The restrictions gradually grew tighter. One week you could hike on the Shelf Trail along the ridge of town in Ojai, California. The next week you could still hike but a big sign at the entrance to the trail warned you to “social distance.” Then the following week the road was closed and you couldn’t hike anymore.
Same for the beaches. As the county of Los Angeles and the state of California shut down within hours of each other one Thursday last month, the beaches were still a place to escape, walk, breathe the air, stare at the vast ocean. Then one day the beaches were off limits too, blocked by yellow crime tape.
Same for grocery stores and restaurants, this gradual tightening of daily life. First, they limited restaurant seating. Then they closed restaurants entirely. You could order food for pickup but after a week or two most restaurants couldn’t deal with the loss in customers and just shut their doors altogether.
Life as we knew it went away. Grocery stores were still open — obviously people had to eat. But then grocery stores — Trader Joe’s first, then Whole Foods, then Von’s and Pavilion — started limiting the number of patrons allowed inside. You’d stand outside in a line — six feet apart — waiting for your turn to buy lettuce and milk.
But not toilet paper. Toilet paper was mysteriously unavailable. Vast shelving in big-box stores just — empty. Maybe you’d get lucky and find a roll, one per customer. And then you disinfected your cart with an antiseptic wipe, having enjoyed your single social experience of the day.
It was like choking slowly, to stop the pandemic — a virus that attacked the lungs and mercilessly choked its victims. But the uninfected were being squeezed too – coming slowly, then with the sudden force of a noose. And then it tightened some more.
Three weeks into the great California shutdown, with the virus not yet at its peak and testing still difficult to get, we sat powerless, our individual rights sucked up into the greater good with no sign of an end. L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti told us to sit still, Gov. Gavin Newsom told us to sit still, President Trump mostly just went on television and spewed nonsense.
So we sat still with no real information, and thus no end in sight.
Spring was everywhere, the outrageous explosion of nature taunting everyone with wildflowers and the incessant chirping of birds. The mountains of Santa Monica were never greener or more inviting to explore. The blue Pacific Ocean roared and rolled its invitation to bid farewell to winter, all for naught — except in Malibu, where surfers defied the rules as expected.
For the first two weeks, social media — normally a cesspool of trolling and self-promotion — suddenly turned into a warm bath of compassion. Neighbors, previously strangers, reached out to one another. Long-lost friends and family reconnected. Divorced couples reconciled for the time it took to figure out child care and home schooling.
There was love and discovery, all virtual. (Even dating.) And there was time, suddenly, for all the things you were supposed to take time for and never did when life was normal. There was an outpouring of remembering what really mattered.
For a while. But then cabin fever set in and human nature returned to its nasty, brutish self. For one thing, people’s minds wandered and as isolation set in, so did paranoia (justified, not justified, whatever). So the person who dared not to wear a face mask in public drew sneers and insults. If you stepped outside the lines of staying-at-home orthodoxy, the social media scolds were there to put you (back) in your place.
Groupthink combined with fear made for a newly toxic combination and mocking the president went from sport to science. The power of social media was that much more intensified since there was almost no human interaction to soften the digital blow.
And people started running out of money. Quiet desperation became a reality. Uncertainty reigned. Government checks were supposed to come in the mail but who the hell knew if or when they might arrive?
Many of us were lucky enough to be born into the richest country in the history of the world, the most advanced, most free, most innovative, most diverse, most sophisticated in every way.
In the age of this pandemic, it didn’t seem to matter much.