Sunday, March 22, 2020

Shelter-In-Place Frequently Asked Questions


I’d like to distract you from all the doom and gloom around COVID-19, but it seems to be all I can think about. I’m in the San Francisco Bay Area, one of the first places in the U.S. to be put on mandatory shelter-in-place. We’re allowed to leave the house only for “essential activities.” What does that mean, exactly? Well, that’s one of the many questions I’ll answer here. Note that this post isn’t just about policy, but also about the experience so far.

I’m not like some big authority on this, but I’ve been at it a while. These questions comprise a) ones I’ve asked, b) ones others have asked me, and c) questions that have flown around via email threads. Others are hypothetical but I’m sure somebody, somewhere is asking them.

What is an “essential activity”?

In a nutshell, we’re allowed out to engage in activities essential to health and safety; to obtain necessary services or supplies or to deliver them; to work at an “essential business”; to care for family members in another household; or to engage in outdoor activity for exercise.

“Necessary supplies” doesn’t just cover groceries, but also booze and weed. I guess the local government is going easy on addicts. But you can’t go to a pub because that would involve a gathering, and that’s prohibited. Whatever we do, we have to stay six feet from others.

Can I throw a dinner party?

No. That’s actually a misdemeanor. But you can make your kids eat with you. My family has had some success with this.

What kinds of businesses are open?

Some take-out restaurants are open. Grocery stores are open, obviously. To my surprise, some bike shops are not only open, but at least one of them (I heard from a pal) was hopping the other day. But all our brothels are closed. (No, we have no brothels. Just making sure you’re awake.)

Are people in your ostensibly progressive community behaving in a somewhat racist fashion, for example by avoiding Chinese take-out?


What is “bugging in”?

As detailed in this article, bugging in refers to hoarding tons of groceries and other supplies as though we actually needed to. I’m so glad I read that article because I learned that the Germans have a word for this: “Hamsterkäufe, meaning to shop like a nervous, bulging-cheeked hamster.”

I haven’t bothered to head over to Costco, but I saw plenty of bugging in at my local Safeway. The meat, dairy, bread, and pasta aisles were utterly ransacked. Check out this pasta section: a lone box of pasta, which was the weird tiny stuff that’s like gravel, was all they had left, and almost the only sauce remaining was the kale pesto. I’d hate to be the product manager for that variety.

I stood in line for half an hour in the Express Aisle with my ten items. Everybody was totally ignoring the 15-items-or-less rule. When this kind of societal breakdown happens, you know finally that the center cannot hold. You know what I call these kinds of shoppers? Express-holes.

Why do people stock up on toilet paper in particular?

Don’t read too much into this. If you were to tally up all the products related to what we take in, that would totally dwarf this lone output-related product. I suspect when people see others stocking up on toilet paper they probably assume there’s a valid reason behind it (which is giving their fellow man way too much credit, IMHO). Beyond that, I guess people just can’t handle the idea of what would happen if they ran out of toilet paper.

This is pretty silly, actually … I get that starvation would kind of suck, but it’s not like toilet paper is fundamental to sustaining life. As detailed here, Russia lacked toilet paper entirely during my own lifetime: “The first toilet paper factory in the USSR was built in 1969, but it took many more years to supply the huge country with this essential commodity.” Before that, the Russians just used old newspapers. Given their survival of those dark pre-TP days, I think we could probably manage somehow.

Myself, I haven’t bothered to lay in an extra supply. I suppose I could use this handy Online Toilet Paper Calculator to see how my household is doing, but I’m counting on our manufacturing industry to step up to the plate here. The guy at Safeway assures me their supply chain is only temporarily backed up.

Can I go outside to get exercise?

I’ve read a gazillion emails about this from the various cycling teams I’m hooked into. The short answer is yes, you can exercise outside, but not with others. The prohibition on “All travel, including, but not limited to, travel on foot, bicycle, scooter, motorcycle, automobile, or public transit” is mitigated by the stipulation that we may leave our homes “to engage in outdoor activity, provided the individuals comply with Social Distancing Requirements as defined in this Section, such as, by way of example and without limitation, walking, hiking, or running.”

