COVID-19: Week by Week
It has certainly been an interesting time these past few weeks. I figured it might be worthwhile to document my thoughts on the whole timeline from my perspective. Perhaps once the dust settles, and we can have a bit of retrospection, we’ll appreciate what it was like to experience it from the inside.
I’ll do my best to avoid any sort of judgements or condescension; I certainly don’t have all the answers nor the background information. Any strong feelings on my part would likely be futile. There’s no shortage of opinions out there, and I don’t intend to contribute to that outside my personal observations. I’ll also add my thoughts from a small business perspective, since that has been subject to a sizable portion of the disruption. Needless to say, I will also avoid anything political as I would anyway since that never helps anything.
March - Week 1
It was early in March when I started hearing about the Wuhan Coronavirus, as it was called by most places at the time. Shortly after the more technical term - COVID-19 - was used, just like Swine Flu became H1N1 years ago. There were some rumblings about that name being insensitive, but since that was the objective point of origin, I’m not entirely sure what renaming the disease accomplished. That said, I’m not really of the opinion that the original name was problematic, nor do I care that it was changed. It’s a small point in the grand scheme of things. There were, however, some issues with declining business in areas like Chinatown, which seemed bizarre, but maybe that played into it.
Anyway, for the first few weeks my initial thoughts mirrored those of the several disease scares that have happened in the past: swine flu, SARS, ebola, flesh eating bacteria, etc. While I’m sure they affected people, and for those who had to endure them first hand it surely must have been unimaginable, nothing ever seemed to come from it. We didn’t take any large scale precautions, and people didn’t really react or alter their daily routine.
Compared to COVID, there was almost in inverse relationship between the media-portrayed scariness of the disease and the public’s reaction. Ebola was going to liquefy your guts, flesh eating bacteria would rot your leg off if you bumped it on a coffee table, and SARS/swine flu were other incurable and potentially deadly inflictions. In contrast, COVID-19 was initially portrayed as just sort of a ‘worse flu’ affecting older people many of whom had pre-existing conditions.
During this initial time, people I encountered were largely unconcerned. They repeated mortality statistics for the regular flu, numbers that dwarfed those from COVID at the time. Granted the virus hadn’t hit stateside yet, but it’s also easy to forget how many still die from the ‘normal’ flu season. The only real concern seemed to be from Italy, though it remained a distant worry. Economic troubles began to appear even while the actual virus hadn’t. The stock market was a primary concern, but since that’s fickle on a normal day and subject to the whims of traders, I personally didn’t see it as a concern. It would bounce back again, no harm, no foul.
March - Week 2
The second week of March was when things seemed to shift. I work at a higher education school and saw some correspondence regarding the students studying abroad in Italy. There was a possibility that they may not be able to return home after the semester ended. Also during this week there were rapid fire e-mails coming out daily regarding updates and preparedness. I noticed them as well from other companies, mainly utilities or vendors. It seemed like everyone was trying to cover their bases, and it felt like more of a formality than anything else.
Thursday, March 12 rolled around and things started to hit closer to home. The elementary schools were rumored to be closing the following week, and the universities planned on extending spring break, followed by some distance learning before resuming in mid-April. By the weekend the elementary schools followed, initially for a one-week duration.
It was at that point when the grocery stores went crazy. There were memes and jokes about toilet paper being bought in bulk before this point, but it hadn’t really been noticeable until that Saturday. I had put off my shopping due to some other obligations, but dropped by after my evening shift around 8:00 PM. I was warned to go earlier, but I didn’t want to play into the panic. In the back of my mind, it was the same virus scare that appears every few years to upset people and raise emotions.
Arriving at the supermarket, I casually went right to the cleaning supply aisle and, sure enough, it was stripped bare. Pretty much everything else was there though, save for hand sanitizer and eggs. Now I live in an area that has occasional snow storms that sometimes prohibit travel, usually not lasting longer than a day… if that. However, people continually buy milk and bread every single time there’s an unfavorable forecast. Sometimes when I see a herd of people while shopping, I wonder if snow is coming. Nevertheless, I grabbed what I needed without much of a problem and had enough of everything else for a while.
Sunday rolled around, and most businesses were just being cautious. If they didn’t have customers gathering in close quarters, they just reaffirmed that they were sanitizing things even more, and certain indoor areas might have restricted crowd sizes. I believe the official gathering size was limited to 250 people at this time. Restaurants were still open, but many people were simply staying home voluntarily. We went to a Japanese place for sushi and it was pretty dead in there.
