Last week, we took a break from the pandemic. After nearly five months of isolation, my wife and I joined our adult kids and our granddaughters for a week at the beach.
I’m one of those elderly dudes you hear about — in my 70s, with a couple of underlying conditions — and we’ve been trying hard to comply with St. Fauci’s articles of faith. We’ve taken the sacraments — distancing, masks, lots of hand-washing.
Of course, we’ve been slowly going crazy, like the rest of you: the confinement, the boredom, the claustrophobia, the lack of contact, the absence of physical touch.
Our two granddaughters are now almost a half-year older. At their mischievous age — 4 and 6 — they have changed by leaps. We’ve missed too much of it.
The 4-year-old now speaks in complex sentences (“I’m berry disappointed in my parents”) and the 6-year-old has been reading on her own, albeit mostly about princesses in cold climates. They’re both riding bikes now, which we caught on FaceTime. Like all children of this era, they are hyper-aware of the pandemic (“Distance, Nana! Cowonaviwus!”).
So we arranged to rent small adjoining bungalows for a week in a quiet beach town south of Tampa. Nothing fancy; we saved our pennies, haven’t had much to spend on. We know we’re fortunate, amid so much struggle, to afford it at all.
Thia and I planned like crazy, as thrilled as if we were headed for Disney World — which I wouldn’t visit right now if a costumed duck paid our entrance fees. I amazoned a slew of beach toys, to spoil the kids rotten, in proper grandfather style. My wife and daughter-in-law consulted on precooked dinners — we weren’t ready for restaurants yet. My son, who is working remotely, packed his computer and monitor.
I can report that it was a sunburned success in every way. I recommend all of you take a break if you possibly can. Go ahead and overpay for it. Grandparenting is about carving out memories that will survive us. Don’t try to put a cost on that.
At the beach, people kept a cheery distance, without masks, but there was a brisk sea breeze to whisk away the aerosol. We felt safe. We felt liberated. We squirted each other with foam water shooters, we built sand condos.
The girls came up with the idea of “foot-hugs,” where we low-fived each other, sole to sole, in the surf. Our first touches in half a year. Orphans left untouched can wither; so can grandparents. We felt grateful they were as eager to reach out to us. The truth is, we worry we’ll be forgotten if we’re not around.
Along with our daughter-in-law’s mother, who accompanied us, we ate on adjoining outdoor picnic tables, our own little extended pod. The girls crept into our kitchen, leaving the outer door open to the air, to show us their shells. Just a venial sin, St. Fauci. We played board games at night on the terrace, primly masked, by the light of a lamp we balanced on a deck chair.
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We also felt a creeping melancholy as the week went on. This was a reprieve, a brief prison release for family reasons, that would soon end. For a short, golden time, it was a flashback to what life used to be like.
Now, our idyll is over, the kids are back in their own home. Thia and I can go over and call up to their balcony, but we cannot enter their home. We avoid that like…well, you know. And of course, now they’re going back to school.
There’s the belly-rub: From here on, we won’t have it as good as we did, even before our vacation. During the summer months, as long as the girls stuck close to home, without schoolmates, there could be little bends in the rules, pats on the head. In the proper setting, there could even be madcap sole-touches in the surf.
But now autumn is coming. They are back to day care and first grade, swapping germs with other toddler/carriers — now, more than ever, a threat to their at-risk elders.
Yes, we’re home too, back from our furlough. But now we’re in solitary.
Four months ago, in this space, I wrote about the family effects of the early pandemic. As a recently arrived resident, I marveled at the sunny, surreal contrast between two large groups of Floridians: we vulnerable, huddling seniors, and the partiers crushing beer cans across the bay on Clearwater Beach. Bars were still open, restaurants still serving.
I wrote then there was a special sand-spit in hell reserved for state officials who chose spring-break revenue over safety. Numbers hadn’t skyrocketed yet, but it was clear, to anyone who thought about it, that Florida was just kicking the corona can down the road, and was going to reap the whirlwind.
