COVID Diary #11: Back on campus, and feeling pretty good about it

Photo (cc) 2019 by Dan Kennedy.

Previously published at GBH News.

It feels more normal than I had expected.

I’m writing this on Tuesday of Week Two at Northeastern University. I’ve taught five classes — two via Zoom, three in person. I’ve taken three COVID tests. I’ve been rear-ended on the Zakim, taken the commuter rail, gotten on the Orange Line and walked the three miles from North Station to campus. I’ve ordered coffee, including my first Starbucks since last March, which I’m drinking right now.

And yes, I’ll admit, it’s good to be back.

Was I skeptical? Of course. Across the country, many employees are being told to work from home until next January at the earliest, even though working in a socially distanced office seems pretty low-risk. By contrast, college faculty are exposing themselves to young adults who, no matter how well-intentioned they may be, are going to spend some of their time partying, drinking, having sex and spreading whatever viruses they may be carrying, including COVID. Northeastern has already kicked out 11 freshmen, and Boston College is in the midst of what may be the early stages of a surge.

So far, though, I’m impressed with what I’ve seen. Mask-wearing is universal. Most people are conscious of not getting too close to anyone else. And though I’m teaching one of my classes in person, precautions are being taken. In a room in which as many as 19 students are sometimes assigned, I have a class of nine, and only seven of them can attend on any given day. We have a cart loaded with audio-visual equipment so that those attending remotely can see and hear us, and vice-versa. I’m impressed with the quality and how easy it is to use, although I needed some help from one of our brilliant students to get it up and running.

COVID has accelerated an upheaval in higher education that was already under way. Costs are out of control. Too often, young people and their families are left with unaffordable debt once they’ve picked up their degrees and launched their careers. Increasingly, we are being told that students would be better served by online education at a fraction of the cost.

Thus the return to campus this fall, at Northeastern and across the country, is driven by economics. We’re determined to show that there is value to the full in-person, on-campus college experience. As Harvard and MIT chaplain Greg M. Epstein wrote in The Boston Globe this past Sunday, “educational institutions and those who care about them risk everything if we forget that non-academic student activities help students become fully human.”

Less altruistically, colleges and universities need the money if they are going to continue with the faculty and infrastructure they have now. I’m not opposed to that. After all, one of the many things Northeastern does with the money it receives from students is pay my salary. I could have chosen to teach from home. At 64, I’m in the vulnerable age group. But I wanted to give the students who are enrolled in my in-person class as normal an experience as possible.

But only if it’s safe. At least at the moment, it’s looking good. The university is testing everyone — faculty, staff and students — several times a week. The most recent seven-day average of positive test results is just 0.05%, well below the state’s own admirably low rate of 0.8%. (Apples-and-oranges alert: Yes, I realize that not everyone in the state is being tested, and that a disproportionate number of those seeking tests have symptoms. Still, there’s no question that Northeastern is doing well so far.)

Still, the picture nationwide is unsettling. The New York Times is tracking COVID at campuses across the country, and the picture at some institutions is disturbing indeed. USA Today reports that “of the 25 hottest outbreaks in the U.S., communities heavy with college students represent 19 of them.” The University of North Carolina and Notre Dame are among the schools that shut down almost as soon as they reopened. Maybe things will be different in the Boston area given that COVID is more or less under control in the city and the state. We’ll find out soon enough.

As I walk around the campus, I see students everywhere — not as many as usual, and all of them masked. It’s not ideal. But for young adults learning how to make their way in the world, it’s got to be better than holing up in their parents’ basement for months at a time.

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COVID Diary #10: These are the good old days

2002 photo by Chris Spielmann.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

We wedged ourselves between the concrete Jersey barriers that were separating the parking lot from the outdoor dining area and approached a server. “Would you like a table inside or out?” she asked. “Out!” we replied with some alacrity.

It was a beautiful recent evening — the third time we had ventured to restaurants since the COVID-19 restrictions had eased. There was no way we were going to eat inside; frankly, we would have been reluctant to use the restrooms if nature had called.

But eating out provided us with a blessed sense of normality that had been missing in those locked-down days of spring. It helped that the restaurants we visited were all doing it right — masked servers, tables spread apart, customers and staff friendly and chill. We’ve also had friends over a few times, outdoors, socially distanced, masked up when getting food or drinks. It was almost enough to make you think that life as we knew it was gradually beginning to return.

