Hello from social distancing! I thought it might be good to write down an occasional account of what’s happening with us during the coronavirus pandemic, because the situation is changing so fast and it’s good to have some record of what we know, what we don’t know, and what we thought was happening. A month ago this was something that was happening elsewhere (even though there was already a case in Madison, someone who’d returned from a trip to China.) Ten days ago I was at the Arizona Winter School; I was already worried about travel restrictions and whether there would be problems getting home, but didn’t think twice about eating in restaurants, taking cabs, or being at a meeting of a hundred people. The airports were full and everything seemed pretty normal. But Tanya canceled her conference trip last week but was very conflicted about whether it was irresponsible to do so, and I virtualized the on-campus meetings I had on March 11 and 12, feeling sheepish and like people would be rolling their eyes.
On the 11th, the school district wrote us to say that since no cases had been detected among students or staff, the schools weren’t closing. On the 13th, the governor declared that schools statewide would close on the 18th. On the 14th, Saturday, we thought we’d probably send the kids on Monday but by the 15th we’d decided not to. That afternoon the closure date was moved up to “already closed” and extended until at least April 6. Parents were told they could come to the building to pick up their kids’ medication. On the 17th all University of Wisconsin employees were instructed to work from home unless their work was impossible to do remotely. Yesterday, the 18th, the governor extended the school closing interval to indefinite, and ordered all bars and restaurants to close except for takeout and delivery.
So here we are. We have been OK in the house so far. I’ve gone to Trader Joe’s twice since Friday, trying not to overbuy in a situation where everybody wants the same things. I’m mostly stocking groceries which last weeks or longer and which I know we’ll use eventually: oatmeal, canned beans and salmon, onions, eggs. We are trying to figure out how much of the day to try to cobble into something like a schoolday and how much it’s going to be pure baking and TV-watching. Yesterday, for a change of scenery, I took the kids to the highest point in Dane County, which as you might imagine is not very high. I am trying to get the kids to let me teach them to play guitar but no one’s interested. At night I am trying to shut out the world a bit by going through a draft of a paper and reading the 700-page Edith Wharton biography I aspirationally bought in January. (But what about when she gets to 1918….?) We are in just about the maximally advantageous position for self-isolation; my job can be done at home, Tanya’s can too with some teleconferencing, I am not in the classroom this term so am not scrambling to invent distant learning from scratch… and even for us it’s daunting, the weeks and months to come.
There’s a lot nobody knows. We don’t really know when our taxes are due, or whether there’s going to be summer camp, or whether we’re going to do the 2020 Presidential election by mail, or, you know, how many people are going to die of this. My mom wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times suggesting we were in for multiple waves of “social distancing.”
Partly that’s because there’s a lot about this virus we don’t know. We don’t really know whether you can get it again once you’ve recovered, though a paper released today about rhesus monkeys suggests acquired immunity may be pretty good. Without knowing that it’s impossible to know what the pandemic dynamics look like. We also don’t really seem to understand what factors lead to bursts of transmission. One guy in New Rochelle seems to have infected dozens of people he came into casual contact with, as did “Patient 31” at a church service in South Korea. But on the Diamond Princess, a cruise ship that was quarantined in Yokohama Bay for two weeks in February, only somewhere between 400-700 of the 3700 passengers were infected; that seems good, considering how many people must have been asymptomatically shedding virus in close quarters. (And one of those passengers seems to have been reinfected in Japan after recovering and disembarking, which suggests acquired immunity isn’t total.) The number of cases, at this stage of the epidemic, is exp(ct) and everything depends on the value of c, about which we know nothing except that our actions have substantial effect on it. How much effect does closing the schools have? In Wisconsin, schoolchildren are about one in every eight people in the state, and a school environment involves repeated congregation in large groups, so — maybe a lot? Did I mention we don’t know? I am seeing some people on the internet say children under 9 can’t get infected, which I think is false, and I think it’s dangerous for people to think it’s true.
If kids are out of school, lots of parents can’t work. And people who work in restaurants or bars can’t work. Lots of retail stores are shutting down in-person shopping too. The businesses need to pay their workers so the workers can live but then how can the businesses pay rent? And if the businesses don’t pay rent how can the owners pay their taxes? Here we reach the limit of my understanding of central economic planning. If the state government halts tax collection so the landlords can stop charging rent so the businesses can keep paying their workers even though there’s no work — then what?
“Social distancing works,” my mom says in her editorial, and that’s the one thing that seems like it’s just got to be true. We’re distant but we’re close together too. The empty streets look like civic responsibility and community to me, just as much as the Monroe Street Festival or the Fourth of July do. I know how the logistic curve works and I know people can’t sit at home forever and I know that once people start moving around, c goes back up. But every day we hold out is another day to retrofit unused buildings as hospital space, another day to build ventilators, another day to test drugs — today I am hearing promising things about chloroquine. So we are doing this apartness together. More soon. Stay strong! Stay distant!