March madness (and sadness): A plague diary
March 2020 is a month none of us will soon forget. Yet I feel compelled to document how the Covid-19 crisis unfolded to help myself grasp how much our lives can change in the space of 31 days. As the month started there were no confirmed cases of the virus in Cambridge; when it ended there were (at least) 93 cases, and one resident had died. I have a sinking feeling that April may bear out T.S. Eliot’s description as the “cruelest month,” and that March will come to seem like a warmup lap in a grim race that’s been called both a sprint and a marathon.
Here’s my March recap in rough chronological order interspersed with the cumulative number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in Cambridge and the United States. We are all learning a great deal about epidemiology and the characteristics of this “novel” strain of the coronavirus. These numbers undercount the actual totals because testing has been so difficult to get, and people with mild or no symptoms may never be tested, yet can still spread the virus to others. What follows reflects my perspective and memory and is by no means a comprehensive accounting of the month’s events or an attempt to describe every impact.
The first day of March was a Sunday, the last weekend before the Super Tuesday primary. I made get out the vote calls for Elizabeth Warren from her campaign outpost in Alewife. Phone banking is always a hit-or-miss exercise, and so close to Election Day most voters seemed to have made up their minds. You get lots of hang-ups. When someone is actually willing to engage, it usually means they have been alone all day and are craving human interaction; ironically, that would come to describe pretty much all of us by the end of the month. Only in retrospect do I marvel that I hesitated to use a campaign laptop that countless other volunteers had touched when making their calls. My longest conversation, if you can call it that, was with a man who took advantage of my good nature by striking a bargain: If I would listen to him rehearse his audition for “American Idol,” he would tell me who he planned to vote for. I indulged him as he sang wildly off-key, and before I could figure out a polite way to break the news that he wouldn’t be going to Hollywood, he hung up on me.
On the first Monday of the month I was offered a great job, a position that’s a perfect match for my experience and the organization’s needs. At that point the virus still seemed like a distant threat that could be contained through travel restrictions and limiting contact with visitors from affected areas. During the interview I asked about the organization’s affiliates abroad and learned they would be returning to the United States as a precaution. Without any hesitation, we shook hands on the offer, and I left the interview elated. My start date would be in April, and a contract would be drawn up and mailed the next week. In the interim I planned to visit my grown children in San Francisco and Miami, and to enjoy a couple more weeks of downtime after four very demanding years as a city councillor. Life was good!
My elation was short-lived. The next morning (Super Tuesday) we awoke to discover that our dog Eddie had died suddenly in the wee hours. His still-warm body lay next to our bed. Eddie was almost 9, still young for a small dog. We later learned that he had undiagnosed liver cancers that had ruptured. I blogged about losing Eddie, so I won’t go into detail here, but in hindsight I can’t help but think it was an omen of greater changes to come. And also that Eddie, like many other family pets, would have reveled in having his people self-isolating at home for an extended period. A high-anxiety dog, he also would have appreciated the eerie quiet and lack of traffic on the streets. After bringing Eddie’s body to our vet to be cremated, I decided I should carry on with my commitments for the day, so I went to the dentist and kept two one-on-one meetings that were on my calendar. Having read reports of toilet paper hoarding and runs on Purell hand sanitizer, I stopped by CVS and bought some Lysol spray and disinfecting wipes just to be safe. My husband and I went to bed Tuesday night without the ritual of a nightly dog walk, and were disappointed that U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren had been trounced in her home state by Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. Happy Women’s History Month :-/
When I woke up Wednesday and remembered I no longer had a dog to walk before breakfast, Eddie’s premature passing brought me low. In his final days he had taken many of his old bones out of his toy basket and placed them under the dining table, as if hoarding them there. I channeled my grief by writing about Eddie, collecting photos of him to share with my family and talking to sympathetic friends.
