The Pandemic Diary February 10-March 18

Like everyone else I am having trouble thinking about anything other than the coronavirus pandemic and the shockwaves it has sent, and will continue to send, though the system. As it began to unfold I found myself thinking, talking, and posting about it fairly constantly. In an effort to try to keep it confined to a given time and place, both physically and psychologically, I began to keep a diary about all of this about a month ago. Because I tend to do better — and write more consistently — when I share my feelings with others than when I keep them to myself, I’ve decided to move it public. I cleaned up the typing and added a bit of necessary context to the earlier entries, but this all reflects what I was feeling about it in real time.  

Follow this Category for all entires. What follows are the first several entries, from between February 10 through March 18

 

February 10: I’ve been following the coronavirus news from China like most of us follow most news from China. With some interest because China is so big that what happens there has some impact on what happens here, but not in the same way we’d follow domestic news. It’s a small world — and we’d all like to pretend we’re savvy and worldly — but China is a million miles away for most of us. It doesn’t feel particularly real. Maybe saying that out loud makes me sound dumb, but it’s what I feel and I suspect it’s what even a lot of smart and worldly people feel.

Today a friend forwarded a message he received from a mutual friend:

The guy who sent that was someone I’ve known since college — I introduced him and the friend who forwarded it to me — but I broke off contact with him a few years ago. The biggest reason: he had, over the years, become a conspiracy theorist. Paranoid to the point of absurdity. He began trafficking in some of the worst sorts of things you can imagine. Alex Jones-spread lies about the Sandy Hook massacre being faked. Pizzagate. You name it. He doesn’t live near me and I hadn’t seen him in person for many years, but I decided I couldn’t continue to interact with someone that toxic, even if they had, at one time, been a very close friend, and that was that.

At the same time, he is — while not being at all connected with the business or financial world — an extremely savvy investor, at least when it comes to tectonic economic shifts. He did, as suggested above, predict the 2008 market crash well in advance. He shorted the market then and made a lot of money. Sometimes I wonder if he made enough to do what, in hindsight, he seemed like he always wanted to do and completely isolate himself from the world. I wonder if a lack of need for him to interact with society exacerbated his paranoid and conspiratorial tendencies and had totally pushed him over the edge.

Mostly, though, I worry that he is not altogether wrong now. At least about the effects all of this will have.

 

February 28: Coronavirus fears have caused the Japanese baseball league to hold all of its remaining spring training games in empty ballparks. The Korean league went even further, cancelling spring training. This is feeling much more real to me now. Epidemics in internal China feel millions of miles away. Baseball in Japan feels like something just next door, at least to me.

 

March 3: Carleen [my ex-wife] texted to tell me that Costco is out of toilet paper. That seems odd to me. No one has talked about shortages or stockpiling or runs on the store. Earlier in the day I had been at the grocery store and every shelf was full, paper goods included. Carleen ordered some from Amazon.

The kids are pretty aware of the coming epidemic. They’re 14 and 16 and they’re pretty mature even for kids that age, so we’re well past the point of trying to hide bad news or break it to them easily. They know most things as soon as we do if not sooner. As with most things, they are taking this news in apparent stride. While taking Anna home from her piano lesson tonight we joked about how it’s a good thing we’re too broke to travel for spring break, keeping us off of planes and out of airports where we might get infected. Anna makes some darker jokes about how all the rich kids who go to her school will jet off with their families to the Caribbean or someplace and bring it back to us.

 

March 7: Carleen told me her Amazon TP arrived. I made my usual trip to Costco. Despite stories in the news about people stocking up on cleaners and disinfectants, Costco had both in stock. They were rationing, however, limit 1 pack per customer. Everything else was in stock. All of this, for the moment, seems temporary. It seems like the fever will break, at least on the level of everyday life being disrupted, even if the news of the overall epidemic seems dire. At least I’m hoping so.

