Traveling in the Time of COVID-19

I was just thinking to myself that I’d like to go to Georgia to visit family. Especially some of my family members that are starting to get a bit older. I’d like to see them while I still have the chance. I’ve been meaning to go see them for a while now.

I looked up the cost of a bus ticket. $106 one-way. Then I checked the price of an airline ticket. $126 round-trip. Wow. What a deal! But then I remembered that I’d heard about needing a COVID-19 test to be able to travel. I wonder how much that costs?

And then I realized that I’ve probably been exposed to the virus and that my desire to see my relatives before it’s too late really isn’t in their best interests, health-wise.

Plus, there are quarantine requirements there and here if I remember correctly.

The ability of the average person to freely travel is really being locked down. How much of these precautions are legitimate? How much is government overreach? Why was there never a huge bump in numbers after the closely packed protests and riots? When do things go back to normal? Next year? Next month? It’s really amazing and fascinating how questionable reality has become in the last 4-5 years.

It’s a testament to the power of the media to shape our understanding of the world. And probably a testament to the dangers of building profitability for a “news” site around ad revenue rather than subscriptions. Things probably went truly wrong with Facebook and Twitter, though. It became too easy to boost misleading and untrue narratives into the national consciousness.

Anyway, I’ll have to put off my travel for a bit longer. Until I’m sure I’m not going to ride into my relative’s homes on a white horse.

COVID-19 Social Impact in New York City

I was thinking about the ways that the COVID-19 experience has changed the way we live our lives in New York City. Beyond the obvious continued closures I mean.

As a kid, when I would come here to visit family, the crowds and noise were part of the appeal. Staying up late and seeing and hearing the traffic outside was exciting. It felt alive and a little dangerous. It felt like there were endless possibilities waiting for you as soon as you hit the concrete outside your building’s front door.

Not so much now. A lot of businesses are reopening, but a lot will never open again. Businesses that are open are limited capacity. Same with restaurants. You have to book reservations for something you used to just walk into at will. You have to provide your name, ID, and contact information to dine inside. It feels arduous and invasive and kills the vibe.

To be honest, I never really did much shopping in person before, but I did like to wander around book stores and comic book shops. Old record stores sometimes too. And there was something fun about just sitting in a cafe, talking and people watching. You can’t really do any of those things now. You’re corralled and then rushed through the experience to accommodate occupancy restrictions. So, why bother? If I can’t enjoy the experience, why make the trek down to the store? With all of the traction that online retailers got during the lock down, I wonder how much in person retail shopping will come back in New York City over the long term?

Will people fall back into old habits or maintain new ones? I read somewhere that moments of change in people’s lives are the best opportunity for companies to change shopping habits. That’s why expecting mothers get bombarded with ads for example. The COVID-19 pandemic and lock downs were pretty big moments of change so it was a great opportunity to cement new shopping patterns.

With the lack of restaurant dining and easily accessible amenities like museums, art galleries, and theater performances, with being shut up at home all the time or going from home to work and work to home, it was like a curtain was drawn back. New York City without all of the extras is pretty unpleasant. High rent for a shoe box apartment to live constantly surrounded by high crime and filth isn’t that appealing when you can’t justify it with amazing dinners out and the ability to just pop in at a world class art gallery on a whim.

Movement control orders. Lock downs. Quarantines. Flying restrictions. Travel restrictions. I’m reminded of a book I read about the development of the passport in Europe during a time when travel beyond one’s own village was extremely uncommon and made a person suspect. It feels like we’re going back in time. It’s becoming ever more difficult to simply travel to another State or country after a long period of increasing mobility.

I wonder if there’s anything to that? Accustoming people to being ordered to remain in place in spite of Constitutional guarantees of free movement. Getting people familiar with receiving food rations. Making people feel like it’s ok to have their privacy invaded in exchange for a seat inside a 33% capacity restaurant. That’s a lot of extra government control of our personal lives.

