Dispatches From My Dining Room (No 2): COVID-19 Extreme Social Distancing: The First Couple Weeks

As I shared in my last post, our family started staying home whenever possible on Thursday, March 12. For us, the transition is nowhere near as significant as for others. We already homeschool our children. Matt already had some flexibility to his schedule and was home some during the days.

But it is still a very different situation. We are intentional in providing opportunities for our children to learn from the world around us and interact with other people. In our normal life, all four kids swim multiple times a week. The older girls and I usually ride horses about once a week. All four kids participate in a homeschool enrichment group 3-4 mornings a month. FangFang has weekly physical therapy. We have outings to the library and the park. We attend art shows and go to the zoo. This homeschooling world in which we’re all now living is very different than actual, normal homeschooling. That said, again, I acknowledge that the transition is much less jarring for us than it is for those being thrust into homeschooling with just a few days’ notice.

Really, compared to what many families are facing right now, we have virtually the ideal scenario. The primary structure of our lives is staying mostly the same. Both Matt’s and my jobs are pretty secure, at least in the short term. Many people are far less fortunate than we are.

We spent our first couple days at home doing our regular school days and trying to better prepare ourselves for going out less. I emptied out our deep freeze entirely and re-organized it and cataloged its contents. Our oven had died, so we researched ranges and ordered a new one. I planned meals for the next two weeks, and Saturday morning I made what I planned to be my last in-store grocery shopping trip for quite a while. By this point, though, other people had also realized that this was going to be a thing. The run on toilet paper had begun. I arrived at Aldi before it opened to find a line forming outside the door! There were a few items I was not able to get at Aldi (almond milk, butter), but between Aldi and Hyvee, I was able to get everything I needed, plus add a bit to our supply of stored food downstairs.

It’s hard to know how much to buy. On the one hand, we are a fairly large family – I spend over $200 a week on groceries on an average week, so to shop for two weeks at a time is a significant undertaking. In an average week, we probably make one mid-week stop at the store for something, and obviously we’d want to limit that, too. And in this time of uncertainty and increased risk of illness, it seems wise to have some additional items on hand – cough medicine, for one thing, Gatorade, Sprite, etc. I’ve settled on trying not to go completely crazy with stocking up but also trying to be well prepared.

Mizzou was continuing to monitor the situation and update their plans for the semester. As of Thursday, March 12, they had said that all teaching was to be done remotely, but faculty and staff were still to report to campus as needed but start planning in case it became unwise to do so. On Friday, March 13, they announced that the switch to remote teaching, as opposed to holding in-person classes, would be extended through the entirety of the spring semester.

Courtney was supposed to come visit that weekend, and we canceled that. Her job is still requiring her to come in daily, and she would still be giving riding lessons for another week, and even now (with multiple cities in Missouri under stay at home orders), she is continuing to have to do appointments for potential adoptions. She is attempting to minimize her exposure – she certainly is not interested in getting the coronavirus – but there is not much she can do if her job is requiring her to interact with the public. With multiple high risk people in our house, she and I talked about it and decided it just wasn’t a good idea to risk having her come. That was one of the first big changes for our family life, in this period of staying home – not just not going to big events, but not having anyone at all come over.

Although Columbia Public Schools were still in session, most people acknowledged that we were slowly marching toward closure – not a question of “if” but “when,” and I started receiving inquiries about homeschooling advice, which prompted these two posts, as well as some e-mails and private messages.

We continued our usual school activities.

Finding ourselves with a bit more time on our hands than usual, the big kids and I have been catching up on some of their lapbook projects.

On Monday, March 16, Columbia Public Schools announced that they would close effective Wednesday. On Tuesday, March 17, Boone County recorded its first positive test result for COVID-19 (there were 16 positive cases in the state at that time), thereby confirming that it was truly here, and Mizzou announced that same day that all buildings were going to be locked, and everyone possible would need to begin working from home. Matt went into campus to get everything he thought he might need in the coming weeks and months from both the art building and his studio. On Thursday, March 19 (still just 1 positive case in Boone County – with 1 death; 28 cases statewide), Mizzou reiterated that no one was to work on campus unless specifically directed to do so by their supervisor.

With some of the big changes in our lives and schedules relating so heavily to physical activity, I’ve known that we would need to be finding time to get outside and move around as much as possible. We’ve been taking a lot of walks, though as this Snap suggests, it has been something of a strange experience.

It’s strange how quickly the intensity of the current guidance to stay distant from other people begins to feel almost normal. I find myself watching tv shows and alternately marveling at how close the characters are standing to one another and wanting to jump up and warn them that they are putting themselves at risk!

