Friday, September 18, 2020

Social Distancing Life Lately: Six Months and Counting

via Unsplash

When my colleagues and I abruptly rushed home from Luxembourg in mid-March, none of us could truly have imagined that, six months on, life would still not be anywhere close to normal. As we transited through Heathrow that day - after having booked new tickets last-minute in the wee hours of the morning, upon being woken up by concerned friends and family back home following the President's sudden announcement of a proposed Western Europe travel ban - the pandemic didn't feel real yet. Barely anyone at the airport was wearing a face mask. Things still looked almost normal, even if we knew they were not. 

Local Policies in NYC 

Now, six months later, NYC has - since June or so - controlled the spread of COVID-19 better than many other places in the US. Yet the prospect of resuming any substantial new indoor activities here - things bringing bigger groups of people together in closer quarters than the retail stores or museums that are currently open with drastically limited capacity - still feels potentially perilous. For the attorneys amongst us, participating safely in in-person court proceedings - particularly jury trials - and in-person depositions still feels like an impossibility. (Especially when we keep in mind that at least some participants or attorneys typically need to travel from out-of-state for such events.) 

Our state and city government are generally moving slowly and cautiously to gradually allow more significant indoor activities. In-person schooling at NYC public schools may restart in phases starting next week, on a partial schedule for the families that opt-in. Restaurant dining rooms may be allowed to open at the end of the month, at 25% capacity. 

Personal Comfort Levels

Completely separate from the issue of what's legally allowed, there's also the question of my personal comfort level with additional activities. I would not be happy about being forced to attend in-person court proceedings anytime soon. Nor am I willing to put others and myself at risk by partaking in indoor restaurant dining before a vaccine becomes widely available. Nothing short of a court order - and the fear of being in contempt of court - or a serious family emergency would get me on a plane before I'm vaccinated. 

I am somewhat apprehensive about when my workplace might start requiring attorneys to come into the office more often. New York officially allowed white-collar workplaces like law firms to reopen with certain safety precautions back in early July. But up to now, state law has also required that categories of employees who can perform the vast majority of their duties from home - attorneys included - be offered the choice to continue working from home, something I've availed myself of to the fullest extent. I'm not sure when that state policy might change.

K and I have loosened up somewhat since I last wrote about our ongoing social distancing experience in late July. We've both had our long-overdue haircuts now, and we each felt quite safe with all the new safety precautions at New York salons. In the next month or so, we'll probably both go to our first routine doctor's appointments since the COVID-19 shutdowns began. As mentioned in my recent money diary, we also ended up needing our building's superintendent and then a contractor to come in to our apartment for some repairs, across a few different days. And that also felt just fine, with everyone wearing masks and given NYC's continuing trend of favorable COVID numbers. 

While we've applied for absentee ballots, we may yet decline to use them and choose to vote in-person instead - most likely by early voting - knowing there were... some issues... with absentee ballots actually getting counted during the recent New York primary. To be fair, our election procedures have changed to directly address these problems, including to allow voters to track their own absentee ballots and have an opportunity to cure alleged defects instead of the ballot just being thrown out.

But I think it's fair to say our household is technically still practicing fairly strict social distancing. Outside of the errands described above, we are still staying home except for essential grocery and pharmacy trips, which we continue to limit to approximately once every three weeks. And our friends in NYC are still not quite ready to socialize yet, even outdoors.

The New Normal

Because my close social circle is so small and uniformly cautious - and, it's probably also important to note, uniformly without children whose educational and other needs must be accounted for - I do sometimes wonder if I, or we, might be... out of touch? or something... with what a "normal" level of caution and long-term lifestyle changes due to COVID-19 might look like for our fellow Americans. 

I swear I'm not one of those COVID-19 social-distancing shamers that are sometimes critiqued in various opinion pieces these days. I don't expect other people to make the exact same choices that I do. And I know that many of my household's choices are made possible only by fairly substantial economic and other privileges. NYC's continuing trend of favorable COVID numbers - around 2% positive for COVID or less, with widely available testing, since mid-June or so, then closer to 1% positive since mid-August - all while plenty of outdoor socializing, sometimes in fairly crowded settings, has been going on since May and while outdoor dining has been allowed since late June, suggests that outdoor socializing and dining can be quite safe. 

But I guess I feel somewhat self-conscious that, even amongst my generally cautious circle of close friends, I might still be a bit of an outlier. In particular, my sister (near Washington D.C.), mom (in the Bay Area), and I remain in agreement that we do not expect to see each other in-person until a vaccine is widely available and we have all received it. Seeing my mom requires someone getting on a plane, and that's just not something we're willing to risk in the absence of a family emergency. And this could ultimately mean we don't see each other for well over a year, given that we last spent time together in late December 2019. 

My household and family's levels of caution also pretty much mean that any kind of small, "immediate family-only" wedding for K and I is pretty much logistically impossible for the foreseeable future, pending the wide availability of a sufficiently effective vaccine. I just can't bear to risk anyone getting sick with COVID because someone - at some point - needed to get on a plane to make such a wedding happen. K and I are certainly not opposed to a private civil ceremony - with a large celebration with friends and family to follow someday in the distant future, when it's safe - but it's... sad... to know there really isn't anything we could reasonably do to have my parents physically there. 

I guess I have a lot of half-formed thoughts and feelings about, well, everything. And then I feel a little silly or selfish because, in the grand scheme of things, these are surpassingly small worries and no true hardship. 

Looking Ahead

K and I continue to be grateful for the considerable privileges that allow us and our families to mostly stay home as the US settles in for the long haul with needing to take COVID precautions. (Most of our parents had actually already entered a modest retirement - not completely voluntarily - long before COVID hit. So they can all stay safe at home. My mom's the only one working, but only in a very small office with no interaction with the general public, so she's also felt safe.) Although K and I have yet to encounter impacts to our household income level due to COVID, I've personally started feeling more antsy about the longer-term economic implications for my particular segment of the legal industry, so I've been adjusting how I manage my finances a bit. 

As I mentioned briefly last month, I used to consider a six to nine-months' living expenses emergency fund more than adequate, even factoring in the risk of the next recession. But I now believe in a one-year emergency fund, and might even prefer a little more. Accordingly, I've needed to adjust my approach to cash savings somewhat. I'm also increasingly less pleased with having my remaining law school student loan balance - still in the solid five figures - hanging over my head, so I continue to escalate the pace of my repayment. (I made $5,000/month in payments this month and last month! Still have another year to go though, if I continue paying at that level every month.) I'm now making $200/month in charitable contributions, primarily to the Food Bank for New York City.

How are you and your family doing? Have things gotten closer to a relatively safe pre-COVID normal where you are? (Sadly, I'm not sure any part of the US is remotely close to that yet.) Is your industry being affected badly by COVID-19? 

Somewhat shockingly - I did not anticipate this at all based on my understanding of how the 2008 recession impacted the industry - biglaw as a general whole is seemingly doing great, driven not just by bankruptcy/restructuring practices and related litigation (which are traditionally expected to do fantastic in recessions, for obvious reasons), but also by some of the transactional practices. Various firms are reversing salary cuts, and some are even issuing special bonuses with additional promises that year-end bonuses will, at a minimum, match last year's scale. But I don't work in biglaw - and don't get anything remotely like those bonuses even when business is great - and my workplace's financial performance doesn't correlate directly to these market trends, so I'm still nervous.

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