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OPINION

Lost interaction: A coronavirus side effect that stings

By CHARLES MCGRATH | Special to The Washington Post | Published: March 6, 2020

Empty shopping malls, the parking lots bare. Movie theaters, empty — dust gathering on the seats, the popcorn in the popper going hard and stale. Empty churches, empty restaurants, empty grocery stores. Empty airports, empty bus stations. Subway trains run, to keep the rails from rusting, but there are no passengers. They rumble past platforms where no one is waiting. Post offices: closed, and the mailman won’t be coming, either. The baseball stadium isn’t empty, exactly: The team is playing, but the only sound is the ball hitting the catcher’s mitt or connecting with the bat. No one is in the stands.

Those could be the opening shots of a pretty good horror movie. In fact, it’s a gloomy but not completely unreasonable picture of what life could be like a few weeks from now if the coronavirus spreads unchecked and we abandon all our public spaces — or, worse, the authorities decide the only solution is to close them. It’s already happening elsewhere. In Italy, the government has ordered all sporting events to take place without fans. The opera house in Venice recently put on a concert you could “attend” only online. The London Book Fair, a major publishing event, has been called off. Airlines are canceling flights, and who of sound mind would board a cruise ship right now? Even in the United States, where the virus is only just getting started, some stores are out of things like toilet paper and bottled water. Good luck finding a bottle of Purell.

The Japanese, who have already closed Tokyo Disneyland, are wringing their hands — well-scrubbed, of course, for at least 20 seconds — over what to do about the Olympics scheduled for Tokyo this summer. Will there be any athletes, any spectators? And it’s only a matter of time before our famously germaphobic president starts to think twice about his political rallies, at least until the weather gets warmer, when he has promised that the virus will conveniently peter out. (But maybe not in Iran, one of the countries hardest hit, where it’s already pretty warm.)

Parents of school-age children must be going out of their minds right now. What if American schools really do close? A whole district in Washington state has shut, and no schools at all are open in 11 other countries. Weeks of the kids at home! I predict a dramatic scale-back of family regulations limiting screen time.

For people who live on farms or in the country, the prospect may not seem so dire. They’re not accustomed to crowds anyway. But for those of us who live in cities or suburbs, the idea of so much emptiness, of being walled off from one another, is hard to get one’s head around. It couldn’t really happen, could it? The highways turned into eerie corridors. No March Madness. No lines at the Smithsonian or theme parks or music festivals. Times Square a ghost town.

The likelihood is, no, it probably won’t get crazily weird — not sci-fi weird, as if the entire population had been zapped. For one thing, the homeless won’t be going anywhere, and neither will people like caregivers and sanitation workers. (We know this from “The Decameron.” The only people who get to survive the plague are the rich.) And surely there will be rebels, renegades, daredevils, disbelievers. Saboteurs, maybe. Some knucklehead on Twitter recently proclaimed that if she came down with the virus, she would attend as many MAGA gatherings as possible. Will knuckleheads on the other side want to start invading Planned Parenthood centers, vigorously coughing and offering to shake hands with everyone?

But life will be different, and I don’t think it will be fun. Trying to imagine such a future, I’ve realized that, like a lot of people, I am already somewhat self-quarantined and don’t need to be cut off any further. I do my banking with a card and a machine. Our local supermarket contains self-checkout registers. You do your own scanning, your own bagging, and never see or speak to a cashier. Sadly, that means I’m no longer greeted as “Hon” by the very nice woman who used to run the express-lane register. Not a big deal, but I used to look forward to it.

The phone in our house almost never rings anymore except when it’s a robocaller. Like a lot of writers, I can go for days without speaking to another human being besides my wife. I do all my communicating by email. So a nationwide quarantine wouldn’t affect me that much. Even so, I like to think of myself as part of a larger community, and the thought of being forcibly cut off from it is disquieting. We are social animals, as the scientists keep reminding us, and I don’t think we’re meant to be quarantined. We like to be together. That’s why actually going to a ballgame is much more fun than watching one on TV, and why the idea of a ballgame with no one in attendance except a cameraman and an umpire or two seems not just unnatural but almost tragic. We like rooting, we like public demonstrations of fan-feeling.

Something similar is true of going to the movies, though we seem to be doing that less and less these days. Watching with others adds intimacy. We like sharing the same moments. How else to explain Ultra, the electronic-music festival that draws tens of thousands of fans, many of them wearing next to nothing, to Miami each March? It, too, just got canceled.

We also govern ourselves as a group, to take one very important aspect of our social natures, and it seems especially unfortunate that the coronavirus should come along right in the middle of campaign season. You could argue that if they have to close down Congress, it won’t make much difference, since Congress doesn’t do anything anyway. But will we now see our candidates only on the screen? No rope lines, no flesh pressed, no babies held up to be kissed?

Silly and old-fashioned, you could say, but this is what American politics is like. We want to be reminded every now and then that our politicians are human beings, not poll-driven talking heads. We also need to talk to one another, and not just online, about whom we’re going to vote for and why. We need to ring doorbells. And when we disagree we need to be able to smirk, roll our eyes, shake our heads, stamp our feet, raise our voices if necessary.

So if the situation really does get bad, and we’re required to sequester ourselves for a while, I suspect we will greatly miss all the mindless little social interactions that we now take for granted: the waves, the hellos, the held-open doors, even being told to have a nice day. We’ll miss being around each other.

After the SARS epidemic of 2003, Chinese businessmen rushed to take up golf, even though the game was frowned on by the government, because it was unthinkable there to make deals except face to face, and people wanted to avoid tight indoor spaces. Dozens of new courses had to be built, some practically overnight.

But golf isn’t for everyone. An even better, more virus-proof meeting place I see is the drive-in. Drive-in movies could really make a comeback. I can picture lots of us heading there in the evening, the kids half-asleep in the back seat. It will be great to get out of the house. I imagine us all happily beeping at one another and waving through our windshields, as if to say: “We’re still here. We’re all OK, thanks. Nice to see you.”

Charles McGrath is a former editor of the New York Times Book Review and deputy editor of the New Yorker.

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