By Thursday, reports of the virus’ spread were starting to make me slightly uneasy. That evening would be the last time I attended a large public gathering. In fact, I might have bailed had I not been the guest of honor at a local nonprofit’s annual fundraiser that had been planned for months. Tutoring Plus’ “Tropical Party” gala was held at the Broad Institute in Kendall Square, and I received the Children’s Champion award and gave a short speech. About 150 people attended, including the mayor and three of my former City Council colleagues. We chatted about their trip the next week to the annual National League of Cities conference in Washington, which draws more than 1,000 officials from cities and towns across the country The mayor expressed some qualms about traveling to a conference under the circumstances, but she knew it would be awkward for her to stay home when a large delegation from the city was going. I took special care not to shake any of the hands offered me in congratulations, and my husband and I wore gloves riding the T to and from the event.
The very next day the Broad Institute announced that gatherings of more than 100 people would no longer be allowed, and I recall thinking that Tutoring Plus had been lucky its event had slipped under the wire; other nonprofits relying on spring fundraisers to keep them operating in the black wouldn’t be so fortunate, and by the month’s end many would see their donations fall off the cliff in the wake of the financial collapse.
That Friday the news broke that three employees of Biogen, a Kendall Square life sciences powerhouse, had tested positive for the virus following a company conference in Boston at the end of February. Ultimately at least 100 people who either attended the Biogen conference or who had close contact with an attendee would test positive for the virus. Ironic as it seemed that the first large cluster of cases locally originated within a leading biotech company, it probably shouldn’t have surprised us, given how international and mobile the Kendall Square biotech community is. In hindsight, the Kendall Square Association may want to reword its promotional slogan touting how the area offers innovators unparalleled chances to “bump and connect” unless the bumping doesn’t involve any touching. As the crisis deepened, the Cambridge biotech community has rallied, contributing generously to local relief funds ($1 million from Biogen and $6 million from Takeda), accelerating research into vaccines (Moderna), and processing hundreds of tests daily (Broad Institute).
Also on March 6, the SXSW festival, due to start in Austin the following week, announced its cancellation, a wakeup call that the virus would have a devastating impact not only on musicians and filmmakers, but on local economies that are creative centers. That morning I had been scheduled to meet a friend for lunch at a popular cafe-brewery near Kendall Square; I brought wipes and cleaned the table where I sat waiting for him. The cafe was busy, but no one else seemed concerned enough to have brought wipes, so I felt a little silly. My friend had mixed up the time and didn’t show up. We rescheduled our meetup as a walk along the Charles River the following Monday. The weather was sunny and mild, daffodils were popping up, and he brought me a loaf of homemade bread as an apology. We joked about not shaking hands. Baking bread has since experienced a surge, with people staying home and rediscovering their kitchens can be used for actual cooking instead of simply warming up takeout. Now there are even shortages of yeast and flour in some stores.
On Saturday night we had tickets to see our old friends Paul Rishell and Annie Raines play at Club Passim, and we were not yet worried enough about the virus to forgo the rare chance to see them play. (If you aren’t familiar with Paul and Annie’s music, they are among the foremost practitioners of traditional Delta blues. Visit their website.) Passim holds only about 100 people, and everyone is seated at preassigned tables, so strangers aren’t touching one another or common surfaces, though what we now think of as appropriate “social distancing” (staying 6 feet apart) would be impossible at Passim. We went with two old friends, one of whom is a transplant surgeon. He didn’t seem worried about the outing, so I felt self-conscious about pulling out the wipes I’d brought along to clean our table. Still, I did not want to risk lining up to use one of the club’s two small restrooms, so after two beers and dinner I was relieved to get home. I felt a pang when no dog was there to greet us at the door on our return.
We set the clocks ahead an hour for Daylight Savings Time on Sunday, losing an hour but gaining later sunsets. March 8 was the day Italy locked down its entire northern region, and some Americans (though still not our president) began to realize that community spread had the potential to overwhelm our medical system very quickly.
And yet basketball fans were still holding onto the hope it would be possible to keep the NBA season going and even to hold the March Madness college tournament. Their hopes were dashed later in the week. Professional ice hockey and Major League Baseball’s spring training were also paused. My husband took this news hard. I later joked with my son, “What will guys talk about without professional sports?” (Of course, there is that other obvious locker room topic.) People speculate about whether there’ll be a quarantine baby boom, while others wonder about safe dating during a pandemic and even how people having extramarital affairs or in secret polygamous relationships will explain their whereabouts. Sadly, it appears domestic violence is already on the rise amid the stress of “sheltering in place” and juggling working from home with homeschooling all under huge financial pressure.