Now it’s starting to look like a fantasy — a lull before the next wave of pandemic restrictions rather than a sign of real progress.

We all know what’s going on. Nationally, the situation has been disastrous for many weeks, as the number of cases and the death toll have been rising in southern and western states that had been largely unaffected by the early wave. Over the weekend, Dr. Deborah Birx, who is overseeing the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic, called the current surge “extraordinarily widespread.”

In Massachusetts, where our early, terrifying outbreak had been brought under control, the numbers are creeping back up. “What we’re seeing are the indicators that a surge is coming,” Northeastern University epidemiologist Samuel Scarpino told The Boston Globe earlier this week.

Scarpino is urging Gov. Charlie Baker and other officials to reimpose some of the restrictions that had been in place earlier in the pandemic. At the same time, thousands of college students are about to descend upon the area, many of them from states like Florida and Texas, where mask-wearing is seen as something that only socialists do.

It’s now clear that plans made during May and June, when some green shoots of optimism began sprouting from the barren soil, are no longer realistic. The return of Major League Baseball has been a five-alarm disaster. Office workers are being told to stay home until January at the earliest. Hopes of reopening public schools this fall, either fully or in part, have given way to demands from the teachers unions that classrooms remain closed until safety concerns can be addressed. Colleges and universities — including Northeastern, where I teach — are for the moment sticking with plans they made months ago to reopen for at least some in-person classes, but that’s looking increasingly unlikely.

What’s also been clear for some time now is that President Donald Trump’s abdication of leadership transformed a situation that would have been bad in any case into something infinitely worse. “Despite ample warning, the U.S. squandered every possible opportunity to control the coronavirus,” writes Ed Yong of The Atlantic near the top of his massively researched overview of the Trump administration’s failures.

So now what? The economy is sliding backwards, and real suffering is on the horizon if Congress fails to pass another relief bill — or, frankly, if it passes the Republican version, which is grossly inadequate.

And the respite we’ve been enjoying in recent weeks will begin to fade. Soon we may no longer have the option of going to restaurants and sitting inside — it’s either the parking lot or nothing. There will be rainy days. And it will start to get cold. And more and more restaurants, struggling to hang on since March, will shut down.

Public schools will struggle once again with Zoom classes as parents try to balance their kids’ education with their own need to work. Higher education may have to return to online-only, and hard-pressed families will start to demand answers to why they’re paying massive tuition bills for a University of Phoenix-style experience.

And those lazy evenings of al fresco dining will start to look like a fond memory rather than a harbinger of better days to come.

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COVID Diary #9: Commuting in the age of pandemic

A cyclist heads north on Mass Ave just north of Harvard Square.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

A little after 11 a.m. this past Saturday, I eased myself onto my bike and headed toward Boston. My destination was Northeastern University, where I teach in the journalism program. I wanted to see if it was realistic to commute by bicycle once in-person classes resume this September.

What prompted this experiment was a story in The Boston Globe. According to Steve Annear, even as ridership begins to recover from the pandemic, more passengers are refusing to wear masks — and the MBTA is taking a decidedly laid-back approach to enforcement.

“What I’ve been doing as a rider whenever I see people not wearing a mask is I’ve been getting off in between stations and running to the next car, hoping the people on the new car will all be wearing their masks,” a rider named Victoria Kroeger told Annear.

Terrific.

For more than 20 years, I’d commuted to Boston from the North Shore by car, a soul-sucking ordeal that grew worse every year. Then, in 2014, we moved to West Medford, returning to a neighborhood where we’d lived for a few years in the early 1980s. I discovered the joy of walking to the train station and then hopping onto the subway at North Station. Commuting became almost a pleasure. We all love to complain about the T, but it rarely let me down.

That doesn’t mean, though, that I want to get onto sealed trains and subway cars with hundreds of strangers, any one (or dozen) of whom could be carrying the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Especially if maskless morons are spewing aerosolized particles of disease into the air.

