When 6 feet feels like a million miles

Coronavirus now means social distancing at the time when our most basic human need—touch—is fraught with danger.

Photograph by Rachel Bujalski
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A week into the region’s public orders to “shelter in place” and keep at least six feet away from others, a San Francisco resident gazes at the empty zigzags of Lombard Street. On a normal spring day this famously twisty block is so crowded with tourists that cars back up at the top of the block, waiting to start down the bricks.

Photograph by Rachel Bujalski

Inside his parked car the Reverend Dr. H. James Hopkins stared at his hands and understood that he had violated the … well, what was it, exactly? Law? Directive? Extraordinary official plea? Hopkins is head pastor of the Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church, which is in Oakland, California, placing the building and its congregants inside the geographical boundaries of something none of us yet knew how to articulate. Lockdown, we who live in the San Francisco Bay Area said the day before, when the rumors began to spread: Lockdown at midnight. Not just for the 65-and-overs. For everybody, and for weeks.

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The Rev. Dr. H. James Hopkins—Pastor Jim to his congregants—stands inside his otherwise empty church. Like hundreds of other houses of worship in California and around the world, Oakland’s Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church was closed to protect worshippers from coronavirus contagion. Sunday services and Bible study have gone online, but Hopkins wrestles daily with the challenge of helping church members feel connected to each other.

Now Jim Hopkins sat, not far from his shuttered church buildings, and considered a pastor’s deepest obligations under this new Bay Area order. That was the word. Not a lockdown, as it turned out; no one was threatening to forcibly stop people from walking out their front doors. But a phalanx of health officers had truncated the rumors by livestreaming a joint press conference in San Francisco. As of 12:01 a.m. on March 17, we were the first region in the United States to be mandated, not urged, to stay away from each other under almost all circumstances in an effort to slow coronavirus spread.

“ORDER OF THE HEALTH OFFICER,” the formal document began. “PROHIBITION OF ALL NON-ESSENTIAL GATHERINGS.”

And: “CESSATION OF ALL NON-ESSENTIAL TRAVEL.”

And: “ALL INDIVIDUALS LIVING IN THE COUNTY TO SHELTER AT THEIR PLACE OF RESIDENCE EXCEPT THAT THEY MAY LEAVE TO PROVIDE OR RECEIVE CERTAIN ESSENTIAL SERVICES.”

So much to take in: the layoffs, the supermarket hoarding, the empty airplanes, the death numbers, the grim predictive charts. But like the rest of us, Jim Hopkins was grappling, in a way never before forced upon him by circumstance, with the meaning of ESSENTIAL.

Bay Area,

UNITED STATES

California

62,086 cases

1,046 deaths

DATA AS OF

MARCH 26, 2020

Coronavirus in the Bay Area*

1,169 cases

27 deaths

477

cases

March 19, 2020

Governor Gavin Newsom issues an order for California residents to stay home.

7

deaths

March 16

294

Beginning on this Monday, most schools in the Bay Area are closed.

5

March 9

85

First death reported in Santa Clara County.

1

1

January 31

0

First case detected in a man

who returned from Wuhan, China.

*DATA FOR ALAMEDA, CONTRA COSTA, MARIN,

NAPA, SAN FRANCISCO, SAN MATEO, SANTA CLARA,

SOLANO, AND SONOMA COUNTIES.

RILEY D. CHAMPINE AND TAYLOR MAGGIOCOMO,

NG STAFF, KELSEY NOWALKOWSKI

SOURCE: USAFACTS; JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY

This very morning, the order not yet 12 hours old, Pastor Jim, as his congregants call him, had traveled. He had failed to shelter in his place of residence. He had gathered—not with a big or even medium-sized group of people but with three, one of whom was a 95-year-old woman, a regular Lakeshore Avenue attendee, whose daughter had just died. The other person, besides himself, was her caretaker.

Everything Hopkins had read, U.S. Centers for Disease Control advisories and the terrible reports from China and Italy and Spain, repeated the same alarms about COVID-19, how it mostly kills the elderly and the health-compromised. The Spanish-speaking leaders in his church organization, hearing some of their congregants dismiss coronavirus contagion warnings as an overreaction, had sent through their phone trees a new phrase they thought would resonate: “Cuídese a la abuela, quédese en casa.” Protect our grandmothers, stay home. (Get the latest Coronavirus facts and figures.)

