Early on Saturday, at the bakery a few blocks from my apartment, the barista didn’t quite have his new coffee-order spiel down. That morning, for fear of hastening the spread of the coronavirus, all the milks, sugars, and disposable lids had been moved behind the counter. He was nervous, he told me, because orders would take longer to dole out, and every request for “just a little sugar” or a particular type of milk had the potential to go wrong. He hoped people would be patient, but the rush had yet to come.
At the neighborhood grocery, people were starting to get irritated that this store, like virtually every other in the city, had run out of disinfectant wipes. The women running the checkout lines were gloved for the first time, spraying down conveyor belts and debit-card keypads as thoroughly as they could before the next customer piled toilet paper and canned food into their lanes. The one who scanned my seltzer and pasta ingredients said that the onslaught of disaster-prepping customers had first descended last Wednesday and hadn’t let up since.
The anxiety that accompanies hurricanes or floods—catastrophes that Americans are used to seeing on the news, if not in their own backyards—spikes intensely and dissipates quickly for most people. A novel respiratory infection such as COVID-19 is totally different. At first, a virus is an invisible disaster, working its way from person to person, weeks passing before the most severe symptoms emerge. By the time you understand how bad it is, it’s been bad for some time, which makes it difficult to prepare for. But as more of us have begun to understand that this new illness is far more sinister than the flu, the rhythm of everyday life has started to change in perceptible ways: honeymoons canceled, parties postponed, quarantine supplies sought. Often, the people executing these changes—and managing the underlying fear and panic—are overwhelmed and undertrained hourly workers or customer-service agents, who now form the de facto front line of pandemic response in the United States.