Since January, my wife and I have been trekking up to Columbus, Ohio, every three weeks for her cancer treatments (they’re going well, by the way). We typically drive up the night before, because treatments start early in the morning.
So it was that, after checking into our hotel Tuesday evening, I found myself driving down High Street around Ohio State University to grab something for dinner.
The whole scene was eerie. Ohio State is larger than Charleston by itself. There are more than 50,000 people on that campus every day, and those are just the students. I recall my college years at another (better) Big Ten school with great clarity and, although Tuesday nights were never hopping, people were still out and about, especially on a mild night with spring around the corner.
High Street, at least the stretch of it I drove, in Columbus looked like the opening scene from a movie when someone wakes up to find they’re the last human on earth. Businesses were open, but there was no one in them. No one on the sidewalks. There was hardly any vehicle traffic. Earlier that day, the university had suspended in-person classes because of the coronavirus, or, more accurately, COVID-19.
At the hospital the next day, my wife went through her treatments and saw all of her physicians. Some shook our hands. Others deliberately avoided it, and apologized for any perceived lack of friendliness, citing COVID-19 as a concern.
When we are away for these treatments, my focus is on my wife. I hardly check work email. I don’t go on social media, other than to update friends and family on the most recent prognosis and observations. I stay away from the news, not out of willful ignorance, but to keep my attention where I think it should be.
It was my wife who was looking at the news on her phone and noted that the NCAA had decided March Madness would play out in empty arenas (The tournament now has been completely canceled). I later got a news alert that the virus had officially been declared a “pandemic” — something that had been a bit of a forgone conclusion for a while.
I thought about what I had seen the night before in this new context. I figured the threat must be very serious to take such measures. It’s a bit mind-blowing. I don’t think anyone of my generation or younger has ever seen anything like this. I was a kid when HIV came to the public’s attention in the United States, but that was hardly an airborne illness. The Ebola scare from a couple of years ago comes to mind, but the response was so measured and, at least seemingly competent, that it never felt like something that could overrun the United States.
This is different. It’s prompting a response unprecedented for most of us, from the most basic levels of human interaction (a handshake) to how we view things like sporting events and concerts, to how and where we travel. It’s been a pretty major shakeup in a relatively short period of time.
I have to say, I was somewhat shocked when I started up the car Thursday morning and the radio was playing a broadcast form the girls state basketball tournament. Really? That’s something we’re doing right now? Again, I had been completely out of the West Virginia loop for a day and a half. I didn’t know if postponing, canceling or playing without fans in attendance had been discussed. Gov. Jim Justice made the right decision by calling it off Thursday, although you wonder if it should’ve been done sooner.
We shouldn’t panic, and we shouldn’t be afraid to live our lives. At the same time, we need to be smart about this. It is serious. I’m sure tickets for a cruise are really cheap right now, but would you buy one after the recent floating quarantines?
We’re all going to have to make some adjustments. Hopefully, this doesn’t become what some fear it will. Honestly, it’s kind of hard to know what to expect when response at the federal and state levels has been inadequate and difficult to trust. The only thing that seems certain is that “normal” for everyday life in West Virginia and the rest of the country is about to be redefined, at least in the short term. For that, if nothing else, we should feel prepared.