Nationally speaking, people are openly talking about the degree to which this will impact the United States and the measures that need to be taken. It’s now a pretty serious public health matter and everyone wants to take a lot of time to tell us all how to wash our hands. My first impulse is to laugh — who doesn’t know how to wash their hands? — but then I remember that there all sorts of smart things we, as a society, know how to do but simply don’t because we don’t want to or we don’t give a shit.

Our government, of course, does not seem to care at all. A report in The Atlantic reveals that we are totally botching the response to coronavirus. Far fewer people are being tested than the government claims and even the numbers the government claims are far fewer than would be necessary for anyone to say that the country is effectively responding to the epidemic. We have no idea how bad things actually are. We cannot treat sick people if we do not know what they are sick with. We cannot fight an epidemic without information about the rate and extent of its spread. Trump seems far more interested in addressing the economic fallout, but even then, only in a very narrow way, as it relates to Wall Street. It’s not surprising even if it’s distressing and depressing. Money always gets served first.

 

March 10: The Japanese and Korean leagues have each postponed the start of their seasons. Major League Baseball’s response is to close the clubhouses to reporters. It seems like a pretty pointless, symbolic move given that there are still scores of people in and out of those clubhouses. I don’t think MLB is opportunistically barring the media or anything, but I do suspect that it’s a move that, once all this blows over, risks becoming permanent. Power does not care for scrutiny. Beyond all of that, it doesn’t seem like baseball players are taking it very seriously. Bryce Harper was quoted today saying, “I don’t worry about a disease or a virus. I live my life. I’m doing everything the same. I’m shaking people’s hands, I’m high-fiving. I’m healthy. I’m 27.”

 

March 11: This day will be remembered. “Pandemic Wednesday,” perhaps.

I was at the bowling alley for league night tonight and, as usual, half of the monitors are tuned to ESPN. Usually there’s a basketball game on but it’s all news. There’s no sound so it takes me a while to figure out what’s happening, but I eventually gather that Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert has tested positive for coronavirus. The game was cancelled. They’re talking about quarantines and suspending the season.

When I got home the news had broken that Tom Hanks and his wife were diagnosed with coronavirus.

In the space of a few hours news of coronavirus has pushed election coverage — which has dominated everything for almost a year — below the fold and is now leading sports and entertainment news and programming as well. I think this all just got real for a lot of people who hadn’t been paying close attention. It feels like we’re in a disaster movie and tonight was the montage when people besides the lead characters — a kid and a plucky scientist? Steve McQueen? — all realize what’s happening and all hell begins to break loose.

 

March 12: I had to do my normal grocery shopping this morning. Kroger wasn’t crowded at 10am and the shelves were fully stocked. I got everything on my list and, while I didn’t really stockpile, I did buy a few more things than usual. I have the kids this weekend and through next Wednesday and, rather than have meals planned through Saturday and then make another trip on Sunday like I usually do, I got stuff I needed to last all the way through Wednesday. Something in the back of my mind just told me that things were about to go sideways after last night.

They soon did. After a couple of days of delays, Major League Baseball announced that spring training is stopping immediately and the beginning of the season will be postponed by at least two weeks. This afternoon Governor DeWine announced that schools will be closing at least for the next three weeks, effective Monday.

I had to go back to the grocery store at around 4pm to pick up a prescription. It was a madhouse. The parking lot was packed. The aisles were packed. The lines were long. People’s carts were overflowing. The toilet paper aisle was completely empty. The country completely snapped in the space of 24 hours.

 

March 13: Allison woke up with a mild fever this morning. Very mild. She was feeling mostly fine again by this afternoon. Her doctor said it was almost certainly nothing. Still, everything feels different now. My general disposition is to approach things logically. To remain pretty calm. I’m usually the guy helping other people keep their heads when shit goes down. I’m still trying to do that but it’s harder.

 

March 14: No fever. False alarm.

 

March 15: The last couple of days have felt mostly normal. There is increasing talk of mass shutdowns of businesses and schools, at least in places where that hasn’t already happened. My kids both have jobs — my son works at a pizza place and my daughter works at her music school — and they’re both still working as normal. Last night we met friends for dinner and drinks, just the four of us. We ate at a restaurant and then went to their house for the drinks. There’s increasing pressure to not do that it, but felt OK at the time given that we didn’t go to a crowded place — and given that the restaurant is an independent place we’re worried won’t survive disruption — but as soon as we woke up this morning we felt like we really should not have done that. We decide that we won’t be doing that again.

