Now in our 4th week of quasi-quarantine and state-imposed shelter-in-place orders, we are beginning to settle in to a state of New Normal, i.e., a constant flux of change that is not moving toward the life we led up until the first week in March 2020. Here’s the view from Chaos Central, in our little town on the edge of Nowhere.
We, now in our mid-70s, were the original target of the “stay where you are” directives, along with younger folks in their 60s who might not be as healthy. Everyone is now included. Schools are out. Some restaurants are open for take-out. The coffee roasters down the street, where we hoped to replenish our bean supply through the drive-up, now appears to be totally closed. We still get out for groceries, once a week at the Safeway, during the twice-weekly Senior Shopping Hour, where I go alone, armed with a short list of perishables and a hopeful list of staples, and at least one glove to push the cart and handle items. This morning, there was at least one other elderly person in each aisle, planted firmly in the middle of a 4-foot aisle where it was impossible to maintain the mandated 6-foot spacing. One wishes the aisles were marked one-way traffic. I cruised through the store, targeting items on the list, not stopping except to grab multiples of items we use up over a week that weren’t restricted to “only one, please.” Other shoppers lingered, so I wove a convoluted path through the store to avoid meeting or passing others, and breezed through the self-checkout like a pro. More seniors are learning to use the service, and the store has put “Keep your distance” patches on the floor to keep shoppers from queuing up in the checkout area.
The inventory is strange. There is an abundance of perishable produce, at attractive prices, and an overflow of exotica, like oyster mushrooms at $20 a pound, piled where the tofu used to be. Of the latter, it is as if tofu never existed. Once one of our staples, it is gone, seemingly forever.
We have several week’s supply of flour and wheat berries yet, but I sheepishly grabbed the only 5-lb bag of unbleached white flour on the shelf. Last week, there weren’t any, this week, there were two bags of whole wheat flour and three of self-rising flour, in addition to the one I snagged. Thankfully, there were a few containers of salt left on the shelf. We use very little salt, getting enough in the prepared foods we used to include in our diet, but the salt container we’ve had for 20 years is finally nearly empty, and, with mostly home-cooked meals, I’ve had to start adding a little salt for balance. Before this, we baked bread for social gatherings, but now, it’s a form of comfort food and fits well with our new diet of bean dishes, as we work through the emergency supply in the pantry.
Being ovo-lacto vegetarians, we’ve been using whey protein powder in our morning coffee to balance our diet without overloading on cheese and eggs. I ordered a six-week supply last week, but Costco is prioritizing shipments in this new age of mostly on-line shopping: I got my reflux medication in two days, but, after more than a week, the bag of Optimum Nutrition is still on a warehouse shelf somewhere, with no shipping date estimated.
Our second shopping excursion of the week is to the little produce market on the opposite hill across town. The fruit is cheaper, more variety, and the store is never crowded. And, shopping there keeps a local business open.
Our only other outings lately have been walks around our neighborhood, between rain showers, carefully avoiding other people. We’re surrounded by hills we have to push our bicycle up anyway, so the exercise is just as beneficial to us, and we get some fresh air and close-up views of spring growth. Spring is reluctant this year, with unusually cold temperatures yet. I had to scrape ice off the car windows this morning for the grocery shopping trip. We have a 20-mile bike ride planned, to reprise a ride we took a year ago, out along the county line to the west, but the rain and cold promises to continue for another two weeks at least, so we wait.
Meanwhile, we still have gas for cooking, electricity for lighting, tap water still flows, and the Internet still works. NPR reported stories of utility workers sheltering in place at work, camping in trailers at the waterworks and power stations to isolate themselves from the raging pandemic.
We’re retired, and hopefully, the social security payments will continue, at least as long as the government remains open and the Internet and banks function. Our children and grandchildren haven’t been quite so lucky. Our granddaughter was laid off from a job she’s had for eight years, with no promise of re-hire, and all of her side jobs have been shut down, too. Another granddaughter is sick, taking flu medication. Another, a nurse, is offline, presumably at work. She normally works OB-GYN, but I’m sure the hospitals are in “all-hands” mode if virus cases ramp up. One grandson, who worked as a waiter, is starting a job delivering food. One daughter, a jewelry artist who lives in a remote area unlikely to be affected, has been getting her asthma medications from Mexico, and the border is closed indefinitely. Another daughter is planting a “victory garden” as a hedge against food shortages, and has resorted to ordering tire-sized rolls of industrial toilet tissue in the wake of empty shelves of household tissue. Her husband, who works in industrial building air conditioning maintenance, now works alternate days to keep crews separated.
