I am supposed to take the train from New York City to Connecticut to my nephew’s birthday party this weekend. He’s turning three. He recently learned how to say my name, although he pronounces it “Uncle Eaaawin,” which is obviously much cuter and better than my actual name. I would like to see him, because it is his birthday, and also because spending time with him and my niece makes me happy.
A week ago, I was 99 percent sure I was still going to my nephew’s birthday. Then on Monday our employer instituted a work-from-home policy because of a possibility someone has COVID-19. I don’t know who that person is or if I worked in proximity to them, nor do I know if they ultimately tested positive (this person probably doesn’t know yet either, thanks to the US’s horrid testing response). What I do know is there will be multiple sets of grandparents at this birthday party, not to mention all the people I will share space with on the journey there and back. At least so far, it seems like the elderly have a higher fatality rate, and I’m worried I may inadvertently transmit the virus to them and anyone else I happen to cross paths with.
As recently as a week ago, public officials in New York were telling us not to be afraid of taking public transit or otherwise living our lives as normal. They’re not saying that anymore, but it’s also not clear what they’re saying now. They’re giving tips on social distancing and encouraging employers to institute work-from-home policies. At the same time, the city has not cancelled the St. Patrick’s Day Parade (yet), which floods Grand Central and much of Manhattan with hundreds of thousands of people. Boston cancelled theirs.
I have been stressing all week about whether or not to go. I do not own a car and it takes me two and a half hours to get to my brother’s house via public transportation, which includes a transfer from the subway to a commuter rail train in Grand Central.
It’s also weighing on my mind, for instance, that there’s a one-mile “containment area” in the city of New Rochelle—which my train would pass through and perhaps stop at because the containment zone does not include the train station—that is just a perfect circle with a radius of one mile around a synagogue that is apparently the location of the state’s worst outbreak. It is also not a containment area, in any literal interpretation of that phrase, because nothing is being contained. It is a geographic area where specific rules have been put in place, such as a ban on large indoor gatherings, and the National Guard has been called in for some reason, but otherwise people can keep moving about freely, including to go to and from the train station or literally anywhere else they want to go. The people of New Rochelle appear just as confused about this as I am.
If you’re boarding a cruise ship from Manhattan’s West Side terminal, you will have your temperature taken but otherwise be allowed to go as long as you don’t have a fever over 100.4 degrees. More than 40 universities have cancelled classes and moved them online, but New York’s colleges haven’t, although Columbia University, which is in New York, did.
Over the last 48 hours or so, I became convinced I should not go. But just when I’m almost positive I’m not going out of, to use the official coronavirus canard, “an abundance of caution,” I do something smart like log off the internet and go outside. To my surprise, people are there. They are in coffee shops and stores and parks and buildings. Sure, not as many people, but people nonetheless. It is not 28 Days Later with Cillian Murphy walking down empty streets. There’s life out here.
The advice being offered by public officials, ostensibly via health experts, about whether to keep doing the mundane activities that make up most of my life has been maddeningly vague and with no clear directive to my own life. I do not go to major sporting events or concerts or parades very often. I haven’t been on a cruise since I was 10. I sometimes go to coffee shops and restaurants and the library and the gym and I often go to the park, especially the farmer’s market on Saturdays. I go to the grocery store and the pharmacy.
Does a restaurant count as a “large gathering?” What about a gym? The commuter train probably won’t be very crowded on a Saturday, but the CDC has also advised against places with poor air circulation. What constitutes a “large gathering” seems to vary from 250 people to 2,500 based on where you live, and carries some bizarre exemptions like “does not apply to university sporting events.” On top of that, 300 people in an outdoor farmer’s market seems like a very different level of infection risk than, say, 200 packed into a crowded bar.
In The Atlantic, Yascha Mounk has made the case to cancel everything and restrict “all forms of nonessential travel.” I assume my nephew’s birthday party is not considered essential travel, although my nephew may disagree when he gets the bitchin’ present I have for him. But I also feel like a sucker and an alarmist abiding by some of the more extreme bits of advice when pretty much everyone I know is very much not, obviously negating any meager efforts I make on my own. Whether the strategy is containment or mitigation, neither works if most people don’t do it. After my nephew’s party, my dad is getting on a plane to Sacramento.
I am lucky in that, so far, coronavirus has had little impact on my life. But it, and the lack of clear directives plus the frenzy around it, have added tremendous moral weight to seemingly every decision I make. Going to my nephew’s birthday party is either a lovely family activity or an irresponsible act of potential violence against the people I love most and anyone I encounter along the way. I just want to do what will make people happy and healthy, so I don’t know what to do. I wish some public official would tell me, but that would require them to have the answers.