© 2020, 2023 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.
In late February of 2020, I was minding my own business having a very laid-back, three-week vacation in Tahiti in the South Pacific. Prior to my departure from home here in Northern Virginia, USA, there were an increasing number of news stories about the spread of the coronavirus—otherwise known as COVID-19; I'll just call it Covid—in other countries, and especially on cruise ships. Throughout my trip, most days, I read on-line news reports, including some from my home state of South Australia, where as a result there was an acute shortage of toilet paper; really! I got back home on March 11, just two days before the US airline industry was shut down. (Numerous times since then I've stated, "If I hadn't gotten home when I did, I might have been stuck in Tahiti for several years!")
Some six months into the pandemic, I wrote the bulk of this document to share with friends in Australia and Europe, some of whom had far better situations than did I, and some far worse, depending on their location and their government's handling of the crisis. For my Aussie readers, to put things into perspective, the contiguous 48 states of the US (and Federal capital Washington DC) are about the same size as Australia, but with 15 times the population, and of course the huge difference between the sizes of the two economies.
My first reality check was the morning after I arrived home from Tahiti. As my fridge was empty, I headed off to my local supermarket to restock. I definitely wasn't ready for the chaos that awaited me. The place was very crowded with each shopper having a large cart filled to the brim often with large quantities of items I thought were hardly necessary in a crisis. It definitely was a case of panic buying! If it hadn't been so sad to see, it would have been amusing. I started chatting with another shopper who, like me, was doing an ordinary shopping run, and we compared what we had in our carts to the others nearby and considered our priorities. I had milk and chocolate, and she had beer and snack food!
Once restricted hours or closures were mandated for different kinds of businesses, places selling food were exempted as being essential (along with gasoline stations). Not long after, my supermarket, which opens at 6 am, announced that from 6–7 each morning, customers would be limited to Senior Citizens only. Basically, by 6 am, the place had been thoroughly cleaned, so the more vulnerable customers had less chance of infection. Also, staff were sanitizing carts between uses. All the entrances, but one, were closed. Customers had to keep socially distanced in the long line leading to the self-serve and manned checkouts. I shopped once at that time, but decided I really didn't want to have to set my alarm to go grocery shopping, especially when I could go at any time during the day. In any event, I didn't see myself as being in the at-risk population.
One day as I was pushing my cart down an aisle, I was sternly reprimanded by an employee stacking shelves. Apparently, they had placed arrows on the floor of most aisles, so customers in such aisles would all be going in the same direction. And I was going the wrong way! In my defense, I must say that I don't go around a supermarket looking at the floor. However, I learned my lesson, and eagerly took on the job of policing that rule during subsequent visits. However, the store wouldn't give me a badge or gun; how un-American is that!
Everyone over the age of about six had to wear a mask to enter a public place, and it was challenging to recognize people when they were wearing a mask. Of course, some people just had to have expensive, designer masks, and other masks with witty or cerebral writing. After six months, there was less enforcement of the rules, but there were still disinfectant sprays and hand towels at the entrance, and sometimes handwash gel. (These were widely available even 30 months later.)
For those of us who take reusable bags, we had to pack our own things; the staff would not touch our bags. There was a large plexiglass partition between the customer and checkout operator, and the credit card payment machine and keypad were covered in plastic sheeting.
For the most part, I could usually buy almost all the things on my shopping list. However, early on, there definitely were shortages of packaged meals, rice, pasta, and such. And one time there was little meat. Several months into the crisis, I actually wanted toilet paper and paper towels, which proved challenging. After visiting six places, I finally got some of each—and face tissues—in a neighboring state a half-hour's drive from home.
In most US states, the public-school systems are run by local government (as such, we have thousands of different systems), and they each came up with their own rules. Mine is run by my county, and it closed schools by the end of March 2020. Of course, they had no infrastructure in place or staff training to change over to remote learning, so things were quite disorganized for the remainder of the school year, which ended in late June for the long summer break. Ordinarily, many systems offer "Summer School" classes to allow students to retake something they'd failed or to improve a grade. These were cancelled as were in-person educational and recreational summer camp programs (a multi-billion-dollar business here in the US).
The many thousands of universities and community colleges followed suit, which played havoc with all the extracurricular activities US colleges are known for, especially college sports (another multi-billion-dollar business). Many small cities and large towns exist to service a college, so with students living at home instead of on-campus, the economies of those cities and towns were devastated. Of course, many service businesses closed, but for those still open, their pool of students working as part-time staff had evaporated. And with so many towns relying on revenue from local sales taxes, their revenue projections were lowered significantly.
