Soon this can end and we can all meet

Have you ever searched YouTube for New Years, Times Square, 2020? It is strange to look back. My New Years didn’t start out too special this year — visiting family at home.
On January 20–24, I was on the road again, taking a course in The Hague. I knew about the virus and we saw that Hubei province was going on ‘lockdown’. I remember the first conspiracy trolls.
As I waited for my return flight to the Boston, I noticed that every Asian person in the terminal was wearing a mask, and virtually no one else. Was it caution? Cultural differences? Racial profiling?

On January 31st, the Global Times posted a video which quickly went viral on Twitter, showing masks being enforced by police drones. Does anyone remember how weird this video was? There were a mix of reactions along the lines of ‘wow they take this seriously!’, ‘police state!’, and ‘is this really happening’ which you can still see on the Tweet.

I sent the video to a friend in Taiwan and urged her to send her kid (Artur, my godson) into space:

“soon this can end and we can all meet in Seoul” hits different today

On February 9th, I was following the news on a few sites, and made a pull request to one: NextStrain. This feature ended up getting implemented by other volunteers, and I changed my focus to other open issues in their roadmap (changes landing on the site about a month later).

By now there were a bunch of Americans who had been evacuated from Wuhan and been quarantined — literally quarantined, in the year 2020 ??— on military bases. Some of the news about them was upbeat. To their credit, I can’t think of any evidence which has traced American infections back to these quarantine operations.

On February 16th, I had a lunch with two friends who work at Harvard. We talked about international development and tech news, and for the last time for a long while, I don’t think coronavirus entered the conversation at all.

On February 19th, I started my last big trip. By this point, there was a creeping suspicion that things were going downhill. As I flew from San Diego to Las Vegas on the 21st, I saw two guys in the security line wearing heavy-duty masks. I remember washing my hands a bit more carefully by this point. The Nevada caucuses were won easily by Bernie Sanders, without any fear. I checked into hotels, walked the strip, took a city bus, interacted with hundreds of voters, and chatted with Uber drivers. What did we talk about? The election, Nevada being libertarian, superdelegates, steroids in sports. No one mentioned the virus. The first confirmed case in Nevada was still about two weeks away.

On February 25th, I had an interview in Oakland (they never followed up). I found a postcard in the SF ferry building and sent it to a classmate. I got dinner with friends at the Facebook office. The RSA conference was going on downtown. On CalTrain, I reread an email from the conference that I would be attending:

Hello Attendees,

Just a reminder, if you have been to China in the past 14 days prior to the conference and/or showing symptoms, please DO NOT attend the conference. We will be happy to provide you a refund on your ticket.

At the event, someone near me was wearing a mask.
On the night of February 27th, I flew back to Boston. The mayor of SF was declaring a state of emergency. No coronavirus cases had been reported, but in retrospect we now know some Bay Area residents had already died. My Uber driver dismissed the politics of health insurance and told me why people voted for Trump, something to do with how the Green New Deal bans cars. As I walked through the airport, I could tell this would be my last trip for a while.

While I was away, a ‘super spreader’ passed coronavirus to dozens at a BioGen event in Boston. The day after I landed, the Games Developers Conference (GDC) was suspended, affecting a conference I’d once considered attending (TrainJam). All events started postponing. ‘Conferences will be different,’ we said. ‘It’s just that no one wants to be known and be liable for an outbreak,’ we said. People started talking about how we might switch from handshakes to elbow or foot bumps.
On March 1st, New York City reported their first case —but someone who had just returned from Iran. There was a controversy over whether to cancel their St. Patrick’s Day Parade. I want to note this date, because there’s troll copypasta out there about Pelosi, de Blasio, and AOC promoting Chinese New Year on February 9th. San Francisco did fine, Chinatown was never the center of an outbreak, and nearly a month later there weren’t enough cases or public support to cancel events.

On March 2nd, we interviewed an intern and someone warned not to shake hands (too late for me). I had left March 11–15 open for GDC/TrainJam, so instead I booked an Airbnb in Providence, Rhode Island.
On March 3rd, I attended an on-campus training and then went to Facebook’s Cambridge office to talk about an old mapping project. They had started to crack down on social visits due to the virus, so I was (reasonably) upgraded to a business visit. I met someone here, but can’t remember if we shook hands.