March - Week 3
The following week began much in the same way. If you could work from home, there were allowances to let you do so. With schools closed most people had to anyway. My kids’ school had already prepared material and video conferencing options, but I heard many others simple moved April vacation forward so they would have extra time to get some sort of distance plan in action. I still went into work, but I was one of the few. With the lack of co-workers, I didn’t see much of an issue going out. I know many people didn’t feel comfortable working though, and this caused some tension between employers and employees. Without a firm state or local mandate, it was left up in the air.
My business took it pretty hard though. Only the faithful customers were coming in, many of them calling ahead since a lot of places were voluntarily shutting their doors. We made sure that everything was extra clean so people felt comfortable. There was also not much of a need for people to hang around in the waiting area, so crowds never became an issue. Still income was down about 60-80%.
During this week, the gathering size was reduced from 250 to 20, and restaurants were prohibited from dine-in service. Take-out and drive-through were the only approved methods. As the week went on, there were rumors about other businesses being subject to restrictions or outright closures. Those that matched our line of work seemed to be okay, at least for the time being. The slow-down in business was difficult enough. An entire shutdown would be unimaginable.
As the weekend approached, the mayor of the nearby city issued a mandatory close of non-essential business types some which did match ours. However since it was a local mandate and not state-wide, it didn’t apply. Later the state governor was set to issue a news conference on Sunday though, so that didn’t sound promising. We were out and about Sunday - the one day off we get a week - but most of that was then tied up trying to figure out what was actually said. Most was summarized by local news outlets and didn’t really outline everything. The best we could figure was that some more businesses were set to close by 5PM on Monday. Ours wasn’t mentioned specifically, even though it felt close, so I figured the best course would be to call in on Monday and clarify it from the source.
March - Week 4
As we entered week four, I found out that another identical business in the state announced that they would be open. I gave them a call and it seemed like they were betting on the mandate not explicitly listing our type, so he was going to see where it went. I called as well, and the official hotline didn’t really confirm things either way. I had a moment of hope, but then got a call from my morning help that the police showed up and ordered our open-sign to be shut off. Even though the mandate allowed through 5PM, I guess it was just to wrap things up, so we did.
I’ve kept the business details a bit vague since they’re not important (and no, it’s nothing scandalous), but I will state that it is very seasonal. Two to three months in the Spring typically generate most of the income for the year and generally carry the remainder which operates at a net-loss. So while the reduction in income was already hard to manage, an out-right shutdown was downright scary. Luckily I had enough reserved from the past few years to float some period of downtime, but it’s a double blow working through the savings, while also not building up that reserve for the coming off-season.
I continued going to my main job, and the remainder of the week wasn’t terribly eventful, but there were more signs that this wasn’t going to be over anytime soon. The only real additional mandate was the further reduction of crowds from 20 to 10, and the order to self-quarantine if you arrived from neighboring states. To facilitate this, state police would be pulling over everyone with out-of-state license plates, informing them of the quarantine order as well as asking them where they were going and why. Some businesses were also posting signs that people from those states were not welcome. After only a few days, the constitutionality of this was compounded by a lawsuit threat against the state, and it was quickly dropped. But not without further reducing the gathering sizes from 10 down to 5.
This was announced at a press conference containing 6, sooooooo…
April - Week 1
Hot on the heels of the last mandate, the last day of March brought with it a compete closure of all of the remaining business that weren’t deemed essential. Liquor stores and weed distributors were considered essential, so it seemed to be at random, or at least for those who had some political pull. My main job vacated everyone for a week, due to a six-degrees of Kevin Bacon type scenario. I guess some vendor dropped by and someone he knew had the virus, so it was best to err on the side of caution. There was a general stay-at-home order, but it didn’t really stop anyone. Finally by Friday, all beaches and state parks were closed to visitors. Well you could still walk there, but no parking. To be fair, the outdoor walking paths were packed with people. Options were limited, so getting outside was one of the only viable choices. On the other hand, no one was really on top of each other. There was nothing to really come in contact either, so I feel this was a little restrictive for the payoff.
April - Week 2
We ventured outside the state for the first time. With all the state parks closed, we had a membership to a private one and took a walk there. On the way there, we had seen several police vehicles parked every so often on the opposite side. So we anticipated something upon returning. Though the issue to pull over any out of state cars are ruled against, it was simply replaced with a sign instructing all out of state cars to pull into the rest stop for questioning… else they pull you over. Seemed like a technicality, but the National Guard were very nice and waved us through since we said we were going home without stopping.