Even before the shelter-in-place order, as acting head coach for the Albany Cougars I had to decide whether to hold practices after our NorCal League canceled our next two races. Other high school teams shut down upon hearing this, even before the schools closed. But all our assistant coaches were game to keep riding, as well as the riders, and the school was okay with us continuing. I worked out a whole protocol around COVID-19 (e.g., no water sharing; no food sharing; no riding two-abreast; all coaches outfitted with surgical gloves in case we have to provide first aid; multiple groups to maintain social distance, etc.). Everyone was game. In fact, I had riders asking if their friends could join us; a rider’s parent asking if his kid’s sister could join us; riders asking if friends from other (i.e., shut-down) teams could join us; even a parent asking if he could come. This was all before the shelter-in-place order came down, though. Now of course I’ve had to put the kibosh on team rides, though I have encouraged riders to still get out, and suggested they pick a common route and set out ten minutes apart, in case somebody has a bike problem etc.

Are locals taking advantage of their right to exercise outdoors?

Yes, totally. My wife and I took a walk up the main commercial street in our neighborhood to see what businesses were still open, and we’re pretty sure we’ve never seen so many people out walking. Cycling pals report that there are tons of hikers on the trails.

When out in public, is it difficult staying six feet apart?

It hasn’t been difficult, but it’s been a bit awkward. Amazon misdelivered a package to my house and when I took it over to drop it on my neighbor’s porch, he happened to be out front. I told him what happened and he strode toward me, looking all friendly like he might even shake my hand, and though I wouldn’t say I panicked, I was a bit startled. I set the package on the ground and stepped back a few feet, and he looked at me like I was crazy.

At Walgreens, those in line at the prescription counter were giving each other like eight feet. I even felt I had to ask, “Are you in line?”(thus running the risk of getting the response, “No, I’m just standing here like a jackass because I enjoy it,” though nobody said this). On my way out, I started down an aisle and some guy was coming my way. He stopped and stared at me, looking decidedly worried. Obviously the aisle was too narrow to allow us six feet of separation, but it’s not like either of us was coughing or anything. I turned around and headed off to find another aisle to head down, just to give the guy some slack.

While I was at the checkout somebody ran through the exit without paying for something, triggering the alarm (which announced in a robot voice, “Alarm activated, please return to your cashier” over and over), which the cashiers blithely ignored. I hadn’t found any rubbing alcohol on the shelves, but the casher had a stash behind the counter. “I have to keep it back here or people will steal it,” he said. (People used to steal Nyquil to cook meth with, but these are different times.)

In your last post you lamented the closing of Bay Area pubs. Is virtual pub night a thing?

I don’t know if it’s widespread, but three pals and I did have a virtual pub night over Zoom the other evening. I have to say, it worked even better than I’d expected. We had some good beers and some good laughs and the only time things bogged down was when my Internet connection temporarily dropped and we got sidetracked for a few minutes discussing the pros and cons of various video conferencing platforms before somebody pointed out how absolutely dull that is and what a bunch of irredeemable geeks we are. Other than that side-trip, it was a blast.

Here’s a little booze-related quiz for you: given the wobbly logic of COVID-19 paranoia, which of the beers shown below is safest for consumption?

I gave this quiz to a handful of people. Two picked the Stella, because of the paper on the neck that extends all the way to the cap. I’m not sure how this would help so I consider that a wrong answer. Two said the Westmalle, because (being a Belgian ale) it probably has the most alcohol. I suppose this was based on the dubious theory that ingesting alcohol could protect against the virus. But: wrong again. The correct answer is in fact the Westmalle, but not because of its ABV (though it’s a stellar 9.5%) but because it’s brewed in a Trappist abbey. Who could be better isolated from this virus than a bunch of monks? (Note: obviously you wouldn’t get COVID-19 from beer, but I did say “given the wobbly logic of COVID-19 paranoia.” In fact, on that basis all three answers are equally valid.)

