Remember When… Coronavirus Edition

I’ve just begun listening to a podcast called Fiction/Non/Fiction, and browsing through the catalog tonight, I chose Episode 10, called “Coronavirus and Contagion.”

Though it aired on February 13 of this year, the episode was recorded on February 9 — two days after the death of Dr. Li Wenliang and two days before the virus received it’s name: Covid19. The number of deaths at the time was 800, almost all in Asia, and I believe the number of cases their guest, Lauri Chen, cites is under 40,000, worldwide. Four months later it’s like listening to an audio time-capsule.The discussion is serious, but there is yet a sense of the academic about it, with the American hosts discussing a phenomenon that is happening on the other side of the world.

I have fallen far, far behind in terms of pandemic updates, but for the record, the number of worldwide cases is just shy of 7.5 million, and the number of deaths is more than 400 thousand.

Last Day in Gainesville (Life in a Time of Pandemic, April 24, 2020)

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Woke anxious this morning, and it makes sense. Today is the day we need to clean our whole apartment and pack all our things. Packing always makes me edgy, and today we have a few added elements.

One is that, although my back is feeling largely better, the way we packed the car to come east didn’t allow for any adjustment of the seats, so we’re trying to change that situation by transferring the contents of two large bins to trash bags (my least preferred way to pack!), and then Tetris-ing those bags into the trunk to leave some room behind the passenger’s seat to recline if needed.

And of course, the need to recline the seat is related to the fact that our 40-hour drive will have few breaks due to the pandemic. With some trepidation, we’ve made arrangements to sleep in beds for two nights; but the days will be long: with dining areas of restaurants closed and the friends in isolation, there’s not anywhere to be but the car. We’re unsure whether there will be waits or issues at the reported checkpoints on the borders between states. Overall, it feels safest just to make good time and get home.

In a way, being in Florida has allowed us to compartmentalize the pandemic — to imagine that all the strangeness was just part of our trip, and that when we get home, things would be normal again, but of course that is not the case.

That Time I Went on The Swings (Life In The Time of Pandemic, March 30 -April 4)

Monday, March 30

I’ve become obsessed with swinging on the swing in the park not far from our house. For the past few weeks I have been walking and walking, until my I.T. bands are tight as braided steel. I yearn to feel other muscles work – my abs for instance, or my upper arms. I think of how it felt to move through the air on my neighbors’ swing-set as a kid, how the grass changed angles, the sky became closer, and my troubles on the ground — whatever kid troubles they were — felt farther away.

I know it’s against the rules, but like crossing an intersection against a red light when there are no cars on the road, who would it hurt if I occupy this unused equipment for ten minutes one morning ?  

I’m not someone who breaks rules easily – most often I am someone who waits for red lights even when there are no cars for miles. Thus, I have to make cognitive leaps as well a logistical and guilt-reducing preparations to conduct an illegal heist such as this. From what I’ve read, I know the chains of the swing set should be virus-free after hours in the sun, but even so, I pack Clorox wipes in a plastic baggie to wipe down the chains before and after. I put this in one pocket of my hoodie, while in the other pocket I carry a second layer of protection — to disinfect my hands after they have touched the wipe that touches the chains — in the form of a spray bottle of hand sanitizer. The sanitizer is something I discovered in my travel case one day, after all sanitizers had disappeared from the stores. A bauble I’d tossed into my luggage just because I’d come across it while packing, that has now become a rare treasure.

On the chosen day, I head out of the house early. My skin is too hilariously susceptible to burning to swing in direct sun, so even though I walk past the park both mornings and evenings, the swing heist must happen in the morning when the swings are still in partial shade.

But, as if the universe has read my mind, when I arrive at the park, a city security vehicle – never before seen by me – is suddenly resting at the edge of the park, and I must abandon my cause.

The next day the car is gone, someone is walking the grounds in a florescent vest. Do they work for the city, or are they just someone wearing a vest? I circle the park, unable to be sure and now already it has become too hot and sunny for my project.  I wrap my hoodie around my waist and proceed to jog the non-park portion of my circuit. When I arrive home I find I’ve lost my hand sanitizer and mourn it. For the next couple days I try to retrace my steps and keep an eye out for the bottle but don’t find it. Feeling somehow defeated, I let go of my plot to swing in the swing.

But this morning, as I reach the park, I find it empty, and not too sunny. I have my Clorox wipe in my pocket. In a burst of rebellion, I use my Clorox wipe on the metal of the swing, and take my seat.

It feels good to swing. It feels good to pump my arms, although the chains occasionally pinch the skin of my palms. It feels good lean back and lift my legs high, though I have lost the bravery I had as a kid willing to swing so high that there would be a moment of slack and a jolt as the swing considered continuing it’s arc clear around and then decided against it.

