The new pace of life in America: quiet, slow and isolated

As cities and states shut down businesses and schools, citizens are learning to shift their routines

Published March 17, 2020 8:11PM (EDT)

In downtown Easton, Pennsylvania, the public square adjoining the Crayola factory is a hugely popular tourist attraction. On March 17, 2020, the streets and sidewalks were completely empty after Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf ordered a statewide shutdown over the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. (Nate Williams)
In downtown Easton, Pennsylvania, the public square adjoining the Crayola factory is a hugely popular tourist attraction. On March 17, 2020, the streets and sidewalks were completely empty after Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf ordered a statewide shutdown over the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. (Nate Williams)

As the infection rate of the novel coronavirus grows exponentially, American governors, mayors and county officials have begun ordering unprecedented closures of businesses and schools in order to prevent the spread of the virus. Restaurants and bars nationwide were ordered to close, or in some cases, restricted to delivery and/or take-out only. Likewise, as millions of workers saw their hours cut back or were ordered to work from home, the pace of life has suddenly changed dramatically for much of the country. 

Down in southern California, Los Angeles residents felt the coronavirus encroaching for at least two months, as diners started bypassing Chinatown, Koreatown and other predominantly Asian American neighborhoods back in February. In the ultimate sacrifice for these beleaguered enclaves, even Lunar New Year celebrations were canceled, which did not bode well for the prosperity of the year.

But now, public health sacrifices are being made everywhere in the LA region. Last Friday, Los Angeles Unified School District announced it would close its 900 campuses for at least two weeks. Mayor Eric Garcetti issued updated in English and Spanish on the rolling measures instituted. While most public place like libraries and parks had been closed as of last week, Garcetti announced on Sunday that all gyms/fitness studios, entertainment venues, bars/nightclubs, and dine-in restaurants would be closed. Citizens were encouraged to order food for pickup or delivery.

The announcement took Nguyen Tran, the self-styled Chief Instigating Officer of Starry Kitchen, by surprise, even though he thought he had already prepared for what would come. Tran and his wife Thi are no strangers to having to change their fortunes. While suffering through the economic crash in 2008, the couple began running an illegal underground restaurant out of their North Hollywood apartment out of desperation. A few incarnations and one decade later, Starry Kitchen boasts a huge following, a cookbook, and a partnership to serve up tasty bites at the brick-and-mortar arcade venue Button Mash

"We had a crew training last week, and part of the training was like, 'Okay, this COVID-19 thing is falling on us. Let's just be smart about it," Tran told Salon via video chat. "But four days after that training, we didn't anticipate" the closure of restaurants, Tran added. Tran explained that with Button Mash, they were trying to emphasize delivery of both lunch and dinner to try to retain some business. "The main focus is to sell out the inventory that we have right now and then change the delivery menu to be kind of like a greatest hits, the things that we think will move," Tran explained. That required staffing changes. "That's easier to shop for, that's easier to manage with a very, very tiny staff. We basically put 70% of staff on furlough."  

Tran says that his side catering gigs have mostly cancelled on him, and said he is considering  other avenues for income.

"Considering our history of starting literally out of our apartment . . . but people are selling food like on Nextdoor or locally. I've done the math. Like for us, it can be easy. If we just do like 10 or 20 meals a day every day, you know, we'll be able to make enough income to sustain ourselves."

Beyond dining, the entertainment industry in Los Angeles was poised to take a hit. Some projects were cancelled, while writer's rooms had to shift their project management to accommodate for fully remote work. The industry began to make moves to prevent the spread of infection by the end of February, canceling many large city-based events such as movie premieres — which often involve international travelers coming into town — and the annual For Your Consideration (FYC) screening events, which take place almost nightly, over the course of several months leading to the Emmys. 

While production and promotion may have ground to a halt, the act of developing TV and movies continues. One TV series writer, who asked not to be identified, revealed they've been using the same meeting and project management apps that other companies are using. Instead of having an in-person writers' room, they've been using Zoom video-chat software; instead of using colored index notecards to "break" a story down, they're using productivity tool Trello. 

380 miles north in San Francisco, residents received automated calls on Monday night alerting them that it was illegal to leave their homes for any "non-essential" reason, and were ordered to stay a minimum of six feet away from others when in public. The public health order was issued by Mayor London Breed; residents who violated the order could face a misdemeanor charge.

"This is going to be a defining moment for our City and we all have a responsibility to do our part to protect our neighbors and slow the spread of this virus by staying at home unless it is absolutely essential to go outside," Mayor Breed said in a statement. "I want to encourage everyone to remain calm and emphasize that all essential needs will continue to be met. San Francisco has overcome big challenges before and we will do it again, together."

