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Life in the time of coronavirus: Anxious Americans pivot to new routines

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 3/15/2020 Annie Gowen, Arelis Hernández, Marc Fisher
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A neighborhood in Austin, as the nation’s coronavirus case count ticks into the thousands: There’s an hour-long wait for a table at 9 p.m., parking’s a bear, and the sidewalks teem with cuddling couples and loud groups of young partyers.

A similar neighborhood in Northern Virginia: One of the toughest tables for miles around, Mama Chang, is nearly empty. In downtown Washington, many parking spaces are wide open on blocks drivers often circle in vain. At a nearby pharmacy counter, the chatty clerk, who usually spends the day exchanging horror stories about the president with his like-minded customers, says no one wants to talk — not politics, not sports, nothing.

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Life in the time of coronavirus in America has changed virtually overnight. Some people have withdrawn into their homes, separating themselves from contact with strangers. Others insist on proceeding as usual, but even they slam into constant reminders — canceled events, closed schools, shuttered offices, fearful friends — that there is no “as usual” right now. 

The new life — few are yet willing to call it a new normal — is working at home and becoming starved for contact with even the people you avoid at the office. It’s walking down the sidewalk and examining pedestrians to see whether they might cough in your direction. It’s streaming movies and news saturation, bored kids and calls to check on elderly parents. The dregs from the back of the pantry and a stiff drink at the end of another day of life, suspended.

It’s Kendall Brown, 33, a freelance writer and digital strategist in Norman, Okla., who has two chronic medical conditions, searching for the alcohol swabs she needs for her self-injections. They were out at the first store, out at the second. She finally found a bottle of alcohol at the fourth place she tried, the last on the shelf.

She’s terrified she won’t be able to get her prescriptions filled. She’s losing sleep — Googling where her intravenous medication was manufactured, after President Trump’s initial suggestion, later corrected, that the flow of goods from Europe might be disrupted. And she’s anxious that her two roommates — one works at a call center, the other at a soda company — might bring the virus home from work.

“I’ve been doing a lot of disinfecting doorknobs and stuff, and that feels a little crazy and overly paranoid,” Brown said. “But it’s scary to not know how bad this is going to get and how well our system is going to be able to handle it.”

The new life is startlingly different in some places, yet oddly unchanged in others.

In New Rochelle, N.Y., Steven Jones picked up a bag of canned goods from National Guardsmen who are distributing food in the one-mile “containment zone” around a synagogue where a cluster of infections was found.

“I have underlying conditions, and because of the virus, I just don’t want to go into any of the supermarkets,” said Jones, 53, who has asthma and pulmonary diseases.

a city street filled with traffic at night: Sixth Street, a popular entertainment district in Austin, has stayed open — and lively — despite event cancellations and national concern about the coronavirus outbreak.

Sixth Street, a popular entertainment district in Austin, has stayed open — and lively — despite event cancellations and national concern about the coronavirus outbreak.
© Tamir Kalifa/for The Washington Post

But in Lecompton, Kan., population 625, even as four coronavirus infections — now six — were reported in the state, Jerry Heinen, a mechanical contractor, figured it was all much ado about not-so-big-a-deal.

“I look at it right now that everybody’s over-worried about it,” said Heinen, 63. “In two weeks, it will come down and be more like normal.”

Heinen’s co-worker on a boiler replacement project, Dave Kaibel, 44, had a serious talk with his wife the previous evening about how to protect his 4-year-old daughter, who has an autoimmune disease. They’re avoiding large crowds and practicing good hand-washing hygiene.

“I don’t know how far you have to take it,” Kaibel said. “I’m out and about! Still shaking hands! I’m a salesman!”

“I’d be offended if you didn’t,” Heinen said.

Coronavirus America is a constant hum of free-floating anxiety, of late-night worries about how life will ever wind back toward what it was just a few days ago. It’s a public health physician — no name, please, because the boss hasn’t authorized talking to a reporter — saying that people are being cooperative right now but worrying that “after two weeks, kids will be really anxious to see their friends, and people will say, ‘Hey, I’m okay and my neighbors are okay, let’s get back outside!’ ”

In some places, they never retreated inside at all.

