Your COVID19 Turning Points #7

May 5, 2020 12:18 p.m.

I am making my way through your COVID19 turning point emails. And really … they are so good. I struggle to know which to absorb myself and which to share in posts. I can’t post them all and many, in the nature of things, are similar. But each captures some unique angle on the story or human experience of it. There are entirely unexpected scenarios which aren’t turning points so much as collisions with life, like the – one imagines – quite awkward necessity of broaching with your fiance the possibility of postponing your wedding. That’s the experience TPM Reader JL shares.

I was preparing for my own wedding scheduled for the March 21st. It was always meant to be a small affair (30 people at a friend’s house for ceremony, 90 people at a bar for reception). Towards the end of February i think the thought occurred to me that it could potentially impact our wedding date, but it wasn’t until the first week of March that the reality hit me and i personally reckoned with the odds.

I finally raised the subject with my fiancée about having to postpone / cancel our reception on March 11th, before Trump’s address, in the midst of the market free fall and she was a bit stand-offish about even talking about it. As a dental professional she deals with HIV patients all the time, so she seemed to feel there was a bit of an overreaction happening. So, I decided to let her sleep on it…before bringing it up the next day (after the prime time address) and she came around to my point of view.

At this point, states like ours were only limiting gatherings to 100-250 people and under, but i told her the writing was on the wall for where we were headed if you just looked at every other nation’s response to the spread…and it would be impossible to predict where things would stand for Louisiana in 10 days.

We decided to make calls to vendors calling off reception (still have not got money i paid for photographer…), and started calling family and friends to say reception was called off. We were still planning to get married on 3/21 (with a looming chance of one of us being hospitalized, that seemed more important than ever) but i still hedged that we would likely have to pair down the ceremony guest list even further.

My (now) wife was not immediately game (she invited a few extra friends to the house…) and in the calls with our family that week we were told that our decision was either “bullshit” or that we were “panicking” and “overreacting” by immediate family members. These weren’t easy calls to make, but we calmed ourselves by telling one another we would clearly be proved right.

After the situation in New Orleans and elsewhere started to appear more dire, most of our family came around to our view. All our siblings decided not to come in for ceremony and eventually we got the wedding day guest list down to 10 people, including photographer.

Eventually, the night before our ceremony our photographer cancelled on us because of the Stay at Home order issued in New Orleans. Luckily, i had planned for that and already lined up a backup photographer who was local and been social distancing who agreed to shoot the wedding.

They’re now married, a dramatically scaled down ten person wedding. Good for them.

TPM Reader DM is an academic who was preparing for a sabbatical in Strasbourg, France. He describes following the news of the outbreak in France as something over there and seeing the shift from stories about people to stories about statistics …

Strasbourg’s region, the Alsace, is the worst afflicted part of France. With some alarm (and a lot of denial), I began reading the local French newspapers’ coverage in the last few days of February. Quaintly, or absurdly, I was focused on the virus over there and not thinking about the U.S. I was able to read and remember every news story for a week, because the details were particular: A family of four in such-and-such village, the town doctor here, a politician there. The news accounts all had proper nouns and narrative detail. Ad some point during the second week of March, that kind of individualized, narrative storytelling stopped working. One day in the second week of March, the news changed. Coverage shifted from narrative stories to summary statistics, the main daily placed a Covid links post front and center on its website, individual names and places disappeared, and the stories were suddenly a paragraph or two long and quite obviously rushed. The structure of the news coverage conveyed the fact of an exponential outbreak.

When I read this I was reminded of something similar but altogether different. In early March I was watching Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s daily press briefings about the unfolding epidemic. First each new case came with a story. But pretty soon the mayor and the health commissioner started saying that they wouldn’t be able to give details about every case. There would soon be too many. As DM had seen in late February in France they were moving from stories to statistics.

This coalesced a very different reaction for me. On March 6th I read this OpEd in the Times by a researcher who in 2007 published one of the key studies of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. The researchers analyzed different American cities’ responses and whether those correlated meaningfully with eventual death tolls. They did. Cities that reacted fast at the first signs of spread did far better than those which took a wait and see approach. Closing schools was one of the key drivers of good outcomes.

In the first half of March the New York City government appeared to be doing the latter: with each new evidence of spread, more incremental tightening. The anticipated shift from stories to statistics made it clear the city knew where we were going. So why not get there straight away? We know we’re moving toward a lockdown but we lack the moral imagination to do today what we know we will have done in ten days. That Times OpEd, by Dr. Howard Markel, made clear that waiting was quite literally death, as indeed it turned out to be. Why were we waiting? The outbreak had the feeling of an immense ocean liner coming out of control into port, slow but altogether unstoppable. The city government was paralyzed.

I will close this installment with an email from TPM Reader MP who was heading out to stock up for a St. Patrick’s day celebration and found herself in her community’s outbreak of panic-buying …

My turning point was the evening of Thursday, March 12.

I come from a large Irish Catholic family with baby-boomer siblings and ensuing generations. Our annual St Patrick’s day party was scheduled for Saturday, March 14. On Thursday morning, my husband and I drove to Costco for party supplies, and found ourselves in the midst of a large number of shoppers waiting in line for the store to open. Once inside, our shopping morphed into a half-party/half-pandemic supply trip, with packages of corned beef, potatoes and cases of beer stacked in our cart alongside toilet paper and plastic gloves. As we waited for checkout, I took a video of the carts lined up for the toilet paper aisle crisscrossing our line for checkout. I posted the video on our family google group along with a link to a article entitled “Coronavirus: Why You Must Act Now”, thus starting a conversation about the wisdom of packing 30 to 40 people of various ages into our house.

By late that evening, we decided to cancel. We live in Cincinnati, Ohio, where there were no confirmed cases of Covid-19 at the time. I was aware of cases in the Cleveland area. I knew Covid-19 was coming, but felt there was minimal risk for one last fling before sheltering in place the following week. During the Thursday afternoon press conference, however, the director of Ohio Department of Health, Dr. Amy Acton ,estimated that there were likely more than 100,000 people in the state with the Coronavirus. At the same time, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine announced that all kindergarten through 12th grade schools would close for a period of several weeks. We had President Trump’s guidance of the day as well: “I’ve been briefed on every contingency you can possibly imagine, many contingencies,” the president said. “A lot of positive. Different numbers. All different numbers. Very large numbers. And some small numbers too, by the way.”

Meanwhile, the Gen-X relatives were promoting cancellation of any festivities, wisely pointing out the only reason there were no cases was because there was no testing. So we cancelled.

My husband and I are slowly consuming the Guinness, the Smithwick’s and the Harp Lager, but I have three huge slabs of corned beef in the freezer that won’t get used soon. The biggest disappointment for the family has been the cancellation of the NCAA basketball tournament. My hometown is Dayton, and the University of Dayton Flyers were having a spectacular season. We all had high hopes for some exciting games.

What was your turning point?

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