And it feels freeing to be in the air — kind of. I am conscious of people – not authorities, but dog-walkers and other pandemic pedestrians—watching me as they pass. They look, and I imagine they are judging, or feeling threatened by my cavalier behavior… they can’t know the Clorox consideration I plan to lavish on the chains when my moment of swinging is over. 

I’m reminded of a time when I was twenty and traveling in Greece. I removed my top at a sparsely populated beach, which I’d been told was both legal and so customary that it wouldn’t warrant a second glance. I wanted to feel the freedom of it, and for a few moments, maybe I did, but those moments were quickly overshadowed by the gaze of a weathered man who appeared on the rocky bluff above me. He did not look away when I glanced his direction and made it very clear he was not planning to look away. I tried defiance for five or ten minutes, going about my business, trying to recapture what I’d almost felt, but trying not to notice is noticing, so I replaced the top of my bathing suit, and my shirt over it, and left the beach soon after.

And on this day in the park, though eyes are on me, I keep swinging for a few more minutes, because I know I won’t have the heart to do it again.

On Tuesday, March 31, the news tells us that as many as 25% of people carrying the Covid 19 virus could be asymptomatic.

On Wednesday, April 1 there’s a prediction, that if we continue with the steps we have taken thus far, the U.S. might expect between 100,00 and 240,000 deaths.

On Thursday, April 2, the New York Times reports that Trump is expected to recommend that everyone – not just medical workers, should wear masks in public.

The actual announcement on Friday April 3, is mitigated – the actual recommendation comes from the C.D.C., and the president notes that it is only a recommendation and “I’m not going to do it.”

Still, overnight, here in Florida, there is a change. On Saturday April 4, I enter the Family Dollar, and find that two of the four customers inside are wearing masks. I’m not one of them – I’m buy rubber bands to use as elastic for the homemade masks we’ll soon be making.

That evening I walk into through our neighborhood, and, long after I’ve given up looking, find the broken carcass of my hand sanitizer.

Life in a Time of Pandemic (March 21-March 29)

In Florida, the temperatures have soared into the 80s. With my former fitness routines out the window, I take advantage of the cooler temperatures in the morning and evenings to walk around the neighborhood. I aim for 5000 steps per walk, tracking it on my phone, to reach the recommended allotment of ten-thousand steps daily. Who recommended that and when? I have no idea and lack the curiosity to look it up. It’s a round number, a goal, and is as good as any.

Others in my neighborhood clearly have established similar routines. I pass mothers with strollers, fathers and sons, couples. There are not many of us, so it is not crowded. We give each other a wide berth, wait at cross walks for others to pass, cross to the opposite side of the street if we find ourselves heading toward each other on the same sidewalk, smiling and waving to show that it’s not personal. There is a sense of solidarity in this.

But also, I realize, we are telling each other, with our smiles and waves, that it’s okay, we’re not a threat. Underlying the bucolic ambiance, the lush green, the Spanish Moss hanging from the trees, there is also a vigilance. I sense, through subtle, that the world’s hold on would-be predators is less than it was. The cats in the neighborhood have grown bolder. With car and foot traffic diminished, they sit in the middle of streets and watch the humans with brazen, even insolent expressions. One day a cat follows me for a block. The cars too, especially in the evenings, can also have a sense of prowling. They drive slowly down the block and the the drivers, often single men, don’t make it a point to smile and wave.

On Saturday evening, a car honks as it turns the corner near me. The man behind the wheel looks at me as he passes, at a moment when there are no other pedestrians around.

Later that same Saturday night a friend in LA posts on Facebook her story of walking alone, of a car with a group of men honking and whistling, of the car making a U-turn and heading back in her direction until a couple on foot turn a corner into view, scaring them away. The online conversation that follows explore the fears, not unique, but closer to the surface for women, of living in a world where men have no sports to watch, no bars to prowl, no gyms to work out their aggressions.

On my walk on Sunday morning, I pass a well-muscled man on a street spacious enough to go wide. Unsmiling, he maintains his course in the way of a man on a crowded sidewalk for whom asserting territory is unnecessary — he is merely occupying what is his. Probably he is immersed in whatever content is coming through his ear pods. Probably he is not even conscious of our passing, of my veering, as an interaction between us. But I am aware for both of us.

In addition to my Kindle edition of War and Peace, I’ve downloaded an audio version to listen to on my morning walks. On this morning, words fly by without me hearing them.

I’m distracted by fellow pedestrians, but also by my own ruminations. Though Paul and I know better than to read the news on our phones upon waking, we do, and in bed this morning Paul has shown me an article with graphs depicting, by state, at what point the health care system might or might not be overwhelmed depending on the amount of social distancing implemented.

