DENVER — Standing in line used to be an American pastime, whether it was lining up for Broadway shows, camping outside movie theaters before a “Star Wars” premiere, or shivering outside big-box stores to be the first inside on Black Friday.
The coronavirus has changed all that. Now, millions of people across the country are risking their health to wait in tense, sometimes desperate, new lines for basic needs as the economic toll of the virus grips the country.
In cars and on foot, they are snapping on masks and waiting for hours to stock up on groceries, file for unemployment assistance, cast their ballots, and pick up boxes of donated food. The lines stretch around blocks and clog two-lane highways.
In western Pennsylvania, cars stacked up for miles last Monday as hundreds of people waited to collect a week’s worth of groceries from the Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.
Outside Miami, some of the 16 million Americans who have lost their jobs over the past few weeks snaked around a library Tuesday, waiting to pick up a paper application for unemployment benefits.
And in Milwaukee, Catherine Graham, who has a bad heart and asthma, slapped on a homemade face mask and left her apartment Tuesday for the first time since early March to spend two hours waiting in line to vote at one of the five polling locations in the city that remained open for the Wisconsin primary election.
“It was people, people, people,” Graham, 78, said. “I was afraid.
One resident of Graham’s senior-apartment complex has already died of the coronavirus, and Graham said she nearly turned back when she saw the line. But, determined to vote, she perched on her walker as the line inched ahead and prayed with her daughter, asking God to keep them safe. Every day since, she has been scrutinizing her blood pressure, oxygen levels, and other vital signs on a home machine.
The scenes are especially jarring at a moment when freeways are empty and city centers are deserted, and public-health experts are urging people to slow the transmission of the coronavirus by avoiding each other.
“It’s worrisome,” said Carl Bergstrom, a biologist at the University of Washington who studies pandemics. “It’s setting up unnecessary opportunities for transmission.”
Even as supermarkets line up shoppers outside and put stickers 6 feet apart on their floors marking where customers should wait to check out, some scientists and policy experts warn that businesses and government agencies are still not doing enough to keep people apart in public or to prevent them from having to line up altogether.
In normal times, the unwritten rules of standing in line are clear, said David Gibson, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame who has studied line behavior: Don’t cut. Don’t stand creepily close. Keep it moving.
But Gibson said little about lines is clear anymore. Is 6 feet of distance really enough to avoid infection? What is the best way to face? Should lines be first-come-first-serve, or should older, more vulnerable people be allowed to skip ahead — which is now the policy at some grocery stores?
“It’s not ‘Lord of the Flies’ yet,” Gibson said. “We haven’t dispensed with etiquette and rules and procedures.”