In the weeks leading up to March 11, 2020, news about the novel coronavirus – which started as a trickle – had grown into a torrent. I remember first reading about the coronavirus in mid-January. It was mildly concerning that a new, SARS-like virus was spreading in China, but at the time it seemed unlikely to affect us here in the U.S. It didn’t take long, however – by January 2020’s standards anyway – for cases to spread to the rest of Asia, and then the United States. But even as the first cases were diagnosed here in the U.S. in early February, the coronavirus still felt distant, like a hurricane thousands of miles offshore, gaining strength but still moving indeterminately. Looking back on it now, the month of February in the U.S. was so… normal. We went to Super Bowl parties, went on Valentine’s Day dates, planned spring break trips.
By the time March rolled around, things felt a little different. A handful of states were reporting cases, and events all across the country were being postponed or cancelled. No cases had been reported in South Carolina, but the coronavirus no longer felt distant. It felt inevitable.
On the first Friday night in March, Sara and I headed out of town to watch her dad play in a band at a Mexican restaurant in Camden, South Carolina. The band was set up on the patio, and the night was frigid. But I was already starting to feel anxious about being in confined spaces and was happy to be outside. And sure enough, as Sara, her mom and I watched the band play, we overheard a group at the next table talking about the first confirmed cases in South Carolina, and they happened to be in Kershaw county – the very county in which we were sitting.
The next morning I ran a half marathon in Columbia, then we met some friends for lunch before heading back to Rock Hill. We didn’t know it yet, but that was our last “normal” weekend.
The following week, the NCAA announced that the March Madness tournament would be played without fans, and the NBA seemed to be toying with taking similar action. Watching March Madness without fans would definitely be weird, I thought at the time, but there was a certain novelty to it and at least we’d get to watch the games on TV. The same went for the NBA: games with no fans in the seats would be undeniably strange and foreign, but if that’s what we had to do to prevent a large-scale outbreak like the one in Wuhan or Italy, that seemed reasonable.
In my mind, both of those scenarios were hypothetical, future-tense. They were interesting to think about, but I hadn’t wrapped my brain around them yet.
Then the moment came, as I went to sleep on Wednesday, March 11. That’s when I read a New York Times alert on my phone saying the NBA had suspended its season. That was the moment when the coronavirus – to me, anyway – became present-tense.
The next day at work was a little surreal.
Let me back up a bit. Even though we’re still in the midst of this crisis, I can tell you that the company I work for, Red Ventures, has been exemplary in its response. Communications have been prompt and direct, and our leadership team has been quick to adapt to unprecedented circumstances. Best yet, even though most of the company – spoiler alert – is now working from home, we’re still taking care of our teammates who have jobs that can’t be done remotely.
We got our first guidance from corporate about the coronavirus on February 27th, the gist of which was to avoid non-essential travel to China, Japan, Iran or South Korea. This didn’t affect me at all, so it was easy to chalk up that advisory as a precaution. But as I walked into work on March 12 – a mere two weeks later – the coronavirus felt imminent and inevitable.
That morning, my team and I practiced deploying our application remotely by scattering ourselves across campus and hopping on a Zoom call to step through the deployment together. We had never done a deployment that way before – we would typically just crowd around an engineer’s desk and stare at the same screen. Still, it felt like it was something we didn’t want to figure out on the fly. For the rest of the day, I tried to focus on the next round of features and bugfixes, but found it hard to not get distracted with wondering what would happen next.
At around 3:40, my teammate Jordan and I took a break to play some ping pong. Another teammate, Jon, joined us a few minutes later. We had only been playing for a few minutes when Jon read a Slack message from another teammate that our president was gathering us for an emergency all-hands meeting. The three of us knew instantly what it was about.
To my surprise, I learned a few minutes later, we weren’t being sent home indefinitely. The news was that there was someone on the Red Ventures campus who was being referred for COVID testing, so as a precaution we’d be going home as soon as we could and working from home the following day (Friday). For the time being, the plan was to return to the office the following Monday assuming the person who was referred tested negative.
