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Coronavirus has warped our sense of time

Are you having trouble keeping track of days? Does everything seem to be moving so slowly, or way too fast?
The sunrises over the water at North Shore Park on Tuesday, March 31, 2020 in St. Petersburg.
The sunrises over the water at North Shore Park on Tuesday, March 31, 2020 in St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Apr. 1, 2020
Updated Apr. 2, 2020

Time has become a joke.

“At least it’s Friday,” someone says on Monday. Or, “What a year the last week has been.”

There’s Before Times and After Times. Anything regular is not anymore. Cooking, reading, dating, voting, paying rent. Then there’s time itself.

The world moves differently in the clutch of a pandemic. Plans and obligations have shattered into a kaleidoscopic jumble. Two weeks feels like forever, or no time at all, with so much happening in between. What day is it anyway?

Outside, news changes at a semisonic pace. Essential workers — the nurses, doctors and checkout clerks — can’t take a break. Yet the urgent advice for most people is to stay inside, where days drip with a helpless malaise — the same rooms, same windows, same gym shorts slid on for a nine-step commute to the sofa.

“We seem to see a lot of time in our days,” said Carla Merino-Rajme, a University of North Carolina philosophy professor. “But the message we hear is that there is not enough time.”

Theoretically, life is hemmed by a clear timeline: past, future, a consistent present. The online world scrambled that reality years ago, with algorithms putting what’s popular before what’s most recent. Coronavirus has taken an already chaotic rhythm and started a jackknife game of Chutes and Ladders, days jolting like a teen driver learning stick shift.

Florida closed bars only two weeks ago. Residents voted in the primary election the same day. The Tampa Bay Lightning played their last game three weeks ago, when the state had reported just 20 cases of COVID-19. Now there are 8,010, with 128 dead.

In Fort Lauderdale, Alec Polansky, a 25-year-old office worker, stays fixed on the endless updates that come through his phone. He hardly leaves the house or his sweatpants. He struggles to sleep, alternating rest and work at odd hours, charting sunrises in a crude journal.

“People are used to living very quick lives, and now there is a quick life happening that they are not allowed to participate in,” Polansky said. “I’m sitting around the house thinking about what to watch on Netflix next, and there are people working 24 hours in the hospital.”

Dr. Seetha Lakshmi, a University of South Florida professor and infectious disease specialist at Tampa General Hospital, doesn’t know how many hours she has worked in the past two weeks.

“It just starts when I wake up, and it ends when I finish seeing patients,” she said. Doctors are learning about COVID-19 in real time, Lakshmi said, like “the plane is flying, and you’re trying to build it.” The rush leaves little time for a “shift,” or reflection.

“The patients that do get sick, and we see how much they suffer, that prolongs my sense of time because it’s pain,” she said. “On the other end, there is so much to do in a day that it just can’t seem like there’s enough time.”

Physicians test patients curbside outside BayFront Health St. Petersburg on Monday, March 16, 2020.
Physicians test patients curbside outside BayFront Health St. Petersburg on Monday, March 16, 2020. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

The forward momentum of living never changes. But how we experience time does, said Kristin Kostick, a medical anthropologist at the Baylor College of Medicine.

People catalog major events as anchor points, she said, which mark the separation between Time A and Time B. With breaking news providing more and more anchor points, time can feel slower. But emotion warps our sense of time further, with fears that the worst might lie ahead.

“The more afraid we become, the faster time might seem to barrel forward,” Kostick said. “But the media cycle brings us a staggering amount of new information each day as this pandemic unfolds, making even a day’s events feel like an eternity.”

David Boyd, of Boyd Clocks in Tampa, spends his time surrounded by intricate old instruments that have gone from essential to nostalgic. Since the coronavirus hit, he said, the days, and customers, have slowed.

“I know that time’s moving the same,” he said. “But just because of the anxiety and the uncertainty, you look around the world and just don’t know what to believe.”

On a normal day, time transitions in step with routine. Work begins when people enter a warehouse, or office, or sit behind the wheel of a truck. People go from professional to personal when they unlock the front door at home, pat the dog or water the plants. The day slots into neat compartments.

Forced inside, the scaffolding that contains our lives has come down. "You almost get a sense of how so much of the stuff we think matters so much doesn’t really matter,” said Caleb Everett, chair of the anthropology department at the University of Miami.

