Yesterday, things got real around my home town, Rochester, NY, when the news broke that the second diagnosed COVID-19 case was a 60 year-old woman who worked in the Greece, NY public schools. She was exposed at services at a Ukranian Catholic Church in another suburb on March 1, and worked a couple of days with symptoms before testing. Prior to her diagnosis, the only confirmed case in Rochester was a man who had traveled to Italy. So, in one fell swoop, we learned that we had community spread, that the virus had been in our community for weeks, and that it makes no sense to keep schools open. There had been a debate on Thursday and Friday over whether the schools should be closed. By 2:30 yesterday, that debate was over, and the schools all closed. Our County Executive, a Democrat (thank you baby Jesus), declared a state of emergency yesterday.
If you know Western New York, you know about Wegmans, our big grocery store chain and cultural touchstone. They’re exceptionally good, and exceptionally profitable in part because they are able to service far more customers in a store than the average grocery chain. Unfortunately, that’s a problem in a panic, and there’s been a bit of panic here. Toilet paper is all sold out. There have also been shortages of eggs, pasta and sauce, and some frozen items. Wegmans is addressing that by closing stores at midnight and re-opening at 6 AM to allow stocking and cleaning. I was at a suburban Wegmans at 10 AM on Friday and it was much more crowded than usual. Today, I went at 7 AM for my usual weekend grocery run, and it was more crowded than it would have been normally at that time, though not so crowded that I couldn’t maintain good social distancing. Wegmans also put out a lot more hand sanitizer and everyone was using the disinfecting wipes on the grocery carts.
While I was shopping, Wegmans staff were still stocking. There were limits on popular items (4 cans of soup, 2 packages of chicken breasts, 4 boxes of pasta, etc.). Shelves were still partially empty, but there was no item that couldn’t be purchased in some form, though it might be in the most expensive form (for example, only organic, free-range eggs were available.)
Other than the stupidity of the toilet paper shortage, everything else that was running short made sense if you were planning to possibly isolate yourself and your family for 14 days. It’s easy to sit in judgment of hoarding, but that judgment just amounts to the absurd statement, “All those hoarders are getting in the way of my responsible preparation.” As long as everyone can get some food, these minor, transient shortages aren’t the worst thing that could happen. More concerning was what the cashier told me: Thursday’s traffic in that store had been on par with Christmas Eve. I’m guessing that some people were exposed at grocery stores and that there will be spread.
The only truly irresponsible thing I’ve witnessed so far was crowds of young people bar hopping yesterday. My daughter told me that bars were telling people to come out and support them so they wouldn’t go out of business. Cuomo has declared that all restaurants and bars must operate at 50% capacity, but I doubt that edict was being carefully enforced on St. Patrick’s Day.
Of course, this is a report from suburban privilege. Even the most debt-strapped suburbanites can afford to throw an extra $100 on the credit card to buy pasta, sauce and eggs. We all have cars to drive to the store early to stock up. We have the technology to work from home, and white collar jobs that want us to work from home, and to let our kids participate in distance learning. If you’re living paycheck-to-paycheck in the city, with no credit card, you can’t stock up. You have to get to your low-paying service job and work even if you’re sick. And what are you going to do with your kids out of school? School is far more than education in the inner city: it is two or maybe even three meals, and before school and after school daycare in a “wraparound” program. Children will be damaged by this pandemic even if nobody gets sick. Still, I think closing the schools now, rather than dithering around and closing them later after more spread, was the right move, but that’s easy for me to say.
Well, that’s my not-very-brief report from my home town. What’s happening in your neck of the woods?