In one scenario he shows me, the curve in Texas is hitting its peak the week we’re scheduled to leave. 
“Huh,” I say, “Do you think that means we should go earlier after all?”
Our conversation is mostly a rerun of a conversation we had just three days ago, with one new addition: “I just don’t want us to get stuck in Texas,” he says.
I’m confused. “Why would we get stuck in Texas? We’re in our car, we’ll just drive through it.” 
“What if they do terrible at containment and the other states decide they don’t want people coming in from Texas?” 
As soon as he says it, I can see the dystopian timeline where things get bad and states in disagreement about measures start closing their borders. 

So as I walk down our tree-lined street, my brain is continuing the conversation on its own: But we have California IDs, certainly they would let us in, right? 

Half a chapter of War and Peace has gone by without my noticing.

On Monday, March 22, more than 24,000 coronavirus cases have been reported in the U.S., with over 10,000 of those in New York state. Also on this day, Senator Rand Paul tests positive for the virus, and makes the news for using the gym and swimming pool while waiting for his test results. And Senate Democrats block a proposed 1.8 Trillion dollar relief bill, claiming that it is aimed more at helping corporations than people

On this same Monday, one student and one faculty member in our college are reported to have the virus, and Alachua County, where we live, mandates emergency “stay at home” orders effective at midnight. In accordance, UF reduces on-campus personnel to those identified as essential.

On Tuesday, March 24, in reaction to Wall Street executives warning of another Great Depression if America doesn’t get back to work soon, President Trump talks about “opening up the economy” by Easter, which is April 12. Elsewhere in the world, Prime Minister of India bans 1.3 billion people from leaving their homes, and, after some initial resistance from the organizers, the Summer Olympics in Japan are postponed for a year.

On Wednesday, March 25, the senate passes a 2 trillion dollar relief package. It’s announced that Prince Charles has Coronavirus.

On Thursday March 26, the U.S. takes the dubious honor of the lead in Coronavirus cases: 81,321 and over 10000 deaths. Three million people apply for unemployment benefits. Florida requires visitors from New York to quarantine for two weeks after arriving.

On Friday, March 27, Trump signs the $2 trillion economic relief plan. Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain tests positive for Coronavirus.

On Sunday March 29, Trump extends the federal governments social-distancing guidelines until the end of April. A plane from Shanghai touched down at Kennedy Airport carrying 130,000 N95 masks, 1.8 surgical masks and gowns, 10 million gloves and 70,000 thermometers touches down at Kennedy Airport. It is, we’re told, the first of 22 such shipments.

As of Sunday evening 141,096 people in the U.S have tested positive for the virus, and at least 2469 patients with the virus have died.

Life in the Time of Pandemic (March 13-20, 2020)

By Friday, March 13, all students had been advised to leave campus until March 31st — if possible. The end date feels arbitrary, will they all fly home and return two weeks later? I guess the truth is that nobody knows. The faculty receives a query from our department chair asking us to report if our classes were on track to move online by Monday. The university seems to mobilize faster than I would have guessed. They’re negotiating with the software companies to expand licenses directly to students. The dozen emails I send to university tech support got quick responses.

From California, friends are sharing pictures of bare shelves at the stores where toilet paper and household cleansers would be stocked. One sends a picture of a truck with toilet paper being guarded by police, but at our Family Dollar, there are still paper goods — though fewer cleansers — no more Clorox wipes. Though we’ve been encouraged not to have large gatherings, no one has yet said anything about small gatherings. We’re reading the first articles about social distancing, and navigating what this means. Our yoga studio is still open, sending us messages to say they’ve decreased the number of students per class, and are ramping up their cleaning and sanitizing. If we don’t use equipment, we figure, we’ll only be touching our own mats. Our county still has no documented cases of community spread, so on Saturday we go to class.

We also have plans, in place for over a month, to have dinner with another couple and their son. The fact that we don’t know them well makes it seem ruder to cancel. I check to see if they still want us, and our hostess seems not to have even considered otherwise. Their house is beautiful and large; it’s not hard to keep some distance for most of the pleasant evening. When it ends, our hostess hugs me, which feels strange after a week of bumping elbows. “Oh, we’re still hugging!” I blurt in surprise.

“Yes, of course,” she answered.

The need to make things smooth overtakes our group. Paul hugs our hostess two, and I hug her husband. No one is scared. Everything’s all right.

The following day (Sunday, March 15), I’ve made a “study date” with another teacher, to figure out how to make online quizzes for our students. “Should we go?” Paul and I deliberate, and decided we will. I bring my Clorox wipes, which are already something of a joke between us.

I’d assumed their family would be doing some form of distancing, but when we arrive, their youngest is having a play date with two other little girls.  They run around the house as normal.. The older son, newly driving, came and went, picking up food for us. “Wash your hands!” his mom reminds him as he begins to unpack the food.

