Masked Driving

We took a long drive this week.  It was our first extended road trip in a while, but it also was interesting in other ways as well.  In fact, I would say it was one of the more memorable drives I’ve ever taken.

b3effd_ltptolls020411It’s as if the country is reawakening from a long sleep.  Some people are up and wide awake, some are groggy from the long slumber, and some are still snoring.  As a result, the roads weren’t nearly as busy as you would normally expect on the Thursday before the Memorial Day weekend.  In the early morning hours in Ohio, we saw lots of trucks on the road — a good sign, incidentally, for a resurgence in the nation’s economy — but virtually no cars.  By mid-morning, as we rolled through northern Pennsylvania on I-80, the trucks still dominated the road and cars remained few and far between.  The traffic picked up as we skirted New York City and Boston, but we didn’t hit any stoppages, even with lots of road construction.  As a result, we made excellent time.

The lack of traffic is one reason why the Cannonball Run record — the wholly illegal effort to make the fastest drive from the Red Ball garage in New York City to the Portofini Inn in Redondo Beach, California — has been broken repeatedly during this national shutdown period.  The new record now stands at less than 26 hours, which is mind-boggling and makes you wonder about the top speed reached as the cars zipped through the wide-open western states.

But the lack of traffic wasn’t the only reminder of the coronavirus.  As has now become the norm, for me at least, once you are out of your personal space you become acutely conscious of every common surface you touch.  Refueling means touching buttons on the gas pump and holding the nozzle.  You don your mask as you enter gas stations — some stations have signs saying that masks are mandatory — and think about the safest way to open the bathroom door, flip up the toilet seat, and flush the commode if you need to use the facilities.  (Your prim and proper grandmother was never more worried about the cleanliness of rest stops than you are right now.)  At one stop, as I stood masked and trying to do my 20 seconds of vigorous, soapy hand-washing, a trucker stood next to me and brushed his teeth, which was a bit unnerving.

You put your mask on, again, as you pay at toll booths, which is probably the best argument ever for getting EZ Pass and just rolling on through.  Every toll booth worker was wearing masks and gloves, and at the I-84 toll booth in New York City the attendant applied some kind of disinfectant to the dollar that I handed her.  It makes me wonder if COVID-19 will drive another nail in the coffin of cash and spur faster adoption of contactless payment card technology.  For that matter, it makes me wonder if toll booths where you can actually use the nation’s currency also aren’t going to be around for long.

In all, a very memorable trip.  The coronavirus continues to affect just about everything.

Clear As A Bell

It’s a beautiful sunny morning in Stonington, Maine, as we prepare to celebrate the Memorial Day weekend. It’s cooler here than in Columbus, but the sunshine is much appreciated after days of rain in Columbus.

The sun officially rose at 5 a.m. today, but at 4:30 it was bright enough to wake me up. The lobster captains like that, because they like to get an early start. When I arose at 4:30, I could hear the throaty thrum of marine engines starting up in the harbor as they headed out to sea for their daily tour of their traps.

My Last Trip To NYC

I flew to New York City on February 19, 2020 on a business trip that would be just like a hundred business trips to Manhattan that I’ve taken before.  My flight arrived at a packed LaGuardia Airport, and I steered my roller bag through concourse traffic, trying to navigate past the slow movers and the gawkers.  I used the bathroom at the terminal, standing shoulder to shoulder with other random travelers needing to answer nature’s call, washed my hands without thinking about whether I was spending 20 seconds on that task, then moved with the flow of travelers down to the baggage claim level and outside the terminal.  

I stood in line at the taxi stand with perhaps 25 other people patiently waiting to get a ride into the City.  I took the cab that was next in line when my turn came, without giving a second thought to who might have sat in the passenger seat before me, or when the cab was last cleaned.  I arrived at my hotel, located about a block from Times Square, and waited in the crowded lobby to check in.  Because it was a nice night and I wanted to get some exercise before dinner, I walked over to Times Square, stood among hundreds of other residents and visitors moving through that NYC landmark, and took this picture of the heroic George M. Cohan statue in the middle of the Square like a true tourist.  I then walked around the area, thinking about how hard it is to take an enjoyable walk in New York City because of the crowded sidewalks.  I even wrote a blog post about it the next day.   

I ate at a random restaurant suggested by the hotel concierge, without thinking about how close the other patrons were, or noticing whether they were sneezing, coughing, or having trouble breathing.  I slept in my hotel room, made coffee the next morning using the coffeemaker in the room, plugged my computer cord and smartphone cord into the outlets, then spent the whole day in a conference room that was full to the brim with about 20 people sitting right next to each other.  We all got coffee from a shared coffee urn and poured cream from a common cream container.  At lunch we got sandwiches and cookies from a common tray.  At the end of the day I took another cab back to the airport, stood in the TSA pre-check line with other passengers breathing in that LaGuardia terminal indoor air, and then navigated through the crush to get to my gate.

I was aware of the coronavirus at that point, but the only time I thought about it during the whole trip was at the gate, when I sat in one of the common seats in the gate area and wondered about the people who had sat in the seat that day, and where they might have been traveling from.  But it was a fleeting thought that passed by, and I then concentrated on checking and answering the emails that had stacked up during the day.  My flight was called, I stood in line to board with my group, and then sat in close proximity to other weary travelers on the 90-minute flight home.  To my knowledge, no one on the flight was wearing a mask.

