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Going Home

miles to various destinations in Georgia and Florida on southbound I-95
Interstate 95, southbound. Photo by Ken Lund.

Around sunrise tomorrow morning, if all goes according to plan, I will climb into a packed minivan in the New York City suburbs and drive for about 18 hours nonstop to Florida.

It is a homecoming for me, even if the home to which I am coming is a beach house near Jacksonville rather than my principal residence in Fort Lauderdale. I have hunkered down in New York for 10 weeks, watching the seasons change while waiting out the coronavirus and ferrying supplies to my elderly mother in New Jersey.

Getting back to Florida does not mean getting back to normal life, of course. Nothing will be normal, in the pre-pandemic sense, for a considerable time to come. My wife and I must quarantine for two weeks after we arrive from New York, per the orders of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Then we can venture into the partially reopened society of northern Florida.

Liberation from quarantine will not result in very much venturing anyway. We are in our 60s, on the fringes of the age group that is most vulnerable to the ravages of COVID-19. For people like us, discretion is the better part of health care as long as the virus lurks in the community, even in places with relatively low infection and mortality rates.

Why would we go to a movie theater when we can watch something at home? Why go to a supermarket if Instacart will bring provisions to our door? Why fly to the Northeast for family or business reasons, when the socially isolated minivan is perfectly capable of making the round trip?

I have made the nonstop drive between New York and Florida for years, since we first bought a vacation home there decades ago when our daughters were small. Back then, we stuffed everyone and everything – including primitive 12-volt televisions and videotape players – into a tiny Toyota station wagon. It took a global pandemic to coax my wife into making that drive again, but I don’t mind it. All it takes is a tough tush. Satellite radio and a Bluetooth connection between the car and a smartphone help too. We did not have those in our station wagon days.

My lockdown started a little earlier than most. I decided on March 3 to direct nearly all of my firm’s staff to work from home. With the peak of tax season approaching – deadlines had not yet been extended – I did not want to risk having a whole office forced into 14 days of self-isolation following exposure from a co-worker or from someone else in an office building. I flew to New York on March 6 to be on hand for the general lockdown that I suspected was coming. I guessed that it would last six weeks – roughly three of those 14-day cycles – to get the virus under control.

That guess wasn’t too bad. Much of the country went into lockdown in the second half of March, and some of the early steps toward reopening did begin around six weeks later in all but the worst-hit places. Even so, this virus has proved to be a more resilient and pernicious adversary than I expected. In the opening months of this year, nobody appreciated its ability to spread asymptomatically and pre-symptomatically. We did not appreciate how many bodily systems it could attack beyond the lungs, or how it could stage a delayed assault on seemingly invulnerable children via a hyperinflammatory shock syndrome, whose link to COVID-19 is still under investigation. We thought it was something like the flu. It isn’t.

Nobody knew COVID-19 would decimate nursing homes and turn them into virtual prisons, even as real prisons were emptied to protect inmates and staff. Although there were warning signs, nobody imagined the full horror of cruise ships carrying dead and dying people in search of a port that would admit them.

The stated goal when the shutdowns began was not to keep an entire nation in virtual quarantine until we eradicated the virus. It was to flatten the curve of the epidemic and prevent it from overwhelming health care systems. This was accomplished, although only just barely in the devastated New York City region, including nearby New Jersey. We have paid a fearsome price for this limited accomplishment. It has cost more than 80,000 lives, tens of millions of jobs either temporarily or permanently lost, and trillions of dollars in present and future spending.

We will pay more before this is over, probably in all of those currencies. But how much we pay, and in what form, depends on the choices we make as individuals and as a body politic.

We have experienced COVID-19 very differently depending on where we were. In a few places it was a waking nightmare; in most it was mainly a threat. About 1.4 of every 1,000 New Yorkers has died in this disaster. Imagine 15,000 people assembling in an arena to watch a concert, and 21 of them dying before the house lights come back up. That is how New York has experienced COVID-19. In Florida, the comparable number at this writing is 1.3. In Montana, it is just over 0.2.

The virus and its clinical presentation are pretty much the same everywhere (mutations aside). Yet the conditions that facilitate its spread vary widely, even within a single state like New York. COVID-19 was – and remains – a different animal in the crowded urban environs of Queens than it is in the forested Adirondacks. It was a different animal in the nursing homes than it was on the college campuses, even though closing the campuses may have sent students off to visit grandparents in nursing homes, with tragic results.

It is true, as health experts are warning, that if we reopen too quickly or too carelessly we may easily spread the disease. But this observation leaves more questions than it answers. What is “too quickly”? Spread the disease – to whom, and with what consequences? What costs do we incur by inordinately delaying letting less vulnerable people resume some aspects of ordinary life, with appropriate precautions, to avoid the inevitable spread of some amount of the coronavirus?

The answer, we are told, is more testing. But testing whom, and for what? If I take a test for the virus today and it is negative, it says nothing about whether I have the virus tomorrow. Should we require all asymptomatic people to undergo random sampling for monitoring purposes? Should that sampling be conducted at the same rate in Montana as in Manhattan? Should we condition the freedom to work or to engage in recreation on an individual’s willingness to carry a smartphone like a passport, with a contact-tracing app activated to facilitate follow-up when somebody gets sick?

I can be tested for antibodies to see if I have been exposed to the virus. What use is this information, until we know the extent to which such antibodies will protect me from future infection, or lessen its severity, or reduce the chance that I can still pass the virus on to somebody else? We will get these answers in due course, but must all ordinary life remain out of reach for even the less vulnerable or risk-averse among us until then?

We have to come up with reasonable answers. I can work from home, and for the most part I will, for as long as it takes. Not everyone can do that. Even if I could not, it would not be fair for me to expect everyone else to sacrifice their livelihoods just because I am too threatened by the disease to pursue my own.

A national edict on when and how to reopen would not be reasonable either – not with the variation in the way the disease has affected different communities. The federal government has issued sensible guidance, and it makes sense to leave detailed decisions in the hands of governors, and other state and local officials. My uncrowded rural beach will be open this weekend. In Naples, at the other end of Florida, beach access and parking will be heavily restricted due to a lack of social distancing last week. This makes sense. An order from Washington telling both communities that our beaches shall be open, or that they must stay closed, would not.

It will feel good to be home, even under quarantine. It is a small step back toward my pre-pandemic life. There are some parallels between an 18-hour nonstop drive to Florida and a pandemic-induced lockdown. You have to slog through it, and it helps to have a tough tush.

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