Where can I get a list of fun things to do while sheltering in place?

You don’t even have to do an Internet search … just look in your Spam folder. I’ve been getting “helpful” emails from some realtor I’ve never done business with and a Toyota dealer I’ve never even heard of.

Are these lists useful?

No, of course not. The ideas are pretty dumb, like “get ahead on spring cleaning,” “create lists,” “fix up your house,” “fix your marriage” and a bunch of other nonsense. I think the best ways to pass the time are highly specific to your home situation. In my case, my older daughter was kicked out of her college dorm and sent home until October. So she’s spending her time learning to play Beatles and Radiohead songs on here ukulele and of course fighting with her little sister, who is pretty ticked at no longer having her own bedroom. One of my fun new activities is trying to figure out why my younger daughter’s homework submissions, via an online survey platform, are failing to go through.

My friend’s daughter Maddie staved off boredom yesterday by doing some bathroom sculpture using only materials found in her home:

I’d like to point out that the artist is not condoning tobacco use. In fact, the use of the toilet in this work is symbolic.

I forgot to stock up at the library before it closed. What can I do?

I’m assuming this question is sarcastic, making fun of my old-school habits, but I’m going to answer it anyway. Since your kid is probably trying out Netflix for 30 days (and will learn a hard lesson about how to extricate herself from these “special offers” later), you could watch any of the dozen or so movies that platform still offers. You could also see what online resources (e.g. Kanopy) your library has on offer for free.

Also, if you’re good at computer/Internet stuff, you can while away the hours doing remote tech support, helping an old person get all this to work on his or her tablet or laptop. This is a bit like teaching a cat to do algebra, communicating only by Braille. You will hear things like, “Oh no, it vanished.” You’ll be like, “What vanished?” And s/he will be like, “All of it!” And you’ll say, “The whole screen?” and s/he will say, “‘The New Yorker,’” and you’ll say, “You mean the window?” and s/he will say, “The Internet thing” and you’ll say, “The browser?” and s/he will say, “Well … the [unintelligible].”

Speaking of “The New Yorker,” shelter-in-place might finally give you time to catch up. You can view the entire archive online, all the way back to 1925, if you’re a subscriber. The other night my wife and I read a classic story from 1996 to our kids, who laughed all the way through it. Afterward we got into a lively literary discussion, which was a real kick, though it unsurprisingly ended with the kids fighting.

Are all English majors as insufferably self-satisfied as you?

No, I’m particularly bad.

Any tips for indoor workouts?

If you have your own Stairmaster, try to avoid the temptation to merely go through the motions, supporting most of your weight on your hands so your legs don’t have to work so hard. If you have a rowing machine, row merrily and remember that life is but a dream. If you ride your bike on a stationary trainer or rollers, here is a handy guide to getting the most out of that. In particular, make sure you have some righteous, hard-driving tunes as detailed here.

What is Zwift?

With a one-two cleaning punch, Swiffer Sweeper is designed to sweep and mop your floors. Thick dry sweeping cloths conform to the surface of your floors and grout lines, trapping and locking dirt. Wet mopping cloths dissolve dirt and grime for good, trapping it in its core and locking it away. There is no better way to protect your family from COVID-19 than to Swiff!

Not Swiff, numbnuts … Zwift!

Oh, sorry. Zwift is an indoor training système that attaches to your compliant $500-1000 indoor trainer so you race your friends in the virtual realm, explore real and imagined landscapes, follow detailed training plans, and more, blah blah blah … with your paid monthly subscription.

Do you recommend it?

I haven’t tried it … my kickass E-motion rollers aren’t compatible and I’m not about to replace them. But that’s okay … I’m thinking it’s about time to start heading outdoors again anyway.

More reading on the pandemic
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