We heard from one son a week or so ago, trying to keep his normally dine-in-only restaurant running on take-out orders with a skeleton staff. Another son and daughter-in-law are working from home, with reduced hours, since business is down, and our school-age grandchildren are either in an on-line program or on early summer vacation. An ex-grandson-in-law is having problems getting unemployment pay after his 20-year business closed, apparently due either to identity theft or bureaucratic bungling. We haven’t heard from some of our far-flung family members, and hope they are safe, for now. We worry about ones with small children and vulnerable jobs, but can only wait for news, which may not be forthcoming until things stabilize a bit.
With all of our social activities mothballed, we’ve settled into brainstorming ideas to keep contacts going through the Internet, with Facebook, web sites, blogs, and video conferencing, but transitions are slow. People are hunkered down yet, holding their breath as the pandemic ramps up, wondering when it will arrive here, in our small town, and wondering what will survive and recover when the current wave has passed, and how we will prepare for the next one.
Meanwhile, I managed to get our underpowered and ancient Windows machine up one more time, through a series of “Blue Screen” crashes, and file our 2019 taxes, before it crashed again, apparently due to a Windows driver problem. Our main office printer died, possibly due to a bad firmware upgrade or maybe a mechanical failure, but Judy had bought a new one a few months ago for her craft room (that I managed to recover from a bad firmware upgrade), and our old laser printer still prints black and white fine, though the color balance is off. My old laptop, revived with a new hard drive last fall, started making a racket, so I took it apart and cleaned the fan and radiator, and it is eerily quiet and running cool again. The libraries and stores are closed, but we seem to have a hundred books or more we haven’t gotten around to read, so we’re getting by so far, while the world disintegrates around us.
Life under the “Shelter In Place” quasi-quarantine in the pandemic of 2020 is not much different than “Real Life” for us. Having had home businesses over the last 10 to 20 years, we’re well-equipped to keep busy without leaving the house. We’ve settled in to our hobbies, Judy working on her art journals and me, well, mostly surfing the web, communicating on various forums, working on software and web sites, editing video from our bicycle outings, cooking, and a bit of cleaning now and then. And we have gotten out on our bicycle twice since the “Troubles” arrived at our doorstep. The only thing changed is we don’t see other people, except for rare forays out for food and necessities, armed with a short list to get in and out quickly. We are more fortunate than most people, because, as retirees, we have a guaranteed subsistence income, for at least as long as the government remains solvent and functioning. Our retirement savings are in free-fall with the market crashing, but we typically use those funds for travel, which isn’t happening for the foreseeable future. Also, because we are moderately active seniors, with no chronic diseases, we don’t fall into the compromised health conditions which make many people in our age group less likely to survive the pandemic.
The 2019-nCov/SARS-CoV-2 virus (AKA COVID-19, AKA Coronavirus) now sweeping the globe caught us more or less unawares. A few weeks ago, we heard of the outbreak in China, then an inexplicable outbreak at a convalescent home in Kirkland, WA., 200 km away, which we followed with interest, as we had visited a friend there four years ago when she was recovering from a life-threatening diabetic issue. Then, cases started popping up in communities near Kirkland. Containment appeared to be uncertain, yet, here in the South Sound, life and business continued as usual—for a while.
Monday, March 9, Judy had an appointment for a regular 2-year screening, so we blissfully headed to the clinic in Olympia. We were greeted at the door by a staff person handing out masks to people who declared a fever or cough. We, being healthy, declined. The hallway to the imaging department passes by the overflow waiting area for the Urgent Care clinic, which is always cause for concern. Seated in the waiting area for Judy to be tested, I began to question the wisdom of both of us going into the center, while only one needed to be seen.
In the next few days, the contagion spread, with cases appearing in isolated areas, including in counties adjacent to our remote one, tucked up in the forests and bays between the Olympic National Park and Puget Sound. The contagion spread among people who, like the patients at the Kirkland facility, had not traveled to China: the news reported that the incubation period before visible illness was long enough for people to spread the virus to many. And, it was also obvious that, unlike other zoonotic viral diseases, COVID-19 spread easily person-to-person, rather than animal reservoir to human. Nevertheless, on Tuesday, March 10, we went to yoga class at the Senior Center. The room is large enough for 2-meter spacing of mats, so we thought it would be OK. We even went out to dinner one day last week, though at a restaurant that is mostly take-out, with few eat-in customers. We may order from them as the nationwide isolation continues, if they continue to remain open.
On Wednesday, March 11, we delivered a refurbished bicycle to the current Holly House resident, an artist from Tucson, AZ. We’re on the board of Hypatia-in-the-Woods, a non-profit that maintains a cottage retreat for women in the arts, and help maintain the facility as well as meeting with the artists during their stay and keeping the web site up to date. We also had our 11-year-old grandson for the day, during parent-teacher conferences while our work-at-home son was on a business trip out of state and our daughter-in-law was busy with the final days of the state legislative session. We went for a walk, to Dairy Queen, and to the Senior Center thrift shop to look for craft items. There was talk of self-quarantine for people who might have been exposed. Since the spread of the disease seemed imminent, and children and travelers seemed to be carriers, we elected to start a self-imposed semi-quarantine, i.e., limit our social interactions to close associates.