And I get it to a large degree. It’s a trade-off between personal autonomy and collective well-being. There has to be a balance there. But I wonder if the amount of rights and information we’re being asked to give up is greater than the threat we’re facing? Are we doing good or creating an un-legislated set of PATRIOT Act style COVID-19 rules?

I keep coming back to how there was no spike in COVID-19 deaths after the riots and mass protests that started in June and have continued unabated in some areas of the country since. Shouldn’t all of those people congregating together have caused COVID-19 rates to skyrocket, if not among themselves then in adjacent vulnerable populations?

I understand that this is conspiracy theory territory. I know the virus is real. I’m not going to subscribe to the idea of the government using COVID-19 testing to insert microchips in people’s heads or bloodstreams, or to the idea that COVID-19 testing is actually COVID-19 infecting, but I can’t help but wonder if this was overkill.

The virus was in New York City since November or December of 2019 at least. Our numbers were high because the virus had time to spread before we started testing. If it was going to spread like the plague it would have caused a lot more damage before the city shut down in March, but it didn’t. Why were we fine on March 1st, but we suddenly needed refrigerated trucks for the deceased on March 31st?

Anyway, a lot of people are fleeing New York City or changed their minds about coming here in the first place. Unless things improve drastically in the next few months, I’m going to start looking at moving to another part of the country. I’ve been hearing news about COVID-19 spikes in Brooklyn and Queens and different news sources have been telling us for months that the virus could spike again in the Fall, leading to another round of shutdowns. I don’t know if I want to go through that again. Things haven’t been normal in the city since January already.

Lining up in a mall doesn’t make sense

I’m all for social distancing, but I couldn’t figure out what the point was of having people line up outside of stores inside of the mall.

The food court at Westfield Garden State Plaza Mall on 9/5/2020

I had to make a run out to Westfield Garden State Plaza Mall in Paramus, NJ this weekend. I had to drop off a return at the Amazon Books store in the mall. It was something I ordered online but that just didn’t work out quite how I wanted it to and I figured I could kill two birds with one stone: drop off the return and then drive 5 minutes over to IKEA and pick up a few things I’ve been looking to get since pre-COVID.

I figured there would be people in the mall, especially on a holiday weekend, but the crowds were massive. It was so packed in the common areas that I often had to walk slowly behind people or veer wide around large groups. There were often bottlenecks caused by lines of people trying to get into stores next to kiosks. It was often shoulder to shoulder. Keeping people in lines outside of stores was actually increasing instances of close contact.

I’d never been inside that mall before. It’s almost ridiculously big. I don’t really like shopping in person anymore but I’m interested in going back, hopefully when it’s not as crowded. I guess it’s because of how empty the city has been recently, but I actually started to get agitated by the crowds. It became uncomfortable and I had to get out of there.

I never made it into the IKEA either. Earlier on this year when IKEA first opened up again, I remember reading about long, long lines of people waiting to get into IKEA stores. Months later, they’re still a thing. There must have been 250+ people waiting to get into IKEA and the store was scheduled to close an hour and 20 minutes later. Half of the people there waiting weren’t even going to make it in the door, so I just kept driving and went on home.

I keep wondering when things are going to get back to normal. Will it be right after the election? Will it be next year sometime? Never?

And does it really matter anymore? I’d like to go back to the museums, but I’m not going to give myself the headache of trying to prepurchase tickets at tourist rates for specified time-slots. Other than that and the lines at IKEA, my day-to-day hasn’t really changed that much. Though, thinking about it, it would be nice to sit down at a restaurant again too.

Payment Status Not Available – The drama continues

I kept hearing about more and more people getting their Trump Bucks, but I haven’t seen a damn thing so far. I’ve been checking my account regularly. I’ve been scouring the internet for clues. I’ve been trawling through Twitter for hope.

Then I thought I’d found my salvation.

The IRS released their Get Payment web app early. It wasn’t supposed to be available until the 17th. I clicked the link and waited for my turn…

…but the IRS screwed me with “Payment Status Not Available”.

Bro. I can’t even begin to tell you how frustrated I was. Better on time and working than early and broken.

