Covid Diary: A trip to the grocery store, a trip to the future

Like a lot of people these days, I only go to the grocery store about every week and a half.  It is really the only thing I have been doing in public since all of this began around mid-March.  It has been interesting to see the changes that have occurred between trips.  The last time I went to the store, in early April, things had dramatically changed.  I had to wait in a short line to get in (limiting the store to 30 customers), there were lines 6 feet apart at the check-out to keep people socially distanced, and there was a large plastic barrier that had been erected between myself and the person checking me out.  It was a bit shocking, although I assumed I would eventually get used to it.

I went again yesterday.  Everything I mentioned above was the same.  The store was the same.  However, the changes this time were all in the people.  Nearly everyone was wearing a face covering of some sort.  They were also acting very conscious of their distance from others.  I had worried going in that I would feel out of place with my ridiculous bandana-covered face, but I shouldn’t have worried about that at all.  In fact, I would have felt like a social pariah if I hadn’t been wearing a mask.

This scene will be with us for a while: masked people efficiently grabbing their greens, spaghetti, and milk while warily moving around the 6ft bubbles of others.  At the time, I thought of it as a bit of a glimpse into my future.  Although right now it is quite striking in its novelty, it will eventually become quite mundane.

Though this isn’t quite right.  This is the scene from the early pandemic: the slight nervousness, the varied rag-tag materials of the face-masks.  This is a scene from a society caught off-guard, one that is trying to do whatever it can with the crap it found in the closet.  It is the scene from the Summer of 2020, when people are just happy that they can go buy clothing again.  It’s also a society still living off of the materials of pre-pandemic culture; the advertisements might remind us that something is wrong but the sitcoms don’t.  That, of course, will change.  Eventually we will have to figure out how to live our lives in the presence of the virus.  This will leak into the products of our culture, much like the War did in the ’40s.  There will also be a part of the culture devoted to trying to forget about the virus.  Not every story can be about the war.

The scene from the middle of the pandemic will be a bit different.  Those sexy n95s will make their debut at Macy’s in the Fall of 2020 (if it’s still in business).  Everyone will have their favorite.  Many will have a closets full, one for every outfit!  After all, you have to have something to wear when you go out to that fancy restaurant.  You won’t really care anymore that the host now takes a temperature measurement of your forehead before leading you to your seat, or that the server is garbed in a mask and gloves.  You will start to settle into the environment and practices that at one time seemed dystopian.  It’s like the heat in Arizona — it never gets any better, but you stop talking about it after a while.

Covid Diary: Denial

I’ve been struck recently by how those who should know better seem to be in denial about our current situation.  I’m not talking about Trump.  He has become a non-entity at this point, like a child hopelessly wishing everything would just get better.  However many serious people seem to be talking about “starting up the economy” without any clear sense that the world we knew before has been lost to us.  Our way of living has been likely lost for years and we will likely never see the world we knew before. There is not likely to be a cure coming soon, or even a very successful treatment for that matter.  There might be a successful vaccine developed, but don’t expect widespread availability until the fall of 2021.  Of course, hundreds of thousands of Americans will die of this disease before then.  Most estimates of deaths from the disease provided by the administration only go up to the end of summer, but this will be with us for far longer.

We have lost our way of life, because we cannot accept an outcome in which millions of Americans die instead of thousands.  In fact, even if we chose the deaths we would still lose our way of life.  One does not simply go about one’s life while so many people die and the healthcare system collapses.  And so we choose to stay away from one another.  We internalize new norms that make the physical presence of strangers (or even our family and friends) mentally painful for us.  That changes us and our society.

I’ll give a somewhat trite example of this change, but one that I think is rather instructive.  Just down the street from my house there is a neighborhood bar, a jazz club, and a breakfast place.  They are all small — you might even say cramped.  I love these places, and they are the soul of the neighborhood.  But their profitability is incompatible with social distancing.  In fact most bars, restaurants, and entertainment venues around the country are not likely profitable in a wold of social distancing, even if we assume that people can once again go to these places.  There will almost certainly be new occupancy rules that require restaurants to cut seating at least in half.  Of course, fancy takeout will be more common but so far demand for this has not come near to replacing sit-down restaurants.  People aren’t willing to spend $50 per person on takeout, and they certainly will not buy alcohol as they do it (which is where many profits come from).

Any innovations to accommodate social distancing in restaurants does not address the basic incompatibility between bars and social distancing.  In bars people socialize with strangers; they have to get close.  In other words bars cannot succeed until Covid has been brought under control.  But this will take a long time.  Even antibody “certificates” would only allow a small portion of the population to go about their business, and only in places that have already been hit hard by the disease.  This means that we will probably lose all of these businesses, as their owners realize that they simply cannot make a living by owning a restaurant or bar.  This will also devastate the commercial real-estate market along with the service industry, and perpetuate the vicious cycle of recession.

That is just one example of how we will lose so much from our communities that make them worth living in.  I don’t think disaster is inevitable, but it will require dramatic changes in public expenditures and laws.  We will need widespread  randomized testing, even of people who are not showing symptoms.  It goes without saying that people who have flu-like symptoms should all be tested and tracked.  However, given how widespread the disease is this is probably not technically possible.  We have certainly shown no ability to do any large-scale well-organized testing.

Additionally, local governments must allow businesses to spread out.  Bars and restaurants should be allowed to spill out into the streets, so that they can maintain distance between patrons while also making a profit.  Open container laws should largely be eliminated.  There are numerous other examples of creative legislation that might help.  We must be willing to be flexible in abandoning some norms and ways of doing business in order to preserve those things that we value.

I don’t expect any of the solutions above to actually be implemented.  And even then they may not be effective.  Our situation is far worse than most of us imagine.