Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Social Distancing Life Lately: Eight Months, The Holidays, and Beyond

via Unsplash

EDITED 11/22/2020: Nine days into our pre-Thanksgiving quarantine, K started coming down with super-mild cold symptoms. Because there is no way for us to get COVID testing without risking at least some indoor exposure to people outside our household, we decided on November 20 that we needed to cancel our Thanksgiving plans in order to protect K's parents. We're all very disappointed, but I think what we know about the science makes very clear that this is the right and necessary thing to do. The original text of this post, from before we made this decision, is below.

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When I wrote my previous "Social Distancing Life Lately" post in mid-September, I was really hoping it would be the last. Obviously, the COVID-19 pandemic wasn't over, and it probably wouldn't be over in the US until an effective vaccine was widely distributed. K and I knew we were going to need to continue taking precautions and practicing social distancing until then, at least through the end of 2020 and probably for at least a few months beyond. 

But the COVID data had been relatively good and stable in NYC for several months by mid-September with gradual reopening. I hoped this meant we had settled into a "new normal" here, in which life could continue moving forward, with further reopening of schools and other indoor settings in a limited way with heavy precautions without causing serious spikes in new COVID cases. In other words, I was optimistic that while social distancing would certainly need to continue here in NYC, there wouldn't be any new, significant negative developments worth writing about. 

Unfortunately, that hasn't quite been the case. When last I wrote about our COVID progress, NYC had maintained a citywide percent positive rate of ~1.5% or less since mid-June, trending closer to ~1.2% or less since mid-August, all with robust COVID test availability. By mid or late September, public schools reopened for in-person classes two to three days/week for students opting in, and indoor dining rooms at restaurants were also permitted to reopen at 25% capacity at the end of the month. To my knowledge, those were the only significant new indoor activities allowed by our state and city government since September. 

Our citywide COVID percent positive creeped up towards ~1.7% or so in early October, but remained stable there. That number didn't seem to be considered a "danger zone" in terms of closing schools or anything else back down. There were local hot spots or clusters with significantly higher percent positive rates, which the state government responded to with targeted shut-downs in those neighborhoods. This month, our citywide percent positive climbed solidly past 2%, then 2.5%. At 3% positive, NYC public schools may be shut down. Like in other parts of the US, things aren't moving in a good direction. 

The Holidays

K and I are currently halfway through a stricter-than-usual 14 day home quarantine in preparation for spending Thanksgiving with his parents at their home. To tell the truth, this two-week period of stricter-than-usual social distancing doesn't actually look all that different from our typical lifestyle these past eight months. We generally went at least three or four weeks between trips outside our apartment building regardless, so the only newly stepped-up precaution is that we're also avoiding picking up packages from our doorman. When we've completed our quarantine, K's parents will drive from their home in the Connecticut suburbs to pick us up. 

Our quarantine is not completely airtight. When K and I leave, we'll need to pass through our apartment building's lobby - mask on, of course - and while it's never crowded there, the doorman and maybe one of our neighbors will probably be in that medium sized space. We take out our trash to a chute down the hall - mask on, again - once every few days, though generally there's no one else around when we do so. K's parents may ask us to make a grocery delivery order or two for our visit - generally brought by contactless drop-off - if they're not comfortable with shopping in-person due to increased COVID cases in Connecticut. Those are the only weak points from our end. 

K's parents take the same day-to-day precautions we do - generally encountering no one outside their household but for occasional fully masked trips to the grocery store, pharmacy, doctor's office, and so on - except that because they live in a single-family home and own a car, they're able to go outdoors more easily while staying socially distanced. If they decide that Thanksgiving groceries should be done by delivery to us instead of their taking an in-person trip to shop, they won't come into contact with anyone outside their household in the two weeks before they pick us up. (They'll stay in the car when they're picking us up.) 

Obviously, if any of the four of us comes down with what looks like COVID symptoms in the meantime, our Thanksgiving plans will be scrapped. COVID testing is not part of our visit "protocol" because - having recently gotten a test at our closest NYC public hospital-run testing site - I know from experience that one encounters at least as many masked people in an indoor setting while waiting to register for the test as one does at the grocery store. 