Even in that moment, it was hard to imagine we’d be back on Monday. And as if confirming our collective sense of intuition, many employees who were already making their way to their cars were struggling to bring their monitors – in most cases, 34" Dell Ultrawides – with them. Those monitors are really nice to work on, but they’re heavy and awkward to carry, and it’s not a short walk to the parking garage. They’re not monitors you move around unless you have long-term plans for them. In other words, everyone who struggled to carry their monitor to their cars had a pretty good idea that Friday wouldn’t be our only day working from home.
After clearing some of mine and my teammates' desks for cleaning, and ensuring I had everything I needed, I headed to my car and called Sara. She suggested I stop for some supplies, so I stopped at a Food Lion between work and home for some basics: black beans (both dried and canned, for some reason I have yet to reasonably explain), spaghetti, frozen pizza and Kleenex. The aisles were a little depleted, but all the essentials were there, including toilet paper. Sara wasn’t impressed with the quarantine survival kit I eventually arrived at home with. She was even less happy that I didn’t get toilet paper, despite her specific instructions to do so. (In my defense, we weren’t dangerously low. Also, I didn’t realize this then, but that was the last time I’d see toilet paper in a grocery store until mid-April. Editor’s note: she’s still bitter.)
As I walked the aisles, I called my dad. He and my mom were leaving the following morning to visit Sara and I for the weekend. I was suddenly aware that there was a real chance I’d been exposed to and contracted this disease, a disease which was documented to affect older people more than younger people. I felt fine, I told my dad, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out I had been exposed. He said to keep them updated if I started showing symptoms. But despite my anxiety, and maybe realizing this would be their last opportunity for a while, my parents decided to make the trip to visit us anyway.
We ended up having a nice weekend. On Saturday, we went for a long hike up Crowders Mountain, which helped my anxiety and kept us out of an enclosed space for a few hours. On the way back to Rock Hill, we grabbed a late lunch at Mellow Mushroom. The restaurant was mostly empty, but it wasn’t a peak hour. The only noticeable difference between a normal visit and that one was what was on the dozens of TV screens around the restaurant. About two-thirds were tuned to CNN, which was reporting almost hysterically on the extent of the outbreak in New Rochelle, New York. The rest of the TVs were tuned to old college basketball games. Selection Sunday was supposed to be the following day, which meant Saturday should have featured some of the most consequential games of the year; instead, the games on TV were 20 years old.
The following day, after some deliberation, we decided to go to church. The service was pretty sparsely attended, so we were able to socially distance ourselves and didn’t linger in the building afterwards. After a quick lunch at Amelie’s (which wasn’t packed but fairly busy), we went for another hike, this time on the trails around the US National Whitewater Center. It was while we were walking back to the car that we learned South Carolina had closed its schools, so Sara would be working from home for at least the rest of the month. Meanwhile, my parents learned that when they got back to Ohio, they’d be under a stay-at-home order.
We stopped by another grocery store on the way home to get some hamburger buns for dinner, and if it wasn’t clear to me yet, it became clear to me in that store that the situation was deteriorating quickly. The toilet paper was gone. The meat was gone. The produce section was mostly empty. Even the bread had been picked nearly clean.
My parents left the following morning after some quick goodbyes. Throughout the weekend, we had taken as many precautions as we reasonably could. I washed my hands until they were raw. We opened windows in our house to keep air flowing. Unless we were driving somewhere, I never sat closer than six feet away from my parents. Still, I worried that I’d passed them the virus.
That weekend – which felt so foreign at the time for the precautions we took – feels even stranger now for the precautions we weren’t yet taking. Had we – my parents, Sara and I, or anyone really – known what was coming, would we have done things differently that weekend? Looking back on it now, it seems absolutely crazy that we dined in at Mellow Mushroom and Amelie’s (we haven’t eaten in a restaurant since then), or attended a somewhat normal church service (our services have been online since then), or hugged a family member (we haven’t since then).
It’s been seven weeks since my parents visited. Thankfully, mine and Sara’s immediate families, including my parents, have all stayed healthy. Since that weekend, life has been simultaneously surreal and monotonous, terrifying and beautiful.
