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As Fauci battles the pandemic and politics, his grateful neighbors celebrate him as a hero

Ida Bergstrom and her sons Lars, 11, left, and Nils, 14, are selling yard signs to show support for Anthony Fauci, who is the nation's top infectious-disease expert and one of their neighbors.

BILL O'LEARY/THE WASHINGTON POST

By MARISA IATI | The Washington Post | Published: August 7, 2020

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WASHINGTON — After each long day of working on the United States's pandemic response, the nation's top infectious-disease expert power-walks through his Northwest Washington neighborhood with his wife and their daughter's dog.

Recently, Anthony Fauci's nightly jaunts through the neighborhood where he has lived since 1977 have taken him past at least a dozen signs bearing his name — tokens of appreciation for his staid service on the White House coronavirus task force.

"I have been, for so long, a quiet, inconspicuous person in my neighborhood, and now there are signs up telling me that they love me," Fauci marveled on Monday. "I think it's great, but I certainly don't let anything like that go to my head."

Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has become the subject of both adoration and controversy since the novel coronavirus pandemic made him the country's most prominent champion for social distancing and mask-wearing.

By day, Fauci is lambasted by pundits, grilled by Congress, and sniped at by politicians as high-ranking as the president. At night, he returns home to visible reminders that many in his community are cheering for him.

The yard signs, unassuming but obvious, are the brainchild of Ida Bergstrom, a physician who spent a month of her residency working for Fauci. Although she hadn't spoken with him in years, Bergstrom and some neighbors started talking in July about whether there was a way to send Fauci their thanks.

One neighbor wished they could put a sign on his lawn. Another wondered whether she should mail him a note.

Then, Bergstrom said, a lightbulb went off: She could order lawn signs for homeowners to post in their own yards. Fauci and his wife, Christine Grady, would see them during their daily exercise ritual. Plus, her sons could help distribute them.

The project was a natural fit for Bergstrom, who said she has been "beyond perplexed" to see Fauci receive pushback for his leadership during the pandemic. Fauci, she said, clearly values his work and does it well.

"In the academic circles of medicine, his name is on the covers of books, and he's very prestigious," Bergstrom said. "But he's a very real person, and for anyone to sustain what he's going through must be taxing. And I'm not really a sensitive person, but how can you not be affected by all that?"

Bergstrom found an online company that allowed her to customize the signs with the words, "Thank you Dr Fauci" and an exclamation mark with a heart where the dot should be.

She then shared an inquiry on her Facebook page: Did anyone want a Fauci yard sign for $10? The money would go to Life Pieces to Masterpieces, an organization that uses art to help Black boys and young men in some of D.C.'s most impoverished communities develop character and leadership skills.

Requests came streaming in as word spread through a neighborhood email group and Nextdoor, a social networking platform. As the signs' popularity soared, Bergstrom's sons — Nils, 14, and Lars, 11 — began making frequent deliveries.

Every other day, the boys collect a list of addresses from their mother, fill their backpacks with signs, and crisscross the neighborhood to fulfill orders. They install the signs in the ground themselves, placing them near other lawn signs or strategically positioning them to face an intersection where drivers are likely to see them.

Bergstrom has sold nearly 200 signs. The initiative also has spread far beyond the neighborhood. Bergstrom has driven her sons to deliver signs across Northwest D.C. and even mailed a few to family and friends in four other states.

At Chef Geoff's, a popular nearby restaurant, a different kind of Fauci sign greets customers. The owner, Geoff Tracy, printed notices referencing Fauci in March to encourage social distancing: "Dr. Anthony Fauci is a long time guest and he wants six feet for the safety of all of us now and so we can get back to normal soon."

Until the pandemic heightened the risks of eating at restaurants, Tracy said Fauci and his wife often ate at Chef Geoff's multiple times a week. He frequently ordered a burger and beer at the bar, and chatted with bartenders and fellow guests.

For Tracy, seeing one of his regular customers become a household name has been a treat.

"It's like he's on a baseball team that no one's ever heard of," Tracy said. "But then they're vying for the World Series, so they become more well known."

Jeffrey Blount and Jeanne Meserve said they posted one of Bergstrom's lawn signs thanking Fauci because they've been friends with him for years. Fauci attended the release party when Blount's book was published last year, Blount said, and is the reason he gets an annual flu shot.

And when Meserve was wading around in floodwater in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina as a CNN anchor, Blount called Fauci to ask if the water could be dangerous. It wasn't the best place that Meserve could be, Fauci reportedly replied, but she would be all right.

The couple said they wanted Fauci to know that they stand behind him while he faces pushback.

"A lot of these issues wouldn't be issues if they knew the real Tony Fauci," Blount said of the scientist's critics.

Fauci himself views his job as promoting public-health experts' understanding of the pandemic and said he views the lawn signs as validation of that role.

"It's reflective of people's feeling that they need someone to be an advocate for good science, and I appreciate that," he said Monday. "I look at it almost as an endorsement of the entire scientific community."

Cynthia Fontaine, another neighbor, said she appreciates Fauci specifically for reporting the latest science on the pandemic. She described herself as a registered Republican who plans to leave the party over what she views as GOP leaders' vilification of Fauci.

Fontaine said Fauci appears to lack an ulterior agenda and that she's relying on his guidance to decide whether to send her children back to school this fall. Her feeling that she needed to speak out on his behalf drove her to post a sign on her lawn for the first time.

In fact, Fontaine's yard displays not just one Fauci sign — but four. She bought two from Bergstrom, found one on Etsy that said "Honk for Dr. Fauci" and made one by hand with a quote commonly misattributed to the doctor: "I don't know how to explain to you that you should care about other people." (The sentence is actually the title of a popular HuffPost column from 2017.)

Fontaine said she also purchased two Fauci T-shirts. She's trying to send a message, she said, that nothing is more important than public health.

"It's not a political statement," Fontaine said. "Let's all do what's right for each other."
 

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