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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COVID Diary #1: When a public park on a nice day is something to be feared

Fire road in the Middlesex Fells. Photo (cc) 2016 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.

In early March, I began running for the first time in many months, starting out at a cautious two miles and gradually working up to five. During the intervening weeks, the world started closing down around us. I settled on main drags where few people tend to walk and where I could head out into the street if necessary. My goal was to give people 15 or 20 feet of separation.

Then, yesterday, a beautiful spring day, I took a chance that I should have known wouldn’t work out. So many parking areas around the Middlesex Fells have been closed that I thought the fire roads around the North Reservoir might be relatively empty. No such luck — it was like a beach in Florida, only with trees. I got maybe a quarter of a mile in before I could see that it was hopeless. I stopped, put on my mask (which I had carried with me) and walked out.

Today: Back to the streets.

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