It took a week or two, but we’ve honed in our daily routine while in self-isolation. We usually start the day by going for a run and eating a solid breakfast before settling into our workdays. We’re both fortunate to have jobs that can be done from home, although in Sara’s case, with some significant reinvention (she’s a Youtuber now). Throughout the day, we break up the Zoom meetings (we both have dozens per week) with walks around the neighborhood or a glass of iced coffee (we both drink dozens per week). In the evenings, we either cook dinner at home or pick up takeout from a local restaurant, before going on yet another neighborhood walk to let things settle. On many days, our cars never leave the garage.
Because we’re fortunate enough – incredibly fortunate – to not have to worry about bigger problems, I find myself missing some of the small things. I miss strolling leisurely through the grocery store. I miss weekend trips to other cities or other states. I miss eating French fries when they’re hot, rather than after they’ve traveled between the restaurant and my house. I miss sitting in crowded restaurants and coffee shops. I miss visiting friends and family in person. I miss going to church instead of watching it on TV. I miss waiting in the notoriously long salad line at Red Ventures, chatting with my teammates to pass the time.
Most of all, I really, really, really miss baseball.
But there are a few things I’ve been thankful for during self-isolation. The best part is that I get to self-isolate with my wife Sara, and even though we’ve done nothing else for the last seven weeks, we’ve genuinely enjoyed spending some extra time together. It’s really nice to be able to take a break from work and walk around the neighborhood together. And for Sara, she no longer has to get up at 4:45 AM to get ready for work, so our schedules are more aligned.
I’m also thankful that not only am I able to keep working, but I no longer have to commute to the office in the morning and home in the evenings. Objectively, the commute from Rock Hill to Red Ventures isn’t bad at all. But subjectively, I always feel like I should be able to get there and back a lot faster than I do if the other drivers on the road with me weren’t such morons. I’m not very good at not letting the stress of the commute get to me, so it’s really nice to not have to make that drive. With that extra time, I’m able to make myself pour-over coffee in the mornings, something I usually only have time to do on the weekends. I’m able to start dinner a little earlier in the evenings, which lets me enjoy the cooking instead of being stressed about how late dinner will be.
And finally, I’m thankful for Zoom. Not only does it let me meet with my team at work, we’ve also used it to meet with our Bible study group and with our families. Because of the travel restrictions, we had to cancel a trip to visit my sister Katie, her husband Nick and our niece and nephew Allie and Lincoln in Hawaii. But the fact that we’ve been able to regularly chat with them on video has softened that blow somewhat. I will concede, however, that Zoom fatigue is a real thing and after sitting through back-to-back-to-back Zoom meetings I start to wish I existed in the early 1900s instead of present day.
The hardest part of this pandemic, at least for me and I imagine for most people, is that we really have no idea when it’s going to be over. I’ll never forget that first weekend, when my parents were in town and the crisis was accelerating with breathtaking speed. But as quickly as the situation seemed to deteriorate that first weekend, it seems like the recovery has proceeded painstakingly slowly. In the early days of self-isolation, there was at least a little novelty to trying to minimize time outside the house. But that novelty has long worn off and I’m definitely getting a little stir crazy.
Here’s what gives me hope, even in the midst of this crisis: God was sovereign before this crisis, He is sovereign during this crisis, and He’ll be sovereign after this crisis is over. Jesus says this about God’s sovereignty in Matthew 10:29-31:
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.
– Matthew 10:29-31
John Piper calls this meticulous sovereignty. I love that phrase. It reminds me of all the times in my history and the world’s history when God has acted at just the right time and in just the right moment, even if we didn’t understand it at the time. I have to trust that God – who has been, is and always will be sovereign, and has been, is and always will be righteous – is using this crisis, as horrible as it may seem, for good.
I hope you and the people close to you are healthy and staying safe. If there’s anything you need, whether it’s a roll of toilet paper, a movie suggestion or someone to talk to, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me. My contact information is on my about me page.
Thanks, as always, for reading. Hopefully next time it’ll be back to baseball stadiums.
Thanks to Sara Sawczuk for editing this post. Sorry again about the toilet paper.