The Pandemic is a Reality

by Steve Weiner, 22 June 2020

Marking California’s northern border with an Oregon welcome sign is unnecessary on account of all the weed shops. Of course the sign still stands, but the Beaver State’s looser regulation on the legalized cash crop is the de facto indicator that you’ve left California. As the old growth redwoods along Highway 101 thin out, the road bends toward the beaches and I ceremoniously pulled over for a pitstop to browse the local flower at a quaint beachfront dispensary advertising $50 ounces — a bargain at roughly one eighth the price in California. The budtender draped a mask over his bushy orangeish beard when I walked in — the first hint that Oregon still feigns interest in the coronavirus. There is no required temperature check and no proof of health to buy discount sungrown organic weed. I didn’t even show ID. 

This is an alternative story of life in America in the summer of 2020.

It’s been almost 100 days since I left San Francisco for a two-week trip to Turkey. My return flight had been scheduled on the same day that the Bay Area would order six million residents to shelter in place. Access to food and medical care was good in Turkey so I stayed for two months until I took an evacuation flight — coordinated by the US embassy — back to the states. Since then I’ve packed my belongings into storage, moved out of my $3100 per month one-bedroom in SF, and drove 1,000 miles to a cottage in the woods for a less congested, more out there existence. Airbnb’s make social distancing easier than a hotel and create more diversity in the places you can live (and work). So I’m doing just that for the next several months all across the western US. A nomad … with a plan.

Throughout my travels during the pandemic, I’ve witnessed the consequences of a collectively worn out consciousness in many different communities. The vibe in a city, such as SF, is decidedly different than that on the coast of the Aegean, but there’s one emotional side effect of Covid that cuts across cultures: apathy. The neverending spin cycles have made our brains numb to thousands of new cases per day and it’s hard to agree on what’s really happening (update: it’s a global pandemic), especially because society reached its peak tolerance for exposure to data, graphs, and predictive modeling. 

Even if the death rate is lower than originally anticipated, the elected officials sitting in the back of the science classroom shooting spitballs at Dr. Fauci et al, abdicated accountability to the public during a global health crisis and instead opted to push risk management down to the local level. As a consequence, we all got confused about whether masks were helpful (they are) and the businesses that could open have made some bizarre trade-offs. Grocery stores up and down the west coast have replaced bulk food with pre-measured portions wrapped in plastic and environmentally-friendly tote bags — once the calling card of the conscious consumer — are now banned. While California still keeps most of its parks closed, its northern neighbors’ nature is accessible and sparsely populated (though you can’t fill up your water bottle in a National Park). Yet as I roll past roadside restaurants in rural Washington — the state with the first outbreak of Covid — parking lots are full again. Friends in Texas and Florida report the same, one proclaiming, “Steve, we live in two different America’s. No one cares about the virus here.” 

Yep, we know …


At the time of posting, the US is projected to have well over 200,000 Covid deaths by the November election — assuming it still occurs. However, the lasting legacy of Covid may be that of a provocateur of much-needed social change. The ineffective and politicized response to the outbreak, coupled with forced isolation turned out to be the spark to the dry un-raked forest of humanity. The long-predicted shift in labor demand and skill requirements accelerated and has permanently displaced workers who will lose federal unemployment support in a few weeks. Meanwhile, the stock market continues to decouple from the economy as the gap further widens between capital and the 99%. And the frustration level from months of isolation without an exit strategy was at a tipping point at the moment when another despicable video of police committing murder reminded us that equality still doesn’t exist for all Americans. 

That Covid was demoted to the back burner of our brains just in time for summer may have come as well-timed relief, however brief. Of course the virus never really abated, we just got bored. But schools don’t know for sure how to open and some are concerns that the return of pro sports could be further delayed. And with daily new cases back at all time highs in some states I’m wondering: did the politicians — specifically the ones pushing to reopen without a plan — calculate that it’d be politically disadvantageous to cautiously reopen or politically advantageous to pretend reopening was necessary and safe, only to re-issue shelter in place orders when the curves inevitably rise? Or is America destined for more polarization between those who believe the virus exists and will kill many people and those who simply can’t be bothered?

Port Angeles, Washington — June 2020

More to follow … 

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