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Like samsara, but for shutdowns

Started: 2020-12-06 13:37:16

Submitted: 2020-12-06 16:34:59

Visibility: World-readable

In which the intrepid narrator is stuck in an endless cycle of re-open and re-close

Nine months into the COVID-19 pandemic, months after we'd settled into the Santa Cruz Mountains, when it felt like we had reached an uneasy equilibrium with the deadly virus, we slid back into a new set of public health restrictions and shutdowns and closures.

The writing was on the wall in early November, when all of the graphs I looked at showed the case count and test positivity rate started climbing at the end of October. By the middle of November the graphs were all up and to the right, and in the parts of California I care about we were approaching or exceeding the high-points from the first wave of the pandemic. It looked like we'd collectively succumbed to COVID fatigue and had started socializing again. (I accidentally stumbled upon a Fox News headline that implied that the increase in cases had been caused by parties celebrating Biden's election — never mind that this article was published two days after the election results, which wasn't enough time for any new cases to have incubated, let alone be tested, and that the increase in cases clearly dated from the end of October, before the election. Never mind that Biden people tend to wear masks, which is generally recognized as reducing virus transmission.)

In the run-up to Thanksgiving, public health officials started warning about the risks of a getting together for the holidays. (We held an all-remote Zoomsgiving instead.) Then in the week after Thanksgiving, local government began rolling out restrictions again at a pace I hadn't seen since March. On Monday, Santa Clara County asked everyone who traveled from "more than 150 miles" to quarantine for 14 days. This left me wondering precisely how far 150 miles was; depending where one starts, and how one counts, it seems to be far enough to get to Lake Tahoe, but not far enough to get to Fresno. (I am technically in Santa Cruz County; in fact, the property my house sits on is in a cutout that extends an extra hundred meters into Santa Cruz County down from the top of the ridge that nominally forms the county line. But sometimes I go down the mountain into Santa Clara County, since that's the biggest nearby city (and has better Indian takeout food).)

The next shoe to drop was on Thursday, when Governor Newsom announced a new scheme dividing the state into five regions and yoking all of the counties in each region together based on regional ICU capacity. When a region's ICU capacity drops below 15% available, it triggers a larger wave of closures and shutdowns. (I was amused that Santa Cruz County was included in the Bay Area region in this scheme, since most sources suggest that my county is not really part of the Bay Area.) The initial announcement was vague on what the current metrics were, but it seemed that we wouldn't hit the trigger for a couple of weeks.

Then on Friday a handful of Bay Area counties, including Santa Clara but excluding San Mateo and Santa Cruz, decided they were going to opt into the new shutdowns early (but still kicking in after the weekend). So now a large chunk of the Bay Area is going to be under what I think they're calling a "modified stay-at-home order", except that "modified" is the key qualifier here. More indoor businesses and services are shutting down, and those that remain are reducing capacity further. But the list of 'exceptions' is extensive: we can still go out and about for essential errands or to exercise or just to get out of the house. So it's less of a "stay-at-home" order and more of a "just don't get together with other people" order. And since I wasn't really getting together with other people anyway this is basically what I've been doing for most of the last nine months anyway.

Lego minifig in a video conference
Lego minifig in a video conference

Even as we begin to ratchet down the shutdowns and closures again, this time there's an obvious light at the end of the tunnel (and there's credible evidence that it's not actually a train). There are two vaccines with good safety and efficacy records that will probably be available (in small quantities, to essential health workers) this month. It's not totally obvious how fast the vaccines might roll out to people further down the priority list (especially me, an otherwise-healthy adult who can work remotely). If nothing goes tragically wrong I can probably expect to get the vaccine sometime in the second or third quarter next year.

After that, it's even less clear how long things will take to return to normal; and, for that matter, what "normal" looks like post-pandemic. (I'm willing to bet, at least, that masks for symptomatic sick people (and possibly many people in flu season) will become the new normal.) What's less clear is what will happen to my office job: I can do most of the things I need to do remotely, but Silicon Valley in general (and my employer in particular) has an obsession with getting everyone together because that's the way it's always been done. I'd like to be able to split my time between the office and working remotely. (I would also like a home office that isn't also my bedroom.)

I think I'm at least half-way through the COVID-19 pandemic, and I think I know how to get through the next few months before things start getting better again. It's not much but it's what I have so I'm going to take it.

When ignorance is bliss
Won't you save me from myself?
- Jars of Clay, "Fade to Grey"