Hopkins knew what our health officers’ order had to say about ESSENTIAL: medical care, food supply, public works construction, law enforcement, and so on. (City-by-city arguments were in full cry. Are cannabis dispensaries essential? No. OK, yes. Take-out coffee, yes. Liquor delivery, yes.) Exercise outdoors allowed only if you keep your distance from others, six feet apart is the minimum, preferably more. Don’t touch or approach anyone who doesn’t already live in your household. Protect your grandmothers. Protect my daughter, who’s a San Francisco paramedic trying to protect your grandmother, and whom I won’t be able to touch for—how many weeks? Nobody knows.

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A solitary jogger follows a San Francisco waterfront pier a week into orders prohibiting any travel or group gathering not deemed “essential.” It’s a weekday, when jammed Bay Bridge traffic typically aggravates drivers trying to cross between San Francisco and the East Bay. A nearly empty bridge like this, in broad daylight: the stuff of science fiction movie sets.

For those of us in lucky possession of adequate shelter and adequate food, practical things we are accustomed to calling essential, this is an unfathomable part of the season before us. How long before touching each other, being near each other, is no longer a potentially toxic act? Of course everybody with a computer has rushed online, wildly, ambitiously, not just for virtual school and virtual office meetings but also for virtual happy hours, book groups, Yoga sessions, dance workouts, family meals, bar mitzvahs, piano duets, ukulele rehearsals, children’s story time. Hopkins was planning Lakeshore Avenue Baptist’s coming Sunday service on Zoom, the online conferencing service fast becoming a national lifeline; technically adept church members were teaching him how. But it was the ban on physical contact he had no idea how to manage—as a pastor, as a parent, as a grandfather, as a human being.

Six feet apart, preferably more. “I did a survey once,” Hopkins told me, on the phone, from his car. Of his church members, he meant. He chuckled. I’ve heard him preach, and he’s eloquent, but that’s not what people told him they valued most about church. “The two things they said they liked best were the passing of the peace,” Hopkins said—that’s the touch of hands, worshipper to worshipper, during the course of many Christian services—“and the coffee hour.”

All the ministers he knows were talking about this, the need for human proximity. It’s what any community provides. Short of execution, solitary confinement is society’s harshest punishment. Human evolution built into us a need for contact, as University of Notre Dame anthropologist Agustín Fuentes told my National Geographic colleague Craig Welch; Craig lives in Seattle, where COVID-19 cases initially appeared in the United States. Connection with others is fundamental to our species, Fuentes told him—not just the idea of connection, the imaginary bonds of social media or tribal affiliation, but the literal presence of fellow human beings. We need to bump, touch, clasp, embrace. In catastrophe our impulse is to grab onto each other, to stand side by side, coming together to repair.

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Deserted Alcatraz Island is visible off a deserted San Francisco pier. “To protect all members of the community and the Bay Area region,” the city’s public health department explained, issuing its shelter-in-place order, “especially including our most vulnerable to the virus and also health care providers.”

“Look at the aftermath of hurricanes, typhoons, earthquakes,” Fuentes said. “In this case we’re actually requiring people to do just the opposite.”

Hopkins had thought about this, entering the home of his bereaved congregant, working hard to figure out what he was truly supposed to do in the presence of a woman who had lived to 95 and was now mourning her child. He went into the bathroom. He aggressively washed his hands. He came to her bedside, breached the six-foot barrier, and looked full into her face. There would be no hug today, no kiss on the cheek. But for a moment, he took her hand in his, and he held it.

EVERY DAY OF THE WEEK, every hour of the day, has become a sequence of strange decisions, the weighing of one kind of essential versus another. Even the smallest decisions are hammers to the brain. After Mindy Berkowitz, the executive director of Jewish Family Services Silicon Valley, told her volunteers to start leaving their delivery meals outside seniors’ doors, someone suggested having children write personal notes to be included with the deliveries. Berkowitz agonized before saying no; notepaper could become another means of virus transmission. “A note,” Berkowitz told me. “Isn’t that horrible? I can’t take the chance.”

