The errands were mundane enough. Bank. Veterinarian. Grocery Store. Pharmacy. But nothing about them felt normal.
The area where I have lived and worked for more than 40 years didn’t look or feel the same. There were fewer people. A typically bustling business district was a ghost town. The pharmacy had spaces marked for people to stand 6 feet apart as they waited for their turns. There was Sunday-level traffic on a Monday.
The homey, secure small-town feel was gone. It was a city under medical siege. Even so, I had errands to do.
My bank’s building is closed to the public, so I waited outside in the cold and damp until a previously arranged hour, when an employee I’ve known for more than 20 years unlocked two sets of doors and led me inside. I had to sign something in person and there was no way around it. The financial officer said the five employees were all bored from the lack of people, although there was an occasional drive-thru customer or someone on the phone. I conducted my business and she reluctantly escorted me back to the outside.
Next was the pharmacy. I had called in a prescription for an arthritis medication I have been taking for more than 20 years, but my neighborhood pharmacist said the drug was backordered.
It’s one of the drugs being used to treat COVID-19, but doctors have prescribed it for years to treat autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and Lupus.
I didn’t really need the refill for a couple more weeks, but as the drug has gained in popularity for treating COVID-19, I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to find it.
My pharmacist directed me to another pharmacy that had plenty in stock. I lucked out this time. But going inside the multi-purpose store — pharmacy, groceries and department store items — I’ve been avoiding on purpose made me nervous. I felt like I was walking into a viral petri dish, even though it seemed clean.
Some cashiers — many of whom were in their 60s or older — were guarded by gloves and facemasks, while others were bare-skinned. I was struck hard by the risks they were taking to bring in a paycheck.
It was the same at my neighborhood grocery store, only those cashiers were guarded by plastic shields as well. The grocery store looked better than I’ve seen it for a few days. Most of the shelves were well-stocked. There were meats in the meat case; breads in the bread aisle; lots of canned goods; and plenty of fresh vegetables and fruits. Paper products remained sparse, but a local company just started making toilet paper and some of that was on the shelves with a four-roll limit. I also found bleach, which I haven’t seen for a bit. The egg and ice cream cases were nearly empty.
Then there was the wellness visit at the veterinarian’s for two of my three dogs. The vet practice is not allowing any non-staff members into the building, so it’s curbside service only.
After checking in upon arrival by calling the front desk, a vet assistant soon called me back to go over the questions about my dogs’ general health. A few minutes later, the assistant collected my dogs from my vehicle, using the vet practice’s leashes. It seemed so odd to watch vet assistants walking around the parking lot, going from vehicle to vehicle in search of their next patients.
The assistant stopped upon re-entering the building and wiped down all handles before taking the dogs into the exam room. Blood was drawn, tests done and the vet examined my dogs, all without my participation.
Although the visit was handled very efficiently and professionally, it was an annual wellness exam. A time when I would normally talk a little in depth with the doctor. One of my dogs is geriatric. I would have discussed the little changes I’ve noticed and asked what I might expect. My other one’s mother died young. Should I be worried as he approaches the age when his mother died?
On my way home, I paid $1.65 for gas at my usual gas station and noticed my favorite restaurant — where I have spent hours sitting at the counter while talking with the staff during meals — is still open for takeout. I hope these businesses make it.
This is our new normal. A world where our officemates are online only. Where essential services are offered and received at great risk. Where everything that defines the hearts of our communities — public meetings and events, celebrations, coffee shop interactions, visiting with our elderly — are all electronic or entirely on hold.
These are sacrifices for sure, but they should help most of us survive the COVID-19 pandemic.
Julie Harris is a senior editor at BDN and editor of several of BDN’s weekly newspapers.