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Golis: In hard times, pledging to look out for each other

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On March 11, we celebrated a friend’s birthday over a glass of wine at a local restaurant. As we were leaving, two news bulletins pinged my phone in rapid succession:

Breaking news: Actor Tom Hanks and his wife, actor Rita Wilson, are being treated for coronavirus.

Breaking news: After a Utah Jazz player tested positive, the NBA announced it was suspending play for the foreseeable future.

Just like that, everything changed.

And here we are on Day 61 of sheltering in place.

The estimated U.S. death toll passed 85,000 last week. Models assembled by public health experts predict between 31,000 and 42,000 additional deaths between now and mid-June.

By now, we have a daily routine of sorts, and no doubt you have yours. We get up and make a pot of coffee, read the paper, walk 3 miles. These morning walks require a certain choreography in which someone is obliged to cross the street to maintain social distancing. After you. No, after you. We wave as we pass and keep on moving.

We drove to Oakmont last week to deliver home-made protective masks, and it felt like a wild and crazy adventure.

We attend meetings on Zoom and FaceTime with kids and grandkids. Wouldn’t it be great, our granddaughter says, if you could come to our house?

We cry sometimes, thinking about what is being lost and wondering when some semblance of a normal life will return. We worry about children with nowhere to go, away from friends and away from school. How will they be changed?

As this pandemic magnifies the inequalities in our society, children will be among those most affected.

We miss what we used to take for granted — hugging grandkids, dinner with friends, travel, a Sunday drive — and we wonder if we will learn anything from the time we have to reflect on our lives. We do know we have it better than most.

We know, too, that we could not shelter in place without the hard work and sacrifice of all those first responders and essential workers.

I try to imagine if this is what it was like to fight the flu epidemic of 1918 or a world war, except history tells us Americans were united in common cause in other times of existential crisis.

Now Americans are so divided that even a protective mask becomes a reason to shout at each other.

We need to get back to something approaching business as usual as soon as we can, and some believe if they petition government to reopen the economy, everything will be OK. But not much has changed in places where government relaxed the rules. It remains that until more people believe it is safe to be out and about, many will be sticking close to home.

A new national poll on Wednesday showed that 2 out of 3 Americans believe it will be July before it will be safe for 10 or more people to gather in the same place.

We try to remain upbeat, but we know this is going to be a tough time for our community.

Robert Eyler, the Sonoma State University economist, said recently that if national jobless figures are a fair representation of what is happening in Sonoma County, close to 30,000 local residents may have lost their jobs in April. The county’s unemployment rate will have increased from 3.6% to the “high teens” in a single month, he said, with the worst of the damage coming in the service and hospitality industries. (We’ll know more, Staff Writer Martin Espinoza reported, when official figures for April are released on Friday.)

We’re still tallying the damage, but we know that tens of thousands of hometown men and women will be out of work, some losing jobs that will never return.

In times of economic dislocation, people often pick up and move to a new town, except COVID-19 leaves us with nowhere to go because it’s everywhere.

For those who can, their responsibility will be to share their good fortune because everything will fall apart if they don’t. After government exhausts its capacity to help, people will still be scrambling to find the money to buy food and to pay the rent.

Though emergency laws will provide some relief for renters, stopgap measures won’t be confused with a business model that will sustain housing over time (least of all in a place where housing was already in short supply).

For now, we strive to find constructive and meaningful ways to spend our days. The internet is chockablock with big and small ideas. How to stay positive. Learn to make bread. Plant a victory garden. Cut your hair the old-fashioned way.

Mostly, we pray that we come out on the other side with a better understanding of our shared humanity. Until COVID-19, we could pretend that we didn’t need to look out for each other. Now we know better.

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat.

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