Running a marathon on a tightrope

From the St. Paul Pioneer Press Opinion page, April 19, 2020

We blew our pop stand last Saturday and took a long drive to deliver Easter gifts to the grandkids – through the car window. The adults understood, but our little people surely did not. Why won’t Nana get out of the car and give me a big hug?

As we drove east to west to make our deliveries, I was struck by all the empty parking lots. Restaurants, strip malls, office parks, eerily vacant.

The outlet mall looked especially barren. I imagined the mannequins, styled with the latest spring fashions, all dressed up but no place to go, like the rest of us on Easter Sunday.

But the roads, office buildings and malls aren’t just empty on holiday weekends. I’ve driven down the freeway during “rush hour” and wondered, where are all the people and what are they doing?

This is what I’m surmising.

The people who are running our state are also running a marathon on a tightrope. They’re balancing epidemiology and economics and fielding questions for which there are few easy answers. I’m grateful for their service.

Essential workers are busting it on the front lines – in hospitals, senior living centers, grocery stores, or group homes for individuals with disabilities, to name a few. They’re wearing masks – some made professionally, some by a volunteer army of sewers.

Business leaders are devising strategies to salvage their organizations, preserve jobs, and move forward post-pandemic. If they weren’t familiar with Zoom before 2020, they surely are now.

Working parents are simultaneously managing work and parenting duties with minimal support. Do they feel successful at anything?

Other workers are adapting to changing expectations as they work from home. They may be sporting new “business on the top, pjs on the bottom” work attire, undetectable through a computer screen.

Then there are the folks with time to burn, who’ve cleaned closets and mastered Sudoku. For furloughed folks who aren’t particularly busy, the days drag on, filled with anxiety and thoughts that if this is what retirement looks like, they’ll pass.

In Minnesota, we are seeing the old adage, “Necessity is the motherhood of invention” at work. It’s a point of pride that our companies and institutions are playing a pivotal role in devising solutions to address a global health crisis.

Manufacturers have pivoted to produce personal protective equipment and ventilators.

Our medical institutions are developing tools to enable colleagues to treat a novel illness and state leaders to determine when we can safely resume our lives.

Metro Mobility drivers are transporting health care workers and delivering meals.

Like boxers in a ring, we’ve found refuge in our corners, 6 feet apart.

And yet, as we discovered during Passover and Easter, we have an innate need to connect. Attending Mass online or holding a Seder on Zoom are second-rate substitutes for sitting side-by-side.

We’ve taken a huge leap of faith. As a citizenry, we’ve ceded control of parts of our lives to elected officials who are navigating a worldwide pandemic without a roadmap.

Our leaders are in an unenviable position. Their decisions will garner both supporters and detractors.

They’re in a race against time.

They’re readying the people and infrastructure to battle a brewing storm, whose potency is feared, but conjectural.

The leaders have access to data from other locations, where the storm struck first. Like meteorologists tracking a hurricane, they are relying upon models and projections to guide them.

The general public has access to disturbing images of patients on respirators and bodies on gurneys and daily counts of both job losses and virus victims.

And yet, as long as those images hail from other venues and Minnesota’s numbers remain low, it doesn’t feel like a pandemic is at hand.

Our leaders must know that, just as our recent snow has evaporated, so will our patience.

And so, we wait.

But what are we waiting for?

A hurricane to claim thousands of victims?

Weakened winds to blow through, like a tropical storm that lost its mojo?

Diagnostic tests, whose results would inform an evolving re-entry strategy?

As of this writing, the number of people who have been hospitalized or died from coronavirus falls far below initial prognostications — all great news.

But it’s becoming more difficult to suspend skepticism and to remain compliant.

All those empty parking lots are waiting to be filled; all those chefs and dishwashers, hairstylists and nail techs, housekeepers and nannies are itching to get back to work.

And Mother’s Day approaches.

For many, it will be especially difficult to remain six feet apart when we want to hug the people who mean so much to us, rather than make small talk through the car window.

Barring a hurricane, it’s foreseeable that our need to convene will seriously strain our commitment to remain six feet apart. It will be increasingly difficult to stay at home when we’re anxious to get a proper haircut and return to work or buy a new swimsuit and head to the lake.

For now, I’ll stay the course, preparing for whatever storm comes our way. I’ll tread a different kind of tightrope, balancing a healthy dose of skepticism and the requisite resolve. But when the “all clear” is sounded, I’m hopping off the tightrope and heading right to my little people to give them big hugs.