At what turned out to be the last spring training game of the season in West Palm Beach, Fla., a sellout crowd eager to see the New York Yankees play the Washington Nationals packed concourses and parking lots Thursday, just before the league put baseball on ice indefinitely. (Few fans wanted to be quoted by name about their decision to attend the game because people in their lives thought they were fools to put themselves in a large crowd.)

An hour to the south, along the beach in Fort Lauderdale, it was abundantly clear that if there’s anything spring break is not about, it’s social distancing.

“That’s the opposite of what people want to do,” said Geoff Beere, 21, a student at the University of Miami. “You’re making new friends, you’re getting together with a lot of people on the beach or in the club. That’s kind of the point of spring break.” 

The activities were traditional: tanning, drinking, dancing, sleeping in late. Elbow bumps and hand-washing were not high on the list. Revelers said they packed sunscreen, not sanitizer. Beere and his friends from Pennsylvania and New Jersey said their phones were blowing up with dire notifications about the pandemic.

“My mom was like, ‘Why are you traveling in the middle of this?’ ” said Chris Letch of New Jersey. “We already paid for this; we’ve been looking forward to it.”

People climbed on each other’s shoulders for photos with the ocean in the background. They sprawled on the beach mere inches apart.

“Oh my God, if we could stay here for another two weeks, that would be so great,” said Clayton Sheehan, 21, a student at the University of St. Francis in Fort Wayne, Ind. He never considered canceling spring break, and he is not altering his behavior.

“I’m saying hi to people, you know, slapping their hands, or giving a hug if it’s a girl I know,” Sheehan said. “We came down here to de-stress and have a good time. We’re not going to start stressing about something else.”

The eagerness to party on can be so powerful that people turn against those who urge caution. In Austin on Wednesday night, hundreds gathered for the Austin Music Awards even after the city’s music, tech and film festival, South by Southwest, was canceled.

 

Gallery by photo services

When Mayor Steve Adler took the stage and tried to explain the decision, a mix of cheers and heckles reverberated across the theater.

“Sit down!” yelled one woman. “This is not good.”

Guests jammed together in the pit. Musician Jackie Venson came onstage wearing a hazmat suit with gas mask in hand.

Band after band encouraged fans not to be overtaken by fear, but there was no danger of that happening: The bar was packed. The audience jumped and danced. Over the course of an hour, in a crowd of about 100 people, just three used a sanitizer pump the theater provided.

The increasingly urgent warnings from health officials and most politicians did start to press on those across the country who are determined to have a good time. In Manhattan, just before showtime Thursday evening, Lucy DiCostanzo, a 58-year-old textile agent, was the only person at the iconic TKTS discount theater booth near Times Square. She raced up to the window just before what would have been an 8 p.m. curtain for “Moulin Rouge” looking for a discounted last-minute ticket.

But the theaters had just been shuttered. To DiCostanzo, who lives on the Upper West Side, it seemed illogical. Sure, it’s a serious situation, but close the theaters? What about the packed subways just underfoot?

“If the subways are open, germs are being spread,” she said. “It doesn’t make sense. I’m afraid, of course. I know it’s going to spread.”

But she had little interest in changing her ways. “I’ve never used Purell in my life,” she said. “I have not had a cold or flu in years.” Though there was an upside: “I’ve never had a better excuse not to go to the gym!”

In many places, however, concern, fear and anxiety out-dueled bravado and denial, and life has quickly been restructured to include telework and tele-town meetings, “virtual events” rather than political rallies. There is a sudden vacuum in the worlds of sports, live entertainment and dating — the very diversions that many look forward to when the office is closed and the news is unnerving.

“I heard on the news that it’s nine times worse than the regular flu,” Laurinda Carty, a 76-year-old MSNBC devotee, said as she waited in a Walmart parking lot in the Northern California city of Santa Clara, one of the first places in the country to be hit by a coronavirus outbreak.

Santa Clara County — home to the tech titans of Silicon Valley as well as nearly 2 million residents — had 66 confirmed covid-19 cases as of Friday, and Carty was determined not to become the 67th.

The retired clerk had stocked up on the essentials she would need if forced to stay inside for an extended period. And she has rigorously enforced a new policy: Anyone entering her home must immediately proceed to the bathroom to wash their hands.

