Years from now we'll be asking each other, "Where were you in 2020?" I decided to write it down now, while it's fresh in my mind.
Humans have had a bad year. Covid has claimed more than 320,000 lives in the United States, and more than 6,000 in North Carolinia. The coronavirus pandemic has put stress on everyone.
Sydney and I, Emmylou and Otis, and Melville the cat, are healthy and safe. But it has been a strange and uneasy time. We decided it was wise to use caution regarding the virus. We haven't traveled or visited anyone, or done any indoor activities outside of our house, for most of the year. Our kids haven't been able to hug their grandparents, their GG, their aunts and uncles and cousins, or their friends. It's been a year of phone calls and video chats.
As 2020 began, I was 9 months into a marketing job at a software company in downtown Raleigh.
I had a desk in a modern office tower. The windows looked out at endless trees.
I'm still working a full schedule but I haven’t been to up to that office in months.
In a normal year, there'd be a few times when I'd have to work late or travel out of town. In 2020 I got to kiss our kids goodnight every single night.
Emmylou, age 4 at the start of the year, was attending a lovely preschool. I went in one day and read to the class.
And as 2020 began, Otis was a curious and sweet just-turned-1-year-old. He probably doesn't remember going to stores.
When we could get a break from the kids, Sydney and I enjoyed going to restaurants.
In general, life was pretty normal when the first news stories about coronavirus appeared in January.
By early February, we knew a new disease had killed people in Wuhan, China, and was causing travel and supply chain disruptions across Asia and Europe. But it couldn't happen here, could it?
The last restaurant we ate at was The Melting Pot, around Valentine's Day. If we knew that was the last restaurant we'd get to eat at, I think we'd have made a different choice.
The first coronavirus-realted death in the United States was reported February 29 in Seattle. I remember a meeting with a vendor at work on March 4 at which we politely declined to shake hands.
Concerning new information flooded in.
On March 11, the World Health Organization declared coronavirus a pandemic. My company, which already had a substantial percentage of work-from-home employees, went to full WFH at the close of business March 13. That was also the last day of preschool for Emmylou.
We anticipated that there would be a stay-at-home order in our area, as we were starting to see in other states. So we did what you’d do before bad weather: Stocked up.
A lot of other people had the same idea.
Wake County later announced a stay-at-home order starting March 27, to continue through April 17.
I fixed up my desk in our guest room (which was formerly a dining room) as a home office.
It seemed like this would probably go on for a few weeks and then we’d get some new information that would enable a return to normal. That never happened. In retrospect we had all the information we needed to see the full picture, but weren't capable of seeing it yet.
March and April were strange. Nobody wanted what happened in Wuhan and on those cruise ships to happen anywhere else. I remember driving and wondering if it was safe to have the windows down. We switched to order-ahead pickup for our groceries, then we wondered if we could get coronavirus from food or packaging. What about cats and dogs, were they spreading it?
Covid cut us one break: It’s usually mild in children. But obviously no parent wants their child to get it.
Things people do for enjoyment and enrichment—congregational worship, family visits, holiday parties, professional sports, concerts, theater, festivals, eating at restaurants, drinking in bars—ceased entirely, or were drastically limited.
The shutdowns and cancellations happened through a hodgepodge of state, county and city orders that varied depending on the local situation. There was no way to please everyone and all options looked bad.
Our takeaway from this mess was simple: Stay home and stay healthy.
We had plenty of entertainment at home, with streaming video and video games, plus many other things to do.
Early, it was interesting to watch TV shows that had gone to remote production, with talent working from hastily assembled home studios. But the novelty wore off fast.
Sports teams played in empty stadiums, with artificial crowd noise piped in to the broadcasts. The NBA played a shortened season in an isolated "bubble" at a sports complex in Orlando. Movie theaters closed, tried to reopen briefly, then closed again.
Around May our state health officials began advising people to follow the three Ws (wear a mask, wait 6 feet apart, wash your hands). Raleigh implemented a mask requirement June 19. The state of North Carolina followed June 26.
These rules were so simple, a 4-year-old could follow them. But not everyone wanted to.