Which is why I was on my bike Saturday, maneuvering on side paths and urban streets. From the Alewife Greenway I picked up Mass. Ave, then headed toward Harvard Square. From there I followed the Charles River to Boston and back to Mass Ave. I turned right onto St. Stephen Street at Symphony Hall and from there pedaled to my office, which I couldn’t actually get into because of pandemic restrictions.

I’d covered 8.9 miles in 53 minutes, a little faster than it would take by public transportation. I was no worse for the wear; but it was a hot day, and I was sweating freely. If this had been an actual commute, I’d want to take a shower — but the locker rooms at the campus recreation center are closed for the foreseeable future because of the pandemic. (And I wouldn’t take the risk, anyway.)

I’d proved that I could do it, but I hadn’t convinced myself that I would do it. After shattering my elbow in an encounter with a wet speed bump 10 years ago, I didn’t ride a bike again until last year. So I’m ever wary about the hazards of urban biking. I’m also not going to ride in the rain or in the dark. For me, biking to work is a maybe option under perfect conditions, but hardly a comprehensive solution.

So what am I — what are all of us — supposed to do?

A couple of years ago, we decided to become a one-car family. My wife takes it for her short drive to work, and she has no other options. I’ve thought about trying to lease a car until V (Vaccine) Day. But I’ve heard from many of my colleagues that they’re also thinking of driving because of concerns about the T, so it seems more than likely that parking will be a nightmare. I’ve thought of relying on Lyft, but I’m not convinced that would be a COVID-free experience, either.

The message on the MBTA website is simple and direct: “All riders and employees are required to wear face coverings while riding the T.” But will the T start doing a better job of enforcing it? What about social-distancing? What about air quality? What happens when a subway car stops, the electricity goes off and air circulation is cut off?

These are things we all ought to be concerned about, especially when thousands of college students from all over the country — most definitely including states that are surging now — arrive in Boston a few weeks from now.

It had been a couple of months since I’d been on campus, so I spent a little time looking around. I was surprised by how many students were sunning themselves on Centennial Common — not huge numbers, but enough to make the campus feel at least semi-populated. Then I headed home, this time skipping the river route and taking Mass. Ave from Hemenway Street into North Cambridge, shaving a half-mile off my trip.

It was fun. But I couldn’t help but notice how light traffic was compared to what it will be like on weekdays after Labor Day. Maybe some hardier, younger folks than I could make the transition to commuting by bike. But I’m almost certainly going to have to depend on the T, and I’m not going to be alone.

Multiply my story, and my concerns, by tens — if not hundreds — of thousands, and you’ve got an idea of what challenges the region is going to face this fall. According to the T, there were 1.16 million trips taken in February, the last month before the pandemic hit. Safe public transportation is indispensable to our economy and to the well-being of our community.

We can’t let the T become a vector for a new COVID surge. We have to get this right.

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COVID Diary #8: Plans for the fall semester could be upended by another surge

We’re living through a historic moment. Following the lead of many others, I’ve decided to start keeping a COVID-19 diary. Don’t expect anything startling — just a few observations from someone stuck at home, lucky to be working and healthy.

One of the best parts of moving back to West Medford five years ago was that we were able to reduce our dependence on driving. When one of our cars died, we decided not to replace it. Now my wife drives literally 10 minutes through residential streets to get to her job, and I rely on public transportation, supplemented by Lyft and an occasional Zipcar.

COVID has upended that. As all of us at Northeastern ponder how we’re going to return to campus this fall, I’m wondering how I’m going to get there. Will I feel safe on the commuter rail and subway? What about possible virus left behind by previous Lyft riders? I’ve thought about riding my bike, but that’s not a comprehensive solution — I’m not going to do it when it’s raining or dark, and I don’t want to wrestle with cars and trucks on a regular basis, either.

As for what Northeastern is going to look like this fall, that still feels a bit up in the air, even though plans are being made to open on time in September. I’ll be teaching one class entirely online. The other will be taught using what’s being referred to as the hyflex model — or, in Northeastern-speak, “NUflex.”

With hyflex, you’re dealing with three separate groups of students. Some of them are in the classroom with you. Another group — maybe they had visa problems, maybe they’re on quarantine — joins the class via video conferencing. And a third group watches a recording of the class at a later time, possibly because of illness or time-zone differences. It sounds like quite a challenge. Our student newspaper, The Huntington News, has the details.