“Social distancing” is the phrase of the moment. I wrote a little bit about what that all may mean in the long term today. I don’t know if that’s going to look prescient or hopelessly naive a few months from now. I really have no idea what’s going to happen.

 

March 16: Allison works at a small accounting office where it’s impossible for more than even ten or 12 people to gather together, but they are doing what most other places are doing and shutting the doors. Business will keep going — it’s tax season — but everyone will do it remotely. She’s the receptionist. She has set up shop at my desk — which, frankly, I never use — and has the phone system routed through her cell phone and her laptop in ways I don’t really understand, but it seems to work. There is a good deal of hassle about how to deal with the office mail and deliveries — people send in their tax documents to the office in hard copy pretty often — but we live close enough to her office where it’s not hard for her to pop over if she needs to get something.

I’ve worked at home for over ten years and I rarely give it a thought, but as vast swaths of the nation begin to do the same, I realize that it’s not necessarily easy for most people. It’s a big adjustment on a personal level. Routines are hard to manage. It’s easy to lose a lot of time and lose structure to your work day if you’re not used to it. I tell as many people as I can that the biggest thing is to just never turn on the TV and everything flows from there, but people have to figure it out for themselves. Besides, the people now working from home aren’t the ones who are the worst off anyway. A lot of jobs can’t be done from home. Those people, if their places of work close, are simply going to be out of a job. I’m extraordinarily worried about them. I’m extraordinarily worried about everyone. A hard recession — or worse — seems inevitable.

I’ve lived through a couple of recessions by now and I’m old enough to know that, however painful they are, we will get through them. I’m far more worried, though, about what lies ahead of us now, in the short and long term, because the nation is being led by a dangerous ignoramus who is not only proud of his ignorance but has staked his entire personal and political identity on it. He said this today, when asked about the nation’s pandemic response:

“It’s going to pop. One day, we’ll be standing, possibly, up here, we’ll say, ‘Well, we won.’ And we’re gonna say that. Sure as you’re sitting there, we’re going to say that. And we’re going to win. And I think we’re gonna win faster than people think. I hope.”

There’s nothing more telling in all of that than the “I hope” at the end. When you don’t have a plan, hope is what you have. Trump is going to get thousands of people killed and, when the secondary effects start to hit in earnest, his only priority will be help large corporations and the rich. 

They’re in court fighting tonight about postponing tomorrow’s primary election here in Ohio. If you had asked me a week ago I’d have said that was insane and that that’s the last thing they should ever do. My mind has changed about that.

Poll workers are overwhelmingly older people. Voter turnout skews sharply in favor of people 50 and over. By holding the election tomorrow we’d be asking people to either stay home and be disenfranchised or go to the polls and risk their death. That seems unacceptable to me, and I’m glad that our governor believes that too.

I dislike our governor a great deal. He’s been in some office or another — lieutenant governor, U.S. senator, attorney general — ever since I first moved to Ohio nearly 30 years ago and I have never voted for him. Indeed, I oppose almost everything he stands for. He has been admirably proactive in all of this, however, and has given me and a lot of other people confidence. I feel like he’s making decisions that are right, not decisions that are politically expedient. He’s been giving addresses every day and is excellent at telling people, in very simple, very clear terms, what the government is doing and why. What people should be doing and should not be doing and why. He’s not just providing information, either. He’s providing a calming influence, I think. What he’s doing is much needed given the vacuum of power and responsibility exhibited by our president.

All of this, and the possibility of a postponed election, makes me think about leadership in past crisis and about how in such times we need strong centralized power. The need for that goes against all of my usual political instincts and is, frankly, frightening. But I think about how the nation probably doesn’t survive the Civil War without Lincoln and probably doesn’t survive the Great Depression without Roosevelt. I think about the power they exercised —  and the lines they sometimes crossed — and imagine how scary that must’ve seemed to people at the time. They did not have the hindsight of history we have to realize that those both responsible and competent men who, for the most part, they were correct to trust with such power. And trust to relinquish it when the crisis had passed.

