Shortly afterwards the events in Pandemic Diary #1, on March 4th, my employer announced that all student travel was cancelled. It was the right call; my only complaint is that they didn’t reimburse us directly for any travel expenditures we had made. It was up to us to get our money back. Between what I had planned for myself and for my girlfriend, I now have something like $3,000 in airline vouchers that I doubt I’ll ever be able to use. I guess that in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t mean much, but even today, it feels like an unnecessary couple of kicks while I was down. Anyway, even knowing it was the right call, I was gutted – I’d been preparing for the trip for over a year.
On the night of March 4th, my girlfriend and I went out to dinner at the Wicked Wing Company. (I am editing this in February 2021, and we haven’t been out to a restaurant since, although we did start doing takeout once every other week in August). I remember my new smartphone buzzing constantly with emails from students, but I ignored them and partook of some very spicy wings and Yuengling. Pretty soon I was buzzing constantly myself. The students were furious about the cancellation, in particular saying that the email announcement from the university was too “cold” and not “compassionate” enough, whatever that means.
For Christmas 2019, I had gotten my father (who lives near Philadelphia) tickets to a play in Washington D.C. for the weekend of March 7th. I had planned it to be our last get-together before I left the country for three and a half months. I considered cancelling, but not very seriously; there were apparently no Coronavirus cases on the east coast (although it had reached the west coast) and we didn’t know anything about how fatal it was or how it spread. Plus, again, every single TV in the nation was telling us that there was nothing to worry about – the virus was only affecting third world countries like China and Italy, it was no worse than the flu, and it would never make inroads in the great and mighty United States. I don’t mean to keep harping on that, but I don’t think a lot of people remember how constantly everyone in a position of power, regardless of party, was telling us that Coronavirus was a joke and nothing to worry about.
So I flew down to D.C. The TSA confiscated my little bottle of hand sanitizer at the security checkpoint, which I thought was an asinine thing to do, but other than that there were zero precautions being taken. I do distinctly remember a man on the plane wearing one of those paper-thin Tyvek body suits that painters wear (without a mask!), but other than that, nothing. Not at the airports, or on the planes, or in D.C. Everything was totally normal – no signs, no social distancing, no masks, no nothing. Both my father and I commented on how surreal it was.
I should mention that I enjoyed the play. That night I posted the following description on social media: “Last year I saw a spectacular Richard III at the National Shakespeare Company. Today, I saw a version of Timon of Athens there that I won't soon forget. Timon was played by an older female Jewish dwarf; the director added a soundtrack of what I can only call "turbo klezmer"; Alciabedes was played by a pregnant Latina doing an Eminem impression (and the plot was changed to make her uprising a populist one, which is... not how I’d read the play); and Apemantus was played by, ugh, a crust punk in a Patti Smith shirt. It was pretty good". I include that just in case future historians are curious about how the National Shakespeare Company did things in the 2020 era: real, real weird. The next day my father and I sat at a booth in Ben’s Chili Bowl at the Regan Airport before my flight and I remember discussing how strange it was that everything was completely normal. By a sort of unspoken agreement we sat in the booth furthest from everyone else and didn’t skimp on the hand sanitizer.
The next few weeks were hectic, but at this point everyone thought we were still going to be on campus even though travel was cancelled. I spent a lot of time trying to rent meeting space in nearby buildings. Of course, I had to deal with the students, who were devastated. And understandably so – the off-campus projects program was the primary reason, even the sole reason, most of them had chosen to attend my university. There was a tremendous amount of work involved in rethinking the projects we would have done overseas. And of course, I had all my other responsibilities to worry about, which included trying to figure out how to rethink some other programs I was in charge of. So most of early March was a whirlwind of paperwork and emails to me.
I also had to deal with the students themselves. Their immediate reaction was to be bummed out; some thought the university was over-reacting; some bemoaned their bad luck, thinking that travel would only be cancelled for a few weeks. I will always remember one pair of students, self-interested, self-important, and with a flair for the dramatic, demanding a meeting with me. They had started an online petition to try and force the university to reverse course and allow travel. It got thousands of signatures before they took it down, though I can’t say the exact number. Anyway, although I am normally quite a chatty, friendly guy, I was cold as all hell to them. I wanted to make sure I was very, very clear that I thought cancelling travel was the right move.
Around this time, although I can’t be sure of the exact date, I remember answering the doorbell. Outside was one of those con artists that’s constantly coming around to offer a free home insulation inspection, or to sign you up for solar-powered electricity, or redo your windows, or some such thing. I remember him offering to bump elbows instead of shake hands at the beginning of his sales pitch. That was the first thing I personally saw (other than the goofball in the painter’s suit on the airplane and travel being cancelled at the university) of anyone taking any sort of personal precautions against the spread of the coronavirus.
