The Guardian this morning [March 13] has the perfect banner headline: “Unprepared America wakes up to coronavirus, gradually then all at once.”
Ed Pilkington is a veteran British journo, now New York-based chief U.S. correspondent for a Guardian that has morphed astoundingly from the tasteful broadsheet for London liberals (dubbed, in the knowing Brit argot, “Guardian readers”) that I knew when I lived there two decades ago.
Which is to say that I appreciate Pilkington’s very British way with words, e.g.: “Even before the virus has taken hold in communities and cities across the country, it has been preceded by two other contagions – confusion and fear.” Even better is this, on the dramatic premature ending to the Thunder-Jazz game Wednesday evening in Oklahoma City: “Trainers and medical staff rushed on to the basketball court to stop the game, then fans were hurriedly ushered out of the arena without being told what was happening. The pandemonium that ensued neatly encapsulated a pattern now repeating itself across the U.S. – prolonged prevarication, followed by precipitous action, prompting mass anxiety, culminating in a drastic shutdown.”
This is the kind of writing that you just don’t get to read in truly American periodicals.
The abrupt cessation of sports in America calls to mind two dicta of Noam Chomsky: that sports function as “training in irrational jingoism” and as “something to pay attention to.”
Today is the day Trump declared a national emergency. I read about that, and I read maybe a dozen articles on other coronavirus-related topics, as I’ve done every day forever (or so it feels). It’s 6 p.m. now and I’ve still got several tabs open in my browser, articles I really should read this evening, before they’re rendered antiquated by whatever I have to read about tomorrow. All the time-sensitive reading leaves me feeling deeply fatigued, physically and emotionally, and vaguely wondering when I’ll be able to get back into a “normal” routine and do my “real” work again.
Like everyone else, I’m getting emails from every company and organization I patronize about what they’re doing – or no longer doing – now that coronavirus is affecting us all. I’ve received somber, thoughtful messages from American Airlines, Office Depot, Hotels.com, the Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno (where I spoke several years ago), the Colorado Haiti Project (a Denver-based nonprofit my father co-founded), the Seattle Public Library, and my neighborhood yoga studio and veterinary practice. They’re all doing their best to rise to the occasion. “We do not want our patients to suffer or go untreated for illness during this time,” says the vet’s office. “We encourage you if you are sick to not come in. … We discourage visits for nail trims at this time.”
A few of the messages from local institutions have been especially interesting or revealing. The community theater just down the street informed me:
While public assemblies under 250 people are still permitted, Taproot is not able to meet the very specific criteria that King County Health is requiring and that would keep patrons safe. Because of this Babette’s Feast will not open next week and all scheduled performances of the play are cancelled (March 18-April 25).
Town Hall Seattle, an important civic and cultural venue that only recently reopened downtown following a years-long major renovation, announced:
In light of Governor Inslee’s declaration this morning [Wednesday] restricting public gatherings, Town Hall has suspended in-person attendance at programming throughout our building – including our smaller performance spaces unaffected by his announcement – until March 31. The period of closure may ultimately prove to be longer, but for now please check our website for information on the status of individual programs in April and beyond.
The local nonprofit City Fruit told me:
We have cancelled all March events, including volunteer tree pruning, public workshops, and our Master Fruit Tree Steward class. … We have resolved to continue meeting our community impact goals and keep our staff employed. The crucial programs we are continuing include tree care services and planning for the harvest season. It is imperative that we keep the public and private trees we manage healthy and ready to produce come harvest season, so that we can provide quality, nutritious fruits to our community partners.
And a friend forwarded to me a message from the founders of Canlis, one of Seattle’s most prestigious upmarket restaurants:
We want to reach out and let you know first hand about some changes we’ll be making because of the Coronavirus. Starting Monday March 16th, we will adjust the way the restaurant serves the city and temporarily suspend fine dining operations. This step is not in response to any Canlis related health issues, but rather the result of some out-of-the-box thinking on how to safely create jobs for our employees while serving as much of the city as we can. Fine dining, it turns out, is not what we think Seattle needs right now. Instead, Canlis will be operating a drive-thru burger joint in our parking lot, a pop-up bagel shop, and an at-home dinner delivery service.
As a result, we will be calling you to cancel your current reservation. If it serves you to reschedule it for later in the year we are happy to do so. We are deeply aware of the gravity of this decision and how disappointing it will be for many of our guests. Know how sorry we are to ask this of you. This is hard, but the situation we find ourselves in today requires that we adapt.
From Ed Pilkington’s Guardian article: “There was something about the bit-by-bit nature of America’s shutdown, with states acting independently of each other and institutions making their own seemingly disconnected decisions, that only heightened the jitters sweeping the country. If everyone is acting in isolation, who the hell is in charge?”
I’ve gotten some interesting personal emails in recent days from people far from Seattle. Yesterday my cousin’s wife in rural East Texas wrote: “We’re in a completely different place than what we see reported from major cities. Although there is a reported case of COVID-19 in Longview, it doesn’t seem to be causing the mania and fear we read about in the news.”
Today an acquaintance on one of the San Juan Islands, north of Seattle, told me: “It feels a little disorienting up here, and somewhat creepy. Both [my wife] and I have thought about The Masque of the Red Death, like we’re isolated and safe on our little island, but what if it gets here in full force. (There is one unconfirmed case on the island.)”
And a Seattle friend – a longtime Southeast Asia hand currently living in Thailand – replied to an email of mine, using his iPhone, on Tuesday (three days ago that feel like three months): “I am in S Myanmar on my way to a 10 year celebration of community groups with 1000 people. To Yangon Thursday then Bangkok Friday night, god willing. April 4th [my wife] and I will arrive in Seattle to prepare our house to rent out. Likely there 2 months.”
I wrote back suggesting that he catch up on the news as soon as he gets a chance.