From the Belly of the Beast

My neighborhood is right in the middle of the NYC outbreak; here’s how we are coping. 

With Jackson Heights, Queens being featured so prominently in national media stories about the pandemic, I want to share what life has been like for me over the past month.  

Kelsey and I live in a two-bedroom apartment about a ten minute walk from the Junction Boulevard 7 train stop in Jackson Heights, right on the border with Corona.  Junction Boulevard is our main thoroughfare, and contains most of the stores where we ordinarily do our shopping.  

For the past month, we have been social distancing champions.  Most days, we don’t leave the apartment at all. I know many people leave to take brief walks, but the folks in our densely-populated neighborhood don’t seem to understand social distancing, and the few times we have been outside, we have had to “walk defensively” to create space between us and other humans.  For that reason, we are trying as much as possible to stay inside. 

This would be much easier if grocery delivery was still a thing, but it really isn’t.  Amazon Fresh lets us build an order, but won’t permit us to schedule a delivery. Same for Fresh Direct and Instacart.  For dry goods, I was able to make an Amazon Pantry purchase, but it took almost a month to be delivered. Oddly, alcohol delivery services are still running quickly and efficiently.  I can’t get a gallon of milk, but I can get pinot noir from multiple vendors, usually within two hours.  

I have been very fortunate to be able to work remotely, logging on to my work computer from home.  Work has been quite slow, as the courts are closed to all but the most urgent matters. My firm is taking a serious financial hit from the pandemic, and my salary has been temporarily decreased, though I have been promised I will get the deferred portion back when things stabilize.  I value job security very highly, so the disruption has been causing me some stress.  

On weekdays, I wake up a few minutes before 9, and log on to my computer, ready for the day.  I usually shower and change clothes mid-day. When I have work to do, the hours pass quickly. More frequently, things drag, and I alternate responding to work emails, throwing darts, reading, and browsing the internet.  COVID-19 news is everywhere, it is hard to escape.  

I have not been able to write as much as I would like.  There is something stifling about being cooped up all day.  I have, however, had a chance to improve my guitar-playing and my darts game.  I painted two acrylic canvases, despite my utter lack of artistic ability. I am reading steadily, which has been a challenge, since my ordinary routine is to read while I am commuting, a part of my life that is gone, and that I do not miss. 

A few days ago, I had to make a grocery trip, because we were out of everything.  The nearest grocery store is right across the street. They are metering people at the entrance, and only allowing a limited number in at one time.  I waited about forty minutes in a socially-distanced queue to enter, but then shopping went relatively quickly. Essentials are back in stock, and the lack of people in the store made it easy to maintain a safe distance.  Even for that brief excursion, I donned gloves and a face mask. We aren’t taking any chances. 

In the evenings, my routine has been to participate in video calls with people.  I have played virtual darts with someone else who has a board, and watched movies through an add-on app called Netflix Party, which syncs the playback and allows for chat.  Zoom has been a wonderful platform for remote socializing, and I hosted a seder for Passover with friends and family. I even managed to play a virtual talent show, singing and playing guitar.  

Fin, my 18 year old cat, is getting more attention and enrichment than he has had in years.  He seems happy about it, though I am certain this has disrupted his 16-hours-per-day sleep schedule.  

Every day at 7pm, we lean out the window to hoot, holler, and cheer for our first responders.  Unlike other parts of the city, not many people here participate, but a few do. It is nice to have camaraderie with strangers.  

I don’t know how much longer this pandemic will last, or how long it will be until we can resume our normal lives.  My best guess is that things will start opening up mid-May, but I intend to listen to public health guidance and do what I need to do in order to stay healthy.  My family had a COVID scare, which fortunately abated without harm. Some of my friends have lost people to the illness. It is a scary time.  

When this is over, I hope we will make some changes to the way we structure our lives.  The fact that so many of us can do our jobs remotely should cause us to question the need to spend hours each day commuting.  I have become even more committed to fighting for national health care, after seeing the debacle wrought by private health care companies that must prioritize profitability over preparedness.  

If we can emerge stronger, that will be a silver lining from this time of crisis.  I hope we get there soon. 