But there was still so much worry. Would her son be okay? He has high blood pressure. She regularly babysits her granddaughter. Was that risky now? The 6-year-old’s father had recently been to a conference with attendees from China and Japan.

“Maybe seeing her is not a good idea until we know more,” Carty fretted.

And then there was the fear of isolation. Would she really have to stay home for days, weeks, months?

“I still have to go out. I’m just one of those people,” she said. “But we also have to be careful.”

Same parking lot, different news source: John Putzig, who gets his information from the local Fox affiliate, has concluded the coronavirus might not be such a big deal.

As others loaded shopping carts to the brim in prepper style, Putzig turned up at Walmart to buy just two or three things. He figured he could come back anytime for more.

“I’m surprised people are reacting this way,” said Putzig, 61, a chief financial officer at a small firm. “I mean, it’s not the plague.”

Putzig’s boss had encouraged everyone at the company to work from home. Most are doing just that. Not Putzig.

“I just like working there,” he said. “I’m more efficient. As long as I don’t get it, I’m not worried. And even if I get it, it’s not that big a deal.” 

Some people who had resolved to live life as usual have moved to a state of deep uncertainty in the past few days.

A week ago, Jackie Betters was in San Antonio to celebrate her grandson’s graduation from Air Force training at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, where evacuees from China’s Wuhan province and virus-ridden cruise ships had been kept in quarantine.

Betters, 77, didn’t worry about her proximity to the virus then: “At my age, who cares?” she said, even though she remains determined to “make it to 100 years old to make everyone miserable.”

But by Friday, when she was back home in Clifton Park, N.Y., near Albany, she wasn’t so sure about how to handle the new life.

“If I get it, will I be okay?” she wondered. “Some people say they’re making it bigger than it is.”

It was almost too much to think about. She ended up shrugging and carrying forth: “I’m not around that many people,” she said. “When I go to the grocery store, I ride on a cart and go really fast. I’m not gonna stop my life.”

Neither is Ruth Barrett, 71, who emerged from a Fry’s grocery store in Sun City, Ariz., with two containers of Clorox disinfecting wipes and other cleaning supplies.

“These aren’t for me,” she insisted. She had been picking up groceries when she came across the wipes and grabbed them, surprised to see such an elusive item on the shelves. “My granddaughter has babies, and she wipes all of their stuff down. But she hasn’t been able to find any for weeks.”

In Sun City, a large retirement community near Phoenix, dozens of older shoppers loaded up with packs of toilet paper, bottled water and jugs of bleach.

Barrett wasn’t taking any precautions. “What are you going to do?” she said. “If you get it, you get it. You just have to deal with it.”

Her chief worry was that everything would shut down. Schools were already closed — as were the recreation centers and the arts festival — even though Sun City hadn’t yet reported a single confirmed case of the disease. In two weeks, Barrett planned to attend a wedding at one of the rec centers. “I’m keeping my fingers crossed, but who knows?” she said.

Across the country, Ann Strong settled into a window seat on her American Airlines flight from Philadelphia to Bangor, Maine. She took out her arsenal — Purell and witch hazel wipes — “all we could get at CVS” — and started cleaning her tray table and armrest.

At that moment Thursday, no one in Maine had tested positive for the virus.

Strong, 59, had thought hard about flying to supervise work on her rental property. A corporate lawyer, she has been taking social distancing seriously. She stocked up on protein items in her pantry. And she checked with her employer and knew she might have to self-quarantine when she returns home.

But she wanted to carry on — and she was far from alone. Her flight was full, as usual. Some passengers coughed. A few wore masks.

And as the flight from Philadelphia landed in Bangor, so did news that Maine had its first coronavirus case.

annie.gowen@washpost.com

arelis.hernandez@washpost.com

marc.fisher@washpost.com

Gowen reported from Lecompton, Kan., and Hernández reported from San Antonio. Holly Bailey in Sun City, Ariz.; Tim Craig in New Rochelle, N.Y.; Jesse Dougherty in West Palm Beach, Fla.; Shayna Jacobs in New York; Lori Rozsa in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Frances Stead Sellers in Maine; and Griff Witte in Santa Clara, Calif., contributed to this report.

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