It’s Ohio, and yesterday our state collectively had a “Holy shit, Batman!” moment. With four confirmed cases of coronavirus to date, concern and caution are understandable. It remains to be seen whether the powers that be have crossed the line from prudence to panic. Basically, limiting gatherings to fewer than one hundred people has shut down most mass public interaction. Ten minutes on the heels of the 100-person ban announcement, word went out from Playhouse Square (a large live-theater complex) that performances will be cancelled or postponed until further notice. Ditto for pretty much every other venue. Extrapolated to the extreme—although we’re not there yet—what’s next? Will stores, restaurants, and movie houses post security at the doors to limit occupancy to 99? Not saying I’d argue with the measures, but the sheer logistics issues are mind boggling.
Meanwhile, the reaction of the general public seems to have reached major freak-out level. There were stories of toilet-paper hoarding, but I thought they were anecdotal. Nope! Saw it with my own eyes. My husband and I went to our favorite local discount store yesterday evening for our weekly grocery run. The place is never busy on Thursdays, but last night we were very surprised to see a full parking lot, even the outlying spaces. We were fortunate to snag a shopping cart in a corral next to our parking space. We only saw two other carts in the lot, and not a single one available inside. We’d never seen anything like it—even worse than when the weatherman predicts a three-day blizzard and people rush to stock up on food. Entire displays were picked clean: cookies, snacks, ground beef. My husband got to the bakery aisle in time to pick up the last loaf of his perennial plain white bread, while I got the next-to-last flat of corned beef in the “specials” bin. The paper goods aisle had a big empty space where toilet paper normally lives. Shoppers schlepped around the store with loaded carts of bottled water and canned goods, and, of course, the aforementioned toilet paper. The night manager was working the register where we checked out, and she said she’d been called in on her day off, but wouldn’t have come if she’d known what she was in for. Likewise, we’d had no thought of buying anything other than the normal stuff, and would have waited a few days if we’d known we’d walk into a store full of newly-minted hoarders. While I’ll say that people were merely purposeful and intent on loading up, rather than frantic and snatching items away before others could get hands on them, I’m wondering what it will be like if the prevention precautions aren’t effective. It could get really ugly really fast. What happens if shoppers can’t dive in and grab those eight-foot-high piles of toilet paper and paper towels at Costco? What happens if the beer runs out?
These next few months will be difficult for whole sections of the population, especially those in the service and entertainment industries who will bear the brunt of the ban on gatherings. The people who must work in public spaces will face unequal risks. It’s a unique situation in the lives of most of us, and if a crisis does come, we’ll soon find out whether we’re united or divided. Will we be hoarders or sharers?