The fall (autumn that is) semester of the 2020/2021 school year ran from late August through mid-December. My county had (often contentious) public meetings, and finally presented parents with two options: completely remote schooling at home, or remote at home for three days with two days in-person at school. Then just before the school year began, the country decided that everyone would attend remotely. As the staff had the whole summer to figure out how to make this operate, things went much better than the previous semester. Some teachers I know went to their school and taught from their (otherwise empty) rooms.
Of course, there was the problem that not everyone had an internet connection at home, and if they did, could it support high-speed transmission for audio and video? Soon after, we started hearing about screen-fatigue from many hours of intense concentration.
One side effect was that the school bus drivers were mostly out of a job. In many school systems, there are more than a few students on "free and reduced meal" programs, and they usually get breakfast and lunch at school, five days a week. Also, during the school year, kids from food-insecure families get food put in their backpacks on Friday afternoon for the weekend. But if students are not attending school, how do they get such food? In my county, a few buses went out, but instead of picking up and dropping off kids, they delivered meals to those who would have previously gotten them as school. Some buses also served as mobile hotspots providing wi-fi to certain areas.
A major disappointment was for High School Seniors being denied their "rite of passage," a formal graduation ceremony and prom. Likewise for university students who were missing out on in-person activities, including sport.
A huge problem was having parents working from home where kids were attending school remotely. People were getting on each other's nerves! And there was no longer any place to have kids go for "after-school" care for those parents working outside the home.
The lobbies of all banks in my area closed in late March 2020. For those of us who use online banking, use a drive-through teller window, or use cash machines, this wasn't a problem. However, at the end of each month, I need to get access to my safe-deposit box to store an off-site backup of my computer files. To do that, I phoned the branch, and I was assigned one of the 30-minute timeslots. Then at the designated time, I stood outside the main door wearing my mask, and an employee admitted me.
By the way, it was common to see people wearing gloves while handling other peoples' money (such as drive-through tellers). One person I met said that he actually washed with disinfectant all paper bills (AU: bank notes) he got from others.
As soon as my county's schools closed, they put up "No Trespassing" signs at the entrances to school property, which, frankly, I thought was overkill. All they really needed was to keep people from introducing the virus into school buildings. This impacted many non-students who used school athletic tracks and playing fields to exercise. (In my case, a charity with which I volunteer collects bags of garbage for a small fee each Saturday morning from people living outside the town and without a regular pickup service. We ran that from a high school parking lot, but had to move elsewhere, at least temporarily.) After some 6–8 weeks, common sense prevailed, and that order was rescinded. (Sadly, part of the problem in this country is the litigious nature of many people, and the corresponding "cover your ass" paranoia that follows. "If we don't put up such signs, and someone contracts the illness on our property, we'll be liable for millions!)
In 2019, I swam and did water aerobics twice a week, and after three weeks of swimming every day in Tahiti and having increased from two to three times a week in January and February back home, when I got home in March, I very much looked forward to swimming again. However, that was not to be; my local indoor pool closed a few days after I got back. It reopened in July, and I have to say that with all the precautions they took, it probably was safer than before the pandemic!
I used to go whenever I felt in the mood, and stayed as long as I liked, but typically only 30 minutes. Now, I had to book in advance and a reservation was for an hour. No more than one week in advance, I could go on-line and reserve a lane for the days/times I wanted. My pool has four wide lanes, which can each accommodate two swimmers; however, at the times I go, I very rarely have to share a lane.
There was a plexiglass screen between customers and the front desk. Those of us with 25-visit passes usually swipe them in a machine, but for the first two months back in operation, admission was free. (At US$2.60/visit, it's hardly expensive anyway.) Swimmers were not to arrive until five minutes before their time. The change rooms were open, but the storage lockers were taped shut and the showers were "off limits." However, one could use the toilets. Basically, we arrived "ready to swim" and entered the pool from the changeroom. We had to walk around the pool in a clockwise direction only, so we didn't encounter others. At each end of a lane there was a seat numbered for that lane, 1–4, where one put one's towel, clothing, and valuables.
As with pretty much all public pools in the US, at least one lifeguard must be on duty at all times. My pool mostly hires high school and college students, and they work in 15–20-minute shifts.
When I was done, I dried off, dressed, collected my stuff, and left the building by a different door than the one I had entered.