I know they have my info and I know I qualify. The IRS is quick to take money from people when they owe extra on their taxes and will screw you with fees and penalties on a daily basis if you’re late, but when it’s their turn to pay up, they pretend like they’ve never heard of you.

A coronavirus kind of weekend

With all of the extra time I’ve been able to search around online for nice channels on YouTube, freebies, and stuff like that. The station above has some really smooth, low key jazz. It’s fantastic as background music in the afternoon while doing other things around the house. Work. Reading. Chores. Laying on the bed with the cats. Whatever.

Another weekend at home. We stayed in, except for my wife going downstairs to feed a stray cat near our building. We look out the window and we see people on the train platform going out, but it just doesn’t make sense to us in the long run. I’d rather pass on a weekend out now and be alive for many years of weekends out in the future.

Corona-chan as one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

I introduced my Mom to Corona-chan. She thought it was pretty neat, and especially appreciated this particular image:

The shortages continue online. It’s starting to get annoying because I’m about to run out of all purpose flour. What the hell is going on that flour has been out of stock everywhere for so long? What are people doing with all of that flour? I need flour to make biscuits. My wife needs flour to make banana pudding.

Spent time yesterday while watching “Shtisel” to look for a new wallpaper background for my phone. Finally settled on the image above. It’s clean and elegant looking and it doesn’t interfere with the visibility of the app icons.

I miss going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Coronavirus Journal: Day 34 – Disconnecting from the news, cheap lunches, and deerlingo

A watercolor painting of lovely toilet paper

So, I’ve reached the point now where I’m not checking the case and death figures as often because the numbers have gotten so high that it’s really hard to think about that in terms of trying to make it real. You know what I mean? You can picture a few hundred people, but when you start talking about tens of thousands sick and thousands of deaths, it gets a little abstract.

The result is that the pandemic is starting to feel a little more unreal to me. I mean, I know it’s real because I can see out my window that there really isn’t much going on. I see the lines and shortages at the grocery stores. I see the notifications from live streams on YouTube with news updates from Cuomo and De Blasio. But it just feels like we’ve hit the new normal. This isn’t weird anymore. This is just how it is.

Cuomo was saying in a news conference that the numbers of new hospitalizations are plateauing and that we have probably “flattened the curve”, but that deaths are going to continue in high numbers every day because these are people that were infected largely before social distancing measures were put in place.

I feel that people should have accurate information, but I also think that making people think things are getting better is going to make stupid people go out and do reckless things, sending the situation spiraling back out of control. Hopefully that doesn’t happen this weekend.

The last time I posted, I mentioned something about wanting to go out. I did, but not to ride my bike. The mayor canceled his open streets project so there’s really nowhere around here to go to ride my bike that feels safe, even with the reduced traffic. It’s still the Bronx. So, oh well. I really need to stop screwing around and figure out an indoor workout routine. I’m starting to really feel the wobbliness in my legs while doing routine things around our apartment and that’s not going to work.

DOE free meals in New York City

What we did do, though, was go check out the city’s DOE free food effort. When this all kicked off, the city was handing out free breakfasts and lunches to school kids, I guess to help make up for the loss of that resource for parents. School food is cheaper to pay for than groceries. So, makes sense. But I’m thinking that not enough people were showing up and they were throwing food away, so they opened up the free food to people of all ages.

I wasn’t expecting a gourmet meal, but I was thinking something along the lines of salisbury steak, instant potatoes, fresh broccoli, maybe greasy burgers, or fried chicken. You know. Food. What we got was an approximation of food that really helped me understand why so many kids have nutrition problems in the US.

We went over to PS 306 on Tuesday around 1:00 PM. We walked in and there was no one there. First red flag. We started to walk beyond the lobby and two employees waved us off and pointed us at some insulated bags sitting on folding tables in the corner of the lobby. Second red flag. Instead of prepared food, the insulated bags were filled with clear plastic grab bags of prepackaged items.

Turns out that some were for lunch and some were for breakfast.

