This week’s COVID Catch-up: One year later—remembering the early days of the pandemic

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Cancellations, toilet paper, and stay-at-home orders—remember when?

COVID Catch-up is a weekly column featuring Lansing Journal journalist Carrie Steinweg’s personal experience with COVID-19 and things she learned from others who shared their experiences. Subscribe today to make sure you don’t miss any COVID Catch-ups. Last week’s column is available here.

By Carrie Steinweg
COVID
Carrie Steinweg (photo provided)

LANSING, Ill. (March 18, 2021) – This past week we hit the one-year mark of when the coronavirus outbreak was declared a global pandemic. It had already hit hard in China and at that time we were seeing the first of many millions of cases and the first of many hundreds of thousands of deaths. In the coming days the world would change more than we could ever imagine.

Early weeks of 2020

Thinking back to early last year, even after hearing bits about coronavirus outbreaks overseas, it still seemed so far away and I felt completely disconnected from it. I thought about other diseases that I’d heard about in other countries, but which didn’t reach me personally, like Ebola and Mad Cow Disease. So, with that in mind, it didn’t feel like a real threat as the year started off.

I was substitute teaching in February and was surprised to hear kids commenting about it and seeming concerned. I think that’s when it started to sink in that it might become a real threat here, too. I felt for these kids who I could see definitely had fear over the situation.

Starting to shut down

The second weekend of March, I left for a trip in Wisconsin after doing a reading and book signing that morning for a local MOMS Club and things still were still entirely normal. I was paying a little more attention to how many surfaces I was touching and how much I was touching my face and was washing my hands more. Cases in Illinois were in the single digits at that time. We were told to reserve face masks for medical use. I’m not sure if I’d even heard the term “social distancing” yet.

Some college baseball games and some larger trade shows were being canceled and by mid-week the NBA has suspended their season. On Wednesday, I did a volunteer usher shift at a local theatre. We wore rubber gloves throughout our shift and were supplied with disinfectant wipes to wipe down all of the seats after the performance. The following day Broadway shows were cancelled and I got a call on Friday afternoon about the cancellation of a show I had tickets for that evening. My kids were told to take all their books home with them on Friday in anticipation of a temporary closure.

Saturday morning my sister and I met at a tea room as planned, and the discussion of the day was the coronavirus (which we weren’t yet referring to as COVID-19). We dabbed on hand sanitizer after we touched anything. We were sat in our own little separate nook and saw just one other couple seated in a different room. We chatted with the owner who said almost all her reservations that afternoon had been canceled. I was disappointed that other plans that weekend weren’t happening. My son had just joined the track team and I was going to be going to his meet that day. The next day he was scheduled to participate in his first half-marathon in the west suburbs. That was canceled. A visit to my mom, who resided in a nursing home, had to be canceled.

I attended one last event that Saturday night—a ramen cooking competition at a brewery where I would be a judge. It went along as it would have in normal times, but I recall a few strangers sitting down at our table and as we introduced ourselves, we reached out to shake hands out of habit. And as his hand gripped mine, I had a sudden feeling of dread wash over me and I think he saw it on my face. We had been hearing warmings not to shake hands and I had forgotten not to.

Stocking up for COVID

As talk of possible shutdowns continued, we didn’t know what to expect. Unsure of what that would mean or how long it might last, I, like many others, went out to local stores to make sure we had necessities on hand. A friend and I were texting lists of needed items and we were picking things up for each other, too, eating up in our driveways or parking lots to swap a half-gallon of almond milk and some Charmin for ground beef and tortillas. All were in short supply.

One day I stopped at Aldi and heeding warnings not to hoard toilet paper, I left it on the shelf since we had enough at home to last us at least a couple weeks. When the shutdown was announced, I wished I’d gotten and extra pack or two.

I recall one stop at Walgreens where canned items and toilet paper were cleared off the shelf. I went over to the cleaning products where the disinfectants were just about gone. One lady leaned in for something and like a scene out of a doomsday movie she looked at me with wide eyes and said, “You know, this is just the beginning,” and quickly walked away with her package of rubber gloves and bleach.

It felt like we were headed into a Hunger Games world where in months we might be living off the land, suspicious of everyone around us, buying hand sanitizer and toilet paper in dark corners for outrageous prices from sketchy individuals.

There were not just toilet paper shortages, but meat shortages, hair dye shortages, coin shortages. At the same time, some things, like milk, were being dumped or discarded because they couldn’t get to (or were no longer needed from) typical customers, like school cafeterias, banquet halls, hotels, sporting venues.

The good side of a bad thing

The last year has been full of negatives that have affected our health, the economy, our mental state, and more. As is often the case, though, this time of crisis brought out the best in humanity, as well. We were banding together to donate masks and meals, to find ways to thank our health care workers, delivery drivers, grocery clerks, and others. We reached out celebrate special occasions with drive thru parades for birthdays and graduations and retirements.

Though we’ve dealt with inconveniences of a noisier house and keeping family fed, we acquired more time together. Some of the nights that previously would have been spent running to school concerts or soccer games were replaced with nights of board games or puzzles or watching classic movies. Some of us were able to rediscover old passions or find new ones. In a year of extreme challenges, there have been many silver linings.

COVID-19: Then and now

One year ago we were on the cusp of stay-at-home orders that would keep us in our houses unless we were essential workers or heading out for essentials or food pick-ups. Now we’re finding restrictions starting to ease. Restaurant dining rooms are open again and letting more guests in. Museums have been opening back up. Sports venues will start letting fans back in at limited capacity. More schools are opening for some form of in-person learning. The weather is starting to warm and inviting us to spend more time outside. We’re heading out of a hibernation that has lasted twelve months and there’s much to look forward to.

Defying even the most positive predictions in the pandemic’s early days, in less than a year a vaccine became available to protect individuals from contracting COVID-19 and as of this writing, about 13% of Illinois residents have been fully vaccinated. At this time last year, we were going on lockdown and facing an unknown time of staying in to avoid the virus. Now things are moving the other direction. More of our country is opening up, more people are being vaccinated and we’re moving forward—some with renewed relationships or new skills or home improvement projects completed—and all of us with a new appreciation for all the little things that make life so special.

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