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It was only when I walked into our nearest supermarket after returning from a 10-day trip to California that I first saw what coronavirus panic looks like: empty shelves everywhere, and not an egg, a box of spaghetti, or a roll of toilet paper to be had. What was available revealed what foods people in my part of the Northern Catskills apparently don’t like: beef broth and rutabagas.
I asked a guy examining shelves with a clipboard in his hand what were the things that were most difficult to keep in stock. His response: “Everything.” A neighbor of mine said she was told by a manager that the lines outside the entrance form every morning an hour before the store opens.
The scene at the supermarket, which is 12 miles away, led me to think about whether it’s better in a crisis like this one to live in a city or in rural America. Certainly, in cities there are more places to buy food and it’s a lot easier to get to them.
But supermarkets don’t actually create food; farms in rural America do. Despite the dramatic drop in the number of farms in Greene County during the 20th century—from more than 2,600 to 222—there are still cornfields, fruit trees, and an occasional herd of cows along many back roads. We may be reduced to eating out-of-season venison and apples, but it’s unlikely that we’ll starve—which suggests that what I witnessed at the grocery store is a manifestation of fear rather than a response to objective reality.
Barter might even come into its own. My husband told me yesterday that he’d just had a conversation with a neighbor who keeps bees, chickens, and goats and always grows a large garden of vegetables. The two of them agreed that the neighbor would be happy to supply us with items like eggs in return for services my husband can provide with his tractor.
Apart from the availability of homegrown food, though, there’s a lot to be said for living in a city in a time like this one. Apartment dwellers can at least look out the window and see other human beings, even if “social distancing” keeps them from having a conversation. Here, with senior centers, restaurants, and other gathering places shut down, someone can easily go days without encountering another living soul—even if it’s just someone behind a steering wheel. When I went for a walk of over an hour this morning on several small roads near my house, only one car passed me.
What that translates into is social isolation for the large number of older people who live alone. Another of my neighbors told me (from more than six feet away) on the day after we got back from California that she especially misses the weekly music group rehearsals that have become a big part of her life since her husband died. Even her music lessons, she said, have been moved to Skype.
In the absence of any chance to catch up on gossip or local news in the usual ways such as town board meetings, I’ve started going to a couple of local Facebook pages to see what’s on people’s minds. Mostly, it appears, it’s pizza: lots of ads for takeout or delivery. Also lots of notices of canceled meetings and church services, and requests for help with child care now that the schools are closed.
One post that caught my eye, and made me wonder how nasty things may get, appeared on a new page set up to share coronavirus-related information affecting our area. Someone had posted a newspaper headline that said: “More than half of coronavirus patients globally have recovered.” To which someone else had responded, “Oh, but we must still panic to keep the Left happy.”
Another posting, which spoke to fears of outsiders’ bringing the virus into the area, declared that “NYC residents should not be allowed to shelter anywhere but their PRIMARY RESIDENCE!!” and urged local governments to tell second-home owners that they would be fined if they were found in violation of the proposed regulation.
The Greene County Legislature didn’t go that far, but just a day later, it put out a sternly worded press release addressed to second-home owners and prospective visitors. It noted the county’s limited health resources and grocery stores and stated: “Travel into Greene County from any area at this time is inadvisable and is highly discouraged.”
So much for the welcoming words to outsiders on the county website, and the boast of how close we are to New York and other major cities!
The tone of an e-mailed letter from our Town Supervisor to local residents was much more friendly, but its message was in its way more alarming. Rather than offering platitudes, it began by saying, “We are in uncharted territory,” and went on to list what actions were being taken and what more might be needed. These were mostly things I’d already learned about elsewhere, but toward the end came the news that if the pandemic overwhelms local health centers, “the Red Cross has an agreement with the Cairo Durham School District to use any and all of their facilities as needed.” Wow, I thought, so this is just how bad they are expecting it might get.
For now, however, life goes on pretty much as normal. The first tiny crocuses have appeared in my garden, and the lilac bush is beginning to bud. I saw the first wood ducks of the season on the same pond they always return to, and the red-wing blackbirds are back and calling out their familiar tunes. I find it oddly cheering to think that even if we all disappeared tomorrow, they would still be here.