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Yale 62

The time the world stood still for the coronavirus

By Charles Valier

Word of an unknown virus attacking residents of Wuhan, China began leaking in the press last February, but caused no concern on my part. Suddenly, the coronavirus began to arrive in Europe and the U.S. Initially, the politicians speaking publicly said it would not be of much concern, but then, as it spread quickly fear gripped the country, and the president locked everything down on March 14. Instantly, the act of shutting down the economy knocked down four of the five pillars of our society: work, community, church and entertainment. Only the safety of our homes was left, and that was tenuous because we needed to venture out for food and everyday supplies.

Not knowing anything about the science I began to stay inside my home in St. Louis out of fear; after all I was part of the at-risk age group – 60-80. Initially, I adhered to the CDC guidelines and only went to the grocery store in the early morning to avoid crowds and wore gloves and a mask. Unexpectedly, the stores ran out of toilet paper right away, and those shelves remained empty for weeks. How a respiratory disease could affect our digestive tract was a mystery. Despite all warnings, I continued to take my Golden Retriever, Tigger, to “play group” every weekday morning. Held in the side yard of a house on the next street over from my century old home (later made famous by the gun-toting McCloskey’s), we, parents just sat around at a distance and let our canines play as if nothing was happening. It was the only social discourse that gave my life normalcy. Occasionally, my wife and I held lunch and dinner events for friends spread out in the open air on our large back terrace away from prying eyes. When the inevitable stock market crash occurred from February 18 to March 23 (DJI 29,232 to 18,591), I became a lot poorer.

Everyone panicked and regular meetings with longstanding friends soon ended. My law office closed down, except to essential personnel. When it was discovered that I had gone downtown into my office on a Sunday to retrieve a file, I was castigated by one of my partners for “potentially” infecting the office. Ludicrous of course, but panic brings on strange behavior, and people were then afraid that the virus could be transmitted from hard surfaces. What I missed most were my weekly Latin lessons, a small group of ancient souls, meeting on Thursdays to read and discuss the Latin historians and study Rome during and after the Republic. My grasp of Latin is terrible, really frightful, but I struggle anyway. At the time, we were using the Cambridge Series to study the language and learn about living in Pompeii just before the eruption.

All social intercourse disappeared; church, the Racquet Club, my Wednesday Bible study group, weekly luncheons with my Country Day classmates, restaurants, movies, theater, museums, the Zoo, and sports events. Most importantly Latin. In its place “Zoom” meetings sprang up. I must confess that I resented the impersonal nature of meeting on the screen of my phone, rebelled by trying to hold meetings on my back terrace, but my friends opted for safety. I began to lead a monastic existence. My only contact with real people was through “doggie play group.” I have gone to the dogs! I reside on a gated street that is an oval with a park in the middle. Once around the oval is a mile. Suddenly, I encountered neighbors, unseen in years, on daily walks while traversing the loop.

Freedom came when we – my wife and I – packed up our belongings in our car: clothes and necessities for five months, unpaid bills, research papers for several articles that I was writing for publication, books, and Tigger, our constant, and now only companion. Starting on May 29, we drove 625 miles to Charlevoix in northern Michigan. Michigan has always been my summer refuge. St. Louis heat and humidity is oppressive. My family did not get an air conditioner until 1949, and that was one large window unit downstairs. We still had to sleep in the heat. Relief came when I was sent by train to Charlevoix. I was first brought up a month after my birth in 1940. Surrounded by three lakes I was immersed in water sports and grew up loving to sail. In 1969 I made the fateful decision to buy my own cottage, submitted a sale contract and closed the following spring. Since then my summers have centered around annual trips to Michigan. Our small (90 cottages) association of Victorian wood frame and clapboard cottages erected at the end of the 19th century is a place lost in time, a refuge from our troubled world. Our society has changed, but it has not. We cling stubbornly to old traditions, visit on our porches, and even have 25 private acres set aside as original-growth forest, or maybe what grew out of the devastation when loggers denuded the north woods of Michigan in the 1870’s. In my childhood, it represented freedom, a place where I could wander and play with friends unsupervised by adults. I am still awed by the absolute silent and vivid starry nights.

