Special Report

Shutdown: The Coronavirus

Prepping in the time of coronavirus

Jason Charles is a doomsday prepper.

Jason Charles used to be scared.

A New York firefighter and the lead organizer of the New York City Preppers Network, he spent two years after 9/11 afraid of the world and the people within it.

“I became a bit of a coward,” said Charles, who was on scene as an EMT when the towers fell. “I was scared to fly in planes, I was scared to get on a roller-coaster ride. I was just scared.”

Now, Charles is prepared — or so he thinks. The burly 42-year-old father of five estimates he’s spent $10,000 since 2011 on provisions for the end times, an investment that in recent weeks has seemed prescient. When reports about the novel coronavirus began to surface early this year, Charles checked his closet and found N95 masks, which people around the world have rushed to buy in an attempt to protect themselves from the virus.

“It’s weird seeing all the stuff I have stored away,” he said in early March. “I might be using this shit very soon.”

Charles and his group of doomsday preppers met on March 1 for an emergency discussion of the coronavirus. When I met him at his apartment on Friday of that week, I went in for an elbow bump in lieu of a handshake. He offered his hand.

“This is not the end-game. This is not going to wipe out humanity.”

Doomsday notwithstanding, Charles is pleased he’s been prepared for what others haven’t. It’s vindication for him and the few hundred members of NYC Preppers. The righteous indignation that has always animated preppers has seemed to reach a fever pitch as the toll of the coronavirus has increased. In the public imagination, preppers have been painted for years as fanatics with anxieties removed from reality. The pandemic today has legitimized many of those same fears.

“This is reassurance for preppers,” he said. “The problem is, as soon as this passes, we’ll be the class clowns again.”

Charles was born in Washington Heights and lives in Harlem. After our tentative handshake, he led me to the kitchen and poured himself coffee. He wore a black baseball cap, shorts, and a navy-blue t-shirt with a vignette over the left breast depicting fire fighters approaching the twin towers. He was packing that day for a “bug-out,” a simulation of post-apocalyptic life that doesn’t sound unlike camping, in the Catskills over the weekend and said we’d have to hurry.

The kitchen is something of a preview of the hallway closet that overflows with masks, torches, ramen packets, and rope. (Charles also has a storage unit in the Bronx stuffed with survival equipment.) There’s a panoply of vitamins and a profusion of canned food. One of Charles’ vitamins is made from a mushroom and supposedly helps with stamina. You have to take individual vitamins, he tells me, not that “bullshit centrum.”

Charles began his vitamin regimen around the time he started prepping. In 2011, he read William R. Forstchen’s “One Second After,” a novel about a devastating electromagnetic-pulse attack on the United States. The story awakened in him a feeling that first sprouted after 9/11 — that Americans lacked the kind of imagination that would compel them to prepare for a disaster. Government officials were unable to heed the warnings of intelligence officers about an attack by al-Qaeda, he argues, because the idea was too fantastic to them. Doomsday was the same — until this year.

The coronavirus may not be the doomsday Charles has spent thousands of dollars preparing for and countless hours envisioning, but it still should be taken seriously, he says. Skeptically, in fact. Charles is sympathetic to the conspiracy theory that the coronavirus was manufactured by the Chinese as a bioweapon. I ask for elaboration.

“One theory is it was for Hong Kong,” he said. “The timing is just too impeccable.”

“But it’s affected the Chinese population more than Hong Kong, hasn’t it?”

“That’s why it was an accident, right?”

Charles’ belief in this theory betrays a general distrust of established knowledge. He thinks the government is not only ill-equipped to respond to disaster, as further evidenced by the U.S. reaction to the coronavirus, but also inherently malevolent, an entity that “can’t be trusted.” He believes vaccines are partly to blame for the rise in mental health issues in many developed countries and that greed is the principal motivation of most politicians. In 2016, he wrote himself in on his voting ballot because “you have to vote.” Today, he thinks he’ll vote for Trump in November, but his big hang-up is the president’s decimation of the EPA.

“If you don’t want to protect the environment, then fuck you.”

The coronavirus has also given Charles an opportunity to spread his survivalist message, even if he realizes that most people will emerge from the pandemic still skeptical of prepping. Since early March, Charles has gained roughly 2,700 subscribers on YouTube, he said, and when I spoke with him by phone in late March, he seemed glad people were seeking out his help. He’s still working as a firefighter in the midst of the crisis, but Charles also believes that in these uncertain times he’s become something of a journalist.

“I’m reporting the facts,” he said. “I have my own theories on the coronavirus; I’m not gonna say it on YouTube.”

When I caught up with Charles in late April, he said his chief concern now is the potential second wave of Covid-19. The CDC has been plenty wrong, he surmised, but its warnings about a return of cases during flu season should be heeded. He still thinks he’ll vote for Trump in November, even if the president’s comments about injecting bleach “can’t be defended,” and he thinks the protesters who have charged that the government is using the coronavirus as a way to lock down the public are just conspiracy theorists. He hasn’t run through his stack of N95 masks yet, and he’s led a virtual meeting of NYC Preppers and is gearing up for another.

The pandemic has also become more personal for Charles since March. Two EMTs he used to work with have died of Covid-19, he said, and now when he’s responding to calls with Ladder 19, he’s increasingly cautious.

“You’re more aware now,” he said. “Where you put your hands, what you say to people. Some people ask for reassurance. You can’t sit there and tell them it’ll be okay.”