The second Monday in March marked my last purely social outing for the foreseeable future. I met another former city councillor, Craig Kelley, for beer(s) at a low-key neighborhood bar called Paddy’s. I brought wipes and cleaned off the table. We were literally the only people there apart from the bartender. A former Marine with experience in disaster relief, Craig had often talked about preparing for disease vectors when he chaired the council’s public safety committee; he was a voice in the wind and has every right to say “I told you so.” A city that prides itself on being better resourced and more forward thinking than average, Cambridge was caught just as flat-footed as most other U.S. cities and is now scrambling to meet the myriad needs of our community. The first actions have included activating the Mayor’s Disaster Relief Fund to facilitate grants to individuals and small businesses, repurposing school buses to deliver bagged lunches to children across the city, and converting the War Memorial athletic center into a temporary shelter for the homeless. I do not envy the city leaders being thrust into the maelstrom of a public health emergency while every other policy initiative is paused. While our idiot president is fond of saying this pandemic is like “nothing anyone has ever seen before,” in fact public health experts have been warning leaders for years that such a new virus could, well, go viral. In the absence of proactive federal leadership, cities and states have been left to make their own emergency plans on the fly and to bid against each other for ventilators, masks and test kits. The lack of personal protective equipment for medical personnel is a scandal.
On Tuesday, I reluctantly canceled my flights in late March and early April. I’d been really looking forward to seeing my children, but nonessential travel seemed too risky. JetBlue wins my loyalty for refunding my tickets; Delta gave me only a voucher to use in the future. The last time I saw my children was over Christmas, and now I’m wondering if an entire year, or more, will go by before it’s safe to travel by air. Sure, we can, and do, stay in close touch virtually, but it’s not the same. In my darkest moments I fear that one of us will get sick and die without being able to say goodbye in person. There, I said it. I have a hard time naming my fears, but I know it’s an important means of managing anxiety. This article helped me understand that what many of us are feeling now is anticipatory grief. The sense of loss is hitting us in waves, collectively and individually. With everything in limbo we feel psychologically untethered even when we are forced to tether ourselves to our homes, assuming we are fortunate enough to have a safe place to shelter.
The World Health Organization officially declared the “novel Covid-19 virus” an international pandemic on Wednesday, but public schools, libraries, playgrounds and many retail businesses still remained open.
Our every-other-week housecleaners were scheduled to come this Wednesday, and even though in the back of mind I wondered if it was a good idea, I let them come since I hadn’t thought to cancel in advance. And I reasoned that, after all, they’d be using disinfectants and wearing gloves to clean. From now on I will mail them a check rather than risk their health or ours. Our house has never been cleaner, since I’m now wiping kitchen and bathroom surfaces far more scrupulously than ever before.
Late in the first week of March the gym where my husband and I go daily had started to put out tubs of disinfecting wipes and asked people to bring their own yoga mats. But it would be another week (not until March 16) before the club canceled its group exercise classes, and it didn’t shut entirely until March 23, when the city ordered all nonessential public facilities to close. In my final few gym workouts during the second week of March I began to worry about whether other club members might be shedding the virus while still asymptomatic, so I disinfected the treadmill carefully before and after my workout and stopped using any of the weight machines or free weights. As always, I tried to keep an empty treadmill between me and anyone else, which wasn’t a problem since fewer people seemed to be coming to the gym. I even started washing my hands at the gym before getting on my bike to ride home. By the second week of the month, I was anxious enough that I wore gloves while running on the treadmill, which was hot and felt absurd, so I decided it was safer to run outdoors. I think my last visit to the gym was Wednesday, March 11. Since then I’ve been running between 3 and 5 miles daily and lifting weights at home; one silver lining is that between running and taking walks with my husband every day both my cardiovascular fitness and step count are way up. I’m still paying my gym dues, but I honestly don’t know if I will want to go back. A home treadmill may be in my future.
