THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
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Thousands dead in hot-spot cities, funerals with only 10 mourners allowed, “Zoom” virtual birthday parties and a Malayan tiger at the Bronx Zoo testing positive for COVID-19…the essence of life disrupted since the appearance of the coronavirus in the U.S.
How are Americans coping? Mostly, with humor (have you seen some of the memes?) and increasingly, with a new sense of seriousness, as the appearance of face masks and gloves at supermarkets – initially scoffed at by many – are now as common as the reusable shopping bag (now a highly discouraged germ carrier).
For me, a PR consultant living in Austin, TX, I’m exponentially better off than the thousands who have lost their jobs, suffered with the disease or who have lost a loved one. For them, COVID-19 has been devastating. And if you live in New York or another hard-hit region, the death rate has been truly frightening. But one thing we all do have in common is that we are experiencing a seismic shift in how we do business, experience everyday life and interact with others. Here are just a few observations.
COVID ‘shaming’ is a new pastime for many
You golfed today? You biked on the trails? You went to the grocery store without a mask and gloves? Tsk tsk, what were you thinking? And then there’s this: COVID ain’t gonna get me! What’s everyone making such a fuss about? Family members chide each other, friends make judgments and neighbors peek from windows wondering just where the hell she thinks she’s going. And for those brave (or silly) enough to post a social gathering on Facebook well…you will get what you deserve. Then there are those who get in their cars to escape hot-spot states and drive to others. For “out-of-stater” license plates showing New York, New Jersey, Louisiana and whatever is the next hard-hit state, the shaming is real. And surprisingly, many of us have discovered that our Millennial generation can be quite ‘scoldy,’ especially to us Baby Boomers (who really didn’t get it at first), and the GenZers who partied hard on Spring Break. When this social distancing is over, there will be some who have discovered things about their friends and loved ones that they are not particularly happy about. Most of us are just trying to use our best judgment, as we absorb an onslaught of government advice, social media rumors and personal anecdotes. “Stay home,” if you are able, seems to be the best advice of all.
When you have just one friend
Some of us are lucky to have another person with whom we can “shelter-in-place.” This could be a significant other, young or adult child, or a friend, someone you know is largely cooperating with all the advice on reducing the spread of the virus. I, for one, have a boyfriend who is adhering to recommended restrictions and we go back and forth between our homes. But this is a fragile situation for others, with family members admonishing each other for endangering the whole household with their actions – kind of like a human daisy chain. Like the wife all masked and gloved-up at the grocery store, only to look over at her husband, who’s busily toying with his phone and bare-handedly pawing the cucumbers. Due to a variety of circumstances, they are many others who are sheltering at home alone. My widowed 82-year-old mother is one of them. Fortunately, her neighbors and we family are staying in close touch and supplying her with groceries and “virtual” company. But there are thousands of others who are sadly very much alone.
Some of us are necessary. Some of us are not
The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), a department of Homeland Security, has designated those who are considered part of the “Critical Infrastructure Workforce.” Among the sectors are those working in communications, manufacturing, defense, energy, emergency services, financial services, government facilities, food and agriculture, information technology, nuclear reactors, transportation, water and wastewater, and, of course, healthcare. These workers are given letters by their employers as they bravely continue to keep running the parts of our nation that we rely upon, especially as we shelter in place binge-watching the latest series. No mention of PR professionals, but for those brands, celebrities or Instagram influencers who appear “tone-deaf” to the situation, there is a surprising need for us.
Going outside is our new distraction
If you’re lucky enough to live in a suburb or rural area of America, there’s plenty of room to spread out and have a good walk with our “shelter-in-place” loved ones. Never before have I seen so many families biking, rollerblading and strolling together – at all times of the day. It’s refreshing to know that we are not only enjoying nature, but also each other, with perhaps a new and more profound appreciation. For those living in highly populated cities (my 27-year-old daughter is holed up in a small apartment in Queens), it’s not so easy. Staying six feet apart on the pavements of New York is a tricky venture. Even in a city the size of Austin (with a population of nearly one million), there are many “shaming” complaints about city hipsters bumping elbows as they run the city’s downtown boardwalks and parks. And now, many golf courses, parks and trails are closing because people are unable to “police” themselves when recreating in public. Juxtapose this, however, against the thousands who are pulling up to fast-food outlets and encountering food workers who have not been provided with masks or other protective gear during the transaction, which is more like six inches, rather than six feet, of separation.