Coming home Paul and I feel we have felt for the boundaries of our comfort level, and found those boundaries. We agree we’ve made the last of our home visits, and that for us, social distancing, like online classes, will begin in earnest the next day, Monday the 16th.

Sunday night the democratic debate features Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders hooking elbows instead of shaking hands, and standing at podiums placed six feet apart. The news that night announces that both Los Angeles and New York are tamping down on bars and restaurants, limiting them to food delivery only. In California Gavin Newsom asks everyone over the age of 65 to sequester themselves. One journalist notes that the democratic debate, between two candidates in their late 70s, would be in defiance of that request if the debate were to take place in California.

On Monday, the stock market drops by 8% and trading is temporarily halted for the second or third time–I’ve lost track. l realize that while we have food, paper products, and cleansers, in our temporary rental we have none of the over-the-counter medications that accrue over years, so I walk again to the Family Dollar and purchase a motley collection of cold medications and acetaminophen.

On Tuesday the 17th, UF announces that, instead of possibly resuming March 31st, classes will remain online for the remainder of the semester, and into the summer. There will be no commencement ceremonies in the spring. 

“I guess if everything is online, nothing’s really keeping us here,” says Paul.
“Should we just go early?” I respond.

We discuss the pros and cons. It could save us a month of paying rent in two places, which is appealing. At the same time, the situation in California looks crazier than Gainesville. There are also complicated logistics – how and when to make a forty-hour drive across internet-less terrain when we’re teaching a combined fifteen hours a week online, plus grading and correspondence? With the car packed to the gills, where should we sleep? Our presence might endanger the friends along our route, and hotels, if open, seem undesirable.

We table the discussion as I’m still organizing my first Zoom class for that afternoon, as well as an online pitch and an online midterm using an online proctoring service for Wednesday. On Wednesday, as I scramble up various technological learning curves, the news cycles around me: the stock market tanks again, the president proposes a billion dollar economic stimulus package of which $250 million directly to taxpayers, the rest to corporations, and West Virginia reports it first case of Covid 19, meaning the virus is now in all 50 states. There are now 5800 recorded cases and 107 deaths nationwide. New York is considering instituting a “shelter in place” edict. When our temporary landlord emails to let us know that our place was now available through April, we tell him we’ll stay through April 24, the day after our classes end.

On Thursday, Italy is front and center in the news. Their death toll has passed 3000. In California, Governor Newsom orders people not to go out. A friend of Paul’s to combat his own anxiety, invites people to read War and Peace with him — aiming for 50 pages a day. I order it for my Kindle.

On Friday we embark on what feels, in this new world, like an exciting outing: A trip to the GNC to buy zinc lozenges, to a sporting goods store to buy small hand weights (since our gym and yoga studio are both now closed) and to the grocery store. In the strip mall that houses the GNC there’s a line outside the Trader Joe’s – it’s our first sighting of a store admitting only a limited number of shoppers at one time.

The GNC is sold out of zinc, so we make a call and visit the location that still has two boxes – the one in the indoor mall. At the GNC we stand at a distance from the cashier, then exit through the mall, walking past dozens of closed and empty stores. We don’t stop to window shop at the few that are open, and are careful not to touch anything. At one of the small tables in the center of the mall, two women, leaned their arms on the table’s surface as they talked to each other– their faces a mere foot or two apart. They appear relaxed, feeling none of our trepidation.

A few more calls locates a sporting goods stores that is still open. We find a bottle of Purell at the entrance with a sign asking us to sanitize our hands on the way in. Inside, the middle of the store is empty. The clerk tells us most of the weights and home gym equipment have been sold.

At our final stop, Publix, a friendly worker wipes down and sanitizes the carts as they’re returned. Inside, someone is mopping the floor. There’s music playing. Feel It Still by Portugal. The Man — Ooh woo, I’m a rebel just for kicks now… For a moment I suddenly felt buoyant. It feels good to be out, to be pushing a cart and skipping with the music in the wide, clean aisle between freezer cases full of options.

And then the feeling and our trip is over. We’re home, with no other excursions to look forward to. One of my students has written to say that where she is, with her family in Miami, there are more cases than in Gainesville. With family member who are immunocompromised, much of the shopping falls to her, and if would help if she were able to predict her classwork. This hits me deeply, knowing that there have been some unannounced assignments in her class. I spend the rest of Friday and most Saturday – which is today – editing and publishing assignments for the rest of the semester. It doesn’t feel heroic, but I guess that my part in this, as a teacher, is to offer what stability and support I can… to do my job. And I want to. As someone familiar with being underemployed, I keenly feel my good fortune at having a job I can still do during this time.