By this Thursday the Marriott Long Wharf Hotel where the Biogen conference took place had shut down, and a few days later we learned that the virus had spread to a Marriott employee and their family. “Community spread” had become a new part of our vernacular, along with “social distancing.” We were all advised to avoid large gatherings (first it was up to 100, and subsequently the number fell practically daily down to no more than 10). For the first time ever, the Boston Marathon had to be postponed (to a date in September, which may not be realistic). Our social orbits began to shrink like the pupils of our eyes contract in bright light; the bright light was like the headlight of a virus train speeding toward us through a tunnel as we were tied to the tracks. Instructional videos on how to wash our hands like a surgeon, while singing “Happy Birthday” twice, began circulating online, and Purell became as rare as hen’s teeth.
My 25-year-old daughter, who had been in Marin County with her boyfriend’s family for a week, flew home to Miami that night. I was anxious about her flying, and I texted her to suggest she take a shower immediately when she got home. There was no hot water in her apartment; after summoning a plumber the next day she and her roommate discovered that it was because they hadn’t paid their gas bill – they’d moved in only the month before, and the landlord’s agent didn’t tell them the hot water was gas-fueled and they’d need to put the account in their name. The stove and heat, seldom needed in Miami Beach, are both electric. Lesson learned for young renters: Ask more questions.
On Friday the President declared a national emergency for the “Chinese virus” (the more people objected to his calling it that, the more he doubled down on his race-baiting). Only a couple of weeks earlier he’d suggested was a hoax invented by the Democrats. Even he couldn’t ignore the worst week for the U.S. stock market since the financial crisis of 2008; by the end of the month the comparison would be to the Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression.
This was the last day Cambridge Public Schools and libraries were open. Teachers said goodbye to their students not knowing when or if they’d resume classes.
We begin to learn what it means to “flatten the curve” and to realize that even if we succeed in spreading cases out over time so as not to overwhelm hospitals and intensive care units, we will be self-isolating for many weeks or months to come. The curve flattens but it also lengthens, potentially well into the summer.
I first began to be frightened that Friday the 13th night (not because I was watching a horror movie) when after 9 p.m. I got a call from an emergency physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Dr. Jeremy Faust, sounding the alarm about the critical need for more “pop-up” testing sites in Boston. He had found my number online and was calling anyone he thought might have access to local decision-makers. He shared an editorial he had written for The Washington Post and sounded so worried, even panicked, that I relayed his message immediately to the mayor and city manager. Since then Faust has appeared on CNN, WGBH and with Katie Couric, but curiously Cambridge still does not have a testing site. Patients of the Cambridge Health Alliance can get tested at CHA Somerville Hospital, but other Cambridge residents have to go to a Boston hospital, and only if they are already symptomatic or have a documented close contact with someone who tested positive. Originally the Health Alliance intended to open additional testing sites, but has since backed off that promise due to supply shortages. The National Guard Armory on Concord Avenue has a huge empty parking lot and building where there appears to be no activity whatsoever. Could it be used as a test site if the supplies become available?
We had invited three good friends for dinner at our house on this evening, a Saturday. A couple of days before I began to wonder if it was wise to gather even such a small group. I’d already canceled my trip to Miami the next day. None of us had symptoms, and none of us had traveled abroad recently, but I still worried we might be carriers without knowing. On the Thursday before I emailed to cancel the dinner, and I could sense that they felt I was overreacting. Now my decision seems like a no-brainer.
I also canceled the renewal of my monthly T pass for April to save myself $90; I was not alone in trying to save money, and in March transit ridership and revenues decreased dramatically. I was now beginning to wonder if my job offer would evaporate and to realize I could be unemployed for much longer than I’d anticipated. After a career working for nonprofits and in public service while living in one of the most expensive cities in the country, my savings are scant. My husband is 74 and retired, and his stock portfolio is taking a beating. We own our home and are fortunate in that respect.
Cambridge canceled nonessential public meetings and began making plans to hold future City Council and School Committee meetings online.
My 31-year-old son and his girlfriend (as of April 1, his fiancée!) escaped their apartment in San Francisco to a ski house in Tahoe they’d rented for the winter. They’d have more room there to spread out while working from home. There was a huge snowfall that weekend, but the resort closed down on Sunday; they spent two weeks there in snowy isolation, returning home at the end of month when the seasonal lease was up.
