My wife and I, suitcases in hand, are headed for the train platform at Penn Station last Thursday, March 5, when the phone call arrives like a portent of many days to come. We’re headed up to Connecticut to see the grandchildren. This is always a joy, but now there’s a bonus. The next day, the kids’ school is putting on a special program for grandparents, who are coming in from all over the country.
The phone rings just as they’ve announced our train’s arriving. “Last call,” we hear a metallic voice declare. And on the phone my wife hears Sara, the mother of our grandchildren, say, “They just cancelled the grandparents’ program. Everybody’s afraid of the coronavirus. Do you still want to come?”
We have maybe two minutes to make up our minds. We decide, never mind the special program, we still want to see the grandchildren. We run for the train.
This seems to put us in a minority.
Usually, on such a trip, we have to scramble for two seats together. This time, no problem. There are empty seats all over the place.
When we get to Connecticut, our son-in-law has news. He teaches at one of New York City’s universities. He was supposed to fly to Los Angeles to deliver a speech to a conference gathering of about 300 people. But his school has sent out a directive to all personnel: we do not want you on any airplanes, owing to the current pandemic.
In the modern context, this can be handled easily enough. He can deliver the speech via Skype, which can be shown on a big screen. But here’s the other problem: everybody’s anxious about going to the conference. And so instead of speaking to 300 people via Skype, he delivers the speech to “about six people.”
Three days later, we take the train back to Baltimore. Normally, we have to fight to find two seats together. This time, there are fewer than a dozen people in our train’s car. If people don’t have to gather in crowded places, they don’t want to.
Sunday evening, back in Baltimore, we go to dinner with two other couples. There’s a brief dispute over which restaurant, owing to concern about over-crowding, and somebody coughing, and the spread of germs.
No problem: the restaurant we agree on, just off Falls Road and normally swarming with people, is almost empty. Maybe half a dozen people at the bar, and another half dozen in the dining room. And the other two couples tell us it was the same at restaurants where they ate earlier in the weekend.
All this, and we haven’t yet felt the full brunt of the coronavirus – but we’re beginning to feel the brunt of incipient panic.
In the face of this, what do we need?
We need an honest accounting of what’s going on. And yet, as the New York Times reported Sunday, President Trump says a vaccine will be ready “soon” – only to be corrected by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading expert on infectious diseases, who says it will be at least 12 to 18 months.
Trump says a “cure” might be possible. Dr. Fauci says no, that scientists are hoping for antiviral drugs to make the illness less severe.
Trump says the disease will go away in the spring; Dr. Fauci says there’s no way to tell.
As Dr. Fauci made the weekend rounds of TV news shows, there were reportedly more than 450 cases of the coronavirus in at least 33 states.
All of this leaves us wondering: should we get on that plane or train? Should we go to that conference, or that restaurant?
And whom can we trust to help us make such decisions?
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” was reissued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.