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Started: 2020-03-08 21:23:46

Submitted: 2020-03-08 23:58:17

Visibility: World-readable

In which the intrepid narrator gets caught up in the response to the COVID-19 outbreak in Washington State

I spent the last week of February visiting my dev team in Mountain View. The week seemed normal at the time; only in retrospect is it obvious that it was the calm before the storm.

I was on the plane on my way back to Seattle on Leap Day when I learned about the COVID-19 outbreak in Kirkland, a suburb just east of Seattle across Lake Washington. (Google has offices in both Seattle and Kirkland, and manages the two offices together as one multi-campus site. Every couple of months I end up with some reason to take the shuttle across the lake to Kirkland — usually to see an author speaking there.) The Kirkland outbreak centered around the Life Care Center nursing home, and had reported one fatality at the time. I briefly considered the wisdom of flying into ground zero of the US pandemic (though by that point we knew that multiple people had been infected by the novel Coronavirus, including in California; Kirkland just had the misfortune to be the site of the first fatality in the US).

Over the next few days the news snowballed and escalated into a full panic. The school district started sending out daily e-mails with their response to the pandemic. I stepped up my hand-washing protocol. By Tuesday the cookies and pastries in the cafe had been moved behind the counter, so I had to ask to get them. My office sent out a series of updates, suggesting that we should "be prepared" to work remotely, but stopping short of making any policy changes. (I have never had an issue with getting the flexibility I need to work remotely on occasion, though my employer grants a great deal of power to individual line managers, some of whom are apparently scared by the prospect of not being able to see their reports all day long to "prove" that they're working.)

I went to work a little earlier than usual on Thursday morning, and the roads were noticeably emptier. The parking garage under my office building in South Lake Union was basically empty. It wasn't until I climbed the stairs up to the ground-floor cafe for breakfast that I saw that the cafe was closed. I made my own coffee and ate granola from the microkitchen on my floor and checked my e-mail and saw that, at 22:49 the previous night, I'd received an e-mail strongly encouraging everyone in Washington to work from home. (I had not seen that email before leaving my house in the morning, because I do not expect to see important messages delivered after hours.) But I was already in the office, and my desk in the office was much better equipped than my desk in my house, so I stayed in the almost-abandoned office all day.

Working in an almost-abandoned office was eerie. Out of the 20 desks surrounding my desk, only three people were in the office. The whole thing felt post-apocalyptic; it felt like I was in the movie 28 Days Later. Only the microkitchen was well-serviced: it was cleaned and sanitized every couple of hours.

(The thought did cross my mind: If I am going to be working remotely for the indefinite future, can I work remotely from a condo on a beach?)

One advantage of working in an almost-empty office was that I could open my blinds as wide as I wanted without anyone else noticing. I am, apparently, the only person on my team who actually wants natural light at my desk, so normally I try to keep my blinds half-closed (while everyone else keeps theirs completely closed); but with everyone else gone I could get all the light I could handle.

I was still at my desk at 17:21 on Thursday evening when I got another email informing me of a brand-new policy change: I could take my monitors with me if I wanted to reproduce my desk in my house. I have two massive 27" monitors on my desk, which is actually more monitor space than I really need, but it's very nice to have more monitor space than I can get just on my Macbook. This was when I knew Google was actually serious about not wanting me in the office until further notice. I was, fortunately, still in the office — and I had my car in the garage — so I carried both of my monitors, and all of the cables connected to them, plus my keyboard and trackball (which I've been carrying around from job to job for at least the last decade) into my car.

I am still not sure how I'm supposed to think about the risk of COVID-19, or how to evaluate the effectiveness of cancelling everything immediately. (Is this a brief disruption, or a harbinger of much worse things to come? Do Wuhan and northern Italy offer a window into our own future, now that I'm unwittingly at ground zero of COVID-19 in North America?) I am not especially concerned about my own risk from exposure to novel Coronavirus; right now the only thing that's stressing me out about COVID-19 is the uncertainty over the response to the pandemic: how I'm supposed to make plans in the face of uncertainty over what's going to be open and what's going to be canceled. Add to this the risk of COVID-19 disrupting my plans to move back to the Bay Area this year: if the pandemic doesn't trigger a recession it might just disrupt tech hiring long enough that I can't get a job I want in the right place to move back.

I was surprised by the speed at which the pandemic panic overtook Seattle. It felt like we had collectively gone from zero to "OH GOD IT'S HERE NOW EVERYBODY PANIC" in about four days, and while everyone was running around buying hand sanitizer and toilet paper and Kleenex I was still sitting down, puzzled about what all the fuss is about, trying to figure out what the appropriate reaction should be, trying to figure out what to believe between the people on Twitter trying to tell me we were all going to die and the people on Twitter trying to tell me it's all going to be ok.

Office in Wallingford
Office in Wallingford

On Friday I set up my monitors on my desk, giving me all of the screen real estate I could possibly want. I worked from my house on Friday, and I plan to do so this week as well. And then, if the remote-work advisory still holds (and I'm not trapped by a massive quarantine) maybe I'll see if I can work remotely from a condo on a beach.