Home on leave, foreign correspondent can’t believe what he’s seeing

Special to WorldTribune.com

By Donald Kirk

WASHINGTON — The mere idea of the nation’s capital more or less shutting down would have been beyond imagination if anybody had talked about it seriously two months ago. Even after the outbreak of coronavirus in China had reached Korea and Europe, very few people would really believe the extent of the response that all the experts say is needed to keep the bug from spreading.

A friend of mine in Japan emailed asking if I was able to get out of the house, my base when not in Korea and elsewhere. He wondered if I could still buy groceries, go out on the street. see people, drive around the city.

Empty restaurant in Washington, D.C. / YouTube

The answer to all such questions is sure, no problem, don’t believe everything you see in the papers or hear on radio and TV. On one level, life remains pretty much normal here, but then you realize quite soon things are distinctly not normal and may not return to normal for some time.

I got a jolt, which some people I know may think is rather funny, when I stopped at a Starbucks with every intention of settling into a lounge chair and reading. No way. The chairs were all piled up on one side and the guy behind the counter – they call these people baristas here, not sure about the rest of the world – told me service was strictly “Grab and Go.”

That is, you could grab your coffee or whatever and leave with cup in hand but no hanging around, relaxing. Finding that a little hard to believe, I dropped by two more Starbucks, and the story was the same. In fact, here in DC, it’s the same for every restaurant, whether fine dining or fast food. I made it through the day by dropping by one of my favorite fast-food joints, Angelico’s, ordering a pizza supremo, picking up in a large box and sharing it with my cousin in his vehicle.

No sitting down, they told me, other than to wait while they were ready to serve up the delicious concoction, “with everything.”

But those tales from the city are trivia, minor inconveniences, mere annoyances compared to all the other stuff you’re hearing.

What’s really hard to believe is not just restaurants and coffee shops but almost everything else is closed. Schools, colleges, universities are shut down, some offering classes by internet, but basically students are on an extended Spring break that may not end even in time for graduation.

The same goes for athletic events, theaters, speeches and panel discussions, conventions. You even have to wonder if President Trump’s Republic Party and the Democratic Party, so eager to nominate someone, anyone, capable of defeating Trump in November, will be able to stage their conventions this summer.

For that matter, what about campaign rallies, campaign speeches? The prospect of surging crowds of people standing close together for any reason is an invitation to epidemic. Real old-fashioned campaigning may be off.

Talk to people here, and you risk heated debate on two issues that have nothing to do with politics. Are so many precautions excessive, overkill, for a disease that’s infected thousands worldwide but has resulted in relatively few deaths. Isn’t it more dangerous to drive from Washington to New York on the interstate?

The other question is when’s it all going to end. We keep reading that the Chinese and Koreans have the virus under control thanks to rigorous constraints on meetings and much testing. Will the U.S., now that President Donald Trump and his enemies are no longer focused on impeachment, be able not only to stop it from spreading but to come up with a cure?

Answers vary, but most people do seem to agree that too many precautions are a whole lot better than too few and it’s wise to take drastic steps. In fact, Trump is coming in for much criticism, mostly from columnists and talk show types who hate him anyway, for having delayed. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. I don’t think too many of us realized the seriousness of what the World Health Organization now calls a pandemic. I know I didn’t.

As for when the virus will end, the most common answer I’m getting is “don’t know.” Then there are quite a few who are thinking in terms of weeks. Maybe a week or two or a month or so. Surely, say the optimists, after postponing the opening for a few weeks, the owners of the 30 major league baseball teams will find time for a reasonably full season even if fans who might go to games decide to watch on TV.

But no one knows. The uncertainty is palpable. You can feel it driving down normally crowded streets, now free of traffic, and stopping by fast-food places and coffee shops, now either closed or selling to go, no dining in.