Pandemic blog 6: safer at home

I went to Trader Joe’s this morning. It was an extremely pleasant oasis of normality. Everything was as it always is, except for the guy standing out front apparently doing nothing but who I guessed was there to control inflow in case the store got too crowded. (Verified by a friend who was at the store early this afternoon, by which point the guy was only letting someone in when someone else came out.) When I was there, the shoppers were somewhat sparse, but even so there was a kind of awkward impromptu ballet of people trying to imitate repelling particles as best they could. My friends in New York are saying the grocery stores are out of flour, eggs, milk, meat, and pasta, but here everything is stocked as normal. I filled my cart really high, not because I’m hoarding (we have enough shelf-stable starch and cans and root vegetables to last us a while, we’re fine) but because I now know that when all four of us, one of them a hungry teenager who’s now taller than I am, are eating three meals a day in the house, we actually consume a lot more food than I usually buy.

I didn’t wear a mask to the store — but why didn’t I? Everyone is saying that you are probably not going to get COVID from touching contaminated surfaces, as long as you are good about handwashing. They think the spread is really person to person — he coughs on you, you cough on me. Wrapping a scarf around the lower part of your face isn’t an N95 mask (remember when I didn’t know what an N95 mask was?) but any form of barrier has to block some reasonable portion of whatever droplet cloud a person coughs out, right? And that’s the game, to block a reasonable proportion of transmissions, to get that exponential constant down below 1. A few people in the store were wearing masks, maybe 1 in 20.

All the talk in the store was about the rumor that Governor Evers was signing a statewide shelter-in-place order, and when I got home I found out it was true. (Despite reassuring information about surfaces, I am trying not to take my phone out when I’m out in the world, to avoid potentially contaminating it.) Ours isn’t called “shelter in place,” it’s called “safer at home,” which I guess is meant to sound softer. What this is going to mean, I think, is that a lot of workplaces which are currently operating are going to stop. And that maybe I should have planned more state park walks with the kids last week because now it’s forbidden.

CJ’s middle school friends have a film club; they watch a movie and then discuss it for two hours the next day on FaceTime. He’s watching Guardians of the Galaxy right now. Last night we made Cincinnati chili, which I’ve never done before. Boiling the meat has always sounded gross to me but it really does make for a meaty-but-not-greasy chili. One small upside: I am making things you have to simmer for an hour, something I rarely do when I have to start dinner after I get home from work.

All in all, starting from the baseline that the news is very bad, the news is not bad. In Italy, which has been in hard lockdown for what, a week? the rate of new cases is starting to decline. (The mathematician Luca Trevisan is in northern Italy and his blog is a very good snapshot of what it’s like to be in the middle of the outbreak there.) China, after two months of lockdown and quite a long spell without major new infections, is starting to loosen up; what happens next seems pretty important. A big new wave of infection or have they really beaten it?

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12 thoughts on “Pandemic blog 6: safer at home

  1. Tom Church says:

    So why didn’t you wear a mask? You introduce this question but don’t answer it or even revisit it. Given that you have direct access to the character’s decision-making, at least as far as he consciously conceives of it, it seems strange to leave this rhetorical.

  2. JSE says:

    I was hoping you guys would know!

  3. Noam D. Elkies says:

    Why can’t you still walk in the park? It seems OK as long as you’re with the same family you already live with and keeping 6+ feet away from anybody else.

  4. Aaron F. says:

    In Italy, which has been in hard lockdown for what, a week?

    Wikipedia says Italy’s first serious, nationwide movement restrictions started on March 10—about two weeks ago. Luca Trevisan’s latest post says the same. Non-essential storefronts were closed the next day. After that, Wikipedia doesn’t note any new restrictions until the general industrial shutdown on March 21.

  5. JSE says:

    Noam: We’ll see what the details of the order say but I’m guessing we’ll be told not to travel unnecessarily. So walking around the block OK, but not getting the car and going to a state park. I think what’s happening is that governments are finding if they don’t say “you can’t go to the park” people have 50-person picnics in the park.

  6. JSE says:

    Aaron F: thanks — I thought of looking it up but I decided to stick with the goal of conveying the spirit of the moment which is having a vague sense of things without having looked them all up.

  7. Richard Séguin says:

    You shouldn’t have any problems going to county parks, the UW Arboretum, or the UW Lakeshore Preserve. The visitor center at the UW Arboretum will probably be closed though. This page gives information about state parks and COVID-19:

    Although N95 masks potentially give much better protection than the surgical masks, they lose protectiveness if they do not fit well, and especially if you have a beard. Hospital employees who have to wear these masks in order to enter certain isolation rooms need to have them custom fitted, and men with beards can’t use them at all. When the N95 masks can’t be used, they have to wear silly looking space helmet things that sound like vacuum cleaners. Also, it’s not easy to breathe in those masks.

    Yesterday I went to a restaurant for takeout that in normal times does only a small amount of takeout. It was spooky walking into this empty restaurant, and there were only two takeout orders ready to be picked up at a time when the restaurant should have been teeming with people. It was pathetic and sad. Many restaurants are going to go under, especially the ones that did little more than dabble in takeout.

  8. JSE says:

    I was wrong; the governor specifically said you can still take a family walk in a state park if you stay 6 feet away from other hikers.

  9. Richard Séguin says:

    I think I just heard on the news tonight that the DNR is also waiving entrance fees for the state parks.

  10. The main advantage of wearing masks is that they remind you not to touch your face.

  11. Aaron F. says:

    JSE: You’re welcome! I certainly wouldn’t want you to break the off-the-cuff vibe of these posts. I jumped in for two reasons. First, I’m intrigued by the way isolation seems to distort my sense of time, and maybe most people’s. Second, I think it’s important to maintain reasonable expectations about how long it takes for movement restrictions to have visible effects. The new-case confirmation rate in Hubei province peaked about two weeks after the lockdown started, and the new-case confirmation rate in Italy looks consistent, so far, with a peak about two weeks after nationwide movement restrictions started. From where I’m sitting, in France, it’s encouraging to realize that our movement restrictions might be working just as well, even if we haven’t quite yet seen the worst.

  12. JSE says:

    Lior, if that were true (and maybe it’s true) I would not be as supportive of masks as I am. You think there’s no meaningful reduction of person-to-person transmission?

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