In March I used some of my forced leisure to read several months of piled-up newspapers, mostly print and online versions of the New York Times. I wanted to sit, open my eyes, and ask, “What the heck just happened?” Could I, could any of us, have known this pandemic was coming – to the earth, to the western hemisphere, to North America, the east coast, the mid-Atlantic states, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, even Chestnut Hill?
Safe in my home as I read, in my favorite brown leather reading chair, I could not brush off the feeling one gets after nearly stepping into the path of a speeding truck. Safe now, but chilled to know oblivion almost got me.
Back in that innocent year 2019, most people felt it was sane and permissible to make plans for 2020. Some booked ocean liner cruises. Others flew to China, Japan, Europe, wherever. More modestly, my son Andrew bought tickets for performances he wanted to see: the comedians Steven Wright, Lewis Black, and Pee-wee Herman. He also wanted to see the musician Dweezil Zappa and top off his calendar with singer/author Tori Amos at the Free Library auditorium on May 8. He generously invited his mom and me for Steven Wright and Pee-wee Herman. Andrew lives with my wife and me and doesn’t drive, so many of his plans involve us as either companions or chauffeurs who’d go to dinner during the show.
As you know, worldwide hell broke loose between January and May. For Philadelphians, looking back as far as late February/early March little guidance existed about joining the crowds at entertainment venues, including sports. Dominating the December news cycle were stories about Trump’s impeachment, a murdered Barnard student, the Democratic party presidential nomination race, rebellion in Hong Kong, Brexit, Harvey Weinstein, the dangers of vaping, the NFL, fighting in Syria, and the movie version of “Little Women.” Not a single story about the virus appeared in any of the Times’ December editions.
In 2020, the first sixteen days of January the Times’ headlines were: US airstrikes in Iraq, Australian wildfires, Prince Harry & Meghan’s declaration of independence, Facebook saying it will allow lies in political adds, the Astros’ cheating scandal, Trump’s senate impeachment trial, more Brexit, French strikers shut down the Louvre and “Happy Birthday Trump Tells Kim.”
On January 17, however, the CDC announced that a mysterious virus in China had killed two people and stricken 45. We were told, “It is not certain that the virus spreads from person to person.”
The next day, the Times said, “Three U.S. Airports to Check Passengers for a Deadly Chinese Coronavirus.” Passengers from Wuhan, China, would be screened at J.F.K. beginning Friday night (Jan.18). Similar screenings would begin in San Francisco and Los Angeles the following Saturday (Jan.24th). “The illness was first reported in late December in Wuhan, in central China. Fears of a more widespread outbreak arose when two cases were found in Thailand and one in Japan, apparently carried to those countries by air travelers from Wuhan. The new coronavirus appears to cause a less serious illness than SARS or MERS.”
On January 20, the Times International section ran, “China Reports New Cases of Mystery Virus, Raising Fears as Travel Season Begins.”
The Jan 21 Times ran, “China Confirms New Coronavirus Spreads from Humans to Humans.” In Wuhan, 200 people were sick and four had died. The outbreak had also been reported in other Chinese provinces, Thailand, Japan and South Korea.
On January 22, the death toll was at nine and there were 400 cases. Chinese citizens had begun complaining about the government’s lack of transparency and a severe shortage of testing kits. The next day they reported that Wuhan had been closed off, that the caseload increased to 570 and that 17 people had died. The economic impact was potentially devastating. According to the Times, “The Lunar New Year in China is typically the world’s largest annual migration of people, with hundreds of millions of travelers fanning out across the country and the world, and hundreds of billions of dollars spent on hotels, restaurants and shopping.”
By January 24 most of central China was locked down, 35 million people were quarantined, 800 sickened and 26 dead. The next day found 1300 people stricken and 41 died. Cases had been reported also in Hong Kong, France, Australia and the United States. Two cases in the U.S., but the Times did not say where or who or how.
For my family, that was Decision Day. The Steven Wright stand-up comedy performance would be that night at 8:00 p.m. at the Keswick Theater in nearby Glenside. I felt queasy at the thought. I hate crowds to begin with and the Keswick seats 1300. But my son, not able to get around much on his own, asks very little of us and gets much pleasure out these shows. I felt compelled to not disappoint him. We went. It felt hot and stuffy. Comedy provokes guffaws and cheers and whistles. I thought, What a petri dish we’re sitting in – everyone is aerosolizing saliva and nasal droplets. I couldn’t wait to get out of there.
No one got sick afterward. We survived. The virus still seemed like a small cloud hovering over a distant valley, probably not coming this way. Even if it did what could we do except stay at the picnic till the grown-ups told us to come in.
News of the epidemic grew more vivid every day. According to a TIME study, 41,000 English-language articles mentioning the word “coronavirus” were published in January. A CNN epidemic-coverage link (on April 13, www.cnn.com) lists several hundred stories it broadcast in January and February.
March arrived. The virus had hit Washington, California, Chicago, and New York. On March 6, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf announced the first two cases in Pennsylvania, one of them in nearby Delaware County. Andrew had a ticket for the Merriam (1870 seats) that night and another for the Keswick on Sunday the 8th.
Could we get the game in before the rain? I absolutely did not want him to go, but was reluctant to be the bad guy (to my present shame). I explained the situation. He had been following the news and talking to his Facebook friends. He’d like to chance it.
On Friday the 6th I called the Hyatt at the Bellevue for a dinner reservation on the 19th floor. My wife and I would have dinner while Andrew saw Lewis Black. The dice were tossed. New York was up in flames, but Philly was not. Were we special? Were we immune? I hoped so.
At 4 p.m. that afternoon, however, Andrew came to me and said he guessed he shouldn’t go. Too much of a risk and he didn’t want to expose me and his mom. Sunday too, no trip to see Dweezil Zappa. Pee-wee Herman still loomed ahead On March 27th at the 3,500-seat Met Philadelphia downtown. People were still hoping then that the virus was like a hailstorm that it would whizz through to the Atlantic followed by sunshine. Hope springs eternal.
Fortunately, the city went on lockdown. The Pee-wee show was postponed till a future date. Tori Amos at the Free Library was canceled. We’re healthy still, counting our blessings and hoping to stay this way.
Having read three months of newspapers in a few sittings and given the benefit of hindsight, I can’t help feeling this terrible virus had been heading our way all along. I have not figured out a use for that insight yet.
Please take the time to support our journalism. You can do that with a subscription or with a tax-deductible donation to the Chestnut Hill Community Fund, which launched a support fund for the Local to help us remain funded during this pandemic. Thank you for your support!