Where were you when the world slammed shut?

I was in South Africa with my father, standing in a hunting lodge and watching as that country’s president, Cyril Rhamaphosa, announced measures clamping down on travel and limiting gatherings larger than 100 people.

Our host had some strong liquor. Our guide, who had already watched his future booked hunts begin to evaporate – the cancellations came via email by polite, worried email – proposed in a gravelly baritone that we all drink "to bankruptcy."

That was March 15. A week prior, my father and I had boarded a plane that took us to Johannesburg. I cringe as I type this – it seems hopelessly cavalier now – but I had put the coronavirus out of my mind then. Most of the news was about what songs to sing while washing your hands. I knew the threat was serious, but it seemed under control. On March 7, we took our flight.

Day by day, we would hunt, then sit around the table at night and talk. Eventually, talk would turn to the virus. Our guide, like many people, thought things were overblown; the numbers were small and the phenomenon seemed no more serious than the flu. Day by day, the numbers grew; day by day, the vice tightened.

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These last two weeks, I suspect, have been the same for most people, no matter where they've been. It's a strange case of mental and emotional whiplash, with the sudden collapse of sporting events and the cancellation of in-person college classes and the disappearance, for most, of normal public life.

But even earlier this past week, not everyone was on the same page yet. As my father and I left South Africa on Monday evening, we met Bill and Jan MacPherson, of Plymouth, Minn. They were split on the unfolding crisis. Bill saw people were working themselves into a panic, especially those overbuying basic supplies. Jan saw a desperate need to keep active infections from climbing too high and overwhelming the health care system.

“None of us have been in this before. What is a large group? Who can meet? It’s uncharted territory," she told me.

It's a confusing time, with a quickly developing situation. Right now, federal guidelines advise no social gatherings larger than 10 people; those who can work from home should do so. Many states are shuttering bars and restaurants' dine-in areas. Jenna Dutton, a friend of ours who lives in Brooklyn, drastically reduced her Pennsylvania wedding planned for late last week – from about 130 people to just a handful. She’ll host her reception next year.

"I understand why people want to treat life as it has always been … and I understand why people don't want to go into panic mode," she told me. "(But) I just think that it is incredibly irresponsible to act like your movements and your choices don't matter to the rest of the world."

Many, many other people are thinking the same. I am writing this paragraph from Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, where I can clearly hear the sound of my own footsteps on the tile floor. I just flew in from Atlanta, where the loudest thing in many parts of my terminal was the smooth jazz playing through the airport sound system. My father and I found our gate as I carried our 50-milliliter bottle of hand sanitizer we'd smuggled out of South Africa – our proverbial bulb of garlic brandished against a dark, unseen enemy. It's a frightening time.

A nearly empty terminal at Atlanta International Airport on Tuesday, March 17. (Sam Easter/Grand Forks Herald)
A nearly empty terminal at Atlanta International Airport on Tuesday, March 17. (Sam Easter/Grand Forks Herald)

I’m trying to forget what I can't do, though, and taking comfort in what I know I can. According to data from the Harvard Global Health Institute – and republished in a very useful tool by the website ProPublica – it appears very, very possible that North Dakota hospitals could run out of beds if the virus is left unchecked.

In fact, only the most optimistic models show Fargo and the surrounding region avoiding that scenario. It's critical that we all do everything we can to stop coronavirus from spreading by staying indoors, by washing our hands, by putting off seeing our friends and family for a while longer.

My fiancée and I are faced with just such a case. We thought we would be married on May 30 – with a big band and a reception hall big enough to seat 175. We’ll still get married, of course, but it's hard to imagine that it will be the day we imagined. Instead, we'll probably be huddled with just a few close friends and family.

That's hard medicine, if you'll pardon the phrase. But changing plans is part of what we know we have to do. Until the world opens up again, we're all beholden to each other, clutching the little things that make differences for our neighbors. For now, that has to be enough.

Sam Easter is a reporter and regular contributor to the Grand Forks Herald.

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