The church parking lot across from my house is empty Sunday morning.
I take our family’s two dogs, Strider and Ross, out for their daily walk, and I run into nary a soul during our 30 minutes canvassing our neighborhood. When I come up our street, I run into the first person I see — my neighbor, Craig, a married father of two.
He’s scattering pine straw in the beds framing his front yard. We talk about kids, school and the yard-guy selection of pine straw over bark mulch. Easier to deal with, we surmise. Then, we broach the unseen that has cloaked our block, our city and our country with a growing sense of dread that’s hard to shake.
“It’s like a snow day without the snow,” I tell him.
“Yeah,” Craig responds. “But we don’t know when it’s going to end.”
True. We’re all hunkering down, and none of us have any idea when it’ll end.
We’re seeing our schools and universities closing to students and our gyms and our houses of worship closing to everyone. For at least two weeks, maybe more. Who knows? We don’t.
Then, we hear restaurants and bars could close — it’s happening in NYC and San Francisco — and we’ve been told to steer clear of any gatherings that could fill any living room.
And now, we’re all wondering about one big thing — or really three:
Could it get worse?
Could we turn into Italy or even France?
Could we go under lockdown for a few weeks and turn into hermits?
It’s a real mind wallop, ain’t it, and it’s all to avoid something we can’t see. But we sure can hear about our latest invisible killer 24/7 on cable news. It’s breaking news all the time.
Our new 9/11. Our global pandemic.
Let’s do the numbers. As of this weekend, 80 people have died in the U.S., 7,100 people have died worldwide and 181,000 people have caught what has caused it all — a virus that reminds me of a beer associated with beach, Jimmy Buffett and good times.
But this is far from a good time. All I have to do is look a few blocks south from where I live.
That big parking lot is empty, too.
We in Greensboro, N.C., have been waiting for this big-time week since 2015.
That was the last time the ACC Men’s Basketball Tournament came to town and turned everyone within earshot into fans.
Once again, we knew we could get to talk to anyone and everyone about the origins of a conference that started in 1953 in a conference room at the Sedgefield Country Club, and we could continue conversations about how the tournament needs — really needs, I say — to stay close to its historical roots.
And in our city, where basketball is part of our collective DNA, we can go on for days, weeks — even years — about that.
But our basketball Mardi Gras ended unceremoniously Thursday and left the Greensboro Coliseum, the region’s biggest room, empty of everything except air.
Our nation’s growing fear caused over spreading the coronavirus convinced ACC officials to cancel the last three days of the tournament.
A smart move.
Then came another move Saturday afternoon.
On the order of our governor, North Carolina’s public schools will shut down for at least two weeks — possibly longer.
That’s smart, too. The governor’s decision mirrors what colleges and universities had initiated nationwide just a day or two before.
But consider the nuts-and-bolts ramifications of that one decision.
In my home county, nearly 72,000 students attend one of 125 public schools. More than half of those students depend on the schools they attend to feed them every day.
So, when you break it down, the situation looks like this: Thousands of families will now face tough questions of how to care for their children, how to feed their children and how they’re going to get by.
We’ve all heard the reasons why. It makes sense. We as a country can impede the virus’ pernicious reach by “flattening the curve” – our new catchphrase for 2020 – by cancelling anything and everything that could bring a horde of people within inches of one another.
So, that means ending everything for the time being that ties a community together — schools, universities, houses of worship, the ACC Men’s Tournament, March Madness and the opening of Greensboro’s new entertainment room, the Tanger Center, slated for Friday.
That, of course, also includes my block’s biggest shindig of the year.
It’s the annual St. Patrick’s Day party that was scheduled for Saturday night and hosted in the backyard of my convivial neighbors, Bob and Evelyn. They live three doors down from us Rowes, and they sent out an email Saturday about how they wanted to cut back the potential crowd because of their concern over the coronavirus.
So, Kath and I didn’t go. So did many others.
But it didn’t surprise me. I knew this drumbeat of dread was coming.
My Friday afternoon table at Sticks & Stones told me that.
Every Friday afternoon in Greensboro, at least a dozen of us descend on Sticks & Stones for what we affectionally call “HH,” our text shorthand for happy hour.
We’ll surround a long table a few steps from Sticks’ L-shaped bar and talk about everything over pints of beer. We celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, families and friendship. That’s our weekly connection, our time together that I find is so needed.
On Friday, though, there were only six of us.
Others among us were practicing what’s known as “social distancing” – the other new catchphrase for 2020. Some were teachers, practicing what they preach to their students. Others, though, were worried about what they see around us – and what had happened just a day or two ago.
Caution reigned. I sensed that in our text messages back and forth Friday afternoon.
Me: “Confabbed with Cauthen from the cab of his truck this afternoon, and we both agreed. If there is ever a need 4 HH is today. We all game, air fist bumps & all?
Evan: “Can’t make it for a while. I’ve been exhorting my students to heed the scientists’ calls for social distancing. Gotta walk the walk.”