On Thursday, we met with other members of our programs and workshops committee for the Olympia Weavers Guild at an Olympia Fire Station to reserve a meeting room for an upcoming workshop in late March, only to be told that, minutes earlier, they had been directed to not make new reservations, due to the growing move to limit social contact to slow the spread of the disease. The next day’s scheduled guild meeting in Tacoma had already been cancelled, and the cascade of cancellations was just beginning.
Over the next week, normal life came to a crashing end: A granddaughter, on vacation in Chicago for St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, caught one of the last, nearly empty flights home to El Paso, after the bars and restaurants closed and before Midway Airport closed because of staff illnesses. She is in self-quarantine at home, as a precaution, since she works in a home-health agency. Meanwhile, the pandemic has arrived in El Paso. In all the organizations to which we belong: Tacoma Weavers Guild, Olympia Weavers Guild, Friends of the Shelton Library, Mason County Senior Activities Association, and Hypatia-in-the-Woods, a flurry of communication among the boards started canceling the rest of March scheduled events, then extended to April cancellations, then indefinite closures. Public libraries and community meeting rooms closed. Schools closed. We made a quick run to a local open-air produce stand to get fruit and vegetables, where customers tend to arrive one at a time. Word of hoarding of household supplies, particularly paper products, kept us from even trying to replenish our dwindling supples, going into rationing mode. We decided only one of us need shop at a time, and I made a quick trip to the grocery for dairy products, visiting only the one aisle and using the self-checkout, to reduce close contact with others.
The weather cleared on Sunday, the 15th. And we went for a walk in our neighborhood, which has become a sort of springtime ritual with us in the ten years we’ve lived here. We walked down the middle of the streets (there are no sidewalks), up the steep hills to the summit at the water standpipe and the last street,16th. We saw a few people, who waved from their yards, and spoke with a woman at the community garden, from a distance.
On Monday, we got half a tank of fuel for the truck and headed to the west end of the county to ride our bicycle, on a paved loop from the tiny settlement of Matlock (C-store, post office, and Grange Hall) north into the foothills of the Olympic Mountains. Meanwhile, the governor directed everyone over 60 to “shelter in place,” i.e., stay at home, don’t go out, get delivery, etc. This is not practical, of course, so we decided our “shelter place” is on our tandem bicycle, on empty roads. We went out again on Thursday, same place, different course. This time, we visited the still-closed Truman Glick County Park, with permission from the caretaker, with whom we spoke at a careful distance.
Life will not be the same. The pandemic is sweeping across the country, exponentially: it hasn’t yet been two weeks since the first of us decided we would all need to quarantine for at least two weeks after random proximity to groups of people. Quarantine can’t practically be complete. We still have a lot of stored food supplies, but not enough variety to assemble balanced meals over time, so we will still need to venture out for perishables and staples we run out of. To support the state ban on social interaction by senior citizens, the local grocery is reserving two two-hour time slots a week as a respite from the Elder Ban, as we call it, alternating with labeling it “house arrest.” We had a brief scare coming home from our bike ride when a sheriff’s car behind us pulled our van over just outside town. But, it turned out he was just signaling to let another police vehicle pass, on its way to a call, and he pulled around us and continued on. The “Elder Ban” is not put in place to protect us older citizens, but to protect inadequate medical facilities from being overwhelmed by patients most at risk for dying from the disease. In some parts of the world, bicycling has been banned on the premise that bicycle crashes are common enough to overwhelm the medical facilities.
In less than two weeks, we have gone from “normal” life with scheduled activities and travel plans to nearly virtual shutdown. All our activities have been canceled at least through May, libraries and dine-in eating establishments shuttered, schools closed, and travel ground to a halt. Early on, we canceled a planned vacation that was to have started on March 22, and the resorts have all shut down by now, anyway. We have no illusions that these drastic actions will stop the pandemic, The social isolation practices will merely slow it, so that when we do get sick, and we will, that the medical facilities will have the equipment necessary to keep the staff safe and provide adequate treatment to those mostly likely to survive.
Meanwhile, we will continue to maintain contact with our social circles and organizations by email, Facebook, and other electronic media. We will continue to ride our bicycle, on isolated country roads. We had a list of cycling events scheduled this summer in which we were thinking of participating. We’ve participated in those before, and put up with the crowds more than socializing, riding on our own rather than groups, so we may just take the route maps and ride the routes at some random time, and hope that too many others didn’t have the same idea. We have our van outfitted for camping. Unfortunately, we don’t have self-contained sanitary facilities, so will need to take precautions when using public facilities, if indeed the established campgrounds remain open through this crisis. Or, we could opt to revert to the bucket of wood shavings and peat moss we used at the Montana cabin as a litter box for people. Difficult problems require creative solutions.