During the four months my pool was closed, I walked a lot and rode my bicycle, which exercised other parts of my body. And to get some variety, I sometimes drove to another area of town or another town and walked or rode around there.
Of course, professional sports, and sports at the university level, are big business here in the US, and that suffered greatly. A big disappointment was for those recruited from high school on full scholarships to play at a university, and then the university season was cancelled.
All my local gyms and fitness clubs were closed, but many set up equipment in their parking lots to handle small groups "at a distance." However, they had to spend a lot of time and money to clean everything between uses.
In recent years, I've had one main client at a time who I drove to medical and other appointments, and shopping. The most recent one passed away early in 2020 at age 94, and I declined to risk myself by being exposed to new/unknown clients. However, I do have an 80+-year-old friend (who's legally blind), and I drive her to medical appointments. We get along famously, and we have a socially distanced lunch at a restaurant before each appointment.
Most medical facilities cancelled all but emergency appointments. Since my laser surgery for a detached retina some years ago, I have had a checkup every six months. For my first visit during the pandemic, in August 2020, my doctor had on a protective suit and large, flip-up visor mask, and looked a bit like an astronaut.
For some appointments, such as with my sleep specialist who oversees my CPAP usage, I had tele appointments. When driving others to medical appointments, I had to wait outside.
Late in 2020, after a long break due to a low-iron count, I started again as a blood donor. However, instead of donating a pint of whole blood every eight weeks, I went every two weeks to give platelets. Then every four weeks I gave plasma, and every eight weeks, red blood cells as well. The machine took my blood, extracted one to three things, and then returned the unused parts to my body. It took around two hours per visit. I went to a large medical facility as this process is not usually offered in their mobile vans. The donor center was very well maintained with everyone wearing masks. I figured that was one of the safest places to be. A few days after I donated each week, I received an email telling me, "Our SARS-COV-2 Antibody Test was Negative for antibodies."
Restaurants and Bars
These were closed completely for some time, and many went out of business. For the first year, I only ate out a few times, sitting outside or at tables spaced apart. (Typically, they used only every second table.) The initial reaction was to try and offer food to pick up and/or be delivered, and some places still do only that, after three years! Culturally, a lot of Americans eat out, even for breakfast!
Through the end of 2018, I travelled constantly, both domestically and internationally. At any one time, there are thousands of planes in the skies over the US, but not for the first few years of the pandemic. I haven't flown since I got back from Tahiti, and even now, three years later, I have no plans to do so. After several years of being very tired of travel, in September of 2019, I got interested again, and mapped out a half dozen pleasure trips that involved flying and a number driving in the US and Canada. I have put all of those on hold indefinitely. It has even occurred to me that I might never fly again!
Late August 2022, I was scheduled to be in Milan, Italy, but that being the epicenter of the pandemic in Italy, the trip was cancelled with the five days of meetings being handled via a series of 2-hour teleconferences over a 10-day period. I had planned a 2-week vacation afterwards going north overland to Lake Como and the Swiss countryside to Zurich, but that was not to be.
For several years leading up to the pandemic, my international travel schedule had been reducing anyway, as travel budgets kept getting cut in a growing number of participating organizations. At the same time, reliable and often free, high-speed audio and/or video-conferencing facilities had become available, which reduced the need for travel. However, this has been at the expense of being limited to two hours at a time to accommodate attendees across widespread time zones. (I typically interact with people in Europe, New Zealand, Asia, and the US west coast on the same call.)
As you might imagine for an "on the go" country like the US, pre-pandemic, millions of people flew, stayed in hotels, rented cars, ate in restaurants, and did other travel-related things. With much of that travel gone, it had a really big impact on businesses. From time to time, some cities decide to build a professional sports stadium for their existing team or to try and entice a team from another city to relocate. Now these facilities cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and very often, the locals don't want to have to pay for them. So, what the cities do is levy an occupancy tax on hotels and/or a usage tax on rental cars, all of which is paid by people visiting from out-of-town. Of course, without the travelers, there is no tax revenue coming in!
Starting in mid-2021, I started taking 4–5-day road trips within 2–5 hours' drive from home, mostly staying in private rooms at AirBnB places.
Closing State Borders
Unlike Australia, where they have a small number of crossings from one state to another, that is not the case in many US states. Also, more than a few US cities are on or very near the border. For example, the 70 square miles of the national capital, Washington DC, neighbors suburban Maryland and Virginia with many hundreds of thousands of commuters and commercial vehicles moving through each day. It would simply not be possible to set up roadblocks and check people.