Some faculty members at Boston University are up in arms over the idea of returning to campus at all, according to The Boston Globe and CommonWealth Magazine. I haven’t heard any similar dissension at Northeastern, but maybe I’m not listening in the right places.

What I do know is that COVID is surging nationally once again — and the numbers in Massachusetts don’t inspire a lot of confidence, either. People make plans, but the virus makes its own, abetted by human folly. We’ll see whether anyone is actually back on campus this fall. I hope we are, but it’s hardly a given.

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COVID Diary #7: Our worst week as a nation since 9/11 and 1968

We’re living through a historic moment. Following the lead of many others, I’ve decided to start keeping a COVID-19 diary. Don’t expect anything startling — just a few observations from someone stuck at home, lucky to be working and healthy.

This was the week that everything seemed to come apart. The death toll from COVID-19 passed 100,000. And yet, briefly, that terrible milestone has been overshadowed by the latest in a long series of reckonings over what it means to be Black in America.

The day began with Omar Jimenez, a Black Latino journalist for CNN, being arrested by white police officers in Minneapolis even as a white CNN reporter stood not far away, unmolested by cops. The journalists were there to cover the protests that have broken out over the killing of an African American man, George Floyd, at the hands of a white officer. That officer, Derek Chauvin, has been arrested and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter. No word yet on the fate of the three officers who stood by and let it happen.

The day ended with televised images across the country, from Minneapolis to Atlanta, from New York to California, as thousands of people protested against racist violence against African Americans. Sadly, some of those protests turned violent. But as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” This week the unheard were intent on being heard — not just on behalf of Floyd, but also many others, including Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and, yes, even Christian Cooper, who was not physically injured but who was humiliated by a privileged white woman when he asked her to leash her dog.

And let’s not forget for a moment that President Trump is pouring gasoline on the fire by tweeting out such incendiary calls to violence that Twitter finally had to crack down on him, sparking a confrontation over the First Amendment.

I was struck last night by David Brooks’ demeanor on the PBS NewsHour. I’d never seen him as agitated and upset. I thought he might start crying — and who could blame him? And I was moved deeply by the African American scholar Eddie Glaude Jr. of Princeton University, who was interviewed earlier in the NewsHour by Amna Nawaz. I’ve embedded it above, and you should watch it all. Speaking of Floyd’s killing, Glaude closes with this:

He cried out for his mother. She’s been dead for two years. She’s been dead. He basically told someone to tell my kids that I love them, because I’m going to die. And that man, that moral monster kept his knee on his neck. I didn’t — I couldn’t process it. It broke me.

I’m currently reading John M. Barry’s “The Great Influenza,” his 2004 book about the deadly flu pandemic of 1918. You might think that wouldn’t be the most relaxing thing to curl up with in the midst of the current pandemic. But the 1918 flu eventually ended, which is a good reminder amid what seems like an endless tragedy.

Last week was the worst in our country’s history since 9/11. Before that, you’d have to go back to the war, assassinations and riots of 1968. Back then, our political leadership was not up to the task. Today, the president and his fellow Republicans are actively making things worse.

We have to hope that there will be better days ahead — and, to the extent that we can, work to make those better days happen.

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COVID Diary #6: Three discouraging updates on religious gatherings

We’re living through a historic moment. Following the lead of many others, I’ve decided to start keeping a COVID-19 diary. Don’t expect anything startling — just a few observations from someone stuck at home, lucky to be working and healthy.

Rather than writing a personal essay, I thought I’d follow up Diary #5 with some updates on religious gatherings during the pandemic. The early returns are discouraging.

In Mendocino County, California, a church that was apparently doing everything right has ended up fostering an outbreak of COVID-19. According to The Mendocino Voice, only three or four people were at the Redwood Valley Assembly of God Church for a live-streamed service that took place on May 10. Three, including the pastor, have been hospitalized, and the service has now been implicated in the infection of six people.

Ironically, the day after the service Pastor Jack McMilin posted on Facebook a photo of someone holding a sign reading “Why Can We Go to Walmart but Not to Church!??” Still, McMilin can’t be blamed for what happened. Live-streaming is the responsible way to hold religious gatherings these days, and we’ll be tuning in to our church’s service in a few minutes.