People wanted their own reality, and distrusted the experts. Disinformation was a problem. Online videos of quack "doctors" and "virologists" explaining the "secrets" of coronavirus were promptly "banned" by social media companies, which only made them more seductive. Millions of people watched and presumably believed this stuff. Public health professionals were no match for memes.
Coronavirus was a big problem. That didn't make other problems any smaller.
George Floyd’s murder, on May 25, made the fight for racial justice feel so urgent that no amount of energy was sufficient; no prior effort had gone far enough.
By the following Friday people were marching in the streets of hundreds of cities, including Raleigh, in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
On Juneteenth, demonstrators surrounded a Confederate monument that had stood in Raleigh since 1895. Police attempted to protect it. As the crowd closed in, a police commander called over the radio, "I want some assistance so we can peacefully back away and leave it alone, because I don't care about it."
Within days the vandalized remains of the monument were hauled off. Good riddance.
The impacts of the coroanvirus and the hard-to-predict protest actions made downtown Raleigh an eerie place. Anyone driving through the city the second half of 2020, and seeing empty sidewalks and boarded-up storefronts on every block, could tell that people involved with local shops or restaurants must be having a tough time.
July and August were confusing. It slowly became clear that places that thought they’d beat coronavirus actually had not. There was no political will for extending the shutdowns. People continued making dangerous choices.
I never expected our choice to live in the suburbs, with the space for socially distanced recreation, would become so important to our well-being.
There was no good answer to the question of whether kids belong in classrooms. Wake County Public Schools went through several phases of virtual and hybrid learning. We decided to keep Emmylou home from preschool along with Otis.
I felt fortunate we could make that choice. Otis grew into a talkative, happy kid who loves cars and playing outside. Emmylou fully embraced outdoor adventures, developed her own tastes in music and shows, and has fun making up games to play with all of us.
The days felt as packed as ever.
We played outside.
On August 24, I wrote in my journal:
“Our kids are the best kids ever. Every day is difficult and exhausting. In this 2-floor house of 4 people and lots of toys and clutter, we spend a ridiculous amount of time cleaning up and looking for lost items. We miss friends and preschool and museums and malls and movies. Time is weird. We are frustrated and grouchy and safe and lucky and full of love.”
You might wonder how much of the rest of the world was also staying home at this point. Not much, is the answer. There were no interruptions to essential services and progress kept moving forward. Construction projects, in particular, remained at full steam in Raleigh. Here's a picture of the project to complete route 540, the outer loop around Raleigh, a few miles from our house.
People kept the world humming along, but there was no respite from the safety guidelines. By November even the picture puzzle in Highlights magazine showed people in masks.
This was an election year, and it seemed unreal to me that about half the country was willing to follow President Trump head-on into any disaster.
In early October President Trump spent 3 days in the hospital being treated for covid.
Trump recovered, and would go on to spend the rest of the year campaigning for reelection, losing decisively, then insisting he won. The Trump flags in our neighborhood are still flying.
While the state of the country and the world was grim, we discovered we had lots of time to spend outside.
I joked that I was becoming an expert in North Carolina's least popular outdoor attractions.
We observed a lot of local wildlife in our neighborhood.
I took some personal time to hike through places like Eno River State Park, Uwharrie National Forest, and Morrow Mountain State Park.
For me, nature counteracted despair.
In a crisis you look for the helpers.
I remember a business story I read in March. A drug company CEO planned a trip to a manufacturing plant to give his workers a pep talk. But before he could get there, the plant manager canceled the event and deactivated the CEO’s security badge. Essential personnel only! The risk was too high, the work too important.
That same company, Pfizer, would go on to ship the first approved COVID-19 vaccine. Hospitals around the world have already begun administering it. Moderna's vaccine quickly followed, and more are on the way. Within months, vaccines will be available to everyone for free. There is no precedent for this achievement.
I hope my kids won't remember 2020 for being stuck at home. Instead I hope they'll remember the love we felt as a family during difficult times. And when we can resume normal activities, I hope they'll draw inspiration from the heroes of science and medicine who made it possible.
Daryl Lang, December 31, 2020