Straight Up the USA’s Gut

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Straight Up the USA’s Gut:

A “COVID Spring” Journey from Austin, TX to Minneapolis

Due to circumstances too complicated to get into here, I recently found myself needing to travel Interstate 35—the highway that halves America—all the way from Austin, Texas to my home city of Minneapolis, Minnesota. The trip included overnight stops in Oklahoma City and Kansas City.

I won’t kid you, undertaking a 1,200-mile road trip during a week when the U.S. reached over 200,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with the death toll climbing above 5,000, frayed my nerves. It also gave me a chance to see firsthand how America’s midsection is responding to the challenge of this awful disease’s alarming, exponential spread across the nation.

Preface: Vigilance Everywhere, But Judgments Get Us Nowhere

Experts remind us daily, as they should, that we all have parts to play in battling the global coronavirus pandemic. What probably isn’t said often enough is that the parts we have to play are really, really hard. Leaving aside for the moment the courage and self-sacrifice of those on the front lines of the crisis, the seemingly simple business of social distancing poses huge challenges for many.

Maintaining the gold standard six feet of isolation requires constant, acute awareness of every nearby movement, along with plenty of creative problem solving at every turn. Then come the hygiene questions: What have I touched? Did I have gloves on? When did I last wash or sanitize my hands? Did I wipe down that surface already? Oh no, did I touch my face?! Even for those with exceptional micro-analysis skills, it’s exhausting. For many, it’s overwhelming.

Feeling anger toward the genuinely bad actors we saw in March as the full magnitude of the COVID threat came into view—the hoarders and the people proudly flouting social distancing guidelines—is wholly justified. When we are all at risk, the selfish must be called out and held to account.

Yet there are also many ineffective actors, people who want to do the right thing but lack the mental skills needed to live as we all currently must. In reporting on America’s Preparedness, we at The Hero School aim not to berate ineffective actors, but train them in basic hero skills.

Given that a single ineffective actor can spread this deadly disease to dozens or even hundreds of people, this training is critical. It must be undertaken with empathy and compassion.

GroupThink vs. The Spirit of Texas

The call for social distancing was bound to pose challenges for a state that prides itself on both friendliness and don’t-mess-with-Texas resistance to institutionalism. In preparation for my impending travel, I began self-isolating on March 14, ten days before Austin went under a shelter-in-place order on March 24. (Texas did not have a statewide order to stay at home until April 1.)

Since the upper-floor apartment where I stayed in Austin had a small balcony, I was lucky to get plenty of fresh air while staying isolated. I could also observe how the proudly Weird city began adapting to the crisis. Over the course of two weeks, the general trend I saw around the complex was clearly toward greater awareness and conscientiousness, which was encouraging.

Then again, right up until the day I left, I heard adults gathering to party late into the night at the complex on the other side of the small wooded area that my balcony faced. During the day, children played there for hours in large groups. I suspect and hope that these behaviors have ended since then, but the disconcerting lack of awareness captured the essence of what I saw in Texas: extremes. The gap between ineffective actors and those in compliance was very wide.

For example, I made two grocery store trips during my Austin isolation. One store I shopped at had tape marks on the floor indicating the appropriate six-foot spacing for people waiting in line. And although the effort was unsettlingly halfhearted, there was a worker spraying down every cart. The other store took no such precautions. After a man had wiped his nose on his hand and then used a self-checkout station, the worker monitoring the area didn’t even ponder cleaning the station before motioning me to step right up to it. Needless to say, I declined.

Heroes Trained and Untrained

Before we hit the I-35 on ramp and head north, I want to share one encounter I had during my last few days in Austin that encapsulates one of the hugely important lessons of these times. I needed to use the communal laundry room at the complex, one of many mundane tasks that seems anything but mundane these days.

Sometime between when I put my clothes into washers and returned to move them to dryers, a repair technician came to work on one of the machines. He was one of the lucky ones, in that his company provided him with a mask and gloves, but he had taken the mask off since he was alone in the room before I arrived. After removing one load of clothes from a machine well over six feet away, I told him that I was sorry to bother him, but he needed to step back from his work for a moment. He angrily replied, “Why?”

I realized that he thought I was just inconveniencing him so I could take a shortcut across the room. I explained that no, I had clothes in the machine right next to him that I needed to remove. As he put his mask back in place, his expression changed from indignation to recognition. His eyes glistened a bit as he thanked me, realizing that I was thinking about his safety as well as my own. I saw how alone he felt, how certain he was that few people care about his well-being.

We rightly celebrate all the visible Heroes in this surreal time—the doctors, nurses, first responders, and hospital staff who are putting their lives on the line daily in this desperate fight against a virus that kills indiscriminately. Yet we must all remember that there are many others who neither trained for heroism nor sought it, but now have had it thrust upon them.

These are the truckers and delivery personnel who give us a fighting chance of eating and wiping our butts, the repair technicians who go out into the world to keep things running, the grocery store workers who suddenly find themselves asked to risk their lives to ring up our purchases, and so many more. Please, please remember to thank them, smile at them, do everything you can to keep them safe, and above all, let them know that you see, and you care.