On March 6th, there was a viral video of a man spraying air freshener on an Asian man on the New York subway.

Now there was an everyday drumbeat. I ordered takeout, and washed my hands more, and joked about toilet paper. When did I really understand that coronavirus was going to be a day-to-day problem?
I think this is when it turned for me: I called my college advisor and talked about my plans to visit Denmark at the end of June. But the pandemic would be happening first. I started to dismantle my assumptions that this big pandemic was (a) distant from my present day and (b) going to be finished in time for my trip.

Now every takeout run was something I was getting in while I still could. Mac-and-cheese burger with boneless buffalo wings. Sushi. Chipotle. One day as I carried a box of curry home, a man leaned out his car window, asked if that was Chinese food, and laughed about it to his kids.

Late on March 10th, after some rumors, Tufts announced that classes would switch to all-online after spring break. This was controversial and confusing for a lot of us — we talked about if we would be doing the same if spring break happened earlier or later. My mom was planning to receive Somaliland students for college tours, so I warned her to notify the organizers. It seemed like a bad idea to travel.

Sometime that afternoon, I donated to a Boston food bank. We knew how Wuhan and Italy had suffered through shutdowns, and they were three weeks ahead of us… or one week… depending what subreddit you read.

On March 11th I was in the office and took the subway for the last time. Someone in the car was sick. In South Station, I tried to keep my distance from people and not touch anything. I walked to the organic grocery store and found fancy thin mints and toilet paper. There was a sign on the door warning us not to enter if we had symptoms. My room didn’t have a good power outlet, so I watched the Trump Oval Office address on my laptop in the shared kitchen. Friends Tweeted empty grocery store shelves in New York, sports were cancelled… abruptly everyone was taking ‘the virus’ seriously.

My mom got notice that school would be out for two weeks. She suggested going on a road trip and isolating in North Carolina, but we talked her into something closer-by.
Tufts reported its first positive COVID case.

On the 13th, I visited the RISD museum. There were a few student groups in stairwells, and I kept my distance. That afternoon, the RISD museum followed NYC museums in closing indefinitely.
On the 14th, I decided to visit my mom instead of traveling back into Boston. We didn’t know how difficult it might become to travel in and out, and I knew a shared Airbnb wasn’t going to be safer than home. I went to the non-fancy grocery store — I wanted to bring my toilet paper and some groceries so I wouldn’t show up empty-handed.
But first, I sat at the counter at IHOP. My last indoor dining experience.

I didn’t buy much— I needed to carry these and some other canned foods home

The grocery store was not overcrowded, but the previous two days had left a mark. Half of the shelves were taken down and replaced with stacked boxes. Many items were sold out; lentil chips and a few other items went untouched. The only mac-n-cheese was store-brand. There was, somehow, a box of Little Debbie Fudge Cakes.

Aside for healthy people reading this — you never see fudge cakes in stores anymore (?). Only the holiday ones. When I got home, we enjoyed them for the first time in years. My mom joked that they must be bringing boxes out from the back corner of the store, then read the expiration date: summer 2020.

That afternoon, I booked a new train ticket and took an Uber to the station with my food and toilet paper rolls. My mom made a comment about how I had risked more exposure to coronavirus than anyone else there, but we are still healthy.

On returning to normal

85 days later (June 7th) I returned to a warm, sunny, but indelibly changed Boston. Why? Hiding out in the suburbs is too quiet. It feels like everyone died. Seeing people in the park, fireworks crackling, getting takeout from a place down the street, I am Kimmy Schmidt emerging from the bunker:

On the 28th, I took an Uber to South Station, to board a train again. Everything was closed down, hollow. We waited outdoors in masks. As it should be. But it hurts to see it.
I have Airbnbs in Connecticut for July and August. I order fresher and healthier groceries, I cook more, I wear my mask. After that, I don’t know… I keep following the news, and plan a little more carefully now. My story isn’t special, but I wanted to remember how it unfolded.
If you’re reading this, please do your best to stay safe! Take care.

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Nick Doiron

Nick Doiron

Web->ML developer and mapmaker.