• Today’s New York Times — which has published a dramatic front page commemorating the nearly 100,000 Americans who have died — reports that 40 people who attended a service at a Baptist church in Frankfurt have become infected despite practicing social-distancing.

“We followed all the rules,” said a church leader, Wladimir Pritzkau. Ironically, the service was held on May 10, the same day as the Redwood Valley service. Based on the photo accompanying the story, the German service looks as safe as anyone could expect. But it wasn’t — something to think about as religious gatherings resume in Massachusetts.

• Finally, I don’t want to overlook White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany’s despicable performance at a briefing on Friday. Pressed repeatedly on President Trump’s demand that churches be allowed to reopen, she said, “Boy, it is interesting to be in a room that desperately wants to seem to see these churches and houses of worship stay closed.” Oh, those godless commies in the media.

Fortunately, Reuters reporter Jeff Mason pushed back, saying:

I object to that. I go to church. I’m dying to go back to church. The question we are asking you and would have liked to have asked the president and Dr. [Deborah] Birx is, is it safe? If it is not safe, is the president trying to encourage that, or does the president agree with Dr. Birx that people should wait.

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COVID Diary #5: Gov. Baker gives the go-ahead for houses of worship to reopen

St. Nicholas Church, Transylvania, Romania. Photo (cc) 2014 by fusion-of-horizons

We’re living through a historic moment. Following the lead of many others, I’ve decided to start keeping a COVID-19 diary. Don’t expect anything startling — just a few observations from someone stuck at home, lucky to be working and healthy.

Every Sunday evening for the past couple of months, we get together with three other couples from our church via Zoom. Our church has been holding virtual services on Facebook Live, YouTube and local access. They’re doing a great job, but the audio is less than optimal and, needless to say, being together is the main reason why most of us attend services.

Last night we started talking about what church might look like as the shutdown starts to ease. Our 10 a.m. service tends to be cheek-by-jowl. How could we maintain social-distancing? Would we go?

A short time later we got a partial answer. According to new guidelines from Gov. Charlie Baker, houses of worship will be allowed to open as long as they are at no more than 40% capacity. Those attending will have to wear face masks and stay at least six feet away from anyone who isn’t a family member. I would imagine that singing and communion will be banned, too.

This strikes me as pushing the envelope. We attend an Episcopal church, and according to our diocese, churches will remain closed until July 1. I take that as a date when we will reassess, not necessarily reopen. My other denomination is Unitarian, and the Unitarian Universalist Association is telling congregations that they should be prepared to be closed until May 2021.

Through this crisis, Gov. Baker has taken a cautious, data-based approach, but this feels like giving in to loud voices among the religious community who want to reopen regardless of the health implications. I’ll be interested to see what medical experts have to say, but we’ll be sticking with Facebook Live for the foreseeable future.

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COVID Diary #4: At the end of the second month, thinking about a new normal

We’re living through a historic moment. Following the lead of many others, I’ve decided to start keeping a COVID-19 diary. Don’t expect anything startling — just a few observations from someone stuck at home, lucky to be working and healthy.

As we near the end of the second month of the shutdown, we are all wondering when it might be safe to start inching our way toward a new normal. I’m not talking about opening everything up — that would lead to disaster. But some cautious steps to reopen the economy would be good for all of us as long as they’re accompanied by appropriate social-distancing and other common-sense measures.

At Northeastern, we got a bit of good news Friday in the form of a message from the university president, Joseph Aoun, who wrote that we are going to try to reopen this fall. As he envisions it, we’ll still be a long way from back to normal:

While we continue to believe that classroom instruction should be the norm, we will offer many large lectures in both live and recorded formats, while some of our other classes will allow for both live and remote participation. We will need to expand student housing into new buildings and communities to reduce residential density. This may include setting aside residential space to accommodate those who will need to safely self-isolate.

I should add that all of this has to be seen as subject to change. If there’s a spike this summer, I can’t imagine we’ll reopen in person in the fall. And let’s face it — we’re still in the midst of a spike. But it would be great to see our students again.

I’ve already been asked to teach my undergraduate ethics class entirely online this fall. Given the nature of the course — lectures, reading, discussion, a research paper and the like — it seems doable. But I’m hoping I can teach intermediate reporting in person. I suppose a hands-on skills course could be taught remotely, but it wouldn’t be the same.