At the outset of the pandemic the governor of Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer, was angling to be included on the Democratic ticket as vice president. She clamped down hard on Michiganders and restricted downstate residents from going “up north” to their own summer residences. Imagine the diseases they would bring with them! But after nearly three summer months of tourists, Charlevoix is still virtually free of the virus. With a population of 25,670, which swells by more than 20,000 in the summer we had only two deaths. She allowed sailing and canoeing. But she decreed there could be no motor boating and paint could not be sold in stores. Further, I could not hire someone to paint my clapboard cottage, since non-essential outdoor construction was halted, and paint was verboten. How paint spread the virus was inexplicable. It appeared she wanted to project a strong and assertive image. She was in control. Of course, she failed to consult the legislature, her co-equal branch of government, because they were Republicans. More troubling she ignored the broad diversity of Michigan’s geography, which spans a forested wilderness in the Upper Peninsula to Detroit, an urban wilderness. Only when summer approached did she see the difference between the sparsely populated northern areas of the state and metropolitan Detroit, a large urban and densely populated community. Odd that her summer home should be in the area (northwestern Michigan and the U.P.) that was released from her stringent regulations. She issued 175 executive orders detailing how we should live our lives, who we could see, when and where we could go, etc. Fortunately, Charlevoix County blithely ignored her, so life up here is more sensible. Our county reported only 28 cases and 2 deaths by the end of May. Now the reported cases are 59, but no more deaths. People take precautions as necessity dictates. In the State of Michigan, the death rate is .06% of the population, while in Charlevoix County, near the tip of “Mitt,” it is only .008%. Michigan as a whole is seven and half times more dangerous than Charlevoix.

It is easy to see why I took refuge in Charlevoix. Despite the intrusiveness of the governor, we can shop, go to restaurants and boat. Our small Episcopal Church meets on Sunday in an open pavilion on the shore of Lake Charlevoix, but without communion. Our grandchildren came to visit, as they do every summer, attended day camp and went home with no ill effect. Of course, I wear the obligatory, but increasingly dirty mask when I enter stores and restaurants. It all came crashing down on the governor when her husband tried to pull rank, the “Governor’s spouse,” to get their boat in the water first. The folly of her overreaction became clear, so she issued more executive orders. Humility appears to be anathema to the image she had created. Her excuse, “a failed attempt at humor.” By comparison with my home state of Missouri, where the governor was less oppressive and issued fewer executive orders, the death rate in Michigan is three times that of Missouri (.06% in Michigan vs. .02% in Missouri.). Having spent three terms in the legislature and four years in a governor’s office, as counsel, I may be more critical of bumbling governors, but it would have helped if she had read Measure for Measure. The public has a right to be confused. Maybe all the politicians are wrong? There is evidence that suggests the lockdowns did not work. I do not read her E.O.s anymore. A neighbor has a sign in his front yard, “Our Governor is an Idiot.” If my summer home association did not ban yard signs, I would have one, too. She is an inexperienced, officious and ambitious, neophyte, but coronavirus or “COVID,” as it is called, is now seen through the prism of the approaching election.

One political party wants to lock us up in our homes, and dictate our interactions, while the other wants us to exercise free will and potentially get sick. The issue is micro-management versus macro-management. The battle lines are drawn. No one wants to work together, collaboratively, anymore. During the 25 years of my life when I held public office both political parties worked together to solve problems. Imagine, I consorted with the enemy! Today, politics is a blood sport. So, I happily purchase my newspapers and groceries in the mornings, walk Tigger on a lonely country road in the afternoons for several hours, and occasionally have dinner or go boating with friends, or watch some long-ago television series. I ignore the political vitriol on the airwaves.

Of course, all large gatherings are banned. The local Charlevoix Arts and Crafts Fair, the Petoskey Antique Fair, the local Venetian week fireworks’ displays and boating events in late July, the August Art Fair and October Apple Fest, events I enthusiastically attended for forty years, were all extinguished. Naturally, no large cocktail gatherings are held on our cottage porches and lawns. Against all odds, after flying to California, albeit through virtually deserted airports, for a client in July, my wife and I have escaped the contagion. We have not crossed the River Styx. A vaccine will arrive sometime in the near future, and the coronavirus will recede in memory just as the bubonic plague, flu, measles, mumps and chicken pox did – or the snow will come to northern Michigan and we will flee south. Future generations will shake their heads and shrug. How could we have all gone so mad at once? It is the first time since Joshua’s commandment to the sun and the moon to stand still when the whole world stood still.

As John’s Gospel sayeth, “The wind bloweth where it listeth [wishes], and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.”


1. All references to death rates and population are from an internet search of state and census data on August 23, 2020. The Biblical quotes are Joshua 10:12-13 and John, 3:8. As I was finalizing this paper a poll by the Detroit Free Press showed a majority of Michigan residents support Gov. Whitman’s actions. For the intellectually curious the 1551 letter of Théodore de Bèze concerning the practice of my ancestor during the plague in Lausanne provides an interesting contrast. “Res nostrae, mi pater, sic se habent. Ancilla D. Jacobi nostri peste interiit; valetipse cum uxore, domo inclusus, Ut sunt hujus civitatis mores.

 

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