State of the Roads

As I embarked on my trek, I both expected and dearly hoped to see largely deserted highways for three days, save for the unavoidable movements of trucks. I quickly learned why the mobile data company Unacast frequently gives five of the six states on my route—Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, and Iowa—a grade of D- of F for social distancing success. There are simply far more people moving around on a daily basis than there should be.

Unacast has shown that even in many states with shelter-at-home orders in place, people have not committed fully to limiting themselves to essential trips and visits. And as of April 3, Oklahoma, Missouri, and Iowa still lack official, statewide orders to stay put. Stronger leadership providing greater clarity about the meaning of “essential” would help. People need better instruction on how to plan necessary errands. Very few people need to leave their homes more than once weekly if they plan well, but millions have never undertaken such planning.

HERO SCHOOL PRO TIP: Essential Trips

Remember that as we grow more stir crazy, our minds will attempt to rationalize more errands as “essential.” Domesticate this urge by reminding yourself that every errand involves at least a small amount of jeopardy. Ask, “Would I jeopardize my health and survival by NOT making this trip?” Replenishing food supplies? YES, it’s essential. Not eating has a 100% fatality rate. Restocking your liquor cabinet? Sorry, that one should wait until a truly essential errand arises.

Overall, however, as someone who has logged a decent number of cross-country miles over the years, I can happily report that the interstates are not carrying anywhere near an ordinary load of car traffic these days. And many people in every state are clearly doing their level best. I have come to appreciate the strange tenderness of those unspoken “Wait, I’ll veer this way and you veer that way to keep the six feet” sidewalk moments that are simply part of life right now.

Unfortunately, plenty of middle Americans remain so ineffective in their choices that it feels like they’re trying to put others at risk. Once again, remember that the vast majority of them have no ill intent; they are just unskilled. And watch your adrenaline; nearby hygiene failures are a tough stressor to manage, especially when everyone’s peeing in the same place...

Highway to the Danger Zones? Rest Areas & Service Stations

First off, a shout out to Texas for a really simple, sensible solution to rest area safety. Taking advantage of mild spring weather, the state has ordered all rest area doors to remain wide open 24/7, making 100% no-touch use possible. Other states, take note! And a tip of the ol’ ten-gallon, Tex, for giving me the most stress-free bladder voiding of my entire trip.

For other public spaces, I was fortunate enough to have a dwindling supply of sanitizing wipes for gas pumps and keypads, hand sanitizer for frequent cleansing, and tissues to serve as barriers between my skin and door handles. If you lack such supplies these days (and many do), look for anything you can use as a disposable barrier when you have to touch heavily “loved” objects. Junk mail is my current go-to tool.

To again properly laud the many, many good citizens doing all they can to get this right, I wish I could obtain security video from the disconcertingly busy gas station I had to use in northern Oklahoma. A fellow traveler and I spontaneously developed some pretty elaborate choreography to ensure that we could use our back-to-back pumps without ever coming within six feet of each other. Baryshnikov (and “dream Andrew Cuomo”) would have been proud.

On the other side of the coin, there were several places where I stopped and, upon witnessing way too many people rushing in and out of bathrooms and/or convenience store doorways in unwashed-hands-across-America fashion, hopped right back in my car and decided it was time for a little bladder endurance workout. As Captain Dave constantly reminds us all, rushing feeds bad decision making. Be patient, everyone. We can take the time to wash; we can take three steps to the side, let someone pass, take a breath, and then go through the door. We really can.

Now, a special message for dudes: It is time to finally understand that turning on a sink and splashing your hands in the water for 0.83 seconds without using soap is not washing your hands. If this ritual accomplishes anything, it is merely redistributing your coronavirus specimens around your hands more evenly. That is not a win.

And on the subject of highway stopping points, an impassioned plea to the state of Kansas: PLEASE cease toll collections on the Kansas Turnpike. If you had a fully automated system, as many states now do, that would be fine, but you don’t. So unless you can provide them with full hazmat suits, please consider the safety of tollbooth workers who are exposed to, and exchange cash with, thousands of motorists every day. Tolls are not worth lives.

Hats On to Innovations in Creative Non-contact

In places too cold in late March to allow for 24/7 open-door practices, many rest areas are equipped with door-opening buttons for the benefit of people with disabilities. Of course, touching such a button is no better than touching a door handle, but the buttons do lend themselves better to the use of non-hand body parts.

Throughout my trip, I saw such buttons karate kicked, kneed, hip checked, elbowed, chest bumped, and even headbutted (the latter innovator was wearing a hat, I should add). I am not 100% sure that all these methods reduce germ exposure risk, but just the same, I salute the effort to squeeze lemonade out of our current COVID-19 lemons by having a little absurd fun.

I also had to admire three young women I saw in Kansas City, who wanted to hang out together while still practicing social distancing. In a quiet parking lot, they backed up their SUVs in a circle (picture the radioactive hazard sign), threw open the tailgates, and clambered to the backseats so they could sit and chat at a safe distance, without ever leaving their vehicles.