Food service and retail workers seemed particularly poised to suffer. Christian Kindall, a manager at City Beer Store in San Francisco, feared that he would lose work and wages from the pandemic. "We're basically closed for the next three weeks . . . having a freeze on our revenue stream is going to hurt in the long run," Kindall told Salon, adding that the store is working on a plan to ship beer to gain back some of the lost revenue. 

Kindall noted how non-salaried workers like him might face hardship. "I get paid hourly —  If I don't go to work, I don't get paid." He added: "I'm hearing talk about the city providing relief for workers affected by this, but it could end up being a nightmare."

In Oregon, governor Kate Brown ordered all restaurants to cease operation as of this morning, with the exception of fulfilling takeout and delivery orders. Gatherings of 25 people or more were also banned. Yet with other businesses still open, the streets and sidewalks of Portland were less empty than in the Bay Area, where all six Bay Area counties issued a shelter-in-place order. Rather, in Portland, retail stores appeared open though shoppers were sparse. Many pubs and restaurants were closed outright. In a Portland McDonald's in the southeast quadrant of the city, chairs were upturned within, while a steady trickle of drivers ordered via the takeout window. 

Portland is renowned for its food truck scene, which seemed poised to benefit from restaurant closures given that all food trucks are, by definition, take-out only. Yet at Flipside Bar & Carts, a combination pub and food truck lot, business was slow for food truck restaurateurs. 

"It's tough right now, but as long as we have the opportunity to be open we might as well be open and see if we can still make some money and be able to pay our bills," Nicholas Ian Scott, owner of the barbecue food truck 76 BBQ, told Salon. "We're hoping for some sort of leniency — considering we rent this space, we rent this cart . . . we still have to pay for everything and all of our goods and rent and all," he added. 

Scott said that they would continue to offer takeout ordering while they could. "We're losing out on the [customers] who can order and sit down in the bar, since that's closed," Scott continued. "We're hoping we can still sell a lot of to-gos." 

Portland's home county, Multnomah, announced a six-month moratorium on evictions of tenants who cannot pay rent due to the ongoing pandemic and its economic repercussions. All eviction hearings were suspended as well. 

To the north, Seattle and Washington state are on the front lines of the United States' COVID-19 pandemic, with the total number of confirmed cases statewide at 1012 as of Tuesday, according to The Seattle Times. Officials also reported seven new deaths, with three in King County (where Seattle is located), two in Snohomish County, and two in Clark County, bringing the total to 55 deaths in the state. (Note: This paragraph has been updated since this story's original publication.)

Long before the novel coronavirus took hold in the region, Seattle transplants joked about the frosty friendliness of its denizens, a social disposition dubbed "the Seattle freeze." Indeed, Seattleites do not have a reputation for being the most inviting people even in the best of times — which, one would think, would make "social distancing" come naturally.

In reality, Gov. Jay Inslee's statewide executive proclamation to temporarily shut down all bars, restaurants, clubs and gyms statewide and banning all gatherings of more than 50 people, feels thoroughly unnatural.

Seattleites surely don't miss the infamous traffic: Inslee's and King County Executive Dow Constantine's recommendations to work from home and for citizens over 60 years old to "self-isolate" have cleared otherwise clogged highways and shortened travel times significantly.

But it is suddenly dawning on many in this tech boom town how fragile the economy is, particularly for any businesses that aren't staked by wealthy investors.

According to the state, restaurants have the option to stay open for takeout and delivery services, but not all are equipped to do so – and some that are struggle to meet customer demand. Other restaurants are expected to shut down permanently.

The closure order also applies to coffee shops, barber shops, nail and hair salons, tattoo parlors, all the social locales that in some way represent aspects of old Seattle and new. But one of the earliest, most shocking indicators of how extremely this novel coronavirus is set to transform the city were the sudden layoffs at the city's esteemed alternative weekly, The Stranger.

The independent media stalwart that launched the careers of writers such as Lindy West and Dan Savage has been around since 1991, the dawn of the grunge era.

On March 13, it temporarily let go of 18 of its staffers and suspended production of its print issue. "Ninety percent of The Stranger's revenue comes from people being able to gather in public—in rock clubs, theaters, museums, restaurants, bars, etc.," explains writer and editor Christopher Frizzelle on the site's live updates blog, The Slog, "and many of our advertisers are shutting down operations as social-distancing measures go into effect across the region." It is currently soliciting donations to stay afloat.

When this has passed – whenever that may be – this town already extensively changed by Amazon, Microsoft, Google and other tech giants will look even less recognizable to longtime residents.

But there is light in all this uncertain murk: Seattle also is renowned for its innovative medical research programs and world-class hospitals, and this week commenced the nation's first vaccine trials as well as drive-through testing for patients.

