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Are some of us dropping our guard against Covid-19 prematurely?

October 23, 2020 Barbara Ballinger & Margaret Crane

Initially, when we first heard about the coronavirus, we were clueless and scared. Many of us became obsessive about being careful to keep the virus from calling, especially if over age 65, if we have a preexisting condition or the wrong blood type. Supposedly,  A blood types are more susceptible to contracting the virus. 

We self-isolated for weeks at a time. Many of those who could, started working or volunteering virtually from home. Stuck in one place, we decluttered because we felt it was one way to mitigate the disorder in our lives… and we had the time. We cooked enough to feed a regiment. And when we burned out on cooking, we ordered in, wiped the take-out containers when they arrived and microwaved the food for 30 seconds—what a production. We also disinfected the countertops, scrubbed our produce with a brush in soap and water and quarantined our mail and packages in a corner of a room designated as our safe spot. Intertwined with all this, we established a hand-washing routine to the tune of happy birthday sung twice. 

Unable to go out and socialize, our lives became blah. Lonely. Depressing. The noise in our homes was dead space. So, we turned on our TVs to hear other voices in the background and played lots of music. (For Margaret it was a chance to listen to her favorite classical music, oratorios  and operas.) Hungry for human contact, we started video conferencing with friends and family at a furious pace. 

As the weeks turned into months, we learned more about how to protect ourselves if we left our cocoons. As the weather improved in the spring, we began to feel the nudge to get outside. Living in New York State, we felt lucky. Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s orders to stay put helped eventually to curtail the high number of coronavirus cases and deaths. As they plummeted, we heaved collective sighs of relief and ventured out a bit more—finally to get haircuts and colorings, to the dentists who put up plastic shields and were garbed in PE suits and to some important doctor appointments. It was okay to go to the grocery store at certain hours or the pharmacy early in the morning when it would be empty. We went in and out quickly and always kept our distances from others with masks on, sometimes more than one mask if we were more nervous that day. 

When our grown children deemed it safe, we arranged to see them, our siblings and other relatives. Life didn’t yet seem normal—how could it, but at least we felt we didn’t have to be our own best company all the time. What a relief not to feel that stress. 

We also stopped taking our temperature daily—not emotionally but literally pulling out a thermometer to see if the cough, headache or sniffle was leading to the dreaded scourge. At that point, we went back to some of our old ways of taking lots of showers if we went out, washing clothing on the hottest setting possible and hunkering down. And then we’d ease up again. 

St. Louisan Debbie Warshawski said her strict adherence to coronavirus restrictions was based on her boyfriend’s compromised health. “He was on chemo, fighting lymphoma and stuck at home through July. I ran all errands - sporting a mask from day one - keeping my distance and employing A LOT of hand washing and wiping. Skip forward to September. Ta da!  Limited freedom. We got the doc’s okay to carefully dine at friends’ homes and employ distancing. Now we can shop together. Take walks. But still no direct contact with some family and friends. Hard to believe the permission to shop is a sudden sign of freedom,” she says. 

Jill from Madison, Wisconsin, says it's hard to say what is too much risk but she has been cautious and easing up a bit. “Obviously, I don't eat indoors at restaurants, I haven't gone on a plane. But I am grateful for what I have done, especially seeing friends which has kept some semblance of normalcy to my life.” 

Julie Singer, who lives in Los Angeles, was hypervigilant about isolating and social distancing. In March, April and May, she and her husband didn’t have anyone in their home outside of immediate family and always wore masks and social distanced. “Recently, we’ve returned to the hair and nail salons. In LA they are open for outside services only. Now we have a housekeeping crew that comes to clean every other week. And I’ve stopped sanitizing the outside of Amazon packages when they arrive!” 

Each of us has taken more risks, and we’ve learned that others have, too. Everybody seems to have a different tack. Here’s our list combined with others’ practices. Our biggest fear now is that the colder weather and potential flu season will mean we’ll have to tighten up again. Thanksgiving is coming soon and we feel it’s too dangerous to throw caution to the wind. Dr. Anthony Fauci has supposedly told his daughters they won’t be spending the holiday together.

Friend and family pods. Because we both feel at risk due to age and some pre-existing health conditions, we see few family members and even fewer friends. Barbara has seen four friends who have also been extremely careful, having a socially distant drink with one on the friend’s deck, walking with two others six feet apart and with masks at different times, and staying far apart from the third while she visited at her home outdoors. She has seen each of her two daughters twice but after they all hibernated at home to be safe before gathering. Each also had a virus test. And Barbara was careful when she finally got to see her grandsons after eight months of distance--hugging was fine but not kissing per their instructions from their parents. 

Initially, Margaret stayed put. She only saw her two sisters outside to take a walk. She slowly started going into the grocery and pharmacy and most recently, hosted a Jewish holiday dinner in her apartment with her two sisters, niece and son. All the windows were open. Other than going to her son’s apartment to feed the cat or drop off food, she went to dinner at her one sister’s apartment, only the second time since the pandemic she’s been inside some else’s space. 

Doctor and dentist appointments. We each started going only after we were convinced the offices were observing all the key protective measures of staff wearing masks, having installed plexiglass walls in offices, allowing in few patients at the same time and so on. The first time Barbara went it was for a consult regarding some important surgery. She was the only one in the office, kept her mask on the entire time but touched and used her phone, which her younger daughter had told her was verboten. By the time she went to the dentist she felt incredibly comfortable, so much so that she made an appointment for another visit come November and urged her beau to do likewise. By the time she had surgery in mid-July in a New York City hospital after it had opened, she also felt daring enough to stay overnight at a hotel associated with the hospital because she had a 6:30 a.m. scheduled time slot. 