April - Week 3
Time moves slower as this progresses. The fast and furious changes to public policy have slowed down. There have been more threats of fines and regulations, but everyone is more or less apathetic. There isn't much more that can be removed, short of an all-out stay at home notice. We're hoping for an end in sight, and there seems to be some signs that the cases are reaching their peak.
Caution vs Cost
So the big question is: were the various restrictions, shut-downs, and general disruptions worth it? It seems that opinions vary from one end of the spectrum to the other. Some were rallying for a complete shutdown during the first week. Others were desperate to avoid a potential permanent business closure should this continue too long. I certainly don’t envy anyone in a position to have to make these calls. No one wants to say that any amount of deaths are acceptable.
Some things made sense off the bat through. Closing schools was a no-brainer. Pretty much any time I’ve been sick in recent history, it’s when kids bring it home. It was probably also wise to prevent the spring breakers from coming directly back to campus. After a week of debauchery, covid-19 was probably the least of the things they would bring home, but it was the one that could affect innocent bystanders.
Alterations to restaurants were likely a good move, as people sitting in the same booth and rotating hourly would likely provide the virus ample opportunity to jump from person to table and back to a another person. I saw that as more of a threat than general congregation of people, but everything is erring on the side of caution. Plus the businesses could still operate. Everyone was getting hit hard with the reduction in foot traffic already, but it was helpful that some limited business operations were still allowed.
So that leads to the other shutdowns. For those who could work from home, this was a welcome way to continue working and receiving pay. For those who couldn’t or relied on customer flow for their job, this posed a problem as the closures became more restrictive. Safe to say, a great many people were hit rather hard economically either through lack of work, or worse as business owners who had no safety net.
I’ll return to the initial statements about the normal flu resulting in much higher death tolls. While this is true by the numbers, sometimes stats at face value can be somewhat misleading. Death toll is usually the final count that most care about, but also important are total infections, transmission rate, and overall mortality. There’s also the non-quantifiable things like illness intensity. Granted no one wants to be sick, but there’s a difference between the common cold that you muscle through, and the flu which incapacitates you. Let’s look at some of the recent pandemic bogeyman as well as a few historic ones. I’ll only use CDC values for consistency. I wish they had some master lists, as the information is scattered all over their site, but I don’t want to introduce a middleman and get anything off another aggregate page.
We’ll start with COVID-19’s cousin, SARS, also a coronavirus. We didn’t really get a pandemic, as the US only ended up with eight cases and no deaths. Ebola - arguably much scarier - had even less. We brought in 11 cases for secure treatment, but only four US citizens were infected locally. There was one total death state-side. However in Africa upwards of 27,000 were infected with 11,000 deaths. This was roughly a 40% mortality rate which is alarming, but the local healthcare available needs to be factored in. Another high mortality disease was avian flu, commonly present in domesticated birds but occasionally jumping to humans. While it had a similar 40% mortality rate, it didn’t spread as quickly. One of the worst outbreaks in China resulted in roughly 1,500 deaths.
Now let’s take a look at H1N1, aka Swine Flu in 2009 and Spanish Flu in 1918. The 1918 outbreak during its several-year span infected 30,000,000 in the US (28% of the population) and resulted in 675,000 deaths. This places mortality around 2.25%. While H1N1 stuck around for almost 30 years through cyclical flu seasons, 2009 was another harder hitting outbreak. This time twice as many were infected (though the population had tripled), and 12,400 died. Mortality was 0.02%, one hundredth of the original. The numbers are still huge, but the evidence of modern medicine speaks for itself. The one thing that separated H1N1 from the modern flu, was its effect on younger people. Typically older people have weakened immune systems and are more susceptible to complications, however in this case the youth simply lacked the ability to fight off the virus, while those who were older generally had some exposure at some point prior in life.
Now, how about the regular flu. Well there’s no single flu, but we lump them into the expected cyclical flu season. 2018’s numbers were quite high in recent history, while 2012 was an anomalous low. In 2018, 45,000,000 people caught the flu, resulting in 61,000 deaths. This is a slightly lower infection rate compared to 2009’s H1N1, but with a mortality six time’s higher.