American industry is highly adaptable
The vaunted Texas grocery chain HEB, Home Depot, Lowe’s, Costco, Sam’s Club, Walgreens, CVS, Amazon and Target are just some of the retail giants that have accommodated the ever-updating local, state and federal mitigation measures. From installing floor stickers marking six-foot separations to constantly wiping down shopping carts to limiting the number of people allowed inside to curb-side deliveries to extending in-store returns, each is adapting to the virus to protect the public. One of their best moves yet, however, has been notifying TP, water bottle and hand sanitizer hoarders that they would NOT honor returns on these items. Hoarders are the most reviled among us – at least until you need to borrow some TP – best done over the back fence and in the dark of night.
A quiet hush over the land
In grocery and home improvement stores, on the streets and anywhere else Americans are still allowed to enter, there is a quietude that – let’s be honest – we are not known for. As we hunt for a gallon of milk, a six-pack of beer or a fresh tranche of vegetables, we are trying hard not to make eye contact, stand as far apart as possible and for God sakes don’t even think about a sneeze, cough or sniffle. This quiet time goes against our boisterous nature. Although many in the world might hope this is a permanent change, for Americans, it’s a bit eerie to be this quiet.
Some of us just don’t get technology
For personal and business purposes, we are all now interacting via video. From Zoom to Webex to FaceTime to Microsoft Teams, it’s become highly amusing to spot the vagaries of technology. I’ve seen the insides of peoples’ ears, some pretty risqué books on peoples‘ shelves and some questionable personal behavior (and for the umpteenth time – please MUTE yourself!) but we’ve all had to embrace the online meeting with our colleagues and loved ones. Americans are playing games together on Houseparty, rediscovering Words with Friends and enjoying virtual happy hours, as we do our best to stay connected. We will all be techno pros by the end of this. Or maybe not...
The honey dos are gettin’ done
Now that we are all spending so much time in “the money pit,” we feel an immediate need to get those nagging home projects done and dusted. With home improvement stores and some home service businesses deemed critical, it is possible to build a new fence, put in new flooring and plant your spring petunias. Neighbors you’ve never seen before walk by and compliment your newest project, poking at their significant other to get their own projects done, and everywhere you see service trucks on the road to house calls. Never before have we felt so called to satisfy the home improvement bug. By the way, for those who do visit Home Depot (with masks and gloves, of course), you’re asked to get in and get out. Browsing is not encouraged.
Vanity will have to wait
Hair salons, nail salons and cosmetic centers are all closed. People are cutting and coloring their own hair, painting their own nails and/or are letting it all go for now. Some people have only worn sweats since this all started, and God knows what they are wearing on their bottoms during those video calls. It’s all good, because perhaps it will shift our priorities to what’s most important. There is a mass understanding that we will have to cut each other a little slack right now, if not our own hair. And pity the poor beauty practitioners who are completely shut down. This has been an utter disaster for them.
America is an optimistic nation
While this is an entirely different experience depending on in which state you are living (Wyoming, for example, at this time has not registered a single death, while New York has over 7,000), there is still an optimism that is ingrained in our natures. When this is over…when we get together again…when we get back to work…are common refrains. However, there are many who are afraid they will never return to normal economically and certainly emotionally if they have lost a loved one. There is also an economic divide: with some worried about a roof over their heads and food on their tables, while others are increasingly anxious about their dwindling retirement funds. And then there are the lucky few who have the financial wherewithal to withstand this great American “shutdown.” But just as we banded together following 9/11, we are doing so now. There are so many examples of people helping each other, private and corporate donations to those in need and, most importantly, our brave critical workers, first responders and medical personnel who are working diligently – and many times without proper protection, to save lives.
There are so many “unsung heroes” among us
During the crisis, there have been thousands who deserve our praise and thanks for making life more comfortable during this unprecedented time. They include truck drivers and delivery drivers; nurses, doctors and all medical personnel; farmers, ranchers and grocers; food bank and other charitable workers; grocery store, pharmacy and all retail workers; restaurant owners and their workers as they provide takeout and deliveries; parents home-schooling their children, educators teaching online and ALL the family members sharing the same WiFi; daycare workers serving critical infrastructure personnel; Amazon warehouse workers; American companies manufacturing COVID-related materials; epidemiologists and pharma companies desperately working to devise testing and find a cure; any closed business that is still paying its workers; small business owners trying to adapt; military personnel, the National Guard, police and first responders …and so many, many more.
Who are your own personal heroes during this time of COVID?