And so, Groundhog Day. Groundhog Days. “At first I was like, ‘This is great—I get to chill out, be in my pajamas, do breakfast whenever, slow and easy,’” Lisa Devlin, a stay-at-home mother, told The Washington Post recently. “And then I realized very quickly that just turns the day into an amorphous mess.” That stark shift in mindset, experts suggest, is a common experience. “Some psychologists,” The New York Times notes, “have compared the coronavirus’s effects to the aftermath of a natural disaster, except the disaster is moving in slow motion, taking place everywhere and has no end in sight.” In mid-April, CBS 4, a local news station in Miami, aired a segment that began, “It’s not February 2, but it sure does feel like Groundhog Day lately.” The reporter, Lauren Pastrana (“reporting from my garage, again”), remotely interviewed the psychologist Raquel Bild-Libbin, who noted how easily unstructured days can give rise to anxiety and depression. The doctor also noted the irony of that twist: “We have gained something that we have always wanted, which is time.”
This is another way that Groundhog Day speaks to this moment. Unstructured time, initially, might seem like a gift. “Let me ask you guys a question,” Phil says to two Punxsutawney residents he meets in a bowling-alley bar: “What if there were no tomorrow?” They consider the question. “No tomorrow,” one answers. “That would mean there would be no consequences. There’d be no hangovers. We could do whatever we wanted!”
But one of the lessons of Groundhog Day is that accountability is its own kind of asset. Without it, Phil is rudderless, and doomed to repeat his unending day. And one of the things that makes Phil’s predicament so unnerving, to him and to viewers, is that its dynamics are so deeply unclear. What happened to make time—Phil’s unique experience of time, at any rate—repeat itself? Why February 2? Why this particular February 2? The current moment brings similar questions. “We Still Don’t Know How the Coronavirus Is Killing Us,” New York magazine announced this week. On Tuesday, Yascha Mounk wrote a piece for The Atlantic that contained the following line: “After weeks in which it made sense to hope that something would happen to end this nightmare, the prospects for deliverance are more remote than ever.” Yesterday, Ed Yong published a sweeping essay headlined “Why the Coronavirus Is So Confusing.” Its sub-headline: “A guide to making sense of a problem that is now too big for any one person to fully comprehend.”
The unknowns, like the disheveled days, loom. The plot trails off. Groundhog Day is a comedy, ultimately, because of its ending: Phil, finally, uses time to become a better person. He learns from the past. He comes to care about people in the present. He breaks his curse. Imagine what Groundhog Day would be if he didn’t. Imagine where we might be, too, if we fail to find a better way forward. There will be a tomorrow, and a tomorrow, and a tomorrow. But will they bring a happy ending? That is one more thing that, in this moment, is profoundly unclear.