This is also a time for me to be thankful that I work for a large university. The Boston Globe reports today that 25 smaller colleges and universities in New England are in danger of closing over the next six years — up from 13 before COVID-19. Large institutions are simply in a better position to weather the storm.

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COVID Diary #3: Life turns upside-down as the pandemic comes to campus

We’re living through a historic moment. Following the lead of many others, I’ve decided to start keeping a COVID-19 diary. Don’t expect anything startling — just a few observations from someone stuck at home, lucky to be working and healthy.

We landed at Logan on Friday night, March 6. The airport was noticeably underpopulated, just as it had been in San Francisco. At that point, though, I still didn’t think the coronavirus was going to cause too much havoc. I was happy when we turned the clocks ahead that Sunday, looking forward to another hour of daylight as a sign that the long (if mild) winter was almost over.

By Monday, my concerns were growing. Harvard, MIT and other schools had announced they were shifting to online-only classes. On Tuesday, my first day back at Northeastern, I attended a college assembly. We took one minor precaution — the buffet was canceled, and we were served boxed lunches instead. Our dean said she expected some sort of announcement from the president’s office. But we all sat cheek-by-jowl; we were worried about what was coming, but at the same time the term “social distancing” had not yet entered our vocabulary.

Previously I wrote that the pandemic came at me gradually, then all at once. The all-at-once arrived the next day, on Wednesday, March 11. During our faculty meeting, an email arrived letting us know that Northeastern, too, was going online-only. That evening I taught my graduate ethics seminar in person for the last time. Along with the campus shutdown, two more events occurred in rapid succession that divided my psychological timeline into “before COVID” and “after COVID.”

Weifeng Xu and me. Used with permission.

First, my students and I watched President Trump’s unnerving Oval Office address — the one that sparked a 1,000-point drop in the Dow Jones Futures even as he was talking. It was clear to all of us that things were about to get very bad, and that Trump — no surprise — wasn’t even remotely up to the job.

Second, the NBA canceled that night’s game between the Utah Jazz and the Oklahoma City Thunder just before tipoff, sending thousands of mystified and angry fans home. It turned out that one player who wasn’t even in the arena that night had tested positive. The idea that the game would be shut down over such a seemingly minor incident served to emphasize the seriousness of what we were facing.

For good measure, the married actors Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson announced that night that they had been diagnosed with COVID-19 while in Australia.

At first, Northeastern tried to take a middle-of-the-road approach, letting students stay in the dorms even as classrooms were closed. Within a few days, though, everyone was ordered to leave. As with many things during this crisis, it seemed like an overreaction at the time but inevitable and necessary just a few days later.

With students leaving for the semester, I decided to spend Monday, March 16, in my office one last time, letting my students know I was on campus if they wanted to see me. By now, reality had sunk in. I drove rather than subject myself to the hazards of public transportation. Walking through Ruggles Station to get from the parking garage to my office, I noticed that it was mostly deserted. Even the Jehovah’s Witnesses weren’t there. There was plenty of activity on campus, though, as cars with out-of-state plates lined the streets so the students could make their escape.

In the midst of such a frenzy, I shouldn’t have been surprised that just one student came to see me. Weifeng Xu was about to fly home to Hong Kong, and she wanted to check on some assignments and say goodbye. She was graduating, but there would be no commencement. We talked a bit about her plans, she took a selfie of us and that was it.

The rest of the semester was remarkably smooth, and my students deserve all the credit. Workshopping and student presentations were done via Zoom. Weifeng, back in Hong Kong, showed us the electronic wristband she was required to wear while in quarantine. Maria Aguirre checked in from her home in Guayaquil, Ecuador, the scene of one of the world’s worst COVID outbreaks. (She is now working remotely for New Hampshire Public Radio.) Other students beamed in from their apartments in Boston. Despite everything they were going through, my students remained cheerful and calm, doing good work and meeting deadlines.

Now we wonder what’s next. I already know that I’m teaching my undergraduate ethics class online this fall and will spend part of the next few months putting it together. I’m hoping I can teach intermediate reporting in-person.

But no one knows what’s going to happen.

