The Coronavirus pandemic looks like it will be one of the seminal events of our lives. In just a few months, our routines have been upended and its tentacles have devastated people in all parts of the world. In the past week, the United States has surpassed two million confirmed cases and over one hundred fourteen thousand deaths. In Florida, where Rachel and I live, more than one thousand new cases are confirmed every day, and the numbers have been increasing of late. There is some irony that the number of people contracting the virus is increasing, as governments are easing restrictions on people’s movement and interpersonal interactions. I want to capture a few memories of the beginning of the pandemic. For Rachel and me, some of the first memories happened at church.
Rachel and I are members of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Sarasota. It is a thriving church, and all seats are filled most Sundays. During the busy, snowbird season, there are even two services each Sunday. Rachel and I feel like youngsters in the congregation. The average age is in the mid-seventies. On Sunday, March 1, 2020, our minister, Roger Fritts, mentioned the virus that was making people sick in China and had just shown up on the west coast of the US. He joked that maybe someday, we’d have to stop holding hands during our closing prayer. The congregation chuckled. On Monday, March 2, 2020, the headline in the Sarasota Herald Tribune read, “Coronavirus comes to Florida.”
On Wednesday, March 4, 2020, we received an email message from Roger. He reported that a first Coronavirus case had been confirmed in a hospital in Sarasota. He shared some new rules that we would need to follow at church services. These included things like if you feel sick or have been exposed to someone with the flu, a cough, or cold, stay home. No hand shaking, hand holding, or hugging. The monthly church potluck was cancelled. If you touch the door handle or a light switch, try to wash your hands immediately. If attendance at services permits, try leave an empty seat between you and your neighbor. These seemed like extreme measures to us at the time.
Ten days later, we received another email message from Roger. The number of confirmed Coronavirus cases in the region had continued to sky rocket. The City of Sarasota had issued a public health emergency. All large group gatherings were to be cancelled. The church and all its building were being closed until further notice. Church services and all in-person meetings were being cancelled or postponed. Online systems were being explored. One of the sad things about this development was that Roger was retiring after several years serving the church in Sarasota. He would be returning to Maryland to be with his family. There would be no going away parties or other celebrations. His last service and sermon were done remotely from his home in Maryland.
On May 22, 2020, we received an email message from Beth Miller, one of the Associate Ministers. Beth shared a message from the president of the National Unitarian Universalist Association, Susan Frederick-Gray. Her guidance to congregations around the US was that they begin planning for virtual operations for at least the next year. Rachel and I found this to be a sobering message. No in-person church for at least a year. This was not going to just go away anytime soon.
It’s now a little over three months since Rachel and I first had these personal experiences with the Coronavirus pandemic. Rachel moved her office home and took over the study. She has led the efforts to keep all employees of Arsenault Dermatology employed and getting pay checks. We have done our best to abide by social distancing guidelines. We wear masks when we go out. We have not visited a restaurant in months. Most of our groceries are delivered. We made forays out into the retail minefields to find rare caches of toilet paper. We celebrated when we made such a score!
We recognize that we are more fortunate than many. We have each other for company and kids and grandkids just a video-call away. We have a comfortable home and our lake to enjoy. The shore birds and occasional alligators keep us entertained. I have reduced my consumption of news to skimming the morning paper and watching the local news and weather. Watching reports about the mismanagement by our state and national leaders creates significant stress. Rachel and I are anxious about the elections in November, but they can not come soon enough. I read this week that New Zealand reported that there were zero active cases of Coronavirus in their country. Maybe there is hope for all of us.
Addendum: July 2, 2020
There have been so many milestones reported about the numbers of people contracting the Coronavirus. Every day the numbers are staggering and often greater than previous daily totals. For the first time today, the one day total of people who tested positive for the virus exceeded 10,000 in the state of Florida. We now have a mandatory mask order for the city of Sarasota. Masks are suggested but not mandatory in the city of Bradenton and in Sarasota or Manatee Counties. The President continues to be nearly silent about the pandemic, and the Vice President has been touring the country praising the work of the administration in dealing with the crisis. This, in spite of the projections of the federal Coronavirus Task Force that the numbers of cases are likely to increase to 100,000 new cases per day in the near future. Leadership from the White House has been suspect at best.
Addendum: July 31, 2020
And the beat goes on. In Florida this week, the number of deaths from the Coronavirus hit 6,709 and the number of cases reached 461,379. Florida set new records for the number of deaths three days this week, yesterday surpassing 250 deaths in the state. The national totals were 4.4 million cases of Coronavirus and over 150,000 deaths. There is a surprising complacency about these growing numbers.
