NOVATO, Calif. — A climbing destination on the remote eastern side of the snow-capped Sierra Nevada, Bishop, California, was packed last weekend, as crowded as any holiday, despite growing calls for isolation in advance of a predicted wave of coronavirus cases.
“People were like, ‘Social distancing? I’m going to Bishop. Can’t get any more distant than that,’” said Jeff Deikis, a resident and climber.
Although the risks of climbing are primarily associated with the heights and terrain, adventurers jammed the coffee shops and the brewery in Bishop. Driving four hours from Los Angeles and six hours from San Francisco, packs of climbers scaled the nearby boulders and canyons, sharing fresh air and, perhaps, infectious disease.
“Climbers from around the country have descended upon Bishop as though a global pandemic were some sort of hall pass from responsibility and magnanimity,” a climbing blog reported.
Across the United States, from Florida beaches to California mountains, casinos to national parks, legions dismissed the growing demands this past week to isolate themselves and stop congregating as the coronavirus spread through the country and shut down nearly all facets of American life.
They were the defiers and the disbelievers. They were those eager to flout authority or those afflicted with cabin fever, if not COVID-19. They were the officials crowded on the podium of the White House briefing room, doing not as they say.
They were all people who dismissed the calls for isolation, seeing more reward than risk in gathering. They conflated confidence with immunity. As in other times of national crisis, they exposed the relationship between individuals and society and our responsibility to others.
“If I get corona, I get corona,” a reveler in Florida said in a widely-shared television interview. “At the end of the day, I’m not going to let it stop me from partying.”
Under pressure, both social and governmental, their numbers shrink by the day. Their impact on spreading the virus may never be known.
The most dismissive were mostly young, freed from the structures of school and work, perhaps new to the concept of social responsibility. But plenty were older, trusting that the dwindling number of places still open to the public could be sanitized enough to keep sickness away.
Some did not want to cancel long-set plans for things like weddings. Others just wanted to get to the outdoors, only to find they were far from alone.
For others, gathering wasn’t a choice. It was a requirement from an employer more afraid of missed revenues than of spreading viruses.
While many grocery stores, gas stations and takeout restaurants remained open, the definition of “essential business” was open to interpretation.
In Rhode Island, among businesses cited for ignoring social-distance warnings was Wonderland, a strip club, where customers were still receiving lap dances last weekend. (Its website says it has since closed temporarily.)
GameStop, the video game chain, drew an outcry from its employees as it instructed its thousands of stores to remain open and to counter closure requests by local authorities, because, according to a staff memo, it believed it was “classified as essential retail.”
In California, Tesla, the luxury electric carmaker, temporarily defied Bay Area orders to shut down all nonessential business, keeping its 10,000 factory workers on the job. On Thursday, Tesla said it would suspend operations, beginning Monday.
And in the Midwest, Uline, a major distributor of packaging materials and industrial supplies, kept its workforce going through the week, despite complaints from employees, including those crowded into its call centers, working side-by-side in cubicles.
“Nothing’s really changed,” one employee said. “It’s just nerve-racking.”
Employees received an email Thursday from the Uihlein Family, owners of the $5.8 billion company and big donors to Republican causes, thanking them for their efforts and saying that the “White House called upon us twice with huge orders” this week.
The same day, a manager at one Uline call center sent a note to employees.
“If you, or family members, are under the weather with cold/allergies — or anything aside from COVID-19,” it read, “please do NOT tell your peers about the symptoms & your assumptions. By doing so, you are causing unnecessary panic in the office.”
But plenty of Americans voluntarily ventured into the germ-stained world to pass time. While the major casinos in Las Vegas and Atlantic City shuttered early in the week, those like Chukchansi Gold in central California promised increased cleanliness, a tricky sell in a world of playing cards and slot machines.
They folded, one by one. Chukchansi announced suddenly on Friday that it would close that night. Valley View Casino, near San Diego, planned to make it until Sunday night, but closed on Friday, too, along with several casinos in Florida.
With so many indoor places closed — no malls, no movies — millions tried to escape outdoors, sometimes creating their own crowds. Sidewalks were jammed around the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C., as people came to see the cherry blossoms.
No place highlighted the country’s conflicting moods more than Florida. Footage of crowded beaches spread. Shutting down spring break proved difficult. Some students, high on sunshine and beers and obliviousness, relied on their youth as a shield and ignored warnings they could carry the virus back to their parents and grandparents.
“It’s like this thing blew up in my face,” said Parker Simms, a student from the University of Kentucky who came to Fort Lauderdale last Saturday with 50 friends and big plans. “It blew up during my spring break week.”
In the debate between economics and epidemiology, local officials generally took the side of money and revelry. Late in the week, though, many joined the shutdown trend.
By Thursday, the beach in Fort Lauderdale was eerily empty, save for stacked chairs and lifeguard towers. A cluster of college students with roller bags and floppy straw hats walked toward a waiting SUV headed to the airport.