Gatherings of more than 25 people are prohibited in Cambridge. Even before Faust’s alarming call, my husband and I had voluntarily started to follow what became known as “shelter in place” guidelines like those San Francisco would soon institute. We went outside only for exercise and began trying to order groceries for delivery. I say “trying” because deliveries were becoming almost impossible to schedule; later, stores began to reserve the first early morning hour of shopping for senior citizens to reduce crowding and exposure. My husband now puts on a mask and gloves to do the shopping, and I assiduously disinfect all the packaging and soap-scrub all the produce. We even quarantine some packaged goods for a few days before bringing them into the kitchen. Teamwork! I would note that scheduling same-day delivery of beer and wine was still very possible at the end of the month.
At the beginning of the third week of March, Cambridge took stronger action to reduce community spread. Only essential businesses such as grocery stores and pharmacies were allowed to remain open. Municipal buildings, schools, libraries and playgrounds all were closed. Restaurants had to stop table service but could continue to offer takeout and delivery. Most small businesses closed and laid off their workers, resulting in an unprecedented flood of unemployment claims. Overnight our business districts, already struggling to fill vacant storefronts, became ghost towns.
That morning while running at Fresh Pond Reservoir, I passed Sen. Warren with her husband and dog (they walk most every morning she is in town). The night before Sanders and Biden, suddenly the frontrunner, had held their first one-on-one debate. The debate had been moved from Arizona to Washington so they didn’t have to risk travel, and the candidates stood 6 feet apart. There was no studio audience. As I jogged by, I said, “We missed you on the debate stage last night” and she gave me the praying hands sign in silent thanks.
Public opinion started to turn around St. Patrick’s Day. The big parade in Boston had been canceled, but photos of crowds lining up outside Irish bars in South Boston stoked outrage and raised fears of greater community spread. New Orleans is learning a bitter lesson after allowing Mardi Gras to go on. Florida is coming to regret allowing partying spring breakers to crowd its beaches through late March.
The city suspended parking meter payments and announced street cleaning would not resume in April as planned. Trash and recycling collection continues, but our organic food waste is now combined with trash going into landfill.
To protect the safety of workers, the city declared a moratorium on construction except for residential buildings of three units or fewer. New permits won’t be granted, indefinitely. This strikes at the heart of a local economy and tax base largely driven by a booming real estate sales and development market. Spring is typically the peak of residential property sales; now real estate agents cannot safely show houses and condos in person. Contracts have to be signed virtually. Buyers’ savings earmarked for down payments are worth a fraction of what they were a few weeks ago. With people realizing that working from home is actually feasible for many jobs in the knowledge industry, it begins to be whispered that the commercial office market may be overbuilt already. Some office projects in the planning and permitting pipeline could become residential, or may never be built if the financing doesn’t hold together.
Cambridge declared a public health emergency, which by this point was a procedural formality.
Cambridge Local First, a nonprofit I’m involved with as a member of their board of advisers, held its first community video call with small-business owners to discuss the impact of the closings and what might be done to help them survive. The situation is dire for many of them. A Central Square business district survey estimated that 60 percent of businesses wouldn’t survive if the crisis lasted more than eight weeks.
It’s Friday, but the days of the week are beginning to run together. For my 29-year-old daughter in her first year of business school at the University of California, Berkeley, it was the last day of classes before spring break. Already her recent classes and midterms had been held online. She and her boyfriend had planned to spend the following week in Turkey. Instead, they would continue to self-isolate in his studio apartment in the Mission – the 2020 version of a “stay-cation.”
Harvard announced that its 2020 graduation will be held online. Having already canceled campus visit days in April for newly admitted students, other local universities also make the difficult choice to cancel their end-of-year festivities. Earlier in 2020, local hotels and restaurants were alarmed that Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology had somehow scheduled their commencements over the same weekend at the end of May, potentially depriving the local economy of the usual opportunity to enjoy two very profitable long weekends. Now, most hospitality businesses are closed, and many are facing bankruptcy.
The city announced that it would begin contracting with local restaurants to prepare and deliver meals for homeless people. Also the state announced it would grant extensions and waivers for remitting hotel room occupancy taxes and meals/sales taxes for restaurants and small businesses. Some health care workers began living in hotels so they wouldn’t bring the virus home to their families.
