On the seventh weekend of my family’s self-isolation in the coronavirus pandemic, my true love said to me, “When are you picking up dinner?”
This Sunday was a special day, our wedding anniversary. Although the virus put a crimp in our usual plans for celebration over dinner at a fancy restaurant, our eatery of choice fortunately offered an ingenious product of American enterprise in the face of a crisis: “no contact” food pickup, ordered online.
Instead of complaining about having to drive clear across town for the food, I confess that secretly I was looking forward to the trip.
My wife, our son — living with us while he is unemployed, like so many other millennials — and I had been cooped up in the house for more than six weeks, except for food shopping and long walks with face masks on.
And with my wife and me working online from home and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warning against any unnecessary travel, my neglected car seemed to be shouting, “Drive me!” from its parking space in front of our house.
On the brightest, sunniest weekend of the year, so far, a trip to Paris could hardly have sounded better than a leisurely drive across town with the windows open.
But then my wife surprised me. “I’ll come with you,” she said, slipping her shoes on.
“I’m coming too,” said our son as he detached himself from the electronic gadgets that connect him like a cyborg to his vast personal network of friends and YouTube videos.
So this is what cabin fever looks like in the age of COVID-19. It’s become a time when a mundane opportunity to get out of the house, even for a walk or drive in the sunshine, leads to my wife repeating, “Oh, it feels so good to be outside again,” for the entire trip with a passion that she and I usually reserve for butter pecan ice cream.
And this is what “quarantine fatigue” looks like. Americans have been admirably compliant with the restrictions and guidelines enacted by the Trump administration and most governors to “flatten the curve” of new infections.
Few would deny that many thousands of lives have been saved since most stay-at-home orders went into effect in mid-March. For that, we can be grateful.
But our Sunday afternoon anniversary drive helped me to understand on a more personal level how prolonged cocooning can make us very antsy to get outside and open up our economy again.
Researchers at the University of Maryland, for example, have found by using cellphone location data that, for the first time since stay-at-home orders were issued, people are staying at home less.
The shift was slight when it was first noticed during the week of April 13. But any increase in travel, public health experts point out, is premature while the rate of infections is only beginning to level off in some places and still rising in others, and until testing becomes more widespread and contact tracing becomes available.
Yet quarantine fatigue is becoming an increasingly serious matter, say the experts, who detect a historic wave of mental health problems, including depression, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide.
Very grim. While protesters, some openly carrying rifles and political signs, make headlines in various states by demanding a lifting of the stay-at-home orders, the vast majority of Americans in both parties tell pollsters that they support the government guidelines.
Yet, growing numbers also are venturing out as my family did, whether it is to get back to making a living or to get a haircut (which I desperately need) or even if it is only to have a good house party again.
“We are never getting out of this” if residents continue to flout stay-at-home orders by throwing house parties, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot warned in a speech she delivered Saturday from a West Side street corner, after police broke up several house parties the previous night and expected more near where she spoke.
She’s right. But while she and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker continue their strict stay-at-home orders, more than half of the other states have begun to loosen their restrictions.
That leaves the rest of us to feel as I do about driving into what look like shallow floodwaters. When in doubt, sit back and wait for some less patient driver to try it first.
I hope the less-patient states are right, but they could be wading in over their heads.