Column: A Long Day’s Journey into COVID awareness
Last March, Ex-Press staffer Charles Gordon was in Dunedin, Florida when COVID-19 cancelled Spring Training, and forced his family on an angst-filled road trip northward. A year on into the pandemic, we look back at the moment when everything, and everyone, changed.
A memoir from March 21, 2020
By Charles Gordon
We had already decided to come home before the call came officially from our government. For one thing, a prescient friend had announced, on the Tuesday before, that he was leaving: he had a respiratory infection and the Coronavirus could be fatal to him. A bunch of us were at the Florida restaurant where he told us that and we made light of it on the way back to the hotel. “Should I go straight to the hospital?” I asked, to general chuckles, as we got into the car. Still, it made me think. Here I was, an older Canadian, pushing 80, and a long way from a decent health care system.
For another thing, they cancelled Major League Baseball, and then spring training for major league baseball. That was only two days later, which shows how fast things were moving. We got to see one game, and a good one it was too. The Jays beat Baltimore 14-2, hitting six home runs. It was a warm and sunny day and 5,000-some souls were in attendance, sharing space and washrooms and counter-tops and if they thought of the virus at all it was to pity the Chinese who couldn’t be here to see this. That was Wednesday. That night the NBA announced it was postponing its season.
The next day it was all over, the same day my kids of two our three grandkids arrived. First, no baseball. Second, no spring training. Gotta get out of here, I think. What if we have to use the Florida health care system? Will it work? Will our travel insurance cover it? What if there’s full-blown panic, line-ups at gas stations? We laughed, days earlier, at reports of toilet-paper hoarding in Australia. What if it’s worse than that? Don’t want to be around frightened people, especially frightened people with guns. Gotta get home.
The next day it was all over, the same day my kids of two our three grandkids arrived. First, no baseball. Second, no spring training. Gotta get out of here, I think. What if we have to use the Florida health care system?
But this is Dunedin, Florida. It’s sunny, the restaurant patios are full, the ice cream parlors are doing a great business. Everything feels fine and my sense of emergency is easily dismissed by another, equally important person in the family. We’ll be fine, apparently. There’s a sleepless Thursday night. I wake up thinking of a compromise: Monday. And that suggestion is met with a counter: Tuesday. This new semi-urgency owes something to what is probably a continent-wide phenomenon. Old people are being nagged by their kids about the virus. Plus, the internet tells us that the Canadian government is calling all Canadians home. We have no choice now.
In subsequent days I hear more nagging from younger Canadians. Wash your hands. Open that door with your shoulder. No hugs. Wipe this. Hand sanitizer, hand sanitizer. And no restaurants. Mind you, it is hard to observe that last one while the sun shines, the ice cream flows and the shrimp are in the basket. But on the road it’s there.
And it takes away a lot of the fun. We start out for Canada in an eight-year-old car that isn’t sounding quite right to my by now totally paranoid ears. Another thing to worry about: stuck beside the interstate while a thousands of gun-toting Americans zoom by on their way to buy toilet paper and get ahead of me in mile-long gas station line-ups; meanwhile the credit card companies decide to shut down for awhile and there isn’t enough cash to pay for the repairs and …
Actually, that doesn’t eventuate. There are no gas lineups and gas is cheap, perhaps the only happy side-effect of the crisis. But paranoia is hard to avoid at a time when even public officials seem to be in the grip of it. Not mentioning any names. The eight-year-old car leaves peaceful Dunedin and heads noisily north on I-75. Its driver has a bias against the most popular and direct route, the I-95 — crowded, boring — so we head away from it across the Georgia boundary and stop in the state Welcome Centre. You probably didn’t know this, but Welcome Centres are called Welcome Centres because they have bathrooms in them. Georgia’s is Welcome, in that the bathrooms are open, but the information part of the Welcome Centre, where you can get hotel coupons and learn about peaches, is closed. That’s a sign, as is the fact that attendants wearing gloves are opening the building doors for you.
There are no gas lineups and gas is cheap, perhaps the only happy side-effect of the crisis. But paranoia is hard to avoid at a time when even public officials seem to be in the grip of it.
So somebody is starting to pay attention. And if that didn’t twig you to the fact that something was going on, you might have been persuaded by the dozens of cars in the parking lot with Ontario and Quebec licence plates. I-75 could have been the 401.
