The city of Lowell posted the above graphic on Thursday. It shows 121 diagnosed cases in Lowell with 13 of them hospitalized and 2 deaths. The Highlands has the largest number of cases with 24, followed by Centralville with 15 and Belvidere with 13. With all that is going on, life continues albeit in a drastically modified form. And you still have to eat.
With that in mind I took advantage of the “over 60” hour on Friday at the Market Basket on Route 110 in Chelmsford. I arrived right after 6am and the store was open and fully functioning. There seemed to be about 3 dozen customers while I was there so it was pretty easy to maintain distance. The store has also marked directional arrows on aisle floors with black tape making them one way and more black tape was placed at the entrance to the cashier lanes to keep people from bunching.
Our normal distribution of household chores has long had me doing the food shopping and I’ve always been happy with that task. I’ve never been interested in grocery delivery services because I enjoy my weekly trip to the supermarket. But this morning wasn’t enjoyable; it was tense.
Sometimes when a few of us would be in an aisle at the same time, the lead shopper would stop to grab something and everyone trailing would in turn stop to maintain their intervals. It reminded me of being on patrol in the Army (“Don’t bunch up; one grenade could get you all”). But every so often someone in a hurry would overtake you from behind. (It’s amusing how these people in a big rush almost always end up somewhere behind you in the checkout line). Others, oblivious to or ignoring the one way traffic flow, would approach from the front and wander past. As they drew near, I found myself turning my head down and away like a guilty party fleeing a crime scene while at the same time suspending in-breaths in the hope of clearing the wrong-way-driver’s aerosol cloud without sucking in any droplets. Like I said, tense.
At this point, you might be asking if I’m being facetious, or going for a parody account of a shopping trip. I wish that were the case, for this is the new reality in which we live. I think it’s the great unknown that adds so much stress: Will you become infected or not? If you do, will you have a mild or a severe case? If severe, will you require hospitalization and breathing support? If the latter, will you make the triage cut? And when will it all end?
The now famous Dr. Anthony Fauci answered that last question for all of us. “You don’t make the timeline; the virus makes the timeline,” he said.
At some point, the rate of infection might subside enough to relax the stay-at-home rules and businesses may then be able to reopen. But even then, I’m not sure a lot of places that rely on large groups of people gathering – restaurants, bars, theaters, lectures, sporting events – will regain the audiences they once had, at least not for a year or two. In the 1918 Influenza Epidemic, the virus hit hard in the spring, subsided, and then came back deadlier than ever in the fall. Hopefully that doesn’t happen in 2020, but if people choose to be guided by history, they’ll be avoiding crowds this fall.
The shutdowns, while necessary for public health, have been catastrophic for businesses and the economy. The “let the old people die to protect the young people’s 401Ks” chorus has melted away, thankfully. But even rational business writers are being a bit delusional when they say this isn’t a real recession that exposes weakness in the economy, that this is more like a patient being put in an induced coma until the medical problem is resolved and then we’ll pick up right where we left off.
That’s not going to happen. Consider state and local government. It is fully functioning now, even working at a supercharged pace to respond to the crisis (especially in the absence of centralized leadership from the Feds). But with so many people having lost their jobs and so many businesses closing their doors, revenue into state and local government will crater. There will be emergency cuts for this fiscal year (which ends on June 30) and next fiscal year’s budgets will have huge cuts. The financial consequences of this will be widespread and long lasting.
One thing I know for sure is this crisis will only exacerbate the polarization that already exists. When I scroll through Facebook (a platform I’ve nearly abandoned for other reasons), the “Trump’s ineptness will cost thousands of lives” mentions alternate with “Trump is the leader America needs to get us through this crisis” comments.
Our political divisions will only grow more pronounced the closer we get to November and the election. The Democrats will push some kind of Medicare-for-all health plan because with 10 million people losing their jobs in the last two weeks alone, having your health insurance tied to your job looks like a pretty shaky proposition all of a sudden. The Republicans will rant about give-away programs that will explode the already exploded deficit while at the same time opposing any steps that might make it easier and safer for people to vote (because as the President said, the more people vote, the more Republicans lose).
I’ll close with a reminder of the importance of social distancing in keeping us all safe. I’ll add a recommendation that you also practice social media distancing. Dip into Facebook and Twitter, but not too much. There’s an old saying in the Army that you shouldn’t put the headquarters next to the hospital because when the general starts seeing the casualties, he’ll lose his nerve and flinch when decisive action is needed to win the battle. Don’t let social media or the news make you crazy. We are in dangerous times, but keep it in context. Go read a book.