The breakfast bag included:

  • a cheap muffin that was overly moist, squashed, and had no taste
  • frozen strawberries and sugar in a cup (basically a big cup of poor quality strawberry jam)
  • a knock-off of Yoohoo! chocolate drinks

The lunch bag included:

  • a ham and cheese sandwich
  • another of the nasty strawberry things that I guess you’re supposed to eat straight since there was nothing to spread it on
  • a small cup of green beans that were clearly from a can
  • another of the chocolate drinks
  • a package of off brand chocolate fudge chip cookies

First off, the only thing that was edible was the sandwich. Second, you should be seeing a pretty clear theme there: sugar, sugar, and some more sugar. And it all tasted bad. These meals have almost no nutritional value. I don’t understand how they can be served in a school.

If I really found myself in a position where I absolutely needed to get free food, I would rather use any other resource. This stuff would probably make a person sick in the long run. No wonder no one was showing up. The only thing it’s fit for is wasting taxpayer money, justifying some people’s jobs, and filling waste bins.

God help the people that actually need to eat this every day.

Just yuck. No. Plain rice and canned tuna with salt would be a better option.

Not hoarding, just higher demand

Speaking of groceries, I finally put something together earlier this week when I was at the grocery store and noticed that shelves are still empty. It’s not really that people are hoarding now; it’s just that they’re home. People aren’t at work so they’re not buying lunch at a restaurant. They’re not going out to eat so they’re cooking at home. There’s a much higher demand for groceries and the supply chain is still trying to catch up with that increase, so there are shortages of some items.

That being said, we haven’t run out of anything. Or at least anything that we can’t either do without anyway or replace by going to the grocery store. We’re going out less often though, so we’re using this as an opportunity to actually eat the food in our cabinet and rediscover old favorites, like our Bialetti and Cafe Bustelo espresso:

Bialetti Moka Color coffee pot and two Le Creuset espresso mugs with freshly brewed coffee.
Some bright points for me this week are:
  • After finishing “Unorthodox” and getting into “Shtisel”, I’ve rediscovered my interest in Hebrew. Plus they’re both great shows.
  • I found an app called Coursera with free college-level content
  • Found a new (to me) app called Lingodeer to help me learn foreign languages
  • Had some time to play Overwatch and Legend of Zelda: BotW.
  • Finished an awesome book by Adam Makos called Spearhead: An American Tank Gunner, His Enemy, and a Collision of Lives In World War II
I don’t even remember what map this was, but I love the small details they added to make things a little more immersive and fun in Overwatch.
A screenshot from Lingodeer. I like that you can turn off “romaji” in the settings. I obviously hadn’t done that when I took this screenshot, but turning off romaji forces me to read the Japanese scripts.

One of my goals this year is to actually make significant progress in learning at least Japanese and hopefully Spanish and/or Tagalog as well. I’m a little disappointed that Tagalog isn’t offered as a “premium” language in language learning apps. The course in Memrise is a community course and the kid doing the audio for the words sounds like he’s not really happy about it. I feel like it was probably some project or a thing his parent made him do.

Note: Featured image is a watercolor painting of lovely toilet paper.

Coronavirus Journal: Day 30 – UBI and Universal Health Care

I was lying in bed earlier after working remote all day, just watching the sun go down while the room got dark. It’s kind of depressing being inside all the time, even with lots of stuff to do. Not so much because I’m inside, but because of the circumstances. It’s not as much fun when you have to do it. I miss going to Central Park and to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I mean, sure I could still go to Central Park but I’d have to ride the train, which almost guarantees catching the coronavirus, and the park is too full anyway. It’s also not worth the risk.

It’s not just older people dying. It’s young people too. Couples dying together. It really makes me think about what I’m doing with my time. It makes me wonder what would happen if one or both of us passed away. Who would take care of our cats? Our stuff? Our only nearby relative is my mother and she’s essentially trapped in lower Manhattan because of COVID-19.

It makes me wonder if we shouldn’t move and get the hell out of New York City. This place is a death trap right now. Even once this clears up, it’s just going to come back in the Fall. And if it isn’t COVID-19, it’ll be COVID-20, or some other deadly virus that will wreck the city because of the amount of international travel.

