Updated March 23, 6 p.m.: Gov. Jay Inslee is ordering Washingtonians to stay at home, with the exception of essential activities such as grocery shopping, picking up take-out from a restaurant, doctor’s visits or financial services. The stay-at-home order also bans all social gatherings. It takes effect Wednesday night, and will last at least two weeks.

 

At first, living under lockdown had its surreal pleasures.

“Within two days, the streets of Guangzhou were completely empty,” said Pat Loney, an attorney who grew up in Mukilteo and has been living in China since 2014.

“In the early evening, just to maintain my sanity, I’d skate on my longboard down the middle of long, huge, empty streets — in a city of 13 million people,” he said.

Perugia, Seattle’s sister city in Italy, also had its moments of bizarre coronavirus beauty.

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A few nights ago, Elena Palombini, a computer-engineering student who’d returned to her hometown just before Italy closed down, stepped onto her family’s balcony at 6 p.m., listening expectantly. A rumor was going around that people might play music from their windows, in a show of communal solidarity.

“People sang, people played the violin,” she said. “I could hear someone hitting a pot with a utensil, just to make noise.”

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Palombini sang, too: “Waving Through a Window” from the musical “Dear Evan Hansen.” It seemed fitting.

“This kind of emotion that makes you look out of the window and play music, or start hitting a pan, is not something you can feel every day,” she said. “It was very moving.”

From China to Italy, people who’ve been living under coronavirus-inspired lockdown for weeks are sharing their stories — postcards from Seattle’s possible future.

Their tips: Be extra cautious of other people’s health; don’t waste all your indoor time online; and, as your world turns upside down, appreciate the sublime and the strange.

“Longboarding down completely empty streets was weird enough,” Loney said.

Things got weirder.

Friends hunkered down. Roadblocks appeared. Anonymous, masked people wearing red armbands with Communist Party insignia staked out public places (apartment lobbies, grocery stores, Starbucks), pointing temperature guns at foreheads and requiring passersby to scan location-tracking QR codes with their phones. When people do meet, Loney said, some have started tapping feet instead of shaking hands. (It’s called the “Wuhan shake,” after an early virus hot spot.)

Hui, a Beijing-based writer who requested use of her first name only because she’s not allowed to speak to the media, said officious volunteers with a tent suddenly appeared at her apartment building, tracking residents’ and visitors’ comings and goings. Occasionally, they ask harassing questions, demanding cellphone and passport information. “It’s annoying,” she said, “to say the least.” Small-business owners are particularly nervous about how they’ll survive the crisis.

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Some grocery stores have limited the number of people allowed in at any given time, prompting people to line up outside standing 1 meter apart from each other — a strangely uncrowded crowd.

But they’re not suffering shortages.

“Oh, we are all getting fat,” Loney said. Ice cream and carrot cake are a highlight of people’s days. “Eating feels good and is a good temporary mood enhancement … I’m getting fatter and so is everybody else. We joke about it.”

The main adjustment is the isolation.

Loney began spending 23 hours a day inside. “It starts to wear on you, man,” he said. “I thought: ‘If I have a lot of free time, I might write that book!’ Turns out I’ve spent hours arguing with strangers on Twitter.”

His mood gradually deteriorated until he couldn’t take it anymore and went for a jog. “I realized it’s good to be out in the fresh air, in the sunshine, near plants,” he said. “And that the virus wasn’t waiting behind a bush to tackle me.”

Other than taking the occasional, solitary walk or jog, he’s urging his American friends to stay home and be even more conservative than government officials recommend.

“I know we have this exceptionalist attitude in America,” he said. “And it’s bipartisan. It’s hard for us to imagine a widespread public-health disaster because it hasn’t happened in our lives. But this is real.” Watching the slowness of the American response, he added, “has that weird feel of zombie movies — there’s usually some snippet of news on a gas-station TV about some huge disaster spreading, and people not appreciating the risk.”

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He’s also urging friends to wear masks — not for their sake, but for everybody else’s.

That lesson hit him like a thunderbolt a few weeks ago, when he left the apartment and forgot his mask. On the elevator ride down, the doors opened to an older, gray-haired Chinese woman who refused to get in.

“I was overcome with this feeling of shame,” Loney said. “The message she might’ve taken is that I don’t care about her health, that I don’t want to be part of the solution because this isn’t my country.”

Loney hasn’t forgotten his mask since.

Pat Loney’s “drawer of pandemic goodies” near his front door in Shenzhen, China, including face masks, plus alcohol gels, sprays and wipes. (Pat Loney / For The Seattle Times)
Pat Loney’s “drawer of pandemic goodies” near his front door in Shenzhen, China, including face masks, plus alcohol gels, sprays and wipes. (Pat Loney / For The Seattle Times)

A few weeks later in Italy, Jan Vallone Roberts — a writing and English-language teacher who splits her time between Seattle and Rome — was living a similar story: on lockdown, spending more time online than she’d like to admit, surprised other countries haven’t moved more quickly and decisively.

People in Italy, she said, aren’t allowed to leave home without an official document stating one of four reasons for being on the street (one of which is “returning home”). Grocery shopping counts; visiting your sweetheart does not.

“The 50-person rule is ridiculous — it’s just not enough,” Roberts said, referring to the March 16 emergency declaration, signed by Gov. Jay Inslee, prohibiting all public gatherings of more than 50 people. “It’s an exact repetition of what I saw in Italy: step-by-step downsizing. We’re going to get to the bottom anyway. Let’s just go there now.” 

Jan Vallone Roberts, who splits her time between Seattle and Rome, has been living under lockdown in Italy. (Jan Vallone Roberts / For The Seattle Times)
Jan Vallone Roberts, who splits her time between Seattle and Rome, has been living under lockdown in Italy. (Jan Vallone Roberts / For The Seattle Times)

Palombini, the computer-engineering student, agrees. “I’m glad my country closed down everything, even though it’s hard and the economy will take a hit,” she said, adding that police are enforcing the home-arrest order and issuing fines to rulebreakers. “The earlier you start the lockdown, the earlier this virus can slow and this will come to an end.”

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Grocery-store shelves have been full, Palombini said, aside from a few shortages at the beginning of the lockdown when people anxiously plundered the markets. Younger people are now volunteering to shop for their older neighbors. Small-business owners are nervously hoping for government assistance.

Water, electricity and garbage collection are all uninterrupted. The most common perils of life under house arrest, she explained, are psychological: fear, boredom, letting the internet eat your days.

Palombini said everyone she knows has gone through the same stages of thought since the lockdown began, from skepticism (“it’s just a flu, people are overreacting”) to recognizing the vulnerability of others and the imminent danger of overcrowded hospitals.

“If you have to be hooked up to a respirator — or spread it to someone else who does — you’re responsible for taking up that space someone else needs,” she said. “Once you stay home, you will feel like you are protecting the weakest parts of the population.”

On Wednesday, Italian officials reported 475 deaths in a single day, bringing the total of coronavirus deaths in the country to more than 2,978, as of this report.

Palombini’s advice for those of us entering a new era of isolation: stay home, make a firm plan (do that yoga, read that book) and find a friend to keep you accountable. She and a friend agreed to a daily fitness challenge. Her brother, a special-needs teacher who holds a doctorate in philosophy, organized an online group to discuss British philosopher Gregory Bateson.

“Just pretend you’re at home enjoying your home,” Palombini said. “Enjoy the positive. Otherwise you’ll go crazy. And don’t panic, but follow the rules. Be just worried enough.”

 

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