Meanwhile, In Louisville, Kentucky, news that the Kentucky Derby, traditionally held on the first Saturday in May, would be delayed until September 5 broke Monday evening. The Derby postponement will also delay a number of the surrounding festivities, which in total inject about $400 million into the local economy each year, to August and September. It's only the second time in history the Derby has been postponed. Actors Theatre of Louisville's world-renowned Humana Festival of New American Plays, which runs through March, suspended performances last week. 

Happening alongside the cancelation of the NCAA basketball tournament — March Madness is a major event in the college basketball-crazy state, no matter where the games are played — only the warming weather and today's afternoon sun indicates spring has arrived in Louisville. 

On Monday, Gov. Andy Beshear, the Democrat who unseated Republican Matt Bevin in last year's gubernatorial election and has earned praise in the national media for his calm and decisive leadership during this crisis, ordered Kentucky's restaurants and bars to close to all service but take-out/curbside, delivery and drive-through. Starting Tuesday, restaurateur and Bravo's "Top Chef" alum Ed Lee, in partnership with Maker's Mark Bourbon, will begin distributing meals to Louisville's restaurant workers left suddenly unemployed by closures, turning his high-end 610 Magnolia restaurant into a relief center for the effort. For the time being, evictions and utility shut-offs have been suspended in Louisville. 

On social media, hospitality workers are pooling Venmo tips to deal with sudden unemployment, while restaurant owners who are able have started to make the necessary shifts to focus on take-out and curb-side delivery. 

But even some businesses that currently offer those services are seeing a decline in customers. An employee at VINT, a local coffee shop, told Salon their drive-through lines had been uncharacteristically short. 

"I just don't think people are leaving their houses right now," she said. 

In a press conference on the 14th, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said that all 17 Louisville Free Public Libraries would be closed to the public. Fines and late fees would be waived and patrons were asked to keep their materials and to not drop them off until libraries reopen.

But local bookstores like Carmichael's — which is the city's oldest independent bookseller — are now offering free delivery services to members of the community, and have started curbside pick-up. 

The bars might be closed, but drinking hasn't stopped. Louisville is the urban center of the bourbon industry and frankly, it's a boozy kind of town. Liquor stores are still open for now, and they have business. An employee at one liquor store, who requested not to be named, told Salon that they haven't noticed much of a sense of urgency from some customers. 

"They still aren't taking this seriously," the employee said. "They come in and stroll around like they're on vacation, putting their hands on all of the bottles, walking up within inches of employees. To a lot of Americans, a pandemic pales in comparison to any minor inconvenience." 

And apparently, Louisville-area Boomers are still out and about, stocking the bar. 

"A lot of older people, who social distancing is trying to protect, must feel invincible because they're walking around blowing their noses and coughing," the liquor store employee continued. "A lot of this may be seasonal allergies, but they should keep their old asses at home. Isn't there a 'Murder She Wrote' marathon they could be watching?" 

Another best practice — keeping space between each customer while waiting in the check-out line — isn't being observed in that store either. "They're on top of each other like they're waiting for a ride at King's Island," said the employee, referencing a theme park about 90 minutes away in Cincinnati.

For the under-21 set, Gov. Beshear, who has moved his daily coronavirus press briefings to livestream open to the public, included a special address in Tuesday's 5 p.m. briefing aimed at children. Beshear has asked daycares to close by Friday; schools across the state are planned to be out of session through the first week in April at least. 

As of Tuesday afternoon there are 25 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Kentucky, and one fatality so far. (Follow local NPR affiliate WFPL's liveblog for up to date information on Louisville and Kentucky.)

Even as "#NYCLockdown" trended on Twitter, life in much of the city went on almost as normal. In the Pelham Parkway neighborhood of the East Bronx five miles northeast of Manhattan, you'd have had a hard time telling that Tuesday afternoon wasn't like any other day. Even the Mr. Softee truck, playing the endlessly repeating soundtrack of any day that breaks 60 degrees in New York City, could be heard coming closer, then further away, then closer again. Salon staff observed parking, too, was easier than usual — in fact, New York's byzantine alternate-side parking regulations have been suspended — and a few businesses were shuttered that would normally be thriving. The New York Botanical Garden, pride and joy of the Bronx and home to the largest tract of old-growth forest within the city limits, had to retreat from its promise to stay open through the epidemic and closed its gates on Tuesday.

But a few blocks east of the garden on Lydig Avenue, heart of this diverse, immigrant-rich neighborhood, the 24-hour produce markets and discount variety stores looked only a bit less bustling than on an ordinary weekday. (With a little hunting, you could even find toilet paper.) You can still buy Colombian pastries, the Albanian cheese-and-spinach pie called a burek and the justifiably famous pizza at John & Joe's, although you can't sit down to eat in any of those places.