Hotels Just Aren’t Getting the Job Done

Most hotel chains have offered very generous cancellation policies during this era of uncertainty, and we can all be grateful for that. I would have much preferred not to travel in late March, but knowing that I could rewrite my gameplan on the fly helped with stress management.

Through email blasts and various ads, hotels are also touting their careful compliance with WHO and CDC hygiene and cleaning standards to keep guests and hotel staff safe. Based on my experiences with two different hotel brands in Oklahoma City and Kansas City, I must advise readers to view these claims with caution and skepticism. Travel prepared to protect yourself.

I will give the KC hotel credit for having an app that allowed me to check in, unlock my room, and check out without ever having to stop at the front desk. That was a welcome change from the OKC property, where the poor front desk staff—predictably, equipped with neither masks nor gloves—had to interact in close proximity with every guest who entered. I should add that the KC stopover also had one (yep, one) no-touch hand sanitizer dispenser available for guest use.

Both hotels crowded a small number of visitors (based on the very sparsely populated parking lots) into nearby rooms on the same floor, the very opposite of social distancing. Signs reminding guests to maintain social distance, stay in their rooms as much as possible, etc., were nowhere to be seen.

Accessing these rooms required using elevators, where there were no sanitizing options available, nor any conveniently located trash cans for tissues or whatever item one might use as a barrier when punching buttons. In one instance, a hotel worker carrying a giant bag of garbage hopped right into the elevator car I was already in, and then instead of calling a floor, sidled up next to me to press a button with his ungloved hand. That would be pretty gross even in a world where disease has been eliminated.

Unfortunately, things were worse inside my rooms. Again, thanks to weeks of careful rationing, I had sanitizing wipes on hand. I went into the rooms planning to wipe surfaces down mostly as self-reassurance, since surely based on their advertising, the hotels had already done so. I quickly discovered that on many surfaces, the wipes turned brown with filth almost instantly.

I’ll admit that I have not read every word of the WHO/CDC guidelines for cleaning and sterilization of shared spaces. But I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that they do not say, “Clean until the surface is only moderately grimy. That should totally do it.”

The blame for this situation cannot be placed on hotel workers. They make up yet another group of unwitting heroes thrust into COVID’s line of fire, with woefully inadequate training for such a crisis and not even the most basic personal protection equipment (PPE). I do not blame them for wanting to get in and out of each room as quickly as possible, and get home to their families.

Hotel chain executives and property managers need to take a long look in the mirror. If they simply lack the resources or will to maintain hotels in a state that provides people with a reasonable level of protection from infection, then they need to acknowledge that. False claims of deep cleaning have no place in these times. If someone’s lying, someone else ends up dying.

The Joy of Parking Lots

Prior to a few days ago, I had never looked across a vast expanse of asphalt and thought, “Wow, that’s beautiful.” While neither Missouri nor Oklahoma had statewide shelter-at-home orders in effect, the mayors of the two cities where I lodged had issued pretty strong local directives. As a result, both hotels, which are located adjacent to large office parks, were surrounded by acres upon acres of deserted parking lots.

The late afternoon weather was truly lovely in both cities. The opportunity to stretch my legs and get fresh air after a day on the road, all without coming within 100 feet of another human being, was bliss itself. Back at home, I now find myself wondering where the nearest suburban office park might be. Funny that for the first time, calling such monstrosities “parks” seems kind of appropriate.

Sizing Up Things at Home

Thanks to a helpful friend who stocked my fridge for me so I could self-isolate after traveling, I have not been out and about in Minneapolis since returning home a few days ago. I therefore lack the data to truly assess whether my state deserves its higher social distancing grade (anywhere from B- to C-, depending on the grader and the day) than regions to the south.

Anecdotal reports from my friends suggest that effective action might genuinely be more widespread here. Minnesotans do have a long history of civic mindedness, frequently leading the nation in voter turnout, and are often said to display the sort of let’s-get-through-this-together spirit that surviving brutal winters requires. However, they are also very reluctant to criticize each other, a factor that I must weigh as I ponder my friends’ reports.

What I do know is that I live near a very popular walking and biking trail, which I can see from my window at this time of year (the trees are still bare here in the far North). It does appear that people are generally quite conscious of social distancing. No one is breathing down someone else’s neck, and people often step aside for each other. They also try to avoid bunching up at intersections.

On the other hand, there are many people sharing the paths. It is a beautiful route to walk or bike, but it seems to me that this would be a fine time for everyone to branch off into the surrounding, largely empty neighborhood streets. I also see almost no masks or otherwise covered faces (there are lots of gloves, but that’s primarily a function of the temperature), and joggers and bikers regularly breeze past walkers, almost shoulder to shoulder.

The general opinion of experts is that having someone slide by in this fashion involves minimal risk. Yet considering the number of such encounters happening on the trail daily, I have to wonder, is 50 or 150 times minimal still equal to minimal?

1,200 Miles Later, Still a Long Way to Go

Again, maintaining social distance is hard. Spending weeks staring at the same four walls, struggling to remember what day it is or why we should even care, is really hard. But we all can do better, and must. From coast to coast and right down the country’s gut line, effective actors have the power to become heroic actors, and ineffective actors can become effective with the right guidance. We just have to believe in how much it matters.

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