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.