One of the ironies of this situation is that it has really hammered home to people how important it is to have a steady source of income that is independent of hourly wages. We can’t all be rich people living off stocks, and even if we could, maybe that wouldn’t be any better considering the stock market tanked too.

UBI isn’t such a bad idea. It works for Saudi Arabia. It works for Alaska. It could work everywhere else in the US too. We’d just have to close a few corporate loopholes. And in the end it would even be better for those companies, because there would be enough cash in the lower and middle classes to keep the companies afloat during hard times.

We’re working our way up to doing UBI already with cash payouts. The lockdown was extended to the end of April, so what happens when May rent comes due? The $1200 wasn’t even enough for April rent after all in major cities.

I think it’s clear now we also need universal healthcare. And that it’s not a bad thing. It would take some serious cognitive dissonance to say it’s ok to make COVID-19 treatment free, but to say it’s ok for people to be left to die from other illnesses.

Anyway, my hours are irregular. I’m basically on call. If I work tomorrow or not, I’ll be alright, but I need to get out and get some fresh air. I’m hoping to squeeze in a bike ride. There’s not much traffic, so it might be alright to ride in the roads around here for a change.

Coronavirus Journal: Day 28 – Cooking, Jazz, and Corona-chan

So, I stayed up too late last night, I think, because I feel really tired and I have a headache. Coronavirus symptoms, I know, but this is pretty normal for me when I stay up past 2:30 AM.

I spent most of the day cooking. Not that I’m complaining. This is a good time to work on perfecting cooking skills after all. I think I’ve got biscuits down to a T:

A 9″ round pan filled with biscuits about to go in the oven

I’m still having issues with cooking bacon in our cast iron skillet, though. The pan is seasoned well. It’s not that the bacon sticks. It’s just that the skillet doesn’t seem to heat evenly on a gas burner.

The bacon overcooks in the middle while the ends are still near raw
I had to squish the bacon up over the part of the pan directly over the heat. I know the skillet is off-center. I had too much bacon in the skillet to cook it all at once so I had the rest of the slab over on the left side.

I haven’t quite worked out what temperature to cook the bacon at or where on the skillet to position it so that it cooks in the way I imagine it’s supposed to work. But maybe it just doesn’t work like a regular pan and you just have to do this way? Scrunched up over the part of the pan that’s directly above the heat?

Cornbread for tonight’s dinner

I also made cornbread. I finally figured out how to do that without burning it. Later, I’ll fry some chicken. Also in that cast iron skillet. I love that thing. It’s so fun to use even if it’s a little difficult.

I’m taking a break right now. I found this nice jazz livestream to listen to while I put my feet up for a bit. It’s really relaxing. I feel like I’m in a cafe somewhere, like things are normal and I don’t hear sirens outside the window constantly.

I haven’t even been outside in over a week I think. We just go to the grocery and then come home. The statistics for New York City are really bad and I don’t want us to wind up sick. Who would take care of all of our cats? And besides, I have too many books to read and video games to finish to die now! I haven’t even finished “Breath of the Wild” yet. Or The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius.

Anyway, I’m starting to burn out on trolling Twitter for coronavirus information. The conversation has gotten bogged down by trolls and morons that are peddling conspiracy theories about everything from secret magic treatments for COVID-19 to an upcoming war between Trump’s forces of righteousness and the “Deep State”. Apparently, all of the coverage about the coronavirus from around the world is a hoax made up by “the Libs” to destroy America.

I did find this gem last night, though:

Corona-chan’s campaign for world domination

It’s brilliant. It really catches the popular mood in the US. All of the memes and conspiracy theories are in there. It epitomizes the idgaf attitude towards the pandemic many Americans have shown both visually and through the choice of music.

America loves end of the world scenarios. I think it’s baked into our culture, a leftover from the religious fundamentalism that played a large role in the colonization of the continent. Not that religious fundamentalism is in our rear view mirror, of course. There are plenty of Protestant evangelical/fundamentalist churches out there.