As I sit and think about what was a pretty routine, uneventful trip to Manhattan only two and a half months ago, it seems like a totally different world.  I don’t know if or when I’ll take another business trip to New York City, but I can be sure of one thing — it won’t happen with the kind of carefree nonchalance that I felt, without thinking about it, on that last trip, or during the hundred or so trips that preceded it.

No Trip On The Horizon

There have been so many things to adjust to, and so many changes have occurred, since the coronavirus pandemic invaded our existence and altered our routines.  Among other things, COVID-19 has caused me to violate a longstanding rule of personal conduct:  for the first time in I don’t know how long, I don’t have a vacation or interesting travel to a new place on the immediate horizon.

Global pandemics really have a way of messing with your plans, don’t they?

cases-packed-by-the-door-ready-to-travel_t20_4eowzaA decade or two ago I realized that I felt better about work if I had always a trip on the calendar for the near future.  Since that day, I’ve made sure that I have some impending travel to anticipate that will break up the daily routine.  I’ve tried to plan the trips so that they occur regularly at the intervals of a few months.  They don’t need to be big trips, either — maybe a weekend trip with a group to a new place, or a visit to see friends for a few days, or a wedding, mixed in with a longer vacation now and then.  I found that having something fun and different to look forward to allowed me to avoid getting stale and ground down by work and helped me to stay sharp and maintain a positive mental attitude.

But the coronavirus changed all that and scrubbed the social calendar clean, like a giant hand wiping off one of those dry erase boards.  A weekend trip to Austin earlier this month was the first casualty, followed quickly by the cancellation of a wedding in Chicago in May and an annual meeting in Asheville in June.  And even the plans that remain on the calendar are fraught with total uncertainty.  We’ve got a trip overseas planned for the fall that we hope will go forward, but who really knows?  With the predictions of a second round of COVID-19 and talk of potential foreign travel restrictions, I’m not betting my bottom dollar on anything travel-related right now.

I freely admit that, relatively speaking, this is a very minor thing, and one I will gladly accept in exchange for making sure that we and the friends we’d be seeing all stay safe and healthy.  But it’s another way that the pandemic has upset the apple cart and forced unwanted changes.  I’ll manage without a trip or two on the calendar, but I definitely look forward to the day when I can feel, once again, that I am working steadily toward some enjoyable travel on the horizon.

The Subway Vector

If you look at the New York Times map and chart of coronavirus cases and deaths in the United States, one fact screams out for attention:  the New York City metropolitan area has been far, far more affected by the epidemic than any other part of the country.  The disparity is profound.

As of today, the Times reports 34,726 deaths from COVID-19 in the U.S. — and fully half of those are in New York and New Jersey alone.  The incidence and mortality rates in those states are orders of magnitude higher than in other areas.  And it’s not the entire state of New York that is producing those staggering numbers, either.  Instead, the hot zone is for the most part limited to New York City and neighboring communities.

In fact, if you cut the New York City metropolitan area numbers out of the equation, you find that the per capita numbers for the rest of America are far less alarming than the overall numbers, and much more in line with the data reported from other countries.  The vast disparity in the virulence and transmission of the coronavirus in the New York City area, compared to the rest of the country, is compelling support for making decisions on reopening the country and the economy on a state-by-state, locality-by-locality basis.

6068390_040120-wabc-crowded-subway-imgThis drastic difference in the impact of COVID-19, though, begs the question:  why is the New York City area being hit so much harder than other areas?  Of course, it’s more densely populated than the rest of the country, which clearly must have an impact.  But there is an ongoing, increasingly heated controversy about whether New York City’s mass transit system — and, specifically, its subways — are a vector for transmission of the disease.  An MIT professor has looked at some data and argues that the subways are having a noticeable impact.  Others, including transit authority officials, contend that the MIT study is not scientifically valid and shows, at most, correlation — which is not causation.

It seems entirely plausible that subways could be a contributor to New York City’s bad coronavirus statistics.  If you’ve ever ridden the subway, you know that the platforms and cars are crowded, with people packed together, sharing metal poles as they steady themselves against the jostling of the cars, and also sharing limited breathing space.  The social distancing being practiced in other parts of the country just isn’t possible.  And, in my experience, the subway cars aren’t kept spotlessly clean, either.  If you compare that method of transportation to the “car culture” that prevails in other parts of the country, where most people travel in their own vehicles with windows closed, it could provide an explanation for at least part of the disparity in the coronavirus data.  At the very least, it is a possible cause and hypothesis that should be fully evaluated.

This is a hot-button issue, because New York City’s subway system is a primary source of transportation for hundreds of thousands of commuters every day, and if the subways are — after careful study and analysis, of course — determined to be a vector for transmission of COVID-19, that will dramatically complicate the process of reopening the Big Apple.  And mass transit is a political issue, as well, and there is a risk that political considerations will affect taking a hard look at the public health issues related to  subway use and operations in the wake of the coronavirus crisis.

Unfortunately, we’ve seen that our political officials can’t resist playing politics even in a time of global pandemic.  But at some point, public health considerations should trump petty political posturing.  We need to figure out why NYC is such a huge outlier, and then take steps to make sure that the causes for the disparity are properly addressed so that people in New York — and in the rest of the country — are protected the next time a virus sweeps across the world.

Spring Break 2020 — VII

On our last full day of spring break we decided to spend our time enjoying the vibrant flowers that have made this year’s vacation destination so special. The flowers here are remarkably vivid and bright, and it is especially enjoyable when the locals fashion them into pretty garlands that grace the native woodworking and other items made by local artisans. Just down the street is a market that sells the handmade work of master craftsmen who specialize in woodworking, pottery, and tapestry. If only we had such creative artistry at home!