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COVID Diary #2: On a trip to California, reality slowly begins to make its own plans

Coronavirus news conference in Ukiah, California, on March 5. Photo (cc) 2020 by Dan Kennedy.

We’re living through a historic moment. Following the lead of many others, I’ve decided to start keeping a COVID-19 diary. Don’t expect anything startling — just a few observations from someone stuck at home, lucky to be working and healthy.

They say that crises come at you gradually, then all at once. At least I think that’s what they say. I know that’s how I experienced the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. In this installment, I’ll talk about the gradual part. Following that, the all-at-once.

For a long time, the coronavirus was a real but distant threat. At a faculty meeting in early February, we talked about trying to have some sort of get-together for our Asian students to acknowledge what their families were going through back home. A month later, as we were about to go on spring break the first week of March, I remember telling someone that we probably wouldn’t have any problems when we came back because our Chinese students would no doubt stay in Boston rather than hazard a trip abroad.

My own spring break was spent in Mendocino County, California. It was a reporting and research trip aimed at learning as much as I could about The Mendocino Voice, a two-person digital news organization that was transitioning from a for-profit model to cooperative ownership. On Monday I landed at San Francisco International Airport, picked up a rental car, and began the two-and-a-half-hour drive north — a drive I won’t describe to you because the Voice’s managing editor and co-founder, Adrian Fernandez Baumann, told me that’s the clichéd opening written by every reporter who parachutes in for a few days.

Photo by Adrian Fernandez Baumann. Used by permission.

The trip was exactly what I was hoping for. Baumann and the other co-founder, publisher Kate Maxwell, are the sort of hard-working, idealistic young journalists who are well-suited to coming up with new ideas for independent local journalism. I hung out at a small Super Tuesday event the Voice sponsored upstairs at the Ukiah Brewing Company, accompanied them on a few stories, and spent more than three hours interviewing them in a windowless upstairs office in downtown Ukiah that they rent from a public radio station. I also got to drive through the redwood forest and out to the Pacific coast for interviews in Fort Bragg and Philo.

But when I wasn’t working, I was checking my phone — and the news about the new coronavirus (I don’t think they were calling COVID-19 yet) was becoming ominous. The New York Times was reporting that so many people were dropping their travel plans that airlines were canceling flights. I wondered if I’d be able to get back on Friday. As I was reading this, I was in a bar-restaurant next to my hotel that was filled, cheek by jowl, with customers in various states of inebriation. They obviously weren’t concerned about getting sick, and at that point neither was I.

Things started to get more real on Thursday, March 5. I showed up a few minutes before 9 a.m. for a news conference at the county offices in Ukiah, which are contained within a modern one-story building a bit outside the city’s center. Kate and Adrian had told me such news conferences are generally held outside — not because of the threat of disease, but, I imagine, to take advantage of the nice California weather. This morning, though, about 50 reporters and county employees crowded into a harshly lit meeting room.

“We have been working 24/7 since January,” said Dr. Noemi Doohan, the interim public health officer. And though there were no cases in Mendocino County at that time, she urged “no more handshaking for a while.” She displayed a poster recommending fist bumps (these days, I’m sure, not even elbow bumps would be recommended), stocking up on nonperishable food, getting to know your neighbors, and staying six feet away from each other.

Photo (cc) 2020 by Dan Kennedy

As she spoke, we were all about six inches from each other, but no one seemed concerned. And I should note that even though California has been a hotbed of COVID-19, Mendocino County is so remote and sparsely populated (about 88,000 people live in an area that’s two-thirds the size of Connecticut) that, even as of this past Monday, only 11 people had been diagnosed, with no reported deaths.

Later that day I interviewed Kate and Adrian about their plans for the Voice. I don’t think it occurred to any of us that whatever plans they were making were about to be upended.

I flew home to Boston on Friday. In contrast to the packed plane I had taken to San Francisco, there were a lot of empty seats. I appreciated the extra room and, yes, given that the coronavirus was becoming a bigger and bigger news story, I was relieved that the seat next to me was empty.

As we were about to get off the plane, I struck up a conversation with an older woman from Guatemala who had flown to Boston to visit her family. I asked her what she was planning to do for fun. Her response: Probably visit the casino.

I hope she made it before it was shut down — and that she and everyone close to her have remained healthy.

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