Here we are, more than 10,000 deaths later. What we learned — should have learned — is that half-measures don’t work. Besides his famously premature victory lap, and a turn for the cameras at the White House, our governor did … well, some of this and some of that. Some places stayed open, some shut down, some regions got restrictions, others didn’t, curfews were tried out, then rolled back. Suggestions were made: “Safer at home.”
But patchwork solutions are wrong for this crisis. Too many jurisdictions, too much cross-traffic. COVID-19 doesn’t stay inside the lines. What does work, we found, is a disciplined, broad lockdown, with adequate testing and tracing, followed — eventually — by careful reopening. We had the evidence it worked — in New York, Canada, abroad. Yes, resurgences everywhere, but nothing like our spectacular, drink-your-bleach, a miracle-will-save-us national calamity.
We had a chance here in Florida. Our numbers were quite low for a while, and if we’d had a society modeled on squirrels — putting nuts away while things were good — we might have done better than most. We could have locked down and prepared — really prepared — for schools reopening. That’s what summers are for.
Instead, we now face a pandemonium of reopening plans and policies that you need a spreadsheet to follow. You have to sympathize with those making decisions. It can’t be easy to lead here, when half the state thinks masks are a challenge to liberty. It’s often charming to see that Florida, split evenly between red and blue, is such a loony, eccentric purple state. But not when there’s a purple people eater out there.
Now, with the numbers dipping — for how long? — our governor is saying that kids should be back in school, in person. COVID-19, he says, is no more dangerous for them “than the flu.” He’s right that the infection rate is low. But in the past several weeks, a steady drip of new studies show children actually have a higher viral load in their nasal cavities than adults. In other words, odds are they may not get sick themselves, but the little critters are likely to pass it onto adults — like teachers, or their older family members. And at least some little kids have caught it.
These are tough, tough decisions. All I suggest is: a little humility, Guv. We just don’t know enough yet about the coronavirus and kids. Their parents — our kids — are agonizing over schools and boy, we feel their pain. Here in South Tampa, kids are already attending a week of virtual instruction, then they’ll switch to in-person classrooms Monday. At least that’s today’s plan. This past week, a judge ruled against the state’s threat to cut funds unless local school boards knuckled under to in-person classes. Ironically, the nation now looks to ravaged Florida for the next move.
Everyone’s ducking now, waiting for the next incoming. None of the three Hillsborough County school board incumbents who were up for re-election in this month’s primary finished first, and all now head to run-offs in November. It’s a schoolyard free-for-all, most trying to do right, others score points. Some schools are equipped to keep kids safe, others are too crowded and underfunded. And we know, we just know, that the poor and minorities will get the worst of it. It comes with the territory, the neighborhoods.
So, we’re home again. And we hear again: “Enough already, gotta get back to normal, no worse than the flu” … only with kids this time. What is it they say about insanity? Keep doing the same thing, expect something different? I can’t help feeling as I did four months ago, when the spring breakers were hearty-partying; I just don’t see how this ends well. I hope I’m wrong, but I see shutdowns and teacher infections and parental anger ahead.
When you’re on vacation, you stare up at clouds, your thoughts drift. It didn’t have to be this way. Parents and kids deserved a full-out, World War II-type effort from the top, the very top, with national funding, world-class planning. A real national priority, equal in scope to our bailing out companies and salaries. Save our small businesses? Sure, but save our small people. Imagine: all our schools fully supplied to withstand the virus, all neighborhoods included, with trusted health guidance based on science, not hope, or just impatience. You know, for our kids. Our grandkids. What was more important than that?
We shoulda, coulda spent the summer hoarding nuts, not listening to them. And we all could have taken a summer recess to get our sanity back. I’m lucky our family was able to do so. You, good neighbors, can still take a break. Restore your spirit. Foot-hugs are good. For now, there’s your miracle. Autumn is coming.
Barry Golson is a writer and a retired editor who supervised the Playboy interviews, TV Guide and Forbes Traveler.