Berkowitz’s daughter and grandson are visiting only in the backyard, where Berkowitz and her husband can wave from a distance. Allan Berkowitz is a rabbi; his Torah study class has moved online, and he’ll lead the extended family’s Passover Seder meal by Zoom. Alauddin Elbakri, an imam with a Bay Area mosque, had to help decide earlier in March that a mass email was not enough to discourage shoulder-to-shoulder daily mosque prayer. The mosque leaders didn’t know a shutdown order was coming, but they were reading the bulletins from abroad, and at first they tried emailing the faithful to stay away, especially those who were aged or in poor health.

The email went out in English, Arabic and Urdu—our region’s mosques draw people of more than 30 nationalities. “We tried to use the faith,” Elbakri said. “The Prophet says thou shalt not harm yourself, nor harm anybody else. And nobody listened. Everybody came. As a matter of fact, we had more people, because they’re scared. I had a girl call me. ‘Sheikh! You told the elderly and the sick not to come. My dad is 72 years old, and sick.’ We told him, ‘You’re not going, you see? Your beloved imam said please, do not go.’” A half hour before the Friday sermon, this girl told Elbakri, her father rose from his chair, showered, and left for the mosque.

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San Francisco’s Conservatory of Flowers, the 19th century greenhouse and plant gallery inside Golden Gate Park, closed its doors. But the park, like public open spaces around the Bay Area, has been lively with visitors, many bringing along children whose schools are now closed. Some parks and trails have attracted too many walkers and bikers to make “social distancing” practical; friends and neighbors are now advising each other on which trailheads to avoid.

Finally, death and transmission statistics weighing impossibly upon them, the leaders closed the mosques. To Elbakri’s knowledge, this has never happened before, not after Sept. 11, not after the massive 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. He’s on YouTube and Facebook now, counseling families on creating their own houses of God in which to pray, but for two nights after the mosques closed he lay awake, wondering what they had done.

“Did I make the right decision? Is God mad at me?”

INTO OUR EMAIL came memes, videos, solidarity from afar. Last year I was in Shanghai for a while, teaching Chinese high school students; one of them, newly freed from mass quarantine in central China, wrote me to say she was worried about my family and that hers had extra traditional medicine and face masks she could send. Friends in Italy sent lyrics to the songs quarantined Romans were singing together off their balconies every evening. A passed-along YouTube clip scanned the night streets of quarantined Madrid as hundreds of people simultaneously opened their windows to thank medical workers. Cheering. Police sirens. Applause. (These photos capture a world paused by COVID-19.)

When I saw the YouTube clip and learned Spaniards were repeating the mass salute every evening, I thought this was the thing that would finally make me weep. But no, it was the Chino Hills High School kids who did that. All over the Bay Area we were hearing about schemes for cheering ourselves up in each other’s physical presence while still honoring the rules; some of these were delightful and made your head stop hurting for a while even if you love a paramedic or a nurse or a respiratory therapist or a bus driver or a garbage truck guy who has to keep carrying people’s trash cans so the whole trembling apparatus doesn’t collapse. In Berkeley, one city over from mine, neighbors on one block are composing lyrics for their daily stand-outside-your-house-and-sing gathering. This one is to the tune of “Yellow Submarine”:

We are under a Covid quarantine
a Covid quarantine
a Covid quarantine!

There’s a Do the Hokey Pokey on Your Porch neighborhood group. There’s an opera soprano who walks outside at 6 every evening to sing arias to the neighborhood. Not far from my house there’s a 400 block on a 44th Street, where a couple of neighbors—one is married to a San Francisco physician, who’s probably treating COVID-19 patients my daughter’s ambulance is delivering to his hospital—chose the 4 theme to organize a daily group check-in: at 4:00, the block has agreed, everybody shut inside opens a window or steps onto the front porch or comes down to the sidewalk. The day I stopped by, a woman was setting out a boombox and people were emerging to wave and shout at each other. “HOW ARE YOU DOING?” Children danced in the middle of the street. Parents told them to move farther apart. The mailman had stuck around after his deliveries, just to see some faces; he kept saying hello to people, always six feet away.

A woman opened her front door, holding a boy’s hand. Her face looked drawn. “Are you OK?” a neighbor asked. “You don’t look OK.”

“We’re going hiking,” she said, and opened her car door. “Is anybody OK?”

