Americans are irrepressible. It’s their most endearing, and annoying, quality. Optimistic, youthful in age and temperament, and with a can-do attitude that borders on insanity, Americans find a way to overcome.
The world, older, more jaded by geography and history, rolls their eyes and feigns indifference but secretly hopes the young upstart will come through again. The way Americans are acting, they seem convinced that this coronavirus annoyance is in the bag. No problem. You’ll see.
Beaches in Florida are filled with cavorting college youth. Streets in New York and Honolulu brim with activity. Bars in D.C. remain packed. Everywhere, Americans are scouring store shelves of food and household cleaners. If this response to a virus that has ravaged China, Iran, and Italy and caused substantial disruption in South Korea and Japan and throughout Europe seems schizophrenic, it’s because it is.
In the last few weeks, I’ve written a lot about the coronavirus: Coronavirus is a pandemic. Some folks are in quarantine (self or forced). Social distancing and rigorous personal hygiene, especially hand washing, will slow the spread of coronavirus, or any virus. I took my own advice and steadily bought supplies hoping I’ve accurately anticipated needs I’d written about.
Last week, spring break was encroaching. Should I take the trip to Hawaii I had planned? If my calculations were right, the travel window would snap shut the week after (this week), and who knows when a trip to Hawaii would be possible again? Plus, I wanted to see how things were being handled in airports and in Hawaii, where there’s more exposure to the Asian world.
Here are a series of anecdotal observations based on my trip.
The trip started with an eight-hour, nonstop, packed flight from Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport to Honolulu, Oahu’s airport. Armed with Chlorox wipes, gloves, and masks (which my companion and I didn’t use on that leg of the trip), we cleaned our seats, armrests, tray tables, headrests, and seatbelts. We weren’t the only ones. But the seats weren’t the problem. The small bathroom was an epidemiological abomination. Every surface was disgusting, and by the end of eight hours, COVID-19 was the least of it. The place was a breeding ground for every germ. After one mortified use, I tripped over myself to get back to my hand sanitizer. If I could have dipped myself in a vat of soap and alcohol, I would have.
No one coughed. I didn’t observe any snotty kids (there are always some snotty, ear-infected kids on flights who scream in pain upon takeoff and landing because parents just go anyway). No sick kids. Passengers looked clear-eyed and healthy. This was a trend that continued in Hawaii.
We landed at about 2 p.m. Hawaii time. No one took our temperature or inquired after our health. A cheerful State Department employee was on our shuttle to pick up the rental car. She shared stories of her travels through Europe, D.C., Oklahoma, Texas, and now Hawaii in the last two weeks. “So you’re a super-spreader, then?” I joked/not-joked. She laughed: “I guess I am.” She wasn’t concerned. She appeared hale, at least.
Coronavirus was on everyone’s lips. I actively tried to avoid the TV and Twitter, but the uneasiness seeped through anyway.
Check-in to the resort in West Oahu was casual. No masks. Some hand sanitizer. Aloha! Mahalo. We put our bags in our room and went off to the grocery store to stock up. Safeway had full shelves save for hand sanitizer. We bought our fruit and vittles, then stopped at the sushi place next door and ate with the fearless masses. The line for the sushi restaurant was 45 minutes long. The restaurant featured Japanese cooks and the conveyor-style sit-down bar seating, another epidemiological nightmare.
It should be noted that the problem everywhere on this trip was not xenophobia or any sort of racism. There was none of that. What there was: packed tour buses, crowded elevators, and lots of close communication and interaction.
The hotel itself was sparsely populated. Ever been to a hotel that’s at 30 percent capacity but which would normally be full? It’s a little creepy. Empty tables at restaurants during the sunset rush at a resort town on spring break are unnerving. The servers were unabashedly anxious.
“Were you afraid on the plane here?” our server asked. “Were there sick people on the plane?” He said that housekeepers and maintenance workers had already been laid off.
The beach had plenty of chairs, umbrellas, and cabanas. Social distancing was easy, even in the pools. One drunken resident “whispered” a little too loudly to her friends, “There’s usually lots of Orientals here!” With the travel restrictions, the usual Chinese and Japanese visitors were quarantined in their respective homelands. Well, most were.
Two evenings, my companion and I sat down and played Texas Hold ‘Em with people from Alberta, Canada (a dentist and his crew), Las Vegas (a small business owner who cooks food for planes), Los Angeles (bartender), Nevada (casino dealer), Minnesota (elementary school principal), retirees (Florida), and a few others. Already, they had lost business. Their assessments were grim. All, that is, except the retirees. They weren’t worried.
The middle-aged people who were seeing their businesses crumble sat stoically. The Baby Boomers shrugged the virus off. They were the ones most at risk and both in Hawaii and at home and work, but they seemed least worried. A friend’s theory is that this generation lived through the constant threat of nuclear annihilation and the Cold War and so isn’t going to sweat a virus. My theory is different: the Boomers are optimistic because everything has always worked out. They’ve lived through the post-WWII boom and have, to this day, experienced the most wild human progress and wealth of any living generation. The Greatest Generation remembers World War II, the stock market crash, polio, and postwar communism. The Boomers remember boon times and economic bliss (for the most part.) Why would the coronavirus be any different?
