Initially, it sounded like the stay at home orders were going to last 14 days. This always felt overly optimistic. We were encouraged to get exercise and continue going for walks and such close to home. On March 21st we went for our longest walk, to a park up the street to play Pokemon Go. It felt good to be out and about, the weather was beautiful, and it made things feel a little more Normal.
As we walked home, we stopped in at a diner we love in hopes of getting some milk shakes as we’d been unable to get ice cream at stores since the madness began. Restaurants have become take-out only, which is a very strange feeling in a diner that usually has a wait time to be seated. There was one other customer ahead of us, and while we waited to place our order as far back as we could in the cramped entryway, I began to notice that she seemed ill: she was pale and waxy looking, coughed right in the face of the waitress who was only about 18” in front of her, then proceeded to sniffle and wipe at her nose with her hand before reaching for the pen to sign for her order. It was all I could do to maintain my composure as I started to have a combination of anxiety attack and anger at the lack of hygiene or respect for others. She stepped towards the door to wait for her food, leaving little space for us as we took our turn to approach the waitress. As it turned out, they didn’t even have milkshakes available for us, and so we left empty handed. The customer failed to move aside in any way, forcing us to brush past her on our way out the narrow exit. As I began to finally express my level of concern for our potential exposure, Faith started to understand how upset I was.
It was hard to sort out what I was feeling, as I realized the likelihood that this woman just had allergies or a cold, and also tried to have some compassion for all of the things I didn’t know about her--perhaps she was quite ill, but lived alone and had no one to help her cook and she was just trying to pick up some food to get through the best she could. This attempt at compassionate thinking didn’t quiet my anger at her lack of consideration for others, as she failed to cover her cough or even turn away from the waitress who was there to serve her. As someone who had been recently laid off from my food service job I felt at once grateful for being off work and out of that kind of direct exposure and solidarity for the waitress who faced that kind of disrespect.
This perception of potential exposure made the abstract fear very personal. I was surprised that I felt angry that such a simple thing as trying to get a milkshake and support a local diner could have nullified all of the precautions we had taken to date. When we got home, we decided to call my dad to discuss what his medical opinion was of our potential risk and what steps we should be taking to protect ourselves moving forward.
We both anticipated this call would ease our concerns, and instead he confirmed that there has been a shift in understanding of COVID-19 to believe it can remain airborne for up to 3 hours, and that it was not necessary to have direct droplet or surface contact as we had previously understood. We went over best procedures for outings, agreed that masks were in fact advisable, that clothing worn outside should be immediately removed and laundered in hot water, to wash hands first, to shower and wash with attention to all exposed portions including hair. We ended the call with an escalated level of anxiety about future outings. As we observed the many people in our neighborhood not observing the social distancing guidelines we decided to move to indoor workouts.
We began to really accept that the stay at home order would not be ending soon, and that we should spend some energy on rearranging our space to best accommodate this new reality. With Faith’s work from home desk lacking the ergonomic adaptations she had at the office, I offered to salvage materials from the shipping crate my Dragon arrived in to build a standing desk accessory.
A week after our walk, I spent the day on our tiny balcony using hand tools to cut plywood and two by fours down to size and assemble the desk. Despite being a good 15 yards from the sidewalk and on the second floor, I opted to wear my face mask. This felt like overkill until a gentleman walked by smoking and even with the mask I got a face full of secondhand smoke. I pretty immediately realized that that meant I was inhaling air that had been in his lungs, and that I could be as exposed to the air anyone was breathing unmasked as they strolled by even if I couldn’t detect it.