This is sort of a different topic, but I think Christian fundamentalism is dangerous because it encourages decision making based on feelings rather than logic and reasoning.

Don’t think. Just have faith.

Don’t ask questions. Just believe.

Don’t do any research. Just listen to what I tell you.

And that’s how you wind up with groups of people that are ready to believe in “deep state” conspiracies, that COVID-19 is a hoax, and that we’re about to go to war with someone. Not sure who, but someone. Either the Deep State, or China, or maybe us against the rest of the world.

It’s nuts, but it’s fascinating. Trump being elected somehow brought all of this insanity to the surface. I think it’s a good thing. We needed to know it was there. Of course, we could guess that this kind of crazy exists in American society, but now we know for sure. Hopefully, as a result the politicians will take notice and shift some of the national budget away from funding the military-industrial complex and instead boost education, regardless of who wins the November election.

Coronavirus Journal: Day 27 – Trying to reach the back of the cabinets

Since we’ve been going to the grocery store less, we’re actually using up things in our cabinets that might have otherwise occupied space until they went bad.

I’ve also been finding and discarding products that did, in fact, occupy space until they went bad.

Silver lining? Social distancing and the fear of a deadly virus is good for minimalism. My goal is to hit the back of the cabinets and the bottom of the freezer by the time this is all over. No more old stuff sitting in the cabinets, fridge, or freezer.

Case in point is this meatloaf. I had the meat in the freezer for months and now that I have less inclination to go outside and more time to actually cook, it’s done and ready for dinner.

This is the recipe, in case you’re interested: Easy Meat Loaf

The toilet paper drought is finally hitting the Bronx

Since this COVID-19 thing started in New York City, people have been panic buying. One dude buying 20 jars of spaghetti sauce, every shelf in the store is now empty, kind of panic buying. Or at least, that’s how it was down in Manhattan near my mom’s place.

At the two grocery stores near our apartment in the Bronx, everything has been pretty regular in terms of availability. For a few days, the grocery stores were out of ginger. The liquid hand soap was gone from one of two grocery stores for a week. The TP was gone for a few days, but then was restocked. Now, one grocery store has TP and the other doesn’t.

It doesn’t seem like a hoarding issue so much as a supply issue at this point. In the last month, people bought three or more months worth the toilet paper instead of what they would normally buy, so there’s just a shortage coming out of the factories. A self-fulfilling TP shortage.

The food shelves were never totally emptied here. I can tell sales are good though, because I haven’t seen a damn thing on sale at Key Foods for two weeks. I’d like to go to Walmart in NJ, but with the way people are talking, I’m not sure there’d be anything there to buy. Or maybe there’s a line? Or maybe it’s going to be full of people passing the virus around to each other?

I get why people hoard now, though. When they first started, I didn’t understand it. It looked like people were just being stupid, but I’ve been thinking about it and I realized that some people must literally have bought enough so they could go in their house and not come out for weeks or months, because they have the money for it and a job that allows them to work from home. And, given that almost 300 people are dying a day in New York City right now, maybe that was the right move after all. The more you limit your exposure, the more likely you are to not die in the next few months.

Not dying due to exposure to the pandemic has become a class privilege. Just like Cuomo freezing mortgages but not rents. Apparently, renters are supposed to magically pull rent out of their butts even if they haven’t been working, but home owners have to be protected. Even though they’re in the minority.

It doesn’t seem like people in this part of the Bronx are as prone to hoarding as people in other neighborhoods. We’ve discussed whether it’s because of culture, not recognizing the seriousness of the pandemic, or because people in this area just can’t afford to buy multiple weeks or months of groceries all at once in advance. Maybe it’s a bit of all three.

Only the off-brand stuff is left.

Anyway, the shelves are finally starting to look a little bare in the TP section now. Paper towels too. We still bought the same was what we’d normally buy. We have actual towels that we can use instead of paper towels and if we run out of TP, we can wash our butts in the shower.

So, totally not worried about that.