One of Charles’ YouTube videos about the start of quarantine, posted on a Monday morning in March, begins with drone footage of a burning building and people with gas canisters waiting in line for fuel. The title screen fades in at the 20-second mark: “The Angry Prepper, Urban. Prepare Today, Survive Tomorrow.” The screen fades out and Charles appears, reporting from his neighborhood about the first night of New York lockdown, a scene that feels almost quaint by now.

“There is no movement anywhere around me tonight,” he says, standing beneath the streetlights of his empty block. He’s wearing the black hat that he had on when we met and a dark hoodie. “The governor and the mayor don’t want to use the words ‘lockdown’ or ‘self-quarantine’ because they say people think the word is scary. Listen, man: Fuck being scared.”

Alex Wittenberg is a graduate student in the Magazine and Digital Storytelling program


Other Stories in Special Report: Shutdown: The Coronavirus

The Spirit of Little Haiti

Savannah Daniels October 14, 2020

Small business owners hope for future relief

Courtney Guarino October 2, 2020

Brooklyn Book Festival held virtually

Chuyan Jiang September 28, 2020

NYC Restaurant owners worry about maintaining business during winter 

Isabel Beer September 27, 2020

The pandemic is causing mental health struggles for many Latinos

Paola Michelle Ortiz September 24, 2020

Politically divided family can agree on one thing, rallies are bad during a pandemic

Michelle Diaz September 23, 2020

New Yorkers are vulnerable to mental issues due to pandemic

Sughnen Yongo-Okochi September 23, 2020

Healthcare professionals struggle with Trump’s decisions during pandemic

Tori Luecking September 23, 2020

Some Americans Say “Not So Fast” on Operation Warp Speed

James Pothen September 23, 2020

Trump voters unfazed by morality of Trump’s Covid response

Norah Hogan September 22, 2020

Trump rallies continue, despite the rising Covid-19 death toll

Isabel Beer September 22, 2020

Latinos weigh in on President Trump’s management of the pandemic

Paola Michelle Ortiz September 21, 2020

Fast track vaccine causes fear

Kaity Assaf September 21, 2020

It’s business as usual at McSorley’s Old Ale House

Tori Luecking September 20, 2020

Trump defiance to hold indoor rallies amidst COVID-19 sparks polarized responses 

Courtney Guarino September 20, 2020

NYC Cafes and restaurants try and survive the pandemic

Isabel Beer September 19, 2020

A typical afternoon at Shade Bar NYC

Kaity Assaf September 19, 2020

West Village staple, Caffe Reggio, remains open for outdoor dining in the wake of coronavirus restrictions 

Norah Hogan September 19, 2020

Fort Greene’s Dino adds outdoor dining to keep business flowing

Courtney Guarino September 19, 2020

COVID-19 hampers Fashion Week for photographers

Daniel Karel September 18, 2020

On the heels of revelation that Trump downplayed the covid threat, voters question rallies resuming

Sughnen Yongo-Okochi September 16, 2020

Overburdened mothers in Pakistan are relieved as schools reopens

Quratulain Tejani September 13, 2020

Students from different parts of the world struggle as schools reopen during a pandemic

Chuyan Jiang September 12, 2020

Special needs students face learning obstacles during Covid-19

Courtney Guarino September 12, 2020

Back to school – COVID-19 style 

Isabel Beer September 12, 2020

The new normal for school life is abnormal in Michigan

Sughnen Yongo-Okochi September 11, 2020

California School District Parents and Teachers Clash About Return to School

Norah Hogan September 10, 2020

A tribute to the mask pioneers

Bohao Liu July 11, 2020

Air pollution in China rebounds to pre-COVID level

Hannah Zhang July 11, 2020

ICE takes aim at international students

Maria Abreu July 10, 2020

Chinese students trapped by new ICE policy

Zishu Sherry Qin July 10, 2020

New ICE policy adds more turmoil to the lives of international students

Shiyu Xu July 10, 2020

Lawsuits follow ICE policy barring international students who are taking online classes

Joanna Lin Su July 10, 2020

Economists say the US needs a bold, generous fiscal response. Congress is likely to disappoint. 

Ahmed Mohamed July 9, 2020

Overseas Singaporeans have pandemic obstacles to voting

Yifan Yu July 9, 2020

Proximity sensors and hygiene stations are the “new normal”

Joanna Lin Su July 9, 2020

 Tour ticket vendors miss the hustle and bustle of Times Square

Narkwor Kwabla July 8, 2020

Dengue outbreak could be a greater threat than covid in Singapore

Yifan Yu July 8, 2020

Corporate bankruptcy: ‘A story that’s not going away’

Gaurav Sharma July 7, 2020

Beijing reopens as the second wave of coronavirus dies down

Hannah Zhang July 6, 2020

Masks or no masks?

Bohao Liu July 5, 2020

Varsity Flu

Madeline Gunderson July 3, 2020

Rail travel in China is popular during the pandemic and filled with safety measures

Bohao Liu July 3, 2020

Brazilian international student caught in US travel ban.

Marina Guimaraes July 3, 2020

MTA faces crisis following COVID shutdown

Daniel Girma July 2, 2020

Easter Market goes back to its roots

Kyla Milberger July 2, 2020

China’s Airline Industry Aims to Lure Back Passengers with Unlimited Flight Pass

Zishu Sherry Qin July 1, 2020

US corporate debt soars during coronavirus outbreak

Gaurav Sharma June 30, 2020

In Singapore, gay pride goes online

Yifan Yu June 29, 2020

The Hair Room reopens

Shiyu Xu June 29, 2020