Suddenly we are all appearing on Hollywood Squares, or rather as participants in Zoom video conferences with friends, family and co-workers. A silver lining is that people are reconnecting with friends they may not have seen in years; we are checking in with college classmates, extended family members and others we’ve fallen out of close touch with. Emails close with “Take care” and “Stay safe” as we come to better appreciate our friendships as critical support networks.
By the start of the fourth week of the month, and under pressure from elected officials and online petitions, Gov. Charlie Baker finally issued a “stay at home advisory” for Massachusetts. Initially it was for only two weeks (to April 7), but by the end of March it had been extended through May 4.
Cambridge ordered all gyms, dance studios, hair and nail salons and other nonessential personal care businesses to close. The ban on plastic shopping bags was lifted, as reusable shopping bags were deemed a potential risk to spreading the virus. Score one for the all-powerful plastic industry lobbyists.
The Olympic Committee surprised almost no one by postponing the 2020 Games for one year. Tokyo 2021 is now on the calendar, and we can only hope a vaccination will be available by then, or else the Games may be thinly attended.
Congress passed a $2 trillion stimulus package, which almost immediately was acknowledged to be a fraction of what will be needed to help people and businesses survive. A one-time $1,200 payment to adults making less than $75,000 annually won’t go far in high-cost Cambridge. Millions of people have lost their jobs and businesses, and many will lose health insurance along with their jobs.
Opening Day for the Boston Red Sox came and went without the crack of a single bat. I wonder if Fenway Park will see any games this year, or if it might be converted to a field hospital. Summer concerts at the ballpark seem very unlikely, and the public health risk of attracting crowds to the annual Fourth of July Pops concert on the Esplanade and fireworks may be too great.
Massachusetts extended its income tax deadline to July 15 to match the new federal deadline. It’s a small consolation to those who are overwhelming the unemployment office with claims. The University of Massachusetts projects it will lose $70 million in refunds to students for unused room and board; in total, higher ed institutions in the state may lose as much as $670 million to refunds. The amount of money in the federal stimulus plan was a small faction of the relief higher ed had asked for. Higher ed is one of the top employers in metro Boston, and its survival is absolutely vital to the local economy.
The city will waive fees for credit card payments of municipal bills and will not charge interest or penalties on late payments on water and sewer bills.
Families with young children eager for distraction began to take part in a “bear hunt” – no, real bears are not marauding Cambridge; rather, they are hunting for teddy bears placed in windows and on front porches. I freed a couple bears from the years of isolation on the top shelf of my daughter’s bedroom closet and sat them outside next to our mailbox. Speaking of mail, I left last week’s issue of The New Yorker outside for a few days to rid it of any virus.
Another ripple effect: While medical marijuana dispensaries may remain open to registered patients, adult-use cannabis stores are not considered “essential” and are closed. Statewide, only a handful of retail cannabis stores had made it through the permitting gauntlet, and now the others in the pipeline will be stalled indefinitely and may be unable to continue paying rent to hold locations that won’t be allowed to open any time soon. Cannabis business regulations consumed a huge chunk of the City Council’s bandwidth last year, and because of continued legal wrangling, no adult-use store has yet managed to open in Cambridge. Some were worried there would be too many stores clustered in Central Square; that seems a less immediate concern than having blocks of empty storefronts. But it may mean that “economic empowerment” and “social equity” cannabis businesses will see their dreams derailed, while Big Cannabis may be deep-pocketed enough to survive this crisis relatively unscathed.
The first coronavirus-related death of a Cambridge resident was reported this day, a man in his 80s. The virus is expected to be more lethal for the elderly and those with preexisting conditions. So far, about two-thirds of confirmed cases in Cambridge are among people younger than 50. This may be because our population is relatively young (I think the average age of a Cambridge resident is around 33) and because younger people are more likely to have been exposed at workplaces or schools and may lead more active social lives. Just over 60 percent of cases are among women, which could be because women are more apt to be taking care of children who may be asymptomatic carriers. The people testing positive at this point in the month may have been exposed before the stricter stay-at-home orders were widely adopted. I’m not a public health expert, so these are only my best guesses as to why the virus seems to be hitting younger Cambridge women disproportionately.