For some reason, during these first few weeks of March, I got very manic about making sure my truck’s gas tank was always full. If I drove anywhere, which I didn’t really, I’d top off the tank on the way home. Sometimes it was less than a quarter gallon. It was like some sort of error message inside my brain.
On March 9th, the day before I would have left for overseas, we had a department meeting, ostensibly to celebrate the end of the academic term. It was a somber affair. I remember a Japanese graduate student wearing a mask, sitting silently as far away from everyone else as she could. I picked at an Italian sub and made three predictions: That the dorms would be closed and the students sent home; that this would mean the campus would be completely shut down; and that everything would be entirely online for the spring term. As I said - I was late to take the pandemic seriously, but once I did, I went whole hog.
Most of my colleagues rolled their eyes, and a couple straight up laughed at me – they said I was over-reacting, spreading rumors, and that I was panicking and letting my emotions get the better of me. Surely whatever happened wasn’t going to affect them, or their classes, or their research! I remember my department head in particular lecturing me at length that “viruses know that killing their hosts is a bad reproduction strategy, and therefore the coronavirus cannot be any more lethal than the flu. It's not possible.”. At the end of the meeting I swiped a cardboard box from the supply closet (my department head scowled at me and reminded me that those boxes had been bought for some spring cleaning we were planning) and packed up my office. I took all of my computer equipment; I took the pictures off the walls; I took some of the books to which I have a sentimental attachment off of the bookshelf; and I took all the important files out of my filing cabinet. I remember walking past a group of other faculty, who stopped and laughed at me, and one guy in particular telling me “you’re just going to have to bring all that back in a week!”
I will let my Facebook post from March 11th summarize what happened on that date. I posted: “If anyone is curious how the US is going to respond to the pandemic, my university has just cancelled all on-campus activities, and I'm rolling into the second hour of an online question and answer session where every single faculty member has asked "but *MY* students aren't affected by this, right?". This is f-----g gross.” I want to say that I felt some satisfaction as all my colleagues scrambled to clear out their offices at the last minute, but I didn’t. (The guy who told me I’d be bringing my stuff back in a week didn’t make the deadline; he had to fill out a lot of paperwork and get a campus police escort to clear out his office a month later.) I didn’t even feel sad. Just extremely, deeply tired.
I usually buy cleaning supplies, toilet paper, etc. in bulk at BJ’s Warehouse, so my girlfriend and I had quite a bit of that on hand. Owning a pickup truck has some advantages. But I made an extra trip on March 12th, mostly to stock up on soda and seltzer, which we were short of. I remember the manager rolling out pallets of toilet paper and paper towels and people descending on them like piranhas. The couple of people that were too slow called the manager all sorts of names, but he was a model of self-restraint, and I remember a middle-aged woman in felt Uggs and a fleece jacket who should have been sipping rosé at brunch taking a big sloppy left-handed swing at somebody. I came home and my girlfriend joked that I was lucky I hadn’t started sneezing (due to the allergies I always get in the spring) and gotten beat up. I didn’t tell her I’d almost choked myself unconscious in the coffee aisle to keep myself from sneezing. On the way back I stopped at a liquor store in Shrewsbury and got a pony keg of Yuengling. I thought it would last for the entire pandemic. It didn’t.
On March 14th I went to Target to buy a new external hard-drive; the one that I’d been relying on turned out to be dead so I needed to go back into the office to copy my files. That trip to the Target feels bittersweet in my memory - about two weeks earlier, on the last normal day that I can remember, I had gone there to buy some new trousers and a windbreaker so that I’d look good in the photos from my trip overseas. Some of the cashiers were wearing disposable latex gloves, which was the first thing I’d seen in public that said a lot of people were starting to take things seriously. At the time it was still thought that the virus spread by physical contact. But of course, no masks – experts on every TV and radio station were constantly telling us that masks didn’t do anything and we’d just look silly if we wore them. I remember a joke going around about how “masks are like tampons – only pussies need them”.
Anyway, months later, the same experts would clarify that they only said masks did nothing so that people didn’t hoard them and to prevent panic. Maybe that was their motivation and maybe it wasn’t – all I can say is that’s not what I remember happening at the time. I remember being very specifically told masks were ineffective, and anyone wearing one was an overreacting coward. In retrospect, it seems to me that all the people furious about the Chinese government releasing false information to try and stem a panic should be just as mad at the U.S. government for things like this. But of course they aren’t. We don't have politics in the U.S. - we have team sports, and the last thing you can do is offer anything other than unwavering approval of your team's players.
It feels really strange that my first five pages of reminiscences are almost entirely about work, but – that’s how the pandemic started for me. Travel was cancelled, then the campus was closed, and it was a 12-hour-a-day hustle to try to adapt. There was really very little going on in my personal life at the time.