Now we have a dangerous, incompetent, wannabe autocrat in charge whose only reliable impulse is to abuse power. To take a mile when given an inch. I dread giving him that inch. I’ve never felt this hopeless in our leaders. I’ve never felt this hopeless for our country.

 

March 17: Last night Anna and I talked about people hoarding groceries and supplies. We joke — again, with our shared, very dark sense of humor — about how we might have to go looting in the rich country club neighborhoods nearby if things get dire. I say that we might have a problem as I don’t own a gun. Anna says that’s fine. “Have you ever seen those movies where people break into a rich person’s house and tie them up in chairs in the living room, back-to-back, with duct tape on their mouths?,” she said. ”  bet it’d be pretty easy to do that to rich people in New Albany.” We have to keep a sense of humor. How much of it is self defense? How dark is too dark?

There are limits to it for me. I have friends posting things on Twitter and Facebook. about watching movies about pandemics, reading books about pandemics, and consuming other apocalyptic pop culture and media and I just don’t know how they’re doing it. I think I lost the ability to lean in to stuff like that a few years ago. I don’t need to go all the way in the opposite direction — I don’t plan to do a Mel Brooks marathon or anything that directly compensates for the anxiety — but I just don’t want to see society breaking down when society is breaking down in real life.

Is it because I’m a parent? Maybe, maybe not. I know it’s not every parent — some of my pandemic movie-watching friends have kids — but I really lost my tolerance for horror and dread in fiction when I had kids. I began to worry about so many things I never worried about before. The National did a song about that feeling parents get and I find myself singing it today.

The kids, though, still seem OK. The biggest change I noticed came when the governor suggested that the possibility that school will not resume at all this year. When it was just a two week + spring break closure, they both loved the idea of an extended vacation. They both immediately said that they would not like to be done with school until August. I asked them about it and they couldn’t precisely articulate why, but it was tied up in it simply being strange and socially isolating. There are only so many punches one can roll with while doing what Gen-Z is so good at doing and acting like it doesn’t faze them. At some point that “nothing bothers us” mask has to drop, and I feel like it’s dropping now.

With carryout and delivery restaurants being the only game in town, my son’s pizza place is still open. His mother and I asked him if he felt comfortable going in and he said he wanted to. He didn’t put it in these terms, but I think that, in addition to giving him something to do outside of the house, he wants to feel useful. I’m afraid of everything lately, but I think I’m OK with him still going there. A pizza isn’t much usually, but it might mean a lot for people now if, for no other reason, than it might help them to feel that things are normal.

 

March 18: I went to the grocery store last night. We are still in OK shape, but we needed a few things and, frankly, I wanted to see whether it was as bad as people had been saying. It was strange but, for the most part, things were better than I had assumed.

Most meat, apart from veal and frozen fish, was gone. There was obviously no toilet paper, which I still don’t understand but which I now realize is just a thing we have to deal with. Rice was gone, but a lot of other things people had said were hard to find — dried pasta and sauce, frozen meals — were generally around. There were slimmer pickings on a given brand you might prefer and on varieties of items, but there was a decent amount of fresh produce — some clearly stocked that afternoon — orange juice and things like that. Maybe our situation is unusual? Some have described more dire scenes and have shared photos of empty shelves. Maybe those were just the paper goods shelves. I wish they wouldn’t do that. I suspect it’s causing people to panic buy other things and exacerbate the situation.

More striking than the shelves were the people. It wasn’t particularly crowded for 6pm-6:30 on a Tuesday, but the people inside were all sort of dazed. Some surprised that some things they were looking for were on the shelf, others surprised that some things weren’t. Everyone was shopping differently than usual. No one was stockpiling anything from what I could tell. I think — I hope — that passed after the Thursday-Sunday shock people were undergoing. Maybe that shock happens again if we go on full lockdown, as many suspect we will soon.

