The first two weeks of March 2020 were very weird for just about everyone. Counties around California had started issuing public-health directives — which were very new to all of us at the time — limiting sporting events and concerts to ever-dwindling capacities. The Grand Princess cruise ship had just docked in Oakland with an unknown number of COVID infections onboard. And rumors started circulating that San Francisco was about to lock itself down and maybe no one would be allowed in or out.
Italy was already weeks into its first devastating wave of cases, with 1,400 people dead and tens of thousands infected.
At Bi-Rite Divisadero on Thursday, March 13, I heard a cashier say, "It's like a holiday Sunday only minus the cheer." And it was true. There was a huge line circling the store, and everyone was charging up big bills with roasts and wine to spare, with morose or nervous looks on their faces. Come Monday, I'd be doing all my shopping with a mask on.
That Friday night, March 12, former city Health Officer Dr. Tomás Aragón was ahead of the curve by a few days in ordering all bars and nightclubs in the city with capacities over 100 to close for seven weeks, until May 1. But it was shocking at the time, and devastating news to everyone who worked in those bars and clubs.
Aragón, and soon others in California behind him, were trying to take a lesson from the negative example of Italy, where signs of outbreaks weren't taken seriously enough, and they ended up with overwhelmed intensive-care units, especially around the town of Bergamo in the north.
Things were already ominous in New York City, where an outbreak was being traced to one lawyer in Yonkers who had recently returned from Europe.
New York Times science correspondent Donald G. McNeil, Jr. spoke about the situation in Italy on The Daily podcast that week, before SF's lockdown.
They, like us right now, were refusing to take the threat seriously in the beginning. They wanted to keep, you know, the clubs open into the evenings. They didn’t want to play soccer games without fans in the stands. They didn’t want to shut down movement. And then in the North, they discovered that they had a gigantic outbreak that has now got their intensive care units absolutely full up and a lot of people dying.
We all know what happened after that. By Monday, March 16, San Francisco and five other Bay Area counties were ordering everything closed except essential businesses, and we were all told to "shelter in place" — a term that wasn't quite properly used, but it stuck. The North Bay soon followed suit. Upcoming events were canceled left and right, and no one could really wrap their heads around, or foresee, what the coming year would look like.
Also, we still were talking about droplets on surfaces! Even though a lot of people intuitively believed the coronavirus was highly airborne, the experts weren't confirming that — only that coughs and sneezes would likely spread it.
Within two weeks, stories would emerge like this one from Washington State, in which a choir practice for the Skagit Valley Chorale, where they were practicing distancing and not sharing music, turned into a super-spreading event in which three quarters of the people there became sick and some were already dead.
So, then, the creeping dread of knowing that people were spreading this thing asymptomatically, through singing or talking or maybe just breathing, and we were all pretty screwed.
If you're reading this, then you made it this far. Congratulations on staying (somewhat) sane, and alive.
Several UCSF Medical School figures looked back on the year themselves this week, and patted SF on the back for keeping the death rate as low as it has been — arguably the lowest of any US city, but Seattle's is also low and its county is a lot bigger than ours which makes comparisons more complicated. When you hear figures like one in five Americans has known a friend or loved one who died, the situation in the Bay Area feels pretty lucky — though still many of us have known someone who lost someone, or we lost someone ourselves.
It's been a hell of a year. Take some time this weekend to breathe, reflect, and as cliche as it is, be grateful. It's not over yet by a long shot. But this is certainly a milestone to mark, and/or celebrate.