Not only that, but it’s St. Patrick’s Day and no one is drunk or wearing green. This must be serious.
It is here, also, that the ban on restaurant meals imposed by grown children, kicks in. It’s not so bad, the first meal at the Welcome Centre. There are ham and cheese sandwiches made before we left, along with some cookies. It is not the Crackerbarrel — always a staple of U.S. road trips — but it will do, and it is still warm enough to eat outside.
Our eventual goal, in this four-day mission to heed the call of our government, is Interstate 81, which runs through Tennessee, Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York, with brief appearances in West Virginia and Maryland, and eventually deposits you at Canada Customs and Immigration at the Thousand Islands Bridge. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a straight-line route to I-81 from where we are, unless we want to zigzag on interstates around large cities, especially Atlanta, a nightmare, and Charlotte, slightly less of a nightmare. So we set off on a series of smaller roads that look pretty plausible on the map but always lead us onto other roads that the map doesn’t acknowledge and don’t look like they’re going the right way, at least if you look at where the sun is setting. Our government might not have been too proud of us for not having GPS but we did get to see quite a bit of Madison, Georgia, which is the prettiest little city and I didn’t even know it existed before.
That night we are in Athens, Georgia, a beautiful college town that you would like to get out and explore if not under orders to stay in the room. Fortunately, we have carried leftover Papa John’s pizza with us from a Monday night celebration. Unfortunately, Papa John and the hotel room microwave don’t work well with each other. Dinner is soggy and there is only one paper plate between us. This isn’t the way a road trip is supposed to be, although, on the plus side, we don’t hear anyone out in the street singing Irish songs. On the minus side, the internet is telling us that the government, after calling us home, is going to close the border to non-Canadians. What if they decide, after thinking about it, to keep us out too, keep out Canadians who were at the Georgia Welcome Centre, for example.
This thought, plus the anticipated nagging keeps of the young adults in the family, keeps us out of the hotel exercise room, which was probably open because the hotel didn’t seem acutely aware of any virus stuff. To be fair, the attendant in the breakfast room was wearing gloves and doing a lot of wiping.
Skipping the exercise room means we can be on the road earlier the next morning, which our government will appreciate. We cross into Tennessee briefly, admiring the Smoky Mountains and forgetting to look for signs of virus awareness in the U.S., although voices of doom on NPR are hard to avoid. We know, for sure, that trucks aren’t being deterred because we see just as many of them as we usually do, after we finally reach I-81. This, after an chilly outdoor picnic consisting mostly of peanut butter and Oreo cookies, which turns out to be our best meal of the day, because it is followed, at that night’s hotel in Virginia, by a microwaved something that you buy frozen in the lobby. Even though home is still a long ways away, the thought of two more days of this is pushing us to try to make it in one.
Thursday dawns and with it the recognition that virus awareness has penetrated. The hotel, rather than providing a free breakfast buffet in the breakfast room, is giving us bag with some breakfast things in it — bottled water, a pastry, an apple — and coffee fetched for us by a gloved attendant. And the exercise room is closed.
So early on to the interstate, where Pennsylvania welcomes us with a closed Welcome Centre and rest stops that are mostly closed except for one that closes its building but provides blue portapotties. It is difficult to see how these advance the sanitary cause, but they are, in their way, welcome. Then, the culinary highlight of the trip — the drive-through at McDonald’s in Hazleton, Pa. The restaurant part is closed, so it’s drive-through or takeout only and there’s a sign that explains why. We are officially in virus land; wonder what they’re thinking in Florida.
Thursday dawns and with it the recognition that virus awareness has penetrated. The hotel, rather than providing a free breakfast buffet in the breakfast room, is giving us bag with some breakfast things in it — bottled water, a pastry, an apple — and coffee fetched for us by a gloved attendant.
In New York State, as we head into the home stretch, the truck traffic thins out, the rest areas are open but every mile or so features an electronic billboard saying STOP THE VIRUS. STAY HOME. #FLATTEN THE CURVE. When we reach the border we see dozens of our fellow countrymen, called home. The thought would warm us more were those fellow countrymen not ahead of us in the long lineup. Nevertheless, we finally get to the head of the line, the border doesn’t close on us and we are asked not very many questions by a masked man. Justin, we are home. And we promise not to go outside.
THE EX-PRESS, March 14, 2021