I took part in two Zoom social hangouts with fellow environmentalists from Mothers Out Front and Green Cambridge. Advocates have been quick to note that putting the brakes on the global economy could be the wakeup call we need to address the threat of climate change, and that already air quality is improving with the reduction in emissions from commuters staying home. Along with the increase in crisis-cooking, interest in growing food has surged to the point where there are shortages of seeds. How can we use the coronavirus crisis as a pivot point to start to live more sustainably? Can the millions out of work find new jobs in the green economy?
I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I suffered a minor meltdown when I heard that Mount Auburn Cemetery had made the difficult decision to close to the public as of this day. My husband and I had walked there recently and were anticipating the imminent arrival of the cemetery’s most beautiful season. The day we walked it was a little more crowded than usual but still very possible to maintain a safe distance from other people. Unfortunately, some visitors had broken so many ground rules for behavior in a sacred place – letting children climb on the monuments, bringing dogs and letting them off-leash, jogging and biking – that the staff didn’t feel they would be able to enforce the standards of respectful behavior. On the last day the cemetery was open, a chilly, drizzly Sunday morning, I spent 90 minutes there walking the paths, virtually alone, taking photos of spring buds. I reflected on what we’ve all been through over the past month, and tried not to dwell on what more may be in store for us. As if by kismet, my eye was drawn to the name on an imposing monument that I’ve probably passed dozens of times without noticing: Peter B. (Bent) Brigham (1807-1877), the benefactor of the Brigham Hospital whose doctors and nurses are among those on the frontlines today.
The annual Boston Calling music festival over Memorial Day was canceled. Residents who have complained about the noise coming across the river from the concert venue on Harvard’s athletic fields can be assured that Harvard Square will be very quiet this Memorial Day and beyond – way too quiet. Summer academic programs are likely to be canceled, and tourism probably will be way down.
Ironically, the band Rage Against the Machine was one of the music festival headliners. If ever there was a time to rage against the machine, it is now, and at the end of March loyal supporters of Sanders began to circulate a new meme: “Reality endorsed Bernie.” I have to say, they have a point.
The reality of everyone being hunkered down at home indefinitely – working from home, homeschooling their kids, and trying to keep at least 6 feet from others when outside, “Zooming” and FaceTiming with friends and family – has sunk in enough to become our new normal. To cope, I’ve adopted a one-day-at-a-time mentality, as if I’m in recovery from what used to be my normal life. Projecting too far into the future can be overwhelming, so I don’t let myself do it. I joke that my husband, who seems at peace spending the day reading, watching CNN and doing crossword puzzles, has had a few years of self-isolation training since retirement. For me, the sense of being in limbo has been a gradual adjustment, but I’m starting to settle into it. At first I kept myself busy culling and organizing overstuffed closets, file cabinets, shelves and drawers. I’ve read several books and watched a lot of television and movies. I’ve wasted too much time on Twitter and hate-watching the White House press briefings. But on the plus side, I’ve used my daily walks to observe closely the creeping approach of spring and to appreciate anew the rich variety and charm of Cambridge neighborhoods.
People are beginning to mark time as “Before” and “After” Covid-19 (a new B.C. and A.C.) and saying we will not be the same as a society. It’s much too soon to say exactly how we will be different, only that we will be, already have been, changed by this experience.
What I’m grateful for (partial list):
That we have amazingly dedicated doctors and nurses on the front lines.
That my family and friends are healthy. (So far. Knock wood.)
That my husband is good company and a role model in how to handle self-isolation gracefully.
That we have a safe, comfortable place to live and enough food to eat.
That we have broadband and cellphone service.
That we don’t have to juggle working from home with homeschooling children.
That we can still go outside daily for fresh air and exercise.
That the days are getting longer and warmer. This isolation would have been even more painful had it begun in November, when the dark and cold are closing in, and if it was preventing us from being with loved ones over the holidays.
That the Cambridge community is finding ways to help its most vulnerable members and to support each other in other ways. (Check out the newly organized Cambridge Mutual Aid Network.)
That writing brings me comfort and a sense of control over a world that has gone off the rails.
Jan Devereux is a former city councillor, vice mayor and leader of the Fresh Pond Residents Alliance.