Inspired by the New Yorker article, “A Week in Seattle, The Epicenter of America’s Coronavirus Crisis.”
I’m writing this on March 13, and already I’m forgetting the dates, having to reconstruct them: It was the second to last day of February, (Friday, Feb 28, 2020) when Paul and I flew from the airport in Jacksonville, Florida to our home city of Los Angeles. Heading from the east coast to the west coast, I felt what one of my film professors used to call the point of attack: describing it as “not the storm that hits the village, but the sound of thunder in distance.”
The thunder in the distance was 50 or so sick people in Seattle, the first cases of “community spread” of Covid 19 in the United States. While two-thousand people had died in far away lands, no one had died in the U.S. From our temporary home in Gainesville, Florida, Seattle felt far away, barely real. Was I over-reacting? I wondered as I directed Paul to pick up some TSA approved sized containers of hand sanitizer. But arriving at the airport early enough to spend several hours in the company of travelers, I wondered if I had reacted enough. In the waiting area an man was repeatedly coughing. We were about twelve feet away. I felt the urge to move farther, until Paul spotted some medical equipment and pegged his malady as something non-virus-related, like emphysema, or possible lung cancer… and I felt an ignoble sense of relief about the fact that this man likely had something chronic and serious, instead of contagious.
On the plane, the woman in front of us wore gloves and a mask by the window. Looked with trepidation as two Chinese men took the seats beside her. For the duration of the flight, the two Chinese men never coughed, but as on every flight I’ve taken ever, it seems, there were coughs throughout the cabin. In truth, all coughs on planes make me flinch; I have too many memories of catching colds on planes and having to deal with illness while juggling whatever itinerary prompted my travels. This week I had a series of meetings planned and didn’t want any crimps in my plans, be they Corona or common cold. I took the scarf I wore around my neck, and wrapped it instead over my face, feeling it must offer some protection against any stray droplets floating through the cabin.
We arrived in Los Angeles late, slept, and woke the next morning — Saturday the 29th — to read on our phones that the first virus-related death had occurred in the U.S., in Seattle.
On Monday, I had my first meeting. The exec was mildly apologetic when opted to bump elbows instead of shaking hands. At Tuesday’s meeting with another exec, we forgot and hugged. On Wednesday, a TSA worker at LAX reported he had come down with the virus.
For the rest of the week the people I met with were becoming more vigilant. The execs offered elbow bumps. An assistant and and intern still offered their hands to shake, Instinctively I took their hands – then sanitized afterward. I declined all offers of water, opting to stick to my own bottle.
At L.A. restaurants, I gingerly opened the plastic menus, thinking how many had touched them before me. On our last evening in town, Saturday, March 7, we visited our favorite restaurant in Thai Town and found it at half capacity. That day, in the first cases of Coronavirus in Florida, who’d been announced earlier in the week, died, and two new cases were diagnosed. These cases were in counties far from our temporary home, but I knew that the campus we were returning to campus would be the convergence point for thousands of students who had just traveled over their spring break, across the state, the country and the world.
By the time we boarded our return flight on Sunday March 8, Italy and Iran had become hotspots and cases in the U.S. had climbed from 50 to 500.
Our route back to Florida took us through two international airports. Dallas, where we changed planes, and Nashville, where stopped to take on new passengers. I watched as the new people entered. A woman attempted to put her large bag in an overhead bins but it was too heavy for her. A man helped, grabbing the hard surfaces of her luggage with his hands. Soon after, a flight attendant came through, closing every bin with flat hands. The bin with the large case wouldn’t close; she pulled the same suitcase out again, rotating it all around until it fit. Nothing out of the ordinary for a week before, but now I could only count: touch, touch, touch. With the luggage arranged, the flight attendant she laid her palms flat to the bin to slam it closed, touch, then approached our row, taking the laminated safety card from the seat pocket of nearby passenger and using it to demonstrate safety protocols before replacing it the card. Touch.
Back in Florida, Paul joined others on the parking lot shuttle to pick up the car while I waited in the crowd for my bag at the carousel. Though it was 2am when we reached our Gainesville home, I wasn’t too tired to shower.
The next morning (Monday, March 9), while Paul went to school. I walked to the Family Dollar and purchased a three-pack of Clorox wipes. There were still plenty of options on the shelves, and I again wondered if I was planning for something that wouldn’t be an issue where we were.
That day the stock market plunged, and that evening, we received an email from Public Affairs at our university saying the provost was advising us to move our classes online where possible, but that nothing was mandatory. A fellow teacher texted immediately, opting out of in-person teaching, because she was caring for an older, immune-compromised relative. Another fellow teacher, who taught mostly hands-on production classes said she wouldn’t be teaching online. She said nothing, but I detected in her manner the slightest judgement about our fellow teachers decision to opt out.
All my life I have dreaded being thought of a malingerer, have built an identity around being a “hard worker.” Partly due to a reluctance to be perceived otherwise, and partly because it felt too late to figure out how to teach online in half a day, I wrote to my Tuesday (March 10) class – comprised of 19 students who met in a classroom with seating for about 40 – and said that we’d be meeting in person. I explained that I’d be putting a canister of Clorox wipes by the door, that they should grab a Clorox wipe on the way in, space themselves a chair apart, and wipe down their desk area before sitting. This felt like an abundance of caution as I reminded each student who entered. They laughed as they complied. I was being safer than most, I thought, we could continue this way for the semester.
Yet one student said that my class was her only class that wasn’t online, and that otherwise, she would be flying home. Home was New York.
“You’re more likely to get it on the plane to than here,” said one of her classmates.
“I don’t care, because then when I get it, I’ll be home with my family, not alone in my dorm room,” she retorted.
That night I sent the same Clorox / spacing announcement to my Wednesday class , adding that if that if any student had extenuating circumstances they should let me know. One student wrote to say had traveled internationally over break break. Another had a cold she thought was just a cold, but didn’t want to miss class or make her classmates uncomfortable. By now I’d had time to watch a tutorial on how to create a Zoom meeting. I decided to make the switch and teach the class online. On Thursday the edict came down, that starting this coming week (beginning Monday, March 16) online classes will be mandatory.