-AG

Published in: on April 14, 2020 at 8:59 am  Leave a Comment  
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What Will Come After?

Some initial thoughts on what we are learning from COVID-19

As New York enters the second week of our surreal pandemic dystopia, I want to take a few minutes to think about what will happen when the crisis is over.

In the early days, there was a sense among my colleagues and friends that this would cause a major disruption for a few weeks, and then everything would return more-or-less to normal.  I no longer think either part of that is accurate.  This will not be over for months, and it seems increasingly likely that we will lift our stay-home orders only until a new wave comes, and then rinse, repeat*.

I also do not think things will- or should- return to the way they were before the pandemic.  This crisis, and our response to it, have laid bare some weaknesses and inefficiencies that we should address as we look to rebuild our economic and social lives.  These are just observational, and my views on them might change as time goes by, but I want to share them now because they’re on my mind.

The first, as alluded to in my previous post, relates to working remotely.  I spend over two hours each work day commuting to the office.  Last week, I was more productive than in any week this calendar year.  I think that a broad swath of industries should be looking into why they require in-person attendance at a physical office, when the work can be done just as efficiently from home.  While client meetings and collaboration with colleagues is made easier in a shared physical space, I do not see the need for that to be the everyday expectation.  I intend to speak with my employers about arranging a regular work-from-home schedule, to reduce the amount of time wasted in transit.

Another truth that has been laid bare is the role of essential employees.  While many industries are shut down, and many jobs are being performed from home, some service industries simply cannot.  Health care providers, particularly nurses and doctors, are being rightfully honored for their sacrifices and dedication.  During times like these, they literally save lives through their efforts.

At the same time, we need to recognize the tremendous sacrifices being made by our grocery store workers, our delivery personnel, our restaurant cooks, and other essential workers who have been long-derided as “low skilled.”  By showing up to work in public places during a pandemic, they are exposing themselves and their families to a major, life-threatening virus.

I think the time has come for those who fight against giving them a $15 minimum wage to sit down and shut up.

The extraordinary changes being made to health care by our government highlight major failings in our system, failings that have always been present and are only now getting attention due to the severity of the crisis.  My health is directly affected by my neighbor’s health.  If they can’t get tested or treated, that puts me at risk.  Health care is a communal problem, not an individual one.  Universal, single-payer health care needs to happen, now.

Crises also test leaders, and there has been a major contrast between two of our leaders: President Trump and Governor Cuomo.  Full disclosure: I did not previously support either one of these guys, but the contrast between how they are handling COVID-19 couldn’t be more stark.

The president initially called this a hoax, and promised that we would be down to zero cases in no time.  He blamed the media for making a big deal out of it, and refused to accept testing kits from the WHO, saying that we would simply make our own “beautiful” tests.  By the time he started to take it seriously, the virus was already spreading beyond containment.  He continues to say things that just aren’t true: every American who wants a test can get it (nope), a Navy hospital ship will be arriving in New York harbor by next week (three to four weeks, minimum), and his handling of the situation has been perfect (not by any objective standard).

Governor Cuomo has been consistently saying hard truths, explaining the steps he is taking and his reasons for doing so, and focusing on facts and logistics.  I couldn’t believe it when he ruled out a shelter-in-place order for NYC, but after hearing his reasoning, it made sense to me.  He told us how many hospital beds we have, how many we need, and what he’s doing about it.  He has been candid about the challenges he is facing, including competing with other states for supplies since the federal government is impotent.

He told us that the buck stops with him, and he is responsible for upsetting people with the hard decisions he is making.  That is what leadership looks like, and when the dust settles after all this, I will be re-evaluating my political opposition to him.

I’ll end with a few observations on my home confinement.  I have been outside once in the last four days, a brief walk to a local wine shop to pick up a bottle or three and to chat with the gloved, masked owners.  Spring has come, finally, not that any of us can really appreciate it.

Over the past few days, I learned to use Zoom, and have enjoyed video conferencing with friends and loved ones.  It has been hard to keep conversations going, because the pandemic is all that is on anyone’s mind.  I did a brave thing, and posted a video of myself singing and playing guitar on social media, which I counted as a big achievement.

