When the COVID-19 pandemic hit New York City, life changed in the span of a weekend. On Friday, I met some coworkers for a drink, and the discomfort that would define the upcoming months just started to settle in. We were sitting near an open window – was that safer than being at the bar? As the restaurant started to fill up, and people sat closer and closer, I was no longer comfortable and so I left, walking unmasked down East 34th Street to the ferry landing.
On Saturday, we attended a family birthday party. “No hugs! No hello kisses!” we said when we entered my sister-in-law’s home. But then the wine started flowing, and soon we were dancing together, crowding together for selfies, and singing at the top of our lungs to the songs that reminded us of our youth. I woke up the next morning and read a story about a family in New Jersey that suffered several deaths after a Sunday family dinner, and feared we had made a grievous mistake.
By Sunday, my boss sent an email saying that we would be working from home for the near future. My husband learned the same. On Monday, the kids were home too. We wondered – should any of us have been outside the house at all the previous week? What did we expose ourselves to? I sat up at night wondering if the illness was festering within one of us. Did my throat feel sore? I started taking my temperature at random points during the day, just to calm my nerves.
Then we sat home. Literally, sat. Sat at my desk for work. Sat on the couch, thankful for the mindless gifts that were Tiger King and Schitt’s Creek. When I wasn’t sitting, I was in the kitchen. Cooking and baking became the distraction my nervous hands needed; the results were the balm that comforted my soul. A full belly became synonymous with safety and security.
I wondered if we could endure this for another week, another two weeks. And weeks rolled into months. Summer came. We started wearing masks; we ventured into grocery stores. We took long family walks along Rockaway Beach, the ocean breeze a seeming defense against coronavirus. I slept more. I read more. I rushed less. I worried less—there was no wondering where the kids were because they were home, just where I left them. We saved money and paid off bills. Weekends were blissfully bland, with no invites to have to say yes to.
Most of all, after months of feeling helpless against a deadly virus, I felt armed with knowledge on how to keep my family safe. Stay home. When you do have to go out, wear a mask. Run into a friend while walking the dog? Keep 6 feet between you as you chit-chat. Shop early in the morning when there are no crowds. Bring hand sanitizer everywhere. Wash your hands, wash your hands. Do not take unnecessary risks.
And now, just as I have settled into this new normal, the city is ready to open up. I am not. There are so many decisions to be made, and the biggest one is robbing me of sleep and forcing me to write it out before I lose my mind. It’s the kids.
What do we do about the kids? Send them to school for just a few days a week, or keep them home completely? My children are 13 and 16 and I want so badly for COVID to end because they have been robbed of so much already. This is the generation that grew up in the shadow of Sandy Hook and Parkland, of climate change and, for my kids in Rockaway Beach, hurricanes, and their trust in the institutions that are supposed to protect us is justifiably nonexistent. And now, a pandemic. The sadness and defeat I see in my children makes them older than their years, and I want nothing more for us to be able to resume our normal, pre-COVID lives. I want them to have sleepovers and school dances and heart-soaring crushes; to play sports and roughhouse; just hang out in that way teens do, ignoring all personal space and sharing everything.
Sending them to school comes with risk. There’s the risk of being around people who are not taking the virus seriously, who wear their masks around their chins or not at all. There’s the risk of being pressed into a bus or subway car, a reality that was once an annoyance and now feels like playing COVID roulette. There’s the risk of being at school with someone who is sick, as has already happened in schools that started opening across the U.S. There’s a risk of someone getting sick, and bringing it home, and living with the guilt of others contracting that which we’ve tried so hard to shield ourselves from.
On one hand, the choice seems obvious: their lives are not worth the fake normalcy that comes from a day or two at school. But it’s so tempting. If we act as if things are back to normal, will they be? New York City’s incidence rate is very low—am I overreacting?
The reality is that the normal we once knew is gone, and may not return in our lifetimes. Will we ever again feel comfortable shaking hands? What will it take for us to feel safe enough to fill a baseball stadium or concert hall? Will anything be the way it was anytime soon?
We are an impatient generation. We want COVID to be over, much as I’m sure our ancestors wanted war and plague to be over, but wishing it away doesn’t make it disappear. The only salvation coming for us is time. In time, we will see if herd immunity saves us. We will get a vaccine, and we’ll see if it’s effective. We’ll learn new ways to practice our rituals—I wonder what the holidays will look like this year, especially if there is a second wave. In time, we will be able to look back and see how this all played out, and see if the decisions we made were the right ones.
The impossible decision here seems to be the choice to do nothing at all. To stay put. To keep vigilant by doing what we’ve done for five months now: limit exposure, keep your distance, wear a mask, stay home if you can. To be uncomfortable in stillness that has infiltrated our lives.
Staying in place is in contrast to our human, or maybe American, need for movement and advancement. But if waiting, if patience, can save us, it will be worth the effort.