In the Eye of the Coronavirus Storm in Seattle, Life is Surreal

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photo by CJ Sterling

March 9, 2020

I walk into my house, drop my keys on the counter, strip off my jacket, and drop my backpack. The hand sanitizer I retrieved from my stored luggage is clipped to the front, and it clunks on the floor. You can’t buy hand sanitizer anywhere here in Seattle. You can’t buy rubbing alcohol anywhere either. The shelves are stripped bare of both products at Fred Meyer, Safeway, Bartell and Walgreens. Early on, people bought aloe gel and rubbing alcohol and made their own hand sanitizer at home. At Fred Meyer, part of the giant Kroger chain, these sanitizers, along with cold and flu products are limited to five per customer. But the hand sanitizers disappeared two weeks ago, and the rubbing alcohol supply disappeared around last Wednesday at all the stores. The cold and flu medicines that are most expensive are still there, while the store brands are very low or missing.

Whenever I come in the door I turn on the water faucet with my wrist and suds up with dish soap. I use a nail brush to scrub my nails and count slowly to 20 before I rinse off. I use paper towels to dry off. I am not that scared, but I have asthma, and my annual flu shot isn’t scheduled until tomorrow.

I take the bus to the stores to scope out the situation and take a few pictures. The sun is shining, but its chilly, just 40 degrees. Tomorrow is Washington’s last day to vote in the primary, our Super Tuesday, with 89 delegates to give. The passengers on the busses are sparse, and they sit quietly, as far apart from each other as possible. Each commuter day the population of these busses and the light rails are dropping. During peak hours you can let a full bus pass and the next one will be much less crowded, something impossible during normal commuter times in this city of over 3.4 million souls. But now the busses don’t fill one after the other, like they did just a few weeks ago.

During off-hours the ridership is sparse. It feels weirdly peaceful. The stores, after days of panic buying, are quiet; unusually empty. People are staying home now. In Seattle, where strangers don’t talk to each other, we drift together at the empty shelves, exchange wry comments and sanitation tips then drift on to our next purchase. Some customers are wearing disposable gloves; a few are wearing masks. We wear similar expressions -we all look a little unmoored -anxious, grim, stoic. Parents with babies in strollers or toddlers whose hands they hold in a firm grip, talk to their toddlers with a brittle cheerfulness. They look frightened. None of the grandmotherly shoppers stop to peer at them and fuss. They look and smile, but nobody asks to touch.

In Seattle, Amazon, Google, Microsoft -most big and small tech companies here have sent their workers to work from home if they can. Amazon topped 53,000 workers in Seattle in 2019 and are looking to hire 10,000 more this year. Or they were, before the Coronavirus hit. Now, nobody knows. I spare a thought to the frequent packages I get from Amazon, and make a mental note to wash my hands after I open them, and then wonder if the items themselves carry the virus, which is said to be able to live on a hard surface for 14 days. I already have been spraying my packaged grocery items with a solution of bleach and water. For the fresh produce, I am only cooking, not eating them raw. Although I just read that a vinegar solution can sanitize fruits and veggies. I am making adjustments, a bit at a time.

The University of Washington has sent 50,000 students home to take their classes online. 70 employees of Life Care are showing symptoms. Life Care is about seven miles from my neighborhood, where reportedly six or maybe seven patients died after contracting the virus, which made the national and international news, and made us Ground Zero. I worry about my friend in nursing rehabilitation a few miles away from Life Care.

We are still eating at the local cafés and drinking at the brewpubs and bars, but they are not crowded. There is a light odor of chlorine in them. The gym is much less crowded, which is nice. The screens above the treadmills and machines are mostly news channels. As we walk or run the treadmills, we can’t help but watch them, busy screens with words scrolling on the bottom and closed captioning blocking out the talking heads. Today, the news screens are about a global market collapse and the virus, the virus, the virus, and the elections. People everywhere look grim. The biggest events here, like Comicon, have been canceled and/or tentatively rescheduled. But its clear that they are really, effectively, canceled.