That said, many states did have quarantine rules for travelers coming from certain states or countries.
Of course, the majority of people who can work from home have been doing so, and there was a huge decrease in traffic and air pollution. (Something good comes out of everything!) Many people lost their jobs. Many were furloughed with medical insurance coverage provided and a promise to be recalled "as soon as possible." However, after 8–12 weeks of that, the chances of being recalled all but evaporated for many. My (wealthy) county government kept all its employees on full pay even when they weren't working!
Ironically, as millions were being laid-off, my business increased. Due to the pandemic, my biggest client had more than a few contracts cancelled or deferred, and therefore had an unused budget before the end of the fiscal year on June 30. And managers hate to give up budget, 'cos they likely won't get it back again the following year. As such, I was offered extra money for one of my projects. I asked for 150 extra hours, and they allowed 250! So, for several months, I worked full-time, a very rare thing for me! For most of that time, I had, and still have, no fixed schedule, which made it easier.
Working from Home
I've been doing this for the past 39 years, so it was not an adjustment for me like it was for most people. Certainly, one needs a good dose of discipline, and many managers don't much like not being able to keep an eye on their employees. The clothing/fashion/cosmetics industries took a big hit, as everyone now lounged around in their PJs or sweat suits without makeup.
One consequence of this was that more people were out during weekdays at the supermarket or in the park when they would otherwise be at work. Also, with a lot less demand for gasoline, prices were low.
I not only borrow books on a regular basis, but I volunteer at the library, primarily for the twice-per-year donations and sales of used books and audio/video discs. Once the libraries were closed to the public, only a skeleton staff was needed. I went online to order materials and then waited for an email or phone call to notify me when they had arrived at my local branch. I then drove there and either phoned from a mobile phone or used the extension outside the front door to let staff come out and deliver the materials in a plastic bag to my car.
More than a few people use my local library for internet access. To support this, the wi-fi signal was boosted to reach the parking lot where patrons could connect on devices from their car or from a picnic table under a tree. Initially, books could only be returned to an outside bin and then only during operating hours. They even put a lock on the return bin to enforce that! And, returned books sat in quarantine for 3–4 days before being handled.
I used to run a weekly, one-on-one conversational-English session with a Mexican man, and that was held in a library meeting room. That all stopped.
Although libraries opened within six months, the meeting rooms were still closed, and there were no group children's' programs. However, they made a lot of programs available via the internet.
My county decided to stop the public from entering two libraries and to use them for day-care centers for county employees' children. That was controversial, and never went ahead, but only because there was insufficient demand.
The US Presidential election is held every four years on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. In 2020, it was on November 3. We also elected one third of the 100 Federal Senators, all 435 Members of the Federal House of Representatives, and many state and local officials.
Voting is controlled by each state, and as you might imagine, with 50 states and a Federal Capital, we have 51 different sets of rules. Some states moved to voting-by-mail years ago, and this year all will allow that, but President Trump tried very hard to discourage that. Previously, in Virginia, one had to have one of 10–15 permitted reasons to "vote absentee" and have someone witness one's signature on the ballot envelope. That year, in Virginia, voting began mid-September, and no witness was required. Typically, states that allow early voting do not allow any of the envelopes to be opened/counted until election day. Due to the large amount of work needed to count the vote this time, unless there is a landslide one way or the other, we might not have a good idea of the winners for days or even weeks afterwards.
I went online and asked to have a mail-in ballot sent to me, which I received. But then the state mailed one to every registered voted as well, which they would not ordinarily do. Given that bad weather and long lines deter people from voting in ordinary years, voting by mail may well become the default way for many states in future.
In the months after lock-down, when places started to re-open, I saw regional, national, and international news about requirements to "register" when entering a business or facility, either using a mobile phone or by writing one's name and contact information. The idea was that if someone tested positive at that place, the authorities could contact all the people who had visited that place around that time, so they too could get tested. And I know people who lived in localities where this actually happened. Oddly, it never did in my area!
Covid Gets Close and Personal
Late afternoon on Day 0, New Year's Eve, 2022, I was driving home from lunch with friends, and a light headache started. At bedtime, I was lethargic and had a slight fever, and I had a sneaky feeling that it might be Covid.