It’s been over 100 years since the last major pandemic that touched the lives of most of the country. My grandfather, Grant Goplen, a young potato farmer in sparsely-populated northern Minnesota, died in the 1918 pandemic, but my grandmother, mother, and two uncles survived, their lives changed forever. My grandmother moved away, remarried, had another son and daughter, and lost her second husband to an infection that would be treatable today. She raised her five children alone during the Great Depression, running a boarding house for railway workers. Her children grew up: one son became a successful corporate businessman, two started their own construction company, and my aunt became a nurse and served during World War II. My mother, the middle child, became a housewife, marrying her oldest brother’s best friend, a young man from another single-parent family that survived the pandemic but fell apart on the eve of the Great Depression for much the same reasons families fall apart in good times and bad.
Life will go on. Some of us will die, but the rest will adapt, and many will prosper. The pandemic of 1918 spread throughout the world because of the new mobility of steamships and world war that put populations in motion with soldiers and refugees, and touched everywhere despite the relative isolation of small towns. The pandemic of 2020 has the potential to be much worse because of the mobility of automobiles, jet planes, the much higher population density, and the length of the invisible infectious period. And, with the pressure of climate change coupled with population density, new viruses evolve rapidly, so this is only the worst so far of multiple waves of pandemics that have come and will come.
Economies will crash, governments will falter, maps will change. Fortunes will be lost, fortunes will be gained. Famine, war, and anarchy will follow the worst. And, through it all, climate change will continue, even if the fossil fuel economy crashes. Forest fires will continue. Survivors will heat and cook with wood or coal, once again. Processes started will continue unabated with no means for mitigation: glaciers and permafrost will melt, raising sea levels and pumping even more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. One thing is certain: nature is forcing humanity to change in ways we were unwilling to do when we felt we were invincible masters of the universe.
It is now Tuesday, 24 March, 2020. We’ve been mostly in the house, with a few forays out to walk to the top of our hill and back. The produce market is still open, and I went to the grocery this morning during the assigned Senior Shopping Hour. It was a bit more crowded than I would have preferred, but edging around others and not getting face-to-face with anyone seemed to work. I wore an exam glove on one hand to push the cart, open freezer doors, and operate the self-service checkout screen. Since it was mostly other old people, I didn’t have any competition for the self-checkout. I’d used it last week, but this was the first time to use it with loose produce that had to be weighed or counted, and I figured out why kinds of motions made the robot happy: don’t put your reusable bags in the bagging area until after scanning the first item, etc.
Our grandsons from Olympia needed to be out of their house when their house cleaner came yesterday, and both parents still need to be away from home for work, so we got the grandparent duty. Fortunately, they can drive themselves now, so they just showed up for the afternoon, and left when it was time to go home. It seems like yesterday we had car seats and booster seats for when we had to pick them up. There’s no school for them, of course. The younger one (11) has some on-line learning, and likes to do paper and bead crafts with Granny when he’s here, but the high-schooler (the driver, 16) is on his own, spending a lot of time in Multi-User Online Gaming with his friends. Goodbyes were awkward with the “no-hugging” policy, but Granny couldn’t resist a no-skin hug. Does this reset our 14-day isolation?
This week is rainy, limiting our opportunity for outings. We’ve ordered a few things on-line for parcel delivery, but toilet paper is completely out of stock, despite quotas at the wholesale club. I’ve been baking bread, and we have a good supply of flour, but the store shelves are empty of flour. The two trips I’ve made to the grocery since the lockdown started have been direct, pick up what’s on the list, and check out, as quickly as possible, so I don’t know how the other supplies are holding up. Produce is plentiful, and we buy other items locally that we would normally get at the wholesale club, to avoid trips to the city.
In addition to ordering things online for which we would normally go to the store, we boxed, weighed, measured, and purchased and printed shipping labels for a set of journals Judy needed to send to a vendor in Tennessee, and dropped it on the counter in the post office, avoiding the six-foot spacing marks in the line and face-to-face time with the clerks. We’re doing what we can to reduce the number of bullets in the chamber in the Coronavirus Roulette game. Anecdotal evidence suggests that most of the infections spread through random close encounters. Minimizing those encounters is a strategy to slow the spread of the pandemic until the medical supplies can catch up with demand. Eventually, continued exposure, no matter how brief or infrequent, will put a viral bullet under the hammer.
The social obligations in this brave new world are sorting themselves out. Email has been a staple, but some of the organizations in which we are on the board or in small special-interest groups are talking about video conferencing, so we’ve installed Zoom on all our devices in preparation, and I’ve revived my dormant Skype account for one-on-one alternative to Apple Facetime, which we also haven’t used since Judy’s brother-in-law died last year. Yet another way life will change. But, we’re ready for that. We have the technology.