I’m throwing a lot of darts, and am so glad I thought to put up a board just a few weeks ago.  Fin, my 18 year old cat, seems to resent the frequent interruptions to his stringent sleep schedule, though he is appreciating the extra attention and treats.

Of course, I want this to end as soon as possible, but I am mentally getting settled in for at least a month of living and working from these few rooms of my home.

I hope you are all doing well, staying safe, and keeping in touch with your loved ones.

-AG

*I am unabashedly self-satisfied at finding a hand-washing metaphor to employ there.

Published in: on March 22, 2020 at 11:47 am  Leave a Comment  
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Social Distancing

A surprisingly productive day at the home office

Today was my first day of remote working.  As an attorney, my standard work day finds me be-suited, and either in my law office or attending one of the various courts in which I practice.  Working barefoot in a t-shirt and sweatpants has never been an option. 

Of course, with the public health crisis in full swing and society shutting down all non-essential services, things have changed.  I am writing this post to give you some insight into how this pandemic is affecting me and the clients with whom I interact. 

Last week, as things began to get serious in New York, our firm began making preparations for this scenario.  On Thursday, we installed software to access our work computers remotely. On Friday, new guidance came from the court system, shutting down some non-essential functions and streamlining the process for asking for cases to be adjourned.  

As the week closed, our plan was to keep the office staffed, and to modify our individual schedules to make sure at least one attorney and one staff member was present at all times, while minimizing our transit and conducting meetings only by phone.  

Then, over the weekend, New York City announced school closures. 

This announcement, more than anything else, changed our office’s approach to COVID-19.  Our two partners are working moms with eight children between them, almost all of whom are in public schools.  Suddenly, they were re-cast as caregivers, at a time when daycare options are diminished or unavailable.  Keeping the office fully-staffed was no longer an option. A memo went out over both their signatures, directing us to use our best judgment.  

After speaking with them, I decided to work from home today, and to take things one day at a time.  I am not in an at-risk category, but I interact with people who are, and I want to take my role in mitigating the public health crisis seriously.  So, just before 9am, I booted up my home computer, logged in remotely, and prepared for what I anticipated would be an easy day.  

That anticipation missed the mark. 

My first several calls were all logistical.  The courts announced a more broad closure, but despite their insistent designation as “the unified court system,” there was nothing unified about their handling of actual cases.  Each judge has their own way of handling the directives. Some adjourned entire calendars for months. Others require stipulations signed by all parties. Still others require that requests be dropped off in their courtrooms, completely undermining the purpose of the adjournments.  So, I exchanged emails and a half dozen phone calls clearing my court schedule for the week.  

Then, one of my business clients called: he is temporarily closing his retail store, since people are staying in, and he needed help getting a rent abatement.  Even for those businesses that “can” remain open, the pandemic poses an existential threat.  His employees were all laid off today. 

Another call came: a client who operates a social daycare for the elderly needed guidance on what to do in the fact of contradictory instructions from various health care intermediaries.  While gyms, restaurants, and bars have all been given clear directives, these businesses on the front lines are left guessing, risking the lives of their at-risk patients.  

The balance of my day was spent putting out fires, drafting letters, negotiating settlements, and brow-beating stubborn opposing attorneys, all from the relative comfort of my home.  I took a brief break for lunch, but today was, minute for minute, among the most productive I have had in this job.  

It was also, surprisingly, one of the easiest.  A lot of that had to do with the lack of a commute.  It made me wonder why we don’t work from home more often, and whether this health crisis will cause businesses to reevaluate the merit of making employees spend more than two hours of their days in transit.  

I want to encourage everyone who can to try working from home.  While some jobs, particularly in the service sector, cannot be done remotely, some can, and my experience today demonstrated that it need not come with a sacrifice in productivity.  Minimizing your contact with the public and maximizing social distance can help us mitigate this pandemic. 

Stay safe out there, everyone. 

-AG

Published in: on March 16, 2020 at 2:44 pm  Leave a Comment  
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