Jill says she finally had her teeth cleaned after cancelling twice. She had a cavity: “It felt very risky as I had my mask off. I haven't scheduled having it filled yet. I have to have surgery on my face (no mask) for a basil cell carcinoma. That feels like a risk but a necessary one,” she adds. 



Haircuts, colorings and blow dries.
 We worry about how our hair looks, perhaps, too much, so we agonized about when we might return to cut our long messy tresses and wash away the gray. Margaret went first and the salon had strict rules about masks, gave everyone gloves and a plastic poncho. All chairs were wiped down after each customer left. By the time Barbara went, her salon had the protocol down pat and everyone kept their distance, wore masks and nobody was permitted blow dries, which her place now allows. She isn’t yet doing so since her beau thinks it’s not safe to have the air blown around so close to her face. 

Jill says she now gets pedicures. “It's a large salon and they only take former clients, two in at any one time. You must wash your hands when you come in, wear a mask and she cleans between clients with hospital grade cleaners. “My salon stylist comes to my house every five weeks and we sit outside with masks on while she cuts my hair and colors my outgrowth. I am going to consider going to the salon once the winter comes. I hate rinsing my hair in the basement sink though!!! I long for the salon and all my friends have gone back to theirs already,” Jill says.

Shopping. Barbara was having food deliveries made until the last week of September when she finally ventured into a supermarket to get some live lobsters steamed. She decided that was less risky than a few days spent in Maine for her annual lobster fix. She had her shopping list ready, raced through the store and packed her own groceries as the store’s rules dictated. But she plans to return to having deliveries made…. She now goes into a few stores in her ‘hood including the post office, art store and a favorite gift shop, always wearing a mask as required and keeping at least 6 feet far apart from other shoppers. All her town’s stores limit the number allowed in at a time and ask shoppers not to spend long.

One of the best results of easing up is that we both feel more comfortable going into a store when our supply of toilet paper, paper towels, hand sanitizer and so on run low. We’ve also eased up on our panic level of doing so. 

Pat Ewing, St. Louis, has eased off a bit too. She says, “I noticed I no longer wash off packages and grocery items. Not a conscious decision, just slipped into it. I also have gone grocery shopping more often. At first, I was going every two to three weeks. Now I go about once a week.” 

Jill in Madison started going to the grocery store in May. “The longest I have been in the grocery store is about 10 minutes. I have a list, and I race. I go to our outdoor farmer's markets. Honestly, even picking out my own vegetables and fruit at the grocery store feels like a luxury after having groceries delivered for two months back when this started,” she says.  

Traveling near and far and hosting our kids. Barbara went to New York City twice for doctor appointments and surgery. Each time she drove rather than took the train to be safe, but she did ease up and park her car in a garage, a big risk she felt but at least used one she knew. Does that make it safer? Probably not, she decided. For other essentials, she can manage on foot and has been proud of upping her step count, which she tracks on her phone daily. She’s usually at 6-7 miles a day. 

As Part 2 of her August birthday present, Margaret’s one sister made a reservation to visit the Botanical Garden in the Bronx the end of September. Her sister drove there. The garden followed all the rules about being careful and clean. It was empty on a Thursday afternoon thankfully, and the field trip turned out to be a much-needed respite. Margaret next spent a weekend at that sister’s country home and drove there with her sister’s family. She is not comfortable using public transportation at this point.   

Jill’s younger daughter and husband arrived recently at her house from Vermont via a five-day stay in Massachusetts with the son-in-law’s parents. They are staying at her house (i.e. not an Airbnb first). “They have been very careful, but they did stay in a hotel on the drive out,” she says. “We all wear masks in the house, they eat in a separate room from us, we keep the windows open and they got tested before arriving. No hugging. We don't share any room other than the kitchen and we stay 6 feet apart if we are both in the kitchen. They are on the opposite side of the house from our bedroom. I created a study for each of them and they keep the doors shut. We did this same routine when her older daughter and family arrived back in June.” 

In-person classes. Barbara stopped taking her weekly painting class when the pandemic shut down businesses. Initially, once it started up, she resisted, though has signed up to take several and give it a try. In the meantime, she did one art class online and despite her fear it would be uninspiring, she found it perfect—the mix of students who spoke up and showed their work and the teacher who lectured about art history, techniques, offered specific project challenges and critiqued the students’ work…kindly. Margaret, who has tutored in person for several years, did her first virtual tutoring this spring and summer and plans to continue to do so during the upcoming school year.

Dining. Barbara Rosenbaum, MD, who lives in Maryland, says, “We have been having four to six friends over to eat in our backyard. We were doing some outdoor dining at restaurants but then read that among 7,000 people in a study in Maryland, 400 who dined in and 300 who dined outside contracted COVID. So, we are not making major changes at this point.” 

Julie from Los Angeles says they’re still “pretty strict over here - at least seems so relative to a lot of our friends. We have dined (outside) at a couple of restaurants during slow, off-peak hours. We are entertaining more friends in our backyard.  We invite one couple at a time and sit at a safe, social distance.” 

Funerals. Jill from Madison says she went to a funeral, which was outdoors and very socially distanced with everyone in masks. Margaret was invited to a funeral in a church, opted out since she didn’t know the deceased well and because it was indoors, and sent a note to the family explaining her decision. 

We are all aware, as Jill says, “that this winter will be hard. Really hard. No more walking which we do every day. No more seeing friends. I anticipate having Thanksgiving with just my husband and me ....UGH.” 

At the same time, we are all also hopeful that before we know it, there will be a safe vaccine to take and that life may, might, hopefully will return to normal, whatever that is. We can’t wait. Yet, we’re not counting the days. For now, we’re simply counting our blessings for staying well in our homes and remaining in touch. We’ve also become incredibly flexible in how to ease up, then pull back up and ease up again.

 

 

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