Values Act, a bipartisan measure that made Virginia the first state in the South to extend nondiscrimination protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

If elected, Ayala will become the Virginia’s first female and woman of color lieutenant governor.

Virginia’s statewide general election is Nov. 2. Early voting begins Friday.

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