Locally, it all started with a couple of public officials doing a fist bump instead of a handshake, and before you know it practically every meeting, celebration or parade in Ulster County worth its salt was being postponed or cancelled. Ditto events, conferences and reunions. Young people at every educational level are being sent home from school, allowed to stay at colleges only if they have nowhere else to go.
The disruption has been abrupt, inconvenient and significant. Following the example set by the federal government, organizational decisions have not always been consistent. You’d be wise to double-check any event on your calendar before you go anywhere.
Many more people have made arrangements to work from home. What you are reading is being written from my house in Mount Tremper rather than my office in Kingston.
To slow the spread of Covid 19, experts in public health have among their “community mitigation strategies” co-opted the sociological term “social distancing,” by which they mean conscious efforts to reduce close physical contact among people. That effort causes particular hardship in a region like ours, which prides itself on the quality and quantity of its community interaction.
Though American institutions have been imaginative and resourceful in their response to the pandemic, their efforts have seemed like drops in a bottomless bucket. We are all figuring out how to handle the suspension of our normal activities for the duration of the public health emergency. And intuitively I think we all realize that things will never ever be quite the same again.
It’s a good time for all of us to review our priorities. What are we to learn other than how to survive? What habits can we easily learn to do without? What in our lives is really important to us? As Covid 19 runs its awful course and then subsides, how can we make our lives better?
Ulster County government has been seeking volunteers to assist with fielding calls relating to Covid 19 over the next several weeks, said a message from UlsterCorps last week. Volunteers are sent to the front (phone) lines right away. Training is given at the start of one’s first shift at the county health department at Golden Hill. A script is provided.
The Ulster County Covid 19 hotline operates from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. seven days a week. For answers, call 443-8888 (not the health department number at 340-3618). You’ll get a machine message, and then can talk with a real person.
After decades of encouraging public attendance at county legislature meetings, Ulster County government is taking a different tack. Legislative chair Dave Donaldson announced last Friday that no public comment would be allowed during this Tuesday’s legislative session. The legislature’s website said that public attendance at the legislative session was at this time “strongly discouraged.” The public can livestream the meeting and submit public comments in written form to the clerk of the legislature.
Consideration of a couple of agenda items will be postponed. “Issues of heightened concern to many Ulster residents, the memorializing resolution to oppose the construction of a new fossil-fuel powered Danskammer power plant and the home-rule bed-tax increase, are not expected to be included on the March 17 agenda,” the legislature assured its constituents.
The legislature hoped its broad hints to the public would restrict in-person attendance to that of the 23 members and handful of staff who show up. Attendance of 50 persons or more would violate the terms of Kingston mayor Steve Noble’s state of emergency declared last week. Last Sunday, the federal CDC adopted the same limit in the nation as a whole.
Legislative intent still a little fuzzy? On Monday Donaldson issued a release saying public attendance was banned.
In-person attendance at events everywhere has been put on hold. Remote attendance in huge numbers has become the norm.
We’re likely to find out only after the fact whether people in New York City fare better or worse in the present pandemic than people in the mid-Hudson region. The transmission dynamics of the novel coronavirus are not yet known. On the one hand, urban centers will experience higher rates of contact and chains of viral transmission. On the other, less populated areas do not escape a high incidence of infection and usually have less means than big cities to treat such illnesses. To head out of Dodge to an exurban area may improve one’s chances to avoid contracting the novel coronavirus, but hightailing it back once one gets infected might be the best strategy — if feasible.
“While infectious disease spreads faster where people are more densely clustered — hence the strategy of social distancing to contain the coronavirus — that doesn’t necessarily make suburban or rural areas safer, health experts say,” reported Laura Bliss and Kriston Capps in a CityLab article on March 13.
With the coronavirus, many people in the big American cities are feeling an intensified sense of acute anxiety about their health risks. Albeit a purely emotional phenomenon, the primeval human urge to get away from urban circumstances remains a powerful one. Another world, one not unlike the Catskills, awaits. As Longfellow famously wrote in “Evangeline” in 1847:
This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic,
Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms.
Loud from its rocky caverns, the deep-voiced neighboring ocean
Speaks, and in accents disconsolate answers the wail of the forest.
Surely any alternate life is superior to serving out a quarantine in a Brooklyn apartment. As New York Times reporter Taylor Lorenz tweeted last week, “Being stuck inside a New York City apartment is only one step above a cruise ship.”