Not all beachgoers were young people. A retired doctor and self-described “metal detectorist” named Larry Leguire, 68, from Columbus, Ohio, had been in Florida since December. On Thursday on Clearwater Beach, he found four rings, two of which he believed were gold, plus a handful of coins, aluminum cans, pull tabs and bottle caps.
“It was crazy out here yesterday,” Leguire said. “You saw it, right? Today is a lot less. I think it’s the coronavirus and the news about all the kids congregating.”
Leguire said he and his wife keep distance from others and wear gloves and masks in grocery stores. He was not happy to learn that the beach was closing Friday night.
“The beach is my life, and without the beach, it’s like, why be in Florida?” he said. “I might as well go back home and sequester myself in my house in Columbus, Ohio.”
Formal gatherings like funerals and weddings were canceled or reconsidered. At a backyard wedding near Anaheim, California, on Saturday night, a DJ named Amanda B. was so nervous about performing that she did not shake the groom’s hand or let anyone touch her microphone.
“At that point, the advice was that gatherings of 50 or less were OK,” she said a few days later. “But I wouldn’t do it now.”
In Brooklyn, New York, Hasidic Jews defied isolation orders and held weddings; others continued gathering for prayer. In Fort Lauderdale, Florida, a wedding planned for late March was expedited and shrunk. Charlotte Jay and Blake Parker, both 29, called their rabbi, invited a dozen close relatives to Parker’s parents’ condo, and rushed to get ready.
Clorox wipes and hand sanitizer greeted guests on an outdoor terrace. Parker’s mother played the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” on her cellphone. The wedding planner livestreamed the ceremony for the original 225 guests.
“My dad and I sanitized our hands, linked arms and walked down the aisle,” Jay said. “We didn’t even hug or kiss. My dad elbow bumps Blake. Then he elbow bumps me.”
Others tried to treat these as normal times, though contrasts were easy to spot. California’s Santa Monica Pier was closed, its amusement park quiet and still, but surfers continued riding waves below it.
On Wednesday afternoon in Los Angeles’ Fairfax District, groups of runners dripped sweat on the near empty streets, zooming past day laborers humming corridos. At the Erewhon market a mile away, both the middle-aged and millennials sipped to-go coffees and munched plates of roasted organic carrots and beets at clusters of outdoor tables.
At nearby Pan Pacific Park, basketball players filled a court and CrossFitters heaved kettlebells on the grass. It seemed more leisurely Sunday than mounting global emergency.
Among the unexpected places to see a virus-induced surge in visitors were some national parks. Big Bend National Park, in Texas, had lines of cars a week ago and was “packed” earlier this week, even as isolation orders rolled across the country.
Most national parks waived entrance fees but closed visitors centers. Yosemite National Park was among those to shut down lodging, and Friday afternoon, closed entirely.
On Saturday, people in the Bay Area ignored stay-in-place orders and crowded outdoor places like the Marin Headlands and Point Reyes National Seashore, which reported “unprecedented visitation.”
Any type of middle-of-nowhere congregation created a new kind of worry — rural areas with limited medical facilities being overrun with tourists just as the pandemic strikes in full. That concern shut down Colorado ski resorts. Islands in Maine and North Carolina barred visitors.
In Moab, Utah, an area known for rock climbing and mountain biking near Arches National Park, health officials shut down hotels to everyone but local residents or those traveling for work after executives from the 17-bed Moab Regional Hospital implored the state to help.
That was the concern in Bishop. The Bishop Area Climbers Coalition ultimately asked “climbing friends” to “not travel to Bishop at this time.”
“We’re worried about what will happen if and when Bishop turns into its own little cluster” of the coronavirus, Deikis, the coalition’s vice president, said on Wednesday.
By Friday, after shops had closed and Gov. Gavin Newsom of California gave a shelter-in-place order, the town was relatively quiet again.
There was no outrunning the effects of the coronavirus, even at the edge of the continent. In Key West, Florida, a red, black and yellow buoy marking the southernmost point in the continental United States is a hot spot for tourists. A line forms every day, all day, for the photo op in front of the buoy that declares “90 Miles to Cuba.”
The buoy was covered this week in a quest to keep tourists from gathering there.
“It’s the southernmost tarp!” one tourist quipped.
Kay Seeling, 69, and two friends made the trip to Florida from Seattle a week ago, not expecting the crisis to follow them, exploding as it did. Now they had few options, as bars and many restaurants closed, and county officials ordered hotels closed by Sunday.
“We’re taking precautions,” Denise Algie, a companion, said, noting her hand sanitizer.
“But we’re not,” Seeling argued. “We have masks, but we’re not wearing them.”
“You’re going to die of something at our age anyway,” Algie said. “You can’t stop life.”
They hopped on their rented golf cart and left. Next stop: an airboat ride on the Florida Everglades. They hoped it was still open.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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