One of my current irritations is with parents who allow their children outside without supervision when those children clearly do not understand the idea of not getting within 6 feet of any other people. Obviously each parent must determine for themselves whether their children are mature enough to be outside without supervision, but that standard changes a bit during a global pandemic. In my normal life, I would love to hang out with all the children – but not right now. And if I have to tell your child to back off, then your child is clearly not mature enough to handle being outside without supervision during this time.

Other than that, though, we have been enjoying our walks and our time outside!

Yesterday we even had a picnic and did some of our school reading outside!

Of course, there are days when the weather is not so nice, and those are harder. I’ve been doing some workouts on our elliptical, and the kids and I have all been doing some body-weight exercises and exercises with some small dumbbells.

Being without an oven for several weeks – especially during this time – has been challenging for me in planning meals, but also for Miranda, our resident baker. One day she and I looked up recipes and she tried making a cake in our bread machine! The bottom got a bit burnt, but otherwise it was good, and it was a fun experience for her.

We did finally get our new range this week, for which I was very thankful. After a delivery scheduled during a generally unhelpful 12 hour window – during which the store actually failed to deliver the range – and many phone calls and much follow-up from me, it arrived on Wednesday, a day after it was supposed to come. It’s nothing special but nice to be back to having a fully functional kitchen!

Having more time at home, I’ve been trying to tackle some projects around the house.

Another thing I’ve enjoyed has been having more time to read. I have been making my way through a few different books, and the older girls are also really into reading right now. We’ve been trying to have a quiet reading time at least a few afternoons a week.

And as for the statistics, after having 16 positive test results on Tuesday, March 17, a week later, on Tuesday, March 24, Missouri had recorded 255 cases (with Boone County having 20 positive cases). Effective Wednesday morning, we are under stay at home orders from both the City of Columbia and Boone County. As of yesterday, Thursday, March 26, Missouri was reporting 502 cases (with 25 in Boone County) and 8 deaths. As of yesterday, the United States, for the first time, reports more cases than any other country in the world (with 81,321 cases and over 1,000 deaths), and also as of yesterday, the worldwide count of cases surpassed 500,000. Watching the numbers, I suspect we will pass 600,000 worldwide today.

My mom was supposed to visit us this weekend, but as the Director of Emergency Management for her county (so far 56 cases out of Wisconsin’s 755 total), she is working 14-16 hour days and will not be able to come see us.

In terms of our own personal experience during this time of the coronavirus and social distancing, I am missing the ability to see people outside of my own little family unit. I’m sad to be missing out on plans I’d made to see both Courtney and my mom, as well as other friends. My dad’s visit for next month will likely also need to be canceled.

Beyond that, it honestly feels somewhat relaxing. It’s a strange juxtaposition, being faced daily with the gravity of the situation, knowing that people are dying every day, that medical providers in our very own country are being forced to work without the proper personal protective equipment (PPE), and knowing that what I do may have grave consequences, both for my family and my community – but that what I am supposed to do, stay at home as much as possible, feels not like acting the part of a valiant warrior but more like having a stay-cation.

The first thing I do each morning and the last thing I do each night is check my phone for coronavirus news updates. It feels of supreme importance – and yet, actually, no matter what the websites and articles say, today will be another day of staying home. I spent the early days of our time at home posting articles on Facebook encouraging social distancing – but now, I know that those who are going to understand the gravity of the situation probably already do, and there is likely nothing I can say to those who choose to to continue to listen to President Trump’s dangerous rhetoric, despite its dissonance from the opinion of every respected medical professional.

I wonder what is ahead for us all. While I obviously do not want to see the economy continue to crash, I think it is inevitable. Sending people back to work – to get sick and die – will not help. I wonder how helpful the relief bill Congress is working on will be. We can definitely use the money but are generally okay financially for now. While we are home, I’m also trying to work some extra hours to help us rebuild our emergency fund.

I hope and pray that others in my city, in my state, and in my country will stay home if they can. I hope that the PPE and ventilators our medical professionals and our hospitals – and ultimately, we – need will arrive in time. I hope we can flatten the curve. I hope we can see our friends and family again soon. I hope they’re all okay. I hope this isn’t as bad as I suspect it will be.

Dispatches From My Dining Room (No 1): COVID-19 Social Distancing: The Lead-Up

I read an article today in which a historian suggested keeping a record of your life during this strange time in which we are living. I myself have wondered – what was it like to be alive during the spread of the Spanish Flu of 1918? What was the atmosphere like in America in the 1940s and 1950s, as thousands of children (including my father) contracted polio? I wonder what my children will remember 30 years from now (and whether they will ask me to recount for them what it was like from my perspective). I wonder what questions my grandchildren will have. And for those reasons, and because my blog already serves as a sort of journal for our family, I’ve decided to do occasional blog posts about our lives during this time.

Today I’m sharing about our family’s particular experience of the time leading up to the day we started practicing extreme social distancing.

