If you want to know what life might look like in a few days, maybe call someone in Seattle.
The prosperous Washington state city — Boston’s tech cousin, in many ways — has been the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States so far, and thus a little ahead of the rest of us in grappling with its consequences. Ever since the disease flared up in a nursing home in the suburb of Kirkland, which reported its first death from Covid-19 on Feb. 29, life in the Seattle area has been changing in ways big and small.
Schools there started closing nearly two weeks ago, and many of the city’s major tech companies have had employees work from home for almost as long.
Kirkland, a fast-growing community of about 90,000 people, had one-fifth of its firefighters quarantined after the nursing home outbreak. And Covid-19 cases are beginning to crop up among health care workers at Seattle hospitals.
The county government has started buying motels to serve as temporary quarantine shelters, and on Monday, Seattle’s mayor proposed $800 vouchers for low-income families to help them buy food.
Even as all this is happening, day-to-day life continues, though it has started to take on a strange vibe.
“It’s all just been a little bit surreal,” said Justin Cicero, who lives in Kirkland, about a mile from the Life Care Center nursing home where 29 residents have died in two weeks and 30 more, along with 46 employees, have tested positive for the coronavirus. “The tone hasn’t been particularly scary or anything like that, but it also hasn’t felt like it’s really happening. No one has a point of reference for this.”
The change didn’t happen overnight. At this time last week, while schools were closing and those who could were starting to work from home, restaurants and sidewalks were still busy. Reality wasn’t quite as dark as the national news reporters standing doing their live shots from Kirkland might have suggested, said Lilly Fowler, a reporter at Crosscut, a news website affiliated with Seattle’s public television station.
“NBC News had this headline that Seattle was a ghost town, and everyone was sort of laughing,” Fowler said. “Today, people wouldn’t be laughing so much.
Indeed, on Sunday the Seattle Times ran a series of photos of the all-but-deserted city, highways with only a couple of cars in sight, and the famous Pike Place Market empty.
“What’s happened here will happen elsewhere,” wrote David Gutman in the Times. “No hugs. No handshakes. People keeping a wary distance.”
But positive things are happening, too, said Cicero, who helps moderate a Kirkland Facebook group that has about 16,000 members. On it and similar forums people are looking for ways to support neighborhood businesses, and each other. Another plus, Cicero said, is that there’s less stigma around having the coronavirus.
About two weeks ago, he said, his 9-year-old son, who attends school with the children of several Life Care Center employees, developed a sore throat, fever, and cough. Cicero wasn’t certain it was Covid-19, but he wasn’t taking any chances. His son stayed home from school, and they kept the boy’s condition to themselves.
“We didn’t want to tell anyone,” he said. “We were building a bunker in the backyard, like crazy people.”
But now his son has recovered, and neither Cicero nor his wife have developed any symptoms of the illness. Even in the past two weeks, he said there’s become more of a sense that everyone’s in this together, that the virus is not anyone’s fault.
“All the news reporting, all the conversation about this, is really helping,” he said. “It’s so much less stigmatized.”
Still, there are deep concerns about its spread, especially among vulnerable populations such as the homeless, those held in jails, and residents of nursing homes.
Dr. Lee Burnside is medical director at Kline Galland Home and Hospice, which provides nursing home and hospice care and treats older patients at one of Seattle’s larger hospitals. Like a lot of other people who work in elder care, he travels frequently between hospitals, nursing facilities, and homes, and worries about how to keep an infection picked up in one place from being transmitted to another.
“That’s the scariest thing,” Burnside said. “Those residents are the population that’s most vulnerable right now, and staff go back and forth and people have two jobs. The network is not set up for something like this.”
Underneath it all, though, people are trying to carry on with some semblance of normalcy.
Jerri Stroud, a retiree who moved to Seattle a few years ago to be near her son and 10-year-old granddaughter, has watched with concern as her church, neighborhood restaurants, and the YMCA where she swims have all closed. Stroud finally got to visit her granddaughter Sunday, after two weeks of staying clear just in case. And she’s been e-mailing friends, finding new shows on Netflix, and going on long daily walks in the unusually nice early-spring weather.
“It’s just very strange,” she said. “You see people out when you go for a walk, and kind of wave, but nobody’s stopping for a long conversation.”
“Mostly,” Stroud said with a chuckle, “it’s just kind of boring.”