If both households are comfortable with how Thanksgiving goes, we'll consider following the same protocol for Christmas. Which means I'll spend almost the entire time between now and the end of the year either in stricter-than-usual quarantine or visiting K's parents. K and I will barely have a week in between where we can run errands in the city - just groceries for our next 14-day quarantine, a stop at the pharmacy, and my routine doctor's appointment I postponed when I got sick with not-COVID recently - before going back into quarantine. (We already got our flu shots last Monday, before we started this first quarantine.) 

It goes without saying that this plan is only possible because (1) K's parents are local and have a car, so we don't need to take the commuter train to see them and (2) all four of us can either work fully from home during this time or are retired, so no one needs to go out. Because my family in the US lives so much further away - with my mom in California and my sister near D.C. - there's pretty much no way we can see each other before that hoped-for future vaccine is distributed. The travel plus two-week quarantine before we'd feel comfortable meeting up is just too logistically difficult to pull off, not to mention the additional quarantine-upon-return requirements for me under New York law if interstate travel outside of neighboring states is involved. 

Brief Stop in the Office

Last Tuesday, the day before I started my Thanksgiving quarantine, I went to the office for the very first time since before I left for that ill-fated business trip in March. I had one of those rare work tasks that needed to be done on-site. And it was... strange. 

My very small workplace leases its offices in a large skyscraper, but I didn't encounter any employees from the building's other tenants that entire time. It almost seemed like my office was the only one that had brought any of its employees back. Which is helpful for us, in one sense, I hear from colleagues who go in more regularly that they never need to share an elevator with anyone. (In pre-COVID times, our building's elevators were always jam-packed during the morning, lunchtime, and evening rush hours.) So, from that perspective, things felt safe and socially distanced. 

Within our offices, it's... slightly more complicated. We're fully compliant with New York state requirements for reopening a white-collar office, which has been permitted since early July. Our workplace's leadership is somewhat old fashioned when it comes to in-office time, so they've pretty much been going in full-time to work in their private offices ever since it was first allowed. They require the assistance of some non-attorney employees frequently, though that's balanced against workplace social-distancing requirements, so maybe half of our non-attorney team - some with private offices, some seated in cubicle areas - goes in on any given weekday. Some of the other junior attorneys go in more frequently than I, though they generally keep the doors to their private offices closed while working. Everyone wears face masks, but masks get dropped for eating and drinking throughout the day.

Long story short, our offices tends to be about as full as state COVID restrictions allow, as it was on the day I was there. I'm not personally comfortable with that, and would not feel safe if I was required to appear regularly, even if it was only for half the week. Even if many of the employees work in private offices with doors that close, everyone walks through the common areas frequently during the work day to use the restroom, fetch something from the printer, get water or coffee, wash their hands, etc. I won't need to go to the office often, but I do expect I'll need to go back occasionally for on-site work in early 2021. 

And Beyond

I'm grateful that my family and friends have been well all this time. For my extended family abroad in Taiwan, things are great, of course, because there has been essentially no community spread of COVID-19 for months. My cousins can freely socialize in bars, restaurants, and their friends' homes without fear. Naturally, I'm incredibly envious! For my family and friends here, in the US, we're all doing our best to be cautious, to socially distance as much as possible, and to get through this.

It's an immense privilege to have been able to work almost fully from home. While I'll need to go to the office on occasion in the coming months, I think it's likely I'll still be able to work from home the vast majority of the time, at least until that vaccine is widely available. 

And K and I are incredibly fortunate that we and our immediate families haven't yet had any real disruptions to our incomes due to COVID-19. I worry somewhat about my long-term job security, as I don't think my small private-sector workplace is adjusting as well to COVID-era business realities as biglaw firms generally are. But because I have a solid one-year emergency fund saved in cash and my remaining student loan balance is now down to only ~$45,000, it's not the most daunting or imminent worry. For now, I've been continuing with my modest charitable giving, at $200/month, mostly to the Food Bank for New York City and also to some political causes including Stacey Abrams's Fair Fight and the Warnock and Ossoff campaigns for the Georgia Senate runoffs. 

I hope that you and your loved ones are also doing alright! I know the US is not alone in experiencing a "second" - or in the US's case, even a "third" - wave of increased COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations recently. If that's happening where you are, I hope your local government is responding correctly and that you're able to feel safe. 

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