Steve: “I didn’t come to HH because we’d just been told that “someone” at our 500-person, 8-building site had tested positive. I just stayed home completely until we got a second email late Friday telling us that everyone who’d been in contact with this person had been notified.
“That said, I’m still adhering to social distancing so not super keen to go to bars and restaurants just in general like Evan was saying. But let’s hang out on porches and at fire pits.”
Mike: “Let’s not lose our sense of community. But a little cautious xenophobia is in order.”
Tim: “Sounds like a good idea.”
We’re all worried. For good reason, I know. And we’ll continue to be from what I gather after listening Saturday afternoon to Dan Diamond, a reporter with Politico.
Diamond covers politics and health care policy, and on Saturday afternoon while walking Strider and Ross, I caught NPR’s Terry Gross interviewing him on her longtime program, “Fresh Air.”
What he said caused me to stop, rewind their conversation and listen to their back-and-forth exchange once again. I listened to it twice. It was in no way comforting. Here is their exchange:
Gross: “It’s almost embarrassing, nationally, that the United States is so far behind other countries in terms of its ability to conduct tests for the virus.”
Diamond: “I think at this point, Terry, South Korea, in the past 24 hours, has probably done more tests for coronavirus than the United States has done in the past two months. South Korea can do 10,000 tests per day.
“At last count, we have done somewhere between 5,000 and 8,000 tests.”
Gross: “What do you think the impact is of the lost time?”
Diamond: “I think it’s been a shame for public health writ large, and I think it’s been horribly concerning for local leaders. We are flying blind, as the coronavirus threatens the United States.”
“If there is an outbreak, if hundreds of people are infected in a certain city, it’s been nearly impossible until recent days for officials to get a handle on that, and that means it’s hard to make decisions about whether schools should be canceled or classes pushed off at a local college or conferences delayed.
“Some of the measures being taken are smart, preventive efforts to keep people from catching this virus, but some are simply aggressive measures because, in the absence of not knowing, it’s always safer to do more rather than less.
“And if we don’t know how far coronavirus has spread, there are only so many public health staff who can deploy to fight this problem, and their efforts are being spread very thin because they don’t know where to target.”
Gross: “So, what is your assessment – since you cover the health agencies, what’s your assessments of how much – that has gone wrong as a result of, like, bad political decisions, incompetence, just bad luck?”
Diamond: “I don’t use this word lightly, Terry, but I’d say that this testing failure and the broader response to the coronavirus has been a catastrophe.
“The reasons it is a catastrophe, some are on the Trump administration itself; some are simply bureaucratic breakdowns. And if I’m apportioning blame – in the middle of a crisis, it’s hard to tell at all times who made what decision when, but certainly, the Trump administration failed to plan for this moment.”
With each passing day, we are living history, turning page after page, and our nation’s stiff arm to the virus will affect every one of us in some way. That became real for Kath and me Wednesday night.
That’s when I screamed at the TV.
Our son, Will, a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill, flew to France in January to spend five months studying Arabic and three other courses at the Paris Institute of Political Studies in the small coastal city of Menton. He had been looking forward to it for months. He wanted to see another corner of our world and dive deep into the academic life of a school known in French as Science Po.
Then came 45’s address Wednesday night.
For weeks, our circus barker of a president had minimized the coronavirus. He had equated it to the flu and tossed it off as some kind of move by the Democrats to hurt his re-election.
Or some nonsense like that.
Then on Wednesday night, he stumbled through his hastily written speech on a teleprompter and announced his newest xenophobic move to stop what he called the spread of a “foreign virus.”
No one from Europe could come to the United States for 30 days, he told us.
Now, I usually reserve my screams at the TV for the days when South Carolina plays Clemson in football or the nights when Duke and UNC take to the court and renew one of the biggest rivalries in sports.
But this time, when I heard 45 make this half-baked proclamation, I jumped from where I sat and let out a full-throated holler usually reserved for Friday nights at Greensboro’s Jamieson Stadium when Grimsley High plays anybody. It was simply one word.
The next morning, I found out 45 got it wrong. He is such a paragon of honesty, isn’t he?
Anyway, I heard from journalists that American citizens like Will could come back. But the panic prompted by 45 set in motion a white-knuckled fear that rippled worldwide. Frantic passengers jammed airports across Europe, and Kath and I spent a tense three days going back and forth with Will.
That parental tension has ebbed … somewhat.
France is now on lockdown. No one can leave their homes and apartments except to go grab groceries . And like every university and college on our side of the Atlantic, Science Po is shut down and will start conducting classes online next week.
Will hopes he can stay in Menton. He’s writing UNC, hoping for some academic grace. He wants to finish the semester in France, even if he has to turn his apartment into a classroom. He’ll then become like the institute’s other exchange students.
They received a waiver from their particular university that allowed them to stay. Will hopes UNC will do the same thing. If that happens and if Science Po doesn’t reopen their classrooms, Will and his exchange-student classmates from across the globe will use their laptops as their link to the larger world beyond their four walls.