COVID is hard to calculate since at the time of writing, the peak has yet to be reached, and we only have the data for the initial ramp-up. At this point, the US has about 632,000 infections and 33,000 deaths - about a third in New York City alone. Mortality seems to be around 5.2% give or take a tenth. I will note, it was 2.1% when I started writing this. However I believe the the death reports are outpacing testing, since they are more tangible. It may level back again once the final numbers are known. I ran the numbers around a few local counties and my state as a whole, and the proportion holds up even at different orders of magnitude.
So yes, the numbers are smaller than the regular flu. However if we applied the mortality rate of COVID to that, we would have roughly 2.3 Million deaths rather than several thousand. This either means that it’s harder to catch or the quarantine is working. It’s probably a bit of both since keeping everyone away from schools, work, and most businesses likely stalled the initial infection rate. It’s also likely that it was harder to catch. One reasoning for this was the fact that it was not classified as airborne means. It needs something physical like water droplets from a cough or sneeze, or cross contamination through common contact surfaces.
You may have heard the term ‘flattening the curve’. Essentially in this theory, the same number of people would eventually get the virus, just not all at the onset. It’s less about overall mortality, but rather giving the health care system some room to work with all the cases over a longer period of time. This makes sense from that perspective, but comes at a steep economic cost. It’s made slightly more maddening when the governor goes on TV, daily, to scold everyone for not doing well enough. Every new case is justification for shutting more things down under the guise of saving lives, when in the end, it will certainly do no such thing. The only quarantine that is 100% effective, is one that identifies 100% of the infected or potentially infected, and keeps them 100% away from anyone else. We still have grocery stores and other essentials, so there are pathways for the virus to travel. I feel like an all-out lockdown at the start to genuinely stop the virus would have been one option, otherwise just some best practices with school and dine-in closings to mitigate it. No one wants to accept the fact that there will be inevitable deaths though, so I imagine most decisions tried to keep up appearances.
So here’s the fun section. I’ll just state off the bat that I don’t usually buy into most conspiracy theories. I feel that if you can’t prove something, then wild speculation doesn’t serve much purpose. We have a wide array at this point: everything from the virus being manmade from a collection of other viruses for the purpose of population control - to distractions from worldwide events.
Now while some of the root causes of any situation are debatable, I do believe that the response can certainly be swayed. “Never let a crisis go to waste.” We just passed the death toll for H1N1, yet there was no mass hysteria or quarantines for that. The amount of panic induced by the media and local leaders has been a night and day difference, so why are we taking this one so much more seriously?
It’s also curious that $2 Trillion is being spent to dig out of the economic hole that the shutdowns caused. I guess the cynical part of me believe that they would accept the death toll in any other case rather than spending the equivalent of 10% of the country’s GDP for a several week period. It does seem like ‘create a problem, then create a solution.’
Another theory is that this is just a way to manipulate the public by raising tensions. Certainly business owners are wondering if they will be able to open their doors once this is all done. Others who are out of work can get unemployment, but that isn’t immediate. On the other side, many are worried about the actual sickness either for them or others. Those who advocated for a complete shutdown are angry with those who still venture outside of their homes. Those who want to remain employed are annoyed at those who don’t see the need to keep businesses afloat.
Some responses were unsettling. I saw one post encouraging people to ‘name names’ when it came to non-compliance, and while I understand that this was done with a good heart, it’s disturbingly Orwellian. Our governor even got into the act by telling people to snap photos of crowds larger than the official gathering sizes (though with the current limit of 5, that should be hilarious).
I know this will pass, and we’ll get back to normal. Like any catastrophe, our memories are short and the impact of the changes that we endured will slowly fade. I guess if I had any hopes for retaining something position, it might be to rethink the way we deal with normal diseases. We can’t afford to have one of these every year; the impact COVID-19 has had is immense, but it won’t be the last. We also have the normal flu to deal with, which doesn’t get the same level of sensationalism, but still has a rather high death toll. Things like: ensuring that people actually stay home when sick rather than trudging through the work day, being better about sanitation of public places, or having more supplies on hand for times when supply wouldn’t normally be enough. To be fair, I feel like most of this already happens, and there’s diminishing returns for going much further; there’s plenty of other places that have been hit much harder.
I can’t wait to get my business back up and running. It’s looking like May now, so that’s two of the three good months down the drain, realistically at a $30,000 loss of income. I naturally won’t have as many of the expenses, but still. I needed this Spring season to float the rest of the year, so it’s going to be very tough going forward.
But we have our health, so that’s important too. Hopefully the remainder of 2020 gives us a little break. Sheesh…