Saturday, March 21, 2020

In a Time of Virus: Start of Lockdown

The first thing I remember hearing was that people were hoarding toilet paper.

It had a "man bites dog" element to the news - for whatever reason, they'd realized they might run out of toilet paper, something they'd never previously considered, I suppose.  And, so, people were buying mass amounts of the stuff, leaving those super market shelves empty.  That was early, during the week of the 9th, before the employers sent anyone home .

During her usual weekly run before we became homebound last Friday, Jamie noted our store had a large display of TP right in the doorway, so she picked up a jumbo pack.  It's not like it will go bad,  and it hasn't even been opened yet.    

As a couple, we made our last run to the grocery store last Saturday (03/14) and picked up groceries and goods.  While the store was busy, we were the only people I saw wearing nitrile gloves, which honestly surprised me.  I'd figured we'd be in the minority, but folks would be starting to skew towards "cautious".  One kid saw the gloves and asked his mom why we were wearing them and she shushed him, like he'd asked something embarrassing.

We bought some things and it generally went fine.  They were out of a lot of canned goods, but we were able to grab all the fresh produce we wanted.  Some meats were gone, but nothing too alarming.  

Still, I saw something I didn't like.  By Sunday I had started an online order of groceries for us to pick up Wednesday.

In general our shopping goes like this:  Jamie goes on Tuesday to get groceries through the majority of the week.  If we needed to pick anything else up, we forgot anything, etc... we'd go Saturday or Sunday morning.  But that was not going to be happening.  There were not going to be excursions to the store just to get out or to pick things up just because we felt like making something for dinner Saturday rather than going out.

The local grocery, HEB, is one of those things that everyone (and I mean near everyone) in Texas can agree on.  Austin may be the birthplace of Whole Foods, but HEB is where we go when we aren't paying $7 for a potato and where people on normal human salaries do their shopping.  And, at that, there are different fanciness levels of HEB.  There are a few in my vicinity, and the one south of us has a "built in the 1980's, and this is fine" vibe to it.  There's also the one to our west that's been remodeled twice since we moved to this house, has fancier foods, etc...  And they own Central Market, which is like Whole Foods, but if you don't care about the name-brand of the store you're shopping at.

I did a few add-ons to the order over the course of the week, realizing we'd forgotten things.  All those "Saturday" items we'd normally pick up that we'd forget to put on the list as we were planning out meals - like conditioner, deoderant.  That sort of stuff.

I opted for "substitutions are fine" for every item, but even at that, I was noticing every time we logged in, more items were "not available".  I had no idea what we would have in our cart by the time we picked up groceries.

Meanwhile, mid-week, the city shut-down dining rooms and seating in bars and restaurants.  They're still allowed to serve food as delivery or take-out, but no seated dining or hanging out.  Apparently the power of the human mind to rationalize "I'm six feet away" when you are clearly not and can't be - a powerful thing.

The trick here is two-fold.

1)  You just put a massive amount of the American workforce out of work.  Restaurants and bars operate on a thin profit margin, and reduce hours for staff during slim weeks.  If no one is coming in?  Everyone goes.  Not all bars and restaurants are able to cater to carry-out or delivery.  Many just don't want to - there's a certain futility to even trying.

2)  If no one is eating in restaurants, the run on grocery stores just got far worse.  There's no flattening the curve of the need for humans to eat, and grocery store shelves are tuned to an average week of sales at that store.  My social media feed is full of photos of ugly, empty grocery store shelves and refrigerator aisles.

The first problem has massive economic implications for the US, and already they're talking about stoppages on evictions, freezing mortgage payments for a year (a year!), and other things.  But: if those restaurants were living month-to-month, so were the employees.  And the likelihood all the out-of-work restaurant employees suddenly have new jobs is... not great.  Our economy of service-based occupations has always been remarkably fragile compared to manufacturing, and relied on the relatively okay wages and tips baked into the system.

Some employers will also, no doubt, milk the system, such as hotels who may have to pay out for Unemployment Insurance if they actually let people go.  So, those places are just reducing their employees hours to zero and keeping them on the books.  If the employee quits, it's on them.

But the potential for the collapse of the service and hospitality industries to ripple out into something way worse than any recession I've seen in my lifetime is more of less a foregone conclusion.  And intractable if we are going to be serious about reducing human-to-human contact.

The second problem will flatten out, I think.  But a massive amount of food goes through suppliers like Sysco Foods and Ben E. Keith to restaurants.  Right now I have to imagine they're sitting on warehouses of food with no mode of distribution.  Food that will, btw, go bad if they don't figure it out.

Already Chicago and the State of California have gone on "full lockdown".  Something I assume Texas, or at least the cities, will do by Monday.  This means all businesses will close their doors that are not groceries, pharmacies, postal or other necessary businesses.  The tidal wave of economic issues that will fall out of this move is... mind-boggling, lest the Federal Government tell banks they're essentially frozen from taking action on anyone or any business for, like, a year.  But that doesn't change the problem of a lack of income for most of America.

This is all - extraordinarily bad.

Personally, I should be okay for a while.  I'm in a mission-critical office of a major university, so the likelihood of furloughs or lay-offs is low.  Everything is chaos at the moment as we try to sort out how to wrap this academic semester (we kicked everyone off campus and put all classes online, more on that eventually).  We're trying to figure out if there will be a summer semester (probably not?), and if we can have a semester in the Fall, which is actually a question.

You read about things like "oh, it looks like there was no school at this place during the Spanish Flu", but you don't really think about what that means.  I can tell you: up close, it's not easy.  And how bad this is for all those bright-eyed kids looking to start their lives is... crazy.  Everything is built around a direct pipeline from high school to college.

Who knows?  Maybe this whole thing clears by April and nothing happens.  But as long as I keep seeing video of dum-dums walking around in crowds, I figure we're at least 12 weeks to all-clear from there.

We're used to our freedoms, but as in all things: when those freedoms are @#$%ing things up for everyone else, sometimes you need to adjust for a bit.  I love our freedoms, too, but I also understand that in times of calamity (say, bombers flying over) you don't tell people they can do whatever they want.  Sometimes they need to turn off their lights at night.  Sometimes they can't do exactly what they wish, so that when this thing ends, you *can* go back to doing those things.

But right now a lot of people either can't get the math straight, don't get it or don't care if they're going to kill the people in their lives, or are having a pretty typical mental break that's telling them "everything is fine, this is all fine" in a time when it is, clearly, not.  Not if you read, like, two articles per day.

So that paternalistic government that so many buck against is going to happen harder and harsher than they ever dreamed.  And, of course, once certain figures in the government figures out they *can* do this...   So, great job, all you folks out there insisting on mingling.

1 comment:

Rick said...

Well done. Intellectually solid and well said.