The sense is that people in the US are just not going to follow guidelines to protect themselves and others from the virus. The US is pretty unique in the Western world in this respect. Choosing to not wear a mask has become a political statement, encouraged by the President’s model. Large groups of people congregate to party, ignoring guidelines to social distance and avoid crowds. Shoppers at Walmart pull out their guns when instructed to wear a mask before entering the store. The President continues to brag about the awesome job that he is doing, while pitching medicines and approaches that have been proven to be ineffective. Some have even been dangerous. There continues to be progress on the vaccine front, but actual implementation is still months away. It’s scary to think about what the numbers will be like by then.
Rachel has had only one employee test positive for the virus, and she is recovering at home. To date, we have not had family or friends test positive. How long that will be the case, we don’t know. Our trips away from home have become even less frequent as we watch the number of cases and deaths increase in Sarasota and Manatee Counties. When workmen come to the door, we don our masks, and only allow them inside if they are wearing protection too. And even then, we are anxious. Still, all in all, we feel fortunate. This too shall pass, and time will probably be the best medicine.
Addendum: March 6, 2021
Today was a big day. Rachel drove me down to the Sarasota Square Mall where I received the second dose of the Moderna Covid19 vaccine. It’s been about a year since I first wrote about the Covid19 virus showing up in Florida. Everyone was devastated by the first few deaths, and fear was rampant. It’s amazing what we can get used to! Here are some of the numbers as of today.
Total Cases: 28.9 million in the US and 1.94 million in Florida
Deaths: 523,000 in the US and 31,521 in Florida
While the number of new cases, hospitalizations, and deaths continue to mount every day, the focus for politicians and the media has shifted to tracking the administration of the various Covid19 vaccines. That is the light at the end of the tunnel. Rachel and I have not had any friends or family who died from the Corona virus yet. We are lucky. We do hear from friends and family almost every week who call or write to tell us that they have received the vaccine. I can join that club today. Hopefully Rachel will join soon. Florida Governor Ron Desantis reported this week that soon, vaccines will be available to residents sixty and older. Up to now, the vaccine has only been available to persons sixty-five and older. Rachel will be in that next group, unless she is able to register sooner as an employee of a healthcare organization.
The role out of the vaccine has been a mess. Every county has been asked to develop its own registration system and system for getting the vaccine into people’s arms. So, every county is doing it differently. Some are organized and some not so much. The rules vary from county to county and change almost every day. Most people try to register in multiple counties, which is encouraged, as long as you are a Florida resident. Manatee County, where we live, has a lottery system. Somewhere around 150,000 people signed up at the beginning of the program, when doses were earmarks for the sixty-five and older population. When the County gets doses of vaccine, they randomly choose the appropriate number of people. That seems fair. Fair that is, unless you are white, Republican, and a donor to key politicians. Somehow, those residents have been able to bypass the lottery and register for private vaccination clinics set up for them and their peers. When criticized about the unfairness of this, Governor Desantis threatened to move future vaccination clinics to other counties where residents don’t complain so much. The Chair of the County Commission bypassed the lottery system altogether, by sending email instructions to the organizers of one such clinic, putting her name and the names of five of her friends at the front of the line. I registered in both Manatee and Sarasota Counties. Sarasota County contacted me at the beginning of February and scheduled my first shot. Their system went smoothly, and they contacted me this week to schedule the second dose for this morning.
A year seems like a long time. Our lifestyle has changed in many ways. Most people we know are in that boat. We have not seen children and grandchildren in a year. We did one stealth trip to Nashville to meet baby Larkin. We have not had people over to our home and have not visited friends at all. Our two or three nights a week eating out at restaurants have been eliminated, and for the first time in our married life, we keep the refrigerator and freezer filled with food. We visit the grocery stores only occasionally, having most groceries delivered to the house. Last week we attended an outdoor theatre production at the Asolo Theater on the Ringling Museum grounds. It was the first movie or play we had attended in a year. Folding chairs were assigned and were social distanced, and everyone wore a mask except the actors. The audience cheered when ushers escorted one patron off the grounds for refusing to wear a mask. The play was a one woman show about the life of civil rights icon, Fannie Lou Hamer. You can read about her in one of my other blogs from a few months ago.
Under our governor’s leadership, Florida officially opened up months ago, ignoring medical and scientific guidance about preventing the virus from spreading. It felt like the loss of life took a back seat to the freedom to gather at bars, eat at restaurants, and attend sporting events. We don’t need no stinking masks! We love big crowds! The governor even prohibited cities and counties from issuing fines or other penalties to persons who violated laws that they might establish. Did I mention that he is very popular with Florida voters and is favored to win re-election in two years and is also mentioned as an aspiring presidential candidate. Heaven help us!
For now we’ll continue to exercise caution and try to be patient. There is a little more light at the end of the tunnel. Today was a good day!