One day another “Have you seen this?” popped up in my inbox. I clicked where I was supposed to, and 90 seconds later I was sobbing so hard that I had to take off my glasses while trying not to touch my face. Chances are you’ve also seen this video by now; at the time it was just starting to spread beyond Chino Valley, which is about an hour east of Los Angeles. Every spring, schools communications director Imee Perius told me once I’d pulled myself together, the area’s three dozen public schools put on a two-day public choral festival. It is a big regional deal, involving months of rehearsal, and on Friday, March 14, four days before the festival’s scheduled first day, Perius and her staff had to make the systemwide announcement. Every school would close as of Monday. Every event related to school was canceled until further notice.

Amid the mess of rearranging and frantic telephone calls, Perius found she kept returning to the choral festival. All those schoolkids, winding themselves up to sing before the whole community. Surely, they were trying to understand; families across Chino Valley were explaining contagion, grandmothers, lives at stake. But she had seen the strangers singing together from separate balconies in Europe, and she had an idea. She made some phone calls. Everybody said yes. They said absolutely yes, how fast can we do this yes, and by weekend’s end instructions had been delivered to each member of the Chino Hills High School chamber ensemble, which like all the district’s singing groups had been rehearsing a single song to perform.

They sang their parts four times, headphones in their ears, a recording of piano and metronome their only cue for timing and pitch. And even though the Chino Hills High singers were “social distancing,” as we have learned to call it—though each sang in an individual home, conjuring by memory and will the harmonizing voices nearby—the sound they made together was like the feel of a comforting hand. Perius collapsed into bed on March 17, the night the Bay Area’s six-feet-apart orders went into effect up here; a few days later California Governor Gavin Newsom would extend these orders to the whole state, warning us it might be months before the contagion danger eases. “I’m so tired, I haven’t been getting any sleep for a week, I’m thinking I’m going to crash now, and there’s a ping on the phone,” Perius told me. “I’m thinking, ‘I shouldn’t.’ But I’m on call, so I have to. And it’s—the video’s finished. I play it, of course. And I … start … bawling. And there goes another night’s sleep.”

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Weekday rush hour, downtown San Francisco. The region’s bus drivers and other transit workers are still reporting to work, as their services are considered “essential.” But many buses are rolling empty. On BART, the regional rapid transit agency that was fielding complaints not long ago about overcrowded train cars, the commuters have disappeared; a week after the Bay Area’s shelter-in-place order, BART was reporting a 92 percent ridership drop compared to a month earlier.

She uploaded the video on the school system’s Facebook page, so all of Chino Valley might see it. People shared it at once. British news outlets picked it up. Perius had messages from Canada, from the Philippines, from Venezuela and Iran: Thank you, how can we do this, we need to do this. The last time I checked, the Chino Hill High School chamber singers’ rendition of “Over the Rainbow” registered more than 2.5 million views, and when I asked Perius why, what it was about this set of teenaged faces and voices, she was quiet for a moment. Then she said, “I think the public just breathed a little sigh of: ‘We’re still in this together.’”

ON SUNDAY MORNING Pastor Jim opened his service with Psalm 23. The Lenten calendar called for it and Hopkins had been considering its words all week. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside the still waters. Hopkins’ computer is in his home’s family room, and up close, on the screen in his hooded ministerial robe with an afghan-draped armchair visible behind him, he looked at first like a man wearing his weekend sweatshirt. “To a place where mercy and peace embrace us, bind us, follow us,” Hopkins preached. “What a great hope. What a great dream.”

He kept his voice easy. The Lord is my Shepherd. “To whom does the Shepherd turn us?” he asked. “And the answer is: To each other.”

Let this virus not infect our souls, Hopkins had implored his congregation the week before, and as this Sunday’s service unfolded, I wondered how long and how well we can all keep that up. In my own home, as I write this, there’s a huge hole in the ceiling; it fell in a few days ago, a hidden upstairs plumbing leak having chosen this of all months to make its presence known. We have much to be grateful for. No one was hurt, the leak was stopped, the repairs will come eventually. I’ve found something weirdly useful about that hole, I realize; every time I hear another chip of plaster clunk to the floor it reminds me that we are both all right and not all right, that none of us really knows how to do what we must. My husband figured out how to run Zoom into our television, so that we and our son and his wife and the paramedic could see each other all at the same time, enlarged way past computer screen size, some two-dimensional approximation of actual human presence, laughing and cooking in three different cities. The paramedic was winding up the last of her break days. She looked good on the big-screen TV.

“Check it out,” she said. “Broccoli. Tortillas and chicken.” She had 10 hours left before the start of her next shift.