Everyone around here is worried about the fate of Kirvens, a bar with live music several nights a week that has become a major Bronx destination — and was forced to shut down on Monday night, like every other bar in New York City. Many more small businesses around here will be closing in the days ahead, no doubt — a major blow to a neighborhood jam-packed with mom-and-pop retail storefronts, largely operated by recent immigrants and people of color. 

The neighborhood's largest liquor store was closed today, too — although that wasn't mandated — and there was a long line at the smaller, more downscale one around the corner under the elevated 2-train tracks. (In New York, neither wine nor liquor can be sold in a grocery store.) One of the guys outside on the sidewalk offered fulsome compliments to those emerging from the store and then asked for spare change, all of which would probably have happened on any other day. A tall man carrying a bottle of Svedka gave him 75 cents or so, and they told each other to stay safe.

Easton, Pennsylvania, in the state's Lehigh Valley region, heralded what life in small town America might be like in similar locales as the pandemic drags on. The quaint town is a popular tourist spot because of its historic sites and the presence of the Crayola Factory, where guests can learn about how crayons are manufactured.

Yet Easton's historic square, which is normally crowded with people even on sleepy weekdays, was almost entirely vacant on Tuesday afternoon. There were no lines outside the Crayola Factory, no groups of boisterous locals mixing with the tourists at the numerous bars and restaurants (most of which were closed). When Gov. Tom Wolf called on non-essential Pennsylvania businesses to close down until the coronavirus pandemic has passed, the residents of Easton took it seriously. 

"I've never seen it this empty down here," Stefan Judge, a 52-year-old man who works at a local grocery store, told Salon. He said that he was luckier than many of his friends; his job is considered essential, but many of them are out of work and worried about their future. Judge, on the other hand, is focused more on being cautious about his health.

"I'm not nervous, it's just the least amount of contact you have as possible, the safer you are. That's how I feel," Judge explained.

The handful of other people who were out refused to speak to this reporter, and one man refused to be approached past a certain distance. Residents were jittery and in a rush — unusual for the slow-paced town.

South of Easton, in Pennsylvania's largest city, Philadelphians were spared the feeling of being in the hot zone — at least compared to New York City. Then, on Monday of this week,  everything happened at once: The state of Pennsylvania shut everything down but essential businesses. Tellingly, there was a run on the state-owned liquor stores. 

Salon staff in Philadelphia say that citizens are still out and walking around, but wary of each other, keeping their distance. Philadelphia may be a pandemic bellwether, as the city is uniquely well-prepared to handle the coming crisis; if its hospitals overflow, it does not bode well for the  rest of the country. 

140 miles southwest from Philly, the nation's capital went into a quasi-quarantine on Monday night after Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser ordered all restaurants and bars closed to dine-in services. While not as drastic as the shelter-in-place measures taken in the San Francisco Bay Area, D.C.'s closures will certainly cripple an economy that is heavily reliant on tourism. Yet such measures were clearly necessary given the cavalier public health attitude of many locals observed the previous few days.

Over the weekend, D.C.'s usually busy bars and lounges were just as busy as a typical Saturday night, even after public health officials had warned against large gatherings and called for "social distancing." The 14th and U Street corridors were full of people bar-hopping in early celebration of St. Patrick's Day — as in D.C., day-drinking during a weekday only happens for really big events like a Congressional hearing. Foot traffic appeared to calm by Sunday brunch, but it was nevertheless jarring to see viral images of young people — some of whom undoubtedly work for the federal government or other nongovernmental organizations gearing up to deal with the crash of coronavirus into the U.S —  carrying on without a care. 

By Tuesday morning, entire workforces had been laid off from previously thriving local businesses, like Compass Coffee, as many companies reported that their consumer demand dropped by nearly 80% virtually overnight. Some of D.C.'s 19 colleges and universities have already announced the cancellation of the remainder of the Spring semester and commencements. Grocery store aisles in the less densely populated downtown area were finally cleared out by Tuesday afternoon after remaining well stocked throughout the weekend. 

Indeed, people in D.C. may be starting to pay attention. Shazad Aloud, a former D.C. cabbie turned Lyft driver, said he would not work on Tuesday for fear of coronavirus. "Maybe I can deliver groceries now," he wondered aloud. 

Erin Keane, Amanda Marcotte, Melanie McFarland, Hanh Nguyen, Andrew O'Hehir, Matthew Rozsa, Keith A. Spencer, Ashlie D. Stevens and Sophia Tesfaye contributed reporting.

By Salon Staff

MORE FROM Salon Staff