Having two daughters who were born in China, we try to follow news coming out of China. I texted an article to my mom (the Director of Emergency Management for her county) and the rest of my family about the coronavirus on January 22. It seemed potentially worrisome but still so far away from us.

On February 24, I sent an article to them that had the headline, “Past Time to Tell the Public: “It Will Probably Go Pandemic, and We Should All Prepare Now”.” By that point, the United States had only 14 diagnosed cases of the coronavirus (the first had been on January 21st), but 14 cases, across multiple states, of a disease that seemed to spread exponentially, seemed like just the beginning.

Our president, Donald Trump, had been making comments that downplayed the significance of the virus. According to a New York Times article compiling his statements and comparing them to what was going on in the world, he stated, on January 31, “Well, we pretty much shut it down coming in from China.” On February 10, he said, “Looks like by April, you know, in theory, when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away.” His statement on February 19 was that, “I think the numbers are going to get progressively better as we go along.” On February 23, he said that the situation was, “very much under control.” But on that same day, “the World Health Organization announced that the virus was in 30 countries, with 78,811 confirmed cases, a more than fivefold increase over the previous three weeks.”

On February 26, he said, “We’re going down, not up. We’re going very substantially down, not up.” That is not at all what seemed to be happening, though. That same day, this was the snap I sent to a few close friends (for fear of being seen as alarmist, I didn’t want to send it out to everyone).

I’d made a special mid-week grocery shopping trip to both Aldi and Hyvee and spent about $600 getting us stocked up on non-perishable food items, frozen vegetables, and toiletries. Little did I know that it was going to be toilet paper that was the big item (who could have guessed?) – but fortunately, we have that set to be delivered to us monthly through an Amazon subscription, so we’re fine for now! I may need to start looking for some, though, if Amazon is unable to fulfill my regular monthly order.

Trump continued to double down on his claims, stating on February 27, “It’s going to disappear. One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear.”

Meanwhile, cities, states, and public and private institutions were beginning to prepare for the arrival of the virus. On March 5, the University of Missouri, where Matt is a professor, instructed faculty to begin thinking about how they could deliver in-person course material through other means.

Amid reports from all around the country that there was a shortage of testing kids, Trump said on March 6, “Anybody that wants a test can get a test.” This is patently untrue, as basically every media outlet has reported. On March 7, Trump stated, “I’m not concerned at all.” On that same day, Missouri’s first confirmed case of COVID-19 was diagnosed. Of course, because of the shortage of testing kits, no one knows whether it was truly the first case in the state.

On March 10, Trump said, “It will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away.” The next day, Wednesday, March 11, the University of Missouri sent out an e-mail in the morning informing the campus that some students and faculty had attended a conference the prior weekend from which another attendee (not from Mizzou) had later been diagnosed a presumptive positive for COVID-19. A few hours later, that afternoon, the University announced that as of 5:00 pm that day, in-person classes were suspended through the following Sunday, at which point professors would be expected to teach their formerly in-person classes remotely for March 16-20, the week leading up to spring break. They stated that they hoped to resume in-person classes on Monday, March 30, but honestly, I cannot imagine anyone actually thought that would happen. Even though Missouri had only 1 diagnosed case at that point, students, faculty, and staff could travel all over the world during that spring break week and come back to campus having faced innumerable exposures.

The University of Missouri putting into place its plans for remote instruction had a domino effect for us (and, I suspect, for many others). Up until that point, we had been living life relatively normally. We were expecting this to come, and we were beginning to prepare, but we didn’t know exactly when or how. The prior weekend, I had been visiting my best friend, Courtney, hanging out, riding horses, and just getting in some good, quality self-care time.

That day, Wednesday the 11th, I enjoyed a long lunch date with some friends and then came home and took the kids to swim practice. That’s where we were when we heard that Mizzou was canceling its in-person classes. A few minutes later, we received word that the swim meet that our club was supposed to host that weekend at the Mizzou Rec Center had been canceled by the university. I had been scheduled to work about 15-20 hours of volunteer time at that meet, and I’ll admit, I was getting increasingly nervous about it, knowing that swimmers (and their families and coaches) would be traveling from all around to attend the meet, and that there would be large numbers of people in close quarters at the arena. I was relieved when it was canceled.

The combination of in-person classes being canceled and the swim meet being canceled meant that we theoretically could begin staying home. Public K-12 schools here were still in session. There was not yet a mass effort at social distancing. But we knew it was becoming increasingly likely that the coronavirus could be present in and spreading within our community. Matt and I talked about it that night after the kids were in bed and decided that this was the moment – we were going to start staying home. We kept the kids home from their homeschool enrichment group the next morning, and though we did have to run one family errand, that day, Thursday, March 12, is what we consider to be our first day of extreme social distancing.

In my next post, I’ll share more about what these first days of staying at home have looked like for us!