There were more older people in the store than I had hoped to see. As we all now know, older people are the ones, for the most part, we are trying to protect from contracting the virus, so they shouldn’t be out if they can’t help it. Not everyone has someone to take care of them or to look in on them. We all have to eat. It just sort of brings home how rough this all is for some people and how hard some of the choices are.

I normally ignore it but I took notice of the specials/announcements/commercials they play over the PA system. “Hey shoppers, today try our special on ___” It was jarring because it sounded like a voice from a normal time and things don’t feel very normal now.

I had put some wine in my cart —  there is still plenty of booze everywhere — and went to the self-checkout. An attendant came over to do the ID check. As usual, he didn’t check the middle aged bald guy’s ID. As usual I make a joke about that. He laughed and said “we’re not selling to kids or anything, but we’ve really got more to do than to check IDs right now.”

As I waked my cart to my car, the voice in my head kept screaming, as it has so often over the past couple of weeks, “Keep your head about you. We all must keep our heads.”

 

March 19: I’ve been in a weird, dumb fight with my dad since early December. I cannot stress how weird and dumb it is, but just know that it means we have not spoken to each other for a long time. It’s not the first time this has happened and, after all of these years, I’m something of a pro at dealing with it. Again: cannot stress how dumb it all is.

I am talking to my mom, still. Both she and he are over 70 and both she and he have compromised immune and/or respiratory systems. This pandemic is basically tailor-made to get them. Thankfully, however, they’re pretty prepared and pretty savvy.

My mom quit her job — she was a part time cashier at Home Depot — several weeks ago to stop interacting with the public. They have always been the sorts to stockpile things, so their very large garage freezer and very large pantry was full well before other people started freaking out. They are physically self-sufficient, mentally competent and live together with a cat in their manageably-sized house and have no need to venture out. Apart from me catching my mom making one quick trip to the store last week — and reading her the riot act about it — they’ve behaved like they should be behaving in a pandemic designed to kill them. I’m more worried about them getting on each other’s nerves than I am worried of them getting sick, frankly.

I ran to the store again yesterday — just to pick up a prescription, not to shop for food — when my phone rang. It was my mom. My dad had cooked a couple slabs of ribs and wanted us to have some. My first impulse, given that we’re pretty well stocked, was to say no, but I stopped myself in mid-“thanks but no thanks” and accepted. The kids love his ribs and it was a nice treat for them for dinner last night. it was also a nice gesture. I don’t know if it was intended to be a gesture, but it was a nice one regardless.

Since I was at the store I asked if she needed anything. At first she said no, but then I heard my dad in the background mention ground beef. Unlike Giant Eagle on Tuesday night, Kroger had a decent amount of meat, limit three packs of fresh stuff. I got them a three-pound pack of ground beef — that freezer will come in handy — which will keep them in sloppy joe’s or cabbage rolls or whatever the hell it is they cook with ground beef.

We devised a method of handing it off that avoided contact. She would drive over — they really do need a means of getting off of each other’s nerves for a few minutes — and call me en route. I’d leave the ground beef on the chair on the front porch, she’d show up, leave the ribs on the porch, and leave. Presto: social distancing with my mother.

When she pulled up I opened a window and yelled at her: “Thanks a lot, Typhoid Mary! Now get the hell out of here before I start shooting!”

She laughed. And left a bigger bag than she’d need just to bring a slab of ribs over. When she left I went out and got it. Inside, in addition to the ribs, were a box of latex gloves, which my dad also stockpiles for some reason, and a six-pack of toilet paper, taken from one of the big Costco 30-packs they usually buy.

We’re still pretty good on TP for now, but our burn rate, so to speak, is a lot greater than theirs. Either way, it was very nice of them. In these times it’s akin to leaving bricks of gold on someone’s doorstep.

Craig Calcaterra

Craig is the national baseball writer for NBCSports.com. He writes about things other than sports at Craigcalcaterra.com. He lives in New Albany, Ohio with his wife, two kids, and many cats.