April 25, 2020

What Comes After the Coronavirus Storm?

We’ll eventually get to a safe harbor, but we’ll find we’re a changed country.

“We are not all in the same boat. We are all in the same storm.” That succinct summation came from the writer Damian Barr this week, on Twitter. He’s right. Some are in yachts, he said, and “some have just the one oar.”

Some will sail through, health and profession intact, some will lose one or both. Some of us get to feel we’re part of a substantial crew. Some of us feel we’re rowing alone.

We can move forward through this crisis experiencing our country as an embittered navy waiting to fight it out on shore. Or, alternatively, as a big crazy armada with millions of people throwing and catching millions of lifelines. Which I suppose is how a lot of us tend to see this country of deep inequalities and glittering possibilities. The latter attitude will be more helpful in getting us through, and as Lincoln observed, attitude is everything.

We have all been told to be protective of each other — stay inside — and supportive. What is the nightly 7 p.m. pot-banging but a spontaneous show of appreciation? But I am thinking of how much we actually just like each other, admire each other, and barely notice. The Washington Post Thursday had a story about the release of 43 men who lived for a month inside the Braskem petrochemical plant in Marcus Hook, Pa. Braskem produces raw material for face masks and surgical gowns. The workers figured if they got sick it would slow production, so they volunteered to stay in the plant, work long shifts, and sleep on air mattresses. They called it a “live-in.” At one point their families held a drive-by parade so they could wave through the windows.

“We were just happy to be able to help,” Joe Boyce, a shift supervisor, told Post reporter Meagan Flynn. When the story broke they were flooded with grateful messages from doctors and nurses. “But we want to thank them for what they did and are continuing to do,” Mr. Boyce said.

‘Murcans, baby.

The subject now is state and regional reopening. We’re fighting about who’s going too early or moving too slowly, which is understandable, as we’re all interrelated and germs don’t respect state lines. But we should try hard not to be harsh in our judgments as each state chooses different times and ways. Opening is what we all want to do. We’ve got to be patient with each other, observe with good faith, hope lifting restrictions succeeds but be quick to point out — and admit — danger areas and failures.

No one is certain what to do. Everyone’s acting on insufficient information. No plan will come without cost. A lot will become clear in retrospect. The bias should be opening as soon as possible as safely as possible. Don’t sacrifice safe for soon. Have a solid, sophisticated, mature definition of “safe.”

What will hurt us is secretly rooting for disaster for those who don’t share our priors. Everyone is trying to live. It doesn’t help to be a Northerner who looks down on Southerners, or a securely employed professional in a national corporation who has no clue what it means when a small-town business crashes. People who can work remotely probably don’t feel the same urgency to reopen as those who must be physically present, in retail and at diner counters.

Conspiracy nuts who think the virus was a hoax to bring down Donald Trump will always be with us. So will grim leftists who take pleasure in every death of a guy who called the threat overblown.

But we’re too quick to categorize, and ungenerous in our categorizations. Everybody isn’t only the role they’re playing at the moment. They came from something — us. Hate that young guy with the smart mouth in the MAGA hat honking his horn in the demonstration in Austin? In another time and a different struggle he was Audie Murphy, the guy who jumps on the tank, starts shooting, and saves every life in the convoy. Hate the scientist in rimless glasses repeating his endless warnings on TV? He’s Jonas Salk, who saved our children. We’re all more than what we seem. We all require some give.

We forget we are 50 different states with different histories, ways and attitudes, even different cultures. New Jersey isn’t Wyoming; Colorado isn’t Arkansas. This used to be called “regional differences.” We can’t tamp them all down, and we don’t want to. So people will do things at different speeds in different ways. The thing is to watch, judge fairly and move to countermand what proves dangerous.

Governors who make the decision should stay aware of the creativity of their citizens. A guy who runs a hair salon shared with me this week his reopening plans: face shields for stylists, masks for workers and clients, gloves, gun thermometers for everyone who walks in. “Robes will be individually wrapped and there will be someone wiping door handles.” He knows business starts only when people feel safe. He’s going to see they do for their sake and his.

* * *

I close with the psychology of the current moment. The novelty has worn off. We’ve absorbed the pandemic and the lockdown. We’ve marveled, complained and made jokes. Now we’re absorbing that the America we stepped away from when we walked into the house, isn’t the America into which we’ll re-emerge. It may look the same, but it will be different. A lot more people will need a lot more help. Twenty-six million people are unemployed. And little normalities of life that we once took for granted — some will be gone.

Two examples: Retail has been struggling for years — small stores closing from rising costs and Amazon. Now more will close, or rather never reopen, which will change Main Street and how we experience our towns. The big department stores too are in peril. JCPenney’s stores closed in March, its 85,000 employees furloughed. Since the pandemic, CNBC reports, its market capitalization has fallen 75%, and it just skipped an interest payment on its debt. Macy’s is struggling after closing its stores and furloughing 130,000 workers. A ratings agency downgraded its debt to junk status. Nordstrom and Kohl’s too are having a hard time.

We’ve all been thinking we can’t wait to get back to movies, concerts and shows. Now we’re admitting it may be a while before we want to sit with a thousand strangers. Warner Bros. just pulled one of its big summer movies from release in theaters; it will go straight to video-on-demand. Universal did the same. It’s reflects the lockdown but also what Screencrush.com called “audience’s increasing dependence on (and perhaps even preference for) home viewing.” John Stankey, COO of AT&T, which owns Warner Bros., said in an earnings call that the studio is “rethinking the theatrical model.”

Imagine an America without the expression: “Let’s go to the movies.”

Anyway, what a resettling of things. What effort, patience and creativity it will take to reach safe haven. How much easier it will be if we see ourselves not as separate ships but members of the most brilliant, raucous and varied armada.

Republished with permission from peggynoonan.com.

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