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AP Photo

As my bus passes homeless encampments, I remember that our mayor Jenny Durkin is mobilizing a response for this vulnerable population. The response seems far too little -an additional 100 units of tiny houses. Our statistics for homelessness in King County are 12,500 who are sleeping in shelters, cars or outdoors. For Seattle proper there about 5,300 sleeping outdoors. They are older, most of them over 55, many of them aging Boomers. They are sicker, with chronic conditions. We are going into spring, but it was 32 degrees this morning. The homeless don’t have hand sanitizer. They don’t have bathrooms or running water. I know that some people are thinking its OK if they die, reducing the homeless population. I hear people say it, I watch people think it, a little shrug and a scowl when it comes up. The homeless accumulate trash, pee in stairwells or poop in corners. That is not the fault of the city, or the county or the state, they say. It doesn’t occur to them that the city should provide regular trash service and portable bathrooms. In the camps where they do provide trash bags and pick up services, the camps are cleaner. But I have seen very few portable toilets at these camps. In a city with the richest corporations on the globe, human dignity is not a priority for them. I expect this population to be the second-hardest hit for fatalities, after the nursing homes. It hurts to know this.

It hurt me to see that our annual WomXn’s March had to be moved to online yesterday. The Stranger, our local alternative paper, has a long list of canceled events. Some of our schools’ basketball games are being played with no one in the stands, and many of our schools have shut down. Our nine-million-dollar cruise industry is frozen, and I am guessing Seattle and the cruise from here to Alaska is not on your vacation list this spring.

Vice President Mike Pence was at Camp Murray here in Washington four days ago with Governor Jay Inslee and other health officials. In the clip in the article below, the officials fist-bump instead of shaking hands. Governor Inslee is coordinating with all levels of our government and health care facilities to address the crisis in Washington State, and he is doing a good job. VP Pence brought over 200,000 masks, gowns and gloves for our health care workers, and expressed his support. But we don’t trust the Trump administration to effectively address the economic problems, especially in a state where President Trump called our governor Jay Inslee “a snake.”

Pence did not bring paper towels to throw into the crowd, as President Trump did in Puerto Rico after the hurricane, and I have to give VP Pence credit for acting more presidential than our president. Pence did not address the criticism by Governor Jay Inslee of the Trump’s lame response to the pandemic. Inslee told Pence that it would be best if the Trump administration ‘stuck to the science and told the truth’ on the mounting public health crisis. He also took to Twitter to criticize the administation’s lagging response.

On this visit, Pence did not engage in being a surrogate for Trump’s grievances. He did not engage in hyperbole or disinformation, nor did he make dumb jokes about a yacht washed up in a poor neighborhood. He expressed sympathy for the lives lost, mostly elderly and those with “underlying conditions,” and pledged ongoing support. Pence appeared to believe in science that day.

When I am done washing my hands, I spray the sink with Clorox kitchen spray. I have two spare bottles of this, plus a small bottle of bleach. I have a new supply of vinyl gloves on the way, which I normally use when I clean my home. I hope they arrive and that I don’t get a notice that they are back ordered.

I ask Alexa to play CNBC, to listen to the market news. The President is getting ready to speak, it says, but typically, there is a delay as the administration scrambles to figure out what message to send. The market news is not good. The news outlets tell us that it as bad as it has been since 2008. They are blaming corporate debt and drop in oil prices due to the virus impacts. It seems to me Senior Senator Elizabeth Warren warned us about corporate and personal debt early in her campaign. Oh, yes, she did. . It’s too bad that Americans can’t deal with a woman president. Thank God we still have her, because she will have to help us navigate our way out of this like she did during the Great Recession of 2008/2009.

Let’s hope it’s not too little, too late. For me, I am washing my hands, taking vitamins, getting exercise, and going about my life in a city that is preturnaturally, eerily, quiet.

Link: CDC recommendations for sanitizing and personal precautions against the Coronavirus:

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