Even the hours, minutes and seconds that govern our lives, he said, are revealed as arbitrary — a relic of ancient Mesopotamian math. Everett has traveled to the Amazon, where tribes live without such a system, he said, organizing time around more natural changes. This pandemic could give people a small sense “of what life has been like for the vast majority of human history.”

Sand toys are pictured in the sand at John's Pass on Wednesday, March 25, 2020 in Madeira Beach.
Sand toys are pictured in the sand at John's Pass on Wednesday, March 25, 2020 in Madeira Beach. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

The virus landed here in spring, particularly unfortunate timing in a season of blooms, as if the entire country was caught mid-stretch on a sunny morning. In Florida, youth baseball had barely begun, a harbinger of warmer, better days. Umpires, many retired, organize their years around the sport, keepers of a hustle-on-hustle-off rhythm. Now evenings are empty.

“This is what we do in the spring,” said Matt Nall, president of the West Coast Umpires Association in Tampa. “Springtime means baseball and when it’s not there...

“I’ve talked to a couple of guys who seem kind of depressed.”

At Florida A&M, President Larry Robinson has trouble keeping track of the semester’s approaching end, days blurring across meetings conducted via Zoom. The video-chat platform has become as integral to office culture as the water cooler — and has a name either shockingly appropriate or laughably ironic, depending on your perspective.

“The normality of the day-to-day, where there was some variation, is pretty much gone,” Robinson said.

Worse, he knows there will be no way to replicate the rush he feels when screams and hollers echo with each name called from the graduation stage, the ceremony canceled.

Commencement is supposed to signal the beginning of a new phase, the ending of another, a kind of convenient order we now lack.

An empty Amalie Arena is seen Thursday, March 12, 2020 in Tampa. The National Hockey League announced Thursday that due to the recent coronavirus pandemic it would put the NHL season "on pause."
An empty Amalie Arena is seen Thursday, March 12, 2020 in Tampa. The National Hockey League announced Thursday that due to the recent coronavirus pandemic it would put the NHL season "on pause." [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

As coronavirus settles in, we cling to facsimiles of life five weeks ago, like virtual happy hours that butt against the state’s evening update, supposed to land at 6:30 p.m., sometimes late, carrying news of the dead. It’s not the same.

Restaurant owners move at breakneck speed, trying to sort out a safe way to offer takeout, and keep businesses afloat so hundreds of thousands of laid-off service workers have something to come back to. Some websites reflect old hours, the world rearranging too fast to stay current, said Kenneth Emery, a partner at Barterhouse Ybor.

“The plan changes every 24 hours,” he said. It’s as if everyone is experiencing what it’s like to start a new business. “You have no resources, no money, no time. You just work 24/7 praying it works out.”

To 14-year-old Sofia Pelamati, an eighth-grader at St. Paul Catholic School, it feels strangely like summer. Doldrums settle in as she drifts awake an hour or two later each day, eating lunch at 10:30 a.m. or maybe 2 p.m., logging on for a math class that used to take 45 minutes but is down to 20. Assignments carry little structure. Sometimes she finishes them in the morning, or else she dallies, chatting with friends and scrolling Tik Tok, a popular video app with a name for burning time.

Every morning, she marks attendance at school virtually, with a prompt to say how she is feeling. “At first I was happy about it,” Pelamati said. “Now I’m just kind of done with it.”

But we are not done.

Gov. Ron DeSantis announced the state’s first two cases on March 1, a Sunday night, meaning it has only been a month. Or maybe it has already been a month.

It certainly has been a month.

The president announced people should follow social distancing rules, avoiding big groups, until at least April 30. Just Wednesday, Gov. Ron DeSantis gave Florida a stay-at-home order through the end of the month. How far will we be then from who we were?

Home after dark once again Tuesday, following a long day at Tampa General, Dr. Lakshmi had six hours of work left. She knew the stakes, that scientists still need to learn more, to make better medicines, to find a vaccine.

“The future of humanity is not at risk, because it doesn’t affect the young ones, but the wisdom of us as a race in many ways is at risk,” she said.

“We need to buy time.”

Times staff writers Leonora LaPeter Anton, Helen Freund, Mark Puente, Dennis Joyce and Claire McNeill contributed to this report.

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