Gen X-ers at the card table were experiencing the crunch. They were enjoying the moment and then going home to face miserable decisions. Their stories caused me a sleepless night. These business owners with people they care for and employ were trying to figure out how to make it with no way of knowing whether or not they’ll survive even if the economy comes back soon. They’re seeing their life’s work and retirements evaporate.
On the same day, the Fed flooded the economy with more money, borrowing against the future. A trillion dollars that will fall to the next generation to pay back all to save a generation that doesn’t believe the virus is even a problem.
Coronavirus was on everyone’s lips. I actively tried to avoid the TV and Twitter, but the uneasiness seeped through anyway. It built daily. By Friday, Hawaiians, like Americans across the fruited plains, were making a run on Costco. Seeing the crazy infect the island made us glad to be leaving that weekend. What if the government banned restaurants? What would people in hotels do?
The last evening before jetting, we made our way into Honolulu for dinner. The night was balmy, beautifully lit, with palm trees, Gucci, and girls in bikinis. The strip was filled with revelers — college kids, Navy men (they get younger and younger), vacationers, locals. Some stores were closed. Some were like the Apple store, which had lights on but signs saying that they were closed for coronavirus. People simply skipped phones and computers and moved on to shop at Tory Burch.
Social distancing? What’s that?
The next day, at the Pearl Harbor National Park, packed boatloads of people swanned out to the memorial. Foot traffic around the monuments was light. We read the grim submarine reports. We compared the harbor from 1941 and now. We were treated to young Muslim Indonesians giggling in the Circle of Contemplation and taking forced proportion selfies with the war ship. We had to leave before we started our own little war. What is wrong with people? Show some respect.
Our last vacationing act was to hit another authentic Japanese restaurant. The hosts seated everyone spread out. Surfaces, including the menus, were being bleached. Everywhere, people were fastidious about personal hygiene. I’ve seen surgeons less careful about hand washing. If this one habit would take hold and keep, oh what a wonderful world it would be. Flu transmission would plummet.
Leaving was not the same as arriving. The Honolulu airport was quieter, more somber. There was still a plane from China taking off. Japan, too. Why? Why aren’t all flights in and out of the country ended? The U.S. government needs to give Americans an ultimatum to get home and then shut up shop.
The most unnerving part of the trip was flying back to Houston. The planes had empty seats everywhere, but everyone felt too close. More masks. More cleaning. After fresh air and the beach, it felt claustrophobic and sick. LAX vendors started closing at 8 p.m. because there was no business, a janitor told me. A drunk couple at the only open bar vacantly watched the empty terminal. Just get us home.
Home is comforting even when the social signs are not. Home is Houston. Diminished road noise, no traffic, quiet and determined people lining up at 6:45 a.m. to get into the local Kroger. I was one of them. After a week away and a red-eye flight, we needed some perishables. There was little to be had, but there was some. A stricken woman stopped me on my way out: “Is there toilet paper?” I’m sorry, ma’am, I didn’t go down that aisle, but there are full shelves here and there. There may be some. Internally: Do I offer to have her follow me to my house and give her a roll? Is it really that bad already? No. People are afraid. The shelves will refill. America may rely on China for medicine, but the world relies on America for food and consumer goods like toilet paper. We’ll be okay.
Where are we now?
Ultimately, the American people will have to save the day. They’ll have to leave the beaches and take care of their neighbors and friends. They’ll innovate and find cures.
This is sort of breaking news, and I’ve heard it from two sources — one at the CDC and one from a member of the National Restaurant Association — the CDC is recommending that restaurants and bars and other eateries close for the next two weeks. An announcement was expected Monday, but it looks like the president put it off onto the governors, probably for constitutional reasons. The reaction by the governors has varied. It would be good to enjoy restaurant food now. It might not last.
New research from the past week has been sobering. The CDC massively screwed up. Some states are responding to the crisis well. How is your state doing? Find out here. It’s also important to be aware that pre-symptomatic transmission is a thing. Also, don’t count on warm weather to halt the virus.
In the midst of the ever-constricting rules on public social behavior, there is cause for optimism. Today, the first person received a trial vaccination for COVID-19 in Seattle.
There are new areas for concern, and they’ll outlast the Chinese pandemic. The risk to businesses, the economy, and individual Americans, not to mention our liberty, must be factored into the response to the virus. When dealing with a huge problem like this, going back to first principles is key: health precedes wealth. Sick and dying people cannot work. The minute the virus is more contained and treatments verified, America needs to get back to work. Maybe data will show that the virus has been circulating and some of the unexplained spikes in flu-like symptoms that tested negative for flu were, in fact, coronavirus. If that’s the case, that’s actually encouraging. Perhaps the high mortality rates in other places were due to factors like an elderly or smoking population or inadequate critical care. The problem is that we don’t know. Once we do, though, we need to move in the direction of helping people to work again.
Ultimately, the American people will have to save the day. They’ll have to leave the beaches and take care of their neighbors and friends. They’ll innovate and find cures. They’ll retool their manufacturing and find ways to make medicine in America again.
After a week away, observing a cross section of our citizens, traveling through airports, talking to business owners and their employees, seeing restaurant owners convey their care, watching people blissfully do disease-spreading activities, and observing the inexplicable mix of human fallibility and greatness, I come back to the mainland hopeful. Americans want to do the right thing even when they fall short. May it be enough.