On Day 1, New Year's Day 2023, my arms and legs ached more than a little, the light headache was still there, and there was some congestion. I tested myself around 11 o'clock using the recently arrived pack-of-four tests provided for free by the Federal Government. Although the instructions said to wait 15 minutes for the results to be displayed, as soon I pressed my nasal swab into the card, the pink/purple Positive line indicator showed, and got stronger with time. So, what to do? Well, first, I had some milk chocolate with hazelnut, and then I had some more. Then I made a list of things to do in the short and long term, such as cancelling all in-person meetings and activities for the next two weeks. Fortunately, the day before, I'd bought plenty of groceries and fresh fruit and vegetables. And my pantry and freezer were well-stocked. (One of the friends from the Day-0 lunch had tested positive for Covid several weeks earlier and was not adversely affected by exposure to me. The other friend was fully vax'd, and also was unaffected by our close encounter.)
Day 2 saw much more congestion, reduced headache and leg/arm ache, and some coughing, but never a sore throat. Given my quite mild symptoms, when I called my doctor's office, the staff simply advised me to take over-the-counter medicine for congestion, as if I had mild flu. Neighbor Lillian bought that medicine for me and delivered it to my door.
By Day 3, all aches were completely gone, and the congestion and nose-blowing peaked. On Day 4, the congestion was mild, and I spent eight solid hours working and doing administration. My neighbor Susan delivered an extra gallon of whole milk.
Being in quarantine, I couldn't do my three-times-per-week swimming ritual, but as we had a burst of unseasonably warm weather, some days I walked several miles, wearing my mask and keeping well away from others.
By the way, I contracted Covid from a volunteer client I had driven three times in the week leading up to Day 0. And as I found out on Day 1, she had tested Positive after our third drive, and didn't bother to tell me! So, no good deed goes unpunished!
Test 2 on Day 8 was strongly positive, and Test 3 on Day 11 was weakly positive. Finally, Test 4 on Day 14 was negative. However, by that time, I'd already cancelled most external activities for the next week.
The only side-effect I had was a metallic taste on my tongue, which many people have reported.
I'd used up all four of the government-issued tests, so I bought a pack of two more, as backup. They cost US$10 each. (A year earlier, I'd also received a free pack of four from the government, and I used two of those, both of which tested negative. Once the remaining tests' expiry date was reached, I discarded them; however, later on, that expiration date was extended.)
Not having small children or kids in school, or even a "regular" job, and having a decent Federal pension while still working, at worst, I have been inconvenienced by Covid. I certainly can't say the pandemic has been any sort of hardship for me. As I keep telling people, "It could be much worse! What if we had no running water or electricity?" (In my case, without electricity, I can't pump water from my underground well.)
One of the strengths of the American system is the level of independence that runs through communities. Here, many things that happen at state or federal levels in other countries can be determined by each city/town/county instead. However, the downside is that we have many thousands of separate education systems, law-enforcement systems, welfare systems, and the like. And each has to develop its own rules, raise taxes, and implement those rules. As a result, we have the President talking about reopening schools when that is a local school district decision. And state governors want to override a local government mayor's order to wear facemasks. At a time when we need everyone to pull together, we have a very fragmented web of activity, and during Trump's time, no positive national leadership. And we have a lot of lawyers, so pretty much anything controversial is challenged in court within hours of being announced!
My guess is that when the dust has finally settled, after some months, the vast majority of the people will go back to living as much as possible like they used to (for example, not saving and not living within their means) without any permanent, constructive changes, just like they did after 9/11. At such times, I'm pretty sure that our civilization as a whole isn't so smart after all! Time will tell if this crisis ends up any different!
To end on a less-than-happy note, some experts here suggest that once the pandemic is over, it will take the US economy 5–10 years to recover. In the meantime, we keep on "printing more money." The $1,200 many of us got plus payouts to prop-up businesses earlier this year cost the Federal government two trillion dollars; that's US$2,000,000,000,000! Then came the Democratic proposal in the House of Representatives for another 1–3 trillion on top of that. By the way, at the end of fiscal year 2019, the total US federal debt was US$22.8 trillion, and that was before the pandemic hit! The Congressional Budget Office projects that the deficit for 2020 alone will be 16% of U.S. gross domestic product, which is the largest it's been since 1945.
Was the virus not as potent as we'd been led to believe? Was I in much better shape than all those who suffered or died? Did my vaccinations help? We'll never know for sure. In any event, stay safe and keep replenishing your emergency stash of chocolate. And above all, remember, life is just about filling in time until you die! In any event, as Horace wrote back in 23 BC, Carpe diem!