The other students, though, aren’t as lucky. Those who live in France or somewhere in Europe had to go home this weekend. Classes, they were told, could resume in a month. Again, who knows? They don’t. So, they took to the beach Saturday.
Will told Kath and me Sunday morning that the going-away celebration reminded him of the reverie he saw at Grimsley High during his own graduation three years ago. In the waning light of a Saturday afternoon, Will and the other students soaked in their historical moment at their school in classic college student fashion.
Still, who could escape the undercurrent of what is and what could be.
None of us.
It’s now Sunday afternoon.
The bread is gone from the aisles at Food Lion off Cornwallis. The librarians at the Central Library are wearing surgical gloves as they check out books. And the tiny mountain of toilet paper and paper towels built by the manager at the CVS on Spring Garden disappears every few hours.
Meanwhile, my friends from HH continue to text.
Tim: This has turned out to be more than I thought it would be. And I don’t think we’re over reacting. Especially after reading about the Spanish Flu and the Philadelphia parade in 1918.
Steve: “’We wish we had overreacted.” – Italy.”
So, it goes in our city. And so, I read.
I turn to my old professional home, the News & Record, and I find my friend and former colleague, sports columnist Ed Hardin. In his Sunday column, he wrote about what I expect many of us feel.
That is, those of us who view the banners of “Tournament Town” hanging everywhere in our city as a metaphor of our city’s storied history with college basketball, particularly ACC basketball, both men and women.
In his Sunday column, Ed struck just the right tone. He always does.
He opened with this:
When we needed it most, when we needed someone to stand up and be the voice of reason, when it seemed our experts and so-called leaders were paralyzed to take action, it was sports that stood and raised its hand.
As the politicians argued and lectured, and those who should know better took to social media instead of social distancing, it was our sporting entities who took control of a spiraling situation.
He ended with this:
This is one time, for the first time in our lives, that we have to find something other than sports to distract us. This is probably the first time in our lives we have to come together by staying apart.
Sports has brought us together our entire lives, from Little League to this week. And then when we needed it most, sports taught us the lesson we didn’t want to hear.
Take care of yourselves and your families.
Do it for the country.
That’s the only team you play for.
Our lives will continue. But we’re all, I bet, worrying about what to expect in the coming days, weeks or even months.
Yet, I take solace in what is happening because maybe we’ll all learn something.
We are a country split by politics and soured by division. This episode, I hope, will force us to slow down and realize that we’re all in this together. Then, we’ll breathe. If we do, then maybe — just maybe — we’ll remember who we are, what we have and what we need to be.
Damn that blue-red divide.
Oh, I know we’ll get nasty. Various social media posts I’ve read the past few days have unveiled that. But I have to believe this whole coronavirus thing will force us to reflect on more than simply hoarding mountains of toilet paper and filling our grocery carts full of ice cream and beer.
Call me cautiously optimistic. But also call me a fan of poetry.
“When you take away the usual nonstop buzz of phones and screens, your mind is free to adjust to the way life can sometimes be, believe it or not.”
How life can sometimes be. Believe it or not.
I did feel that Friday.
Kath and I attended a funeral of a longtime church member. He had been in our church for 60 years, and on Friday morning, as Kath and I sat in a pew near the back, we listened to his college-senior granddaughter deliver a eulogy that would’ve made him proud.
She talked about importance of connection, the importance of memory, and what we gain, not what we lose.
When I came home, I pored through Facebook.
I never have really done that until this week. Since our coronavirus outbreak, I’ve found myself scrolling through Facebook to see how everyone else I know is dealing with this surreal moment. I do this because I feel this need to connect with others, even through the invisible howdy of cyberspace.
That’s when I discovered a post written Friday by my friend, Christina. She’s Tim’s wife and a frequent table mate at HH.
Her mom is dying, and Christina is spending hours at her mom’s beside at Hospice. She’s holding her mom’s hand and contemplating what happens after someone dies. Christina calls it “The Great Mystery.”
Those moments do bring clarity. They did for me. They have for Christina. In her FB post, she wrote:
What came through to me yesterday is the beauty and gift of compassion that is available to us in these times. Welcoming it all, allowing our feelings, trusting in the flow of our lives and offering ourselves and others compassion.With the virus all over the news and affecting each one of us in some way – I wanted to share with transparency my feelings and the river of flow I’m experiencing these days.
Yes, I have moments of fear.
Yes, I feel moments of unwavering peace.
Yes, I feel grounded.
Yes, I feel in a flurry of unsettled emotions.
I am in flow. I am in the midst of it all. And, I am inviting myself to embrace it all – just as it is.
The words pressed upon my heart are how do I LOVE in the midst of it all. How do I welcome where I am and be compassionate with myself and with the ones I love. It is clear to me… I can call in LOVE.
Love. We all can hold onto that.
We have to. Especially now.