Just a little over a year ago, several counties in the San Francisco Bay Area announced the country’s first lockdown measures in response to the spreading of COVID-19. The measures were supposed to last for a few weeks; one year later, we’re still locked down, along with much of the rest of the United States.
Ilona and I are both moderately at risk due to prior health conditions, so we’ve been particularly thorough in our quarantine measures. We don’t do outdoor dining, we haven’t flown out to visit family or friends. The last time we met a real friend in person was in February of 2020. We had mediocre ramen and excellent cocktails. I remember being tentatively excited for the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations at the local brewery.
A few days before the lockdown, the last place we went out for dinner was Señor Sisig’s storefront in the Mission. We split a massive chimichanga and an ube ice cream; both were amazing. The weather was warming up, we had a nice haul from Borderlands, and life seemed pretty good.
We had just moved to California only six months prior.
Like a lot of people, I’ve been feeling like we’re living through an era worthy of a “factors leading to…” section in a theoretical future history textbook since, oh, about 2016. It’s an era full of fun reminders that “may you live in interesting times” is a curse. Obviously it’s reductive to point to the 2016 US presidential election as the cause of everything that’s come after, but it’s certainly a major factor: I simply cannot imagine that 2020 would have played out exactly the same way under a second Clinton administration.
For example: the anti-masking phenomenon. We see it playing out around the world, yes, but nowhere near as widespread as here in the US. Obviously this is pure speculation, but I can’t help but think that a lot of its popularity as a “movement” has to do with Trump and his absolutely inane attempts to appear hyper-macho, calling mask-wearing “weak.” Combine that with the bald-faced propaganda of insisting the virus is “no big deal” as it began to sweep through vulnerable populations, and you get the people who follow in their Dear Leader’s footsteps telling us that asking people to wear a mask is like pissing on the Statue of Liberty or something.
2016 empowered a lot of people who identified with this fringe theory, and the inertia of American voters did the rest. Even in the 2020 election, with record turnout across the board, victory for Biden was never a sure thing. I’ll ramble on about American politics in more depth (or at least more words) in a separate post, but for now I think it’s worth noting that much of 2020 did not need to happen the way it happened.
2016 emboldened not only fringe right-wing political groups, it made that sort of politics into mainstream Republican platform issues. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we’re hearing about more violence against BIPOC folks. Yes, some of that is just the internet giving more people a voice. But some of it is a direct increase in violence by people who previously felt like they weren’t socially acceptable, but were suddenly told they were very special people.
New York and San Francisco are dead. Texas is the place to be (except when it’s frozen solid).
Here in Berkeley, if you don’t go downtown, it can sometimes feel like nothing happened. The weather is nice, people are out and about, walking their dogs, jogging, bringing groceries home. If you didn’t know what was going on, you might start to think that it was a normal suburban community where face masks became a fashion accessory. But if you do look closer, you’ll see the shuttered stores, the open restaurants with no tables or chairs inside, the six-foot marks on the sidewalks for people to form lines.
I always knew that urban spaces were defined in part by the vital energy of so many people moving around them all the time.
In many ways, New York and San Francisco are absolutely not dead. The kind of people who are leaving are (if you’ll forgive me a No-True-Scotsman) not really New Yorkers or San Franciscans. It’s a sad economic reality that the bulk of the people who make a city what it is are the ones who can’t afford to leave. Even the people who can afford to leave but don’t are the sort of people who are drawn to what a city is, what it has to offer, what it means to them to be there. The people who can afford to leave whenever they want, and then do, are the kind of people who never fit in in the first place. To them, a city is no more than a convenient place to be at a given time. It’s not a community, it’s not a living organism powered by hundreds of thousands of hopes and dreams.
What about the people who leave because they have to? Does some part of them still belong to that place they left behind? Do they wake up sometimes thinking of their favorite park or corner store before they realize as reality comes into focus that they can’t go there anymore unless it’s on a plane?
Do they feel sad that if they ever do return, the city will have moved on without them, and they’ll have to start over from the beginning, falling in love with new places and meeting new people and spinning a whole new thread into the fabric?
With vaccinations ramping up, and more vaccines available, the new goal is to reopen America by the 4th of July. This is ambitious, and doesn’t account for anti-vaxxers and Q truthers and all sorts of nonsense. And people are still treating this as though we don’t have to be careful in public.
The desperate need for America to “reopen” stores and drive business and move the engine of capital is what led to the second and third waves. The focus on money and refusal to provide relief is directly responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths. To continue to do so will result in thousands more. Herd immunity is a long way away still.
But it is on the horizon, which is something.
I spoke with a coworker the other day. Both of us were ruminating on how we’ve lost a lot of the human connection to each other and the rest of our company. One of the side effects of spending hours in the same rooms as other people is that you get to know them. You bump into each other at lunch or grab a beer after work and have a conversation about books or sports or life in general. Our company has added a service to our Slack called Coffee which schedules people for random one-on-one meetings once a week, but it’s just not the same. We’re seeing research now on how video calling affects us differently and from the “front lines” I can confirm that it’s true.
But, despite everything, and despite many false starts, there really is a light at the end of this tunnel now. I can only hope we don’t rush toward it too fast and stumble at the finish line.