One day, SARS-CoV-2 was somebody else’s problem: the residents of Wuhan, China; the doctors and nurses of northern Italy; the passengers aboard a Diamond Princess cruise ship. The next day, it was here.
That day was March 11, 2020 — one tumultuous, tragic year ago.
That morning, within 60 seconds of the opening bell, the Dow Jones plunged more than 700 points. On Capitol Hill, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, warned Congress that “it’s going to get worse” — then rushed to the White House to confer with then-President Donald Trump about shutting down travel from Europe. Meanwhile, in Geneva, Switzerland, the World Health Organization finally declared COVID-19 a pandemic, acknowledging that they were “deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction.”
Spooked for the first time, a previously dismissive Trump addressed the nation from the Oval Office. Yet minutes later his remarks were overshadowed by not one but two momentous revelations: that Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson had tested positive on set in Australia — and that the NBA, reeling from its own infections, would be the first pro sports league in America to suspend its season.
In quick succession, schools shut down, streets emptied, hospitals filled up and Americans who until that point had been hoping that elbow bumps would keep the virus at bay hid in their homes with stockpiles of toilet paper in order to #flattenthecurve.
In fact, the coronavirus had already been spreading across the United States for months, and it would be weeks before COVID-19 cases and deaths reached the first of their many harrowing peaks.
But now the threat was real. Everything had changed.
Looking back, it’s almost impossible to recall how suddenly and completely the national consciousness shifted. According to a Yahoo News/YouGov poll conducted on March 10 and 11, 2020, a mere 6 percent of Americans had worn a mask in public before that day. As of March 10, just 782 cases had been confirmed in the U.S.; fewer than 20,000 tests had been conducted. A staggering 88 percent of Americans predicted that the U.S. death toll — then at 28 — would never top 10,000. Today, more than half a million Americans have died, and nearly nearly two-thirds (64 percent) tell Yahoo News and YouGov in a new survey that they have either contracted COVID-19 themselves or seen a close friend or family member become infected.
To mark the anniversary of March 11, 2020, and reckon with the response that followed, Yahoo News painstakingly reconstructed the hour-by-hour drama of that day in the voices of those who defined it. The chorus includes familiar figures such as Fauci and NBA commissioner Adam Silver, but it focuses just as much on the ordinary doctors, nurses, teachers, essential workers and working parents who embody the deeper stories that were set in motion on March 11 — stories that, in turn, have gone on to shape America's pandemic year. The unequal impact of the virus on communities of color. The dizzying escalation of online misinformation. The politicization of public health. The shortcomings of our safety net. The power of science. And ultimately the resilience of our country.
MELISSA REIN LIVELY (Arizona publicist and former QAnon adherent who went viral for an anti-mask tirade): On January 27, I had this terrifying phone call with my brother. He was in China with his wife, who’s Chinese, visiting family for the Chinese New Year. They were starting to see images of people becoming very sick in the streets and keeling over on the sidewalk. Images that were not quite making it to the U.S.
He freaked out. He was like, ‘We're going to the airport and getting on the next flight back to the U.S. I have a feeling that they're going to close the borders.’
But then I went to work the next day, and everything was normal. If I had come into a meeting with clients and been like, ‘I know we’ve got that big event on March 15, but we're gonna have to pull the plug on that because there’s a huge pandemic coming,’ people would have thought I was crazy.
OLIVIA TROYE (national security adviser to Vice President Mike Pence): I remember talking to my national security colleagues who cover Asia and saying, ‘What do you know about what's happening there? This looks serious.’ But we didn’t have a lot of insight on the ground. We kept asking for access.
DR. ANTHONY FAUCI (America’s leading infectious disease expert): We didn’t get good eyes on what was going on until late. Should we have been more aggressive with China and put their feet to the fire? I mean, obviously, history has told us that the president was not interested in doing that. He was complimenting them on what a good job they were doing.
At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan. 22, Trump was asked if he trusted the Communist government to be transparent about the virus. “I do, I do,” Trump said. “I have a great relationship with President Xi.”
UCHÉ BLACKSTOCK (New York emergency physician and health equity advocate): We were seeing people who were getting sicker than the typical flu, and who were more likely to die. Early on, I noticed that patients in China who had high blood pressure, obesity and asthma symptoms were more likely to do very poorly. That got me thinking about the inequities that we have in this country. I knew that Black people and other people of color are more likely to be burdened with those chronic diseases. But we were also a little bit hopeful that it wouldn't reach us.
SANDRA LINDSAY (intensive care nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center who became one of the first people in the U.S. to receive a COVID vaccine): We are located in Queens, which is a predominantly minority community. During that first week of March, we got one patient in my ICU.
SUZANNE SPRAGUE (Massachusetts pediatrician, internist and mother of three; advocate for school reopening): I was secretly hoping it would be like so many other infectious diseases that we've been nervous about where, through the work of other nations and the World Health Organization, it would be contained. That a handful of people in the United States would be affected.
BLACKSTOCK: When something is happening thousands of miles away, it feels so removed from us and so different.
SPRAGUE: And that’s always been the pattern, like with SARS or Ebola. I honestly felt that we would be able to control things because we’re America. We’re ‘the best.’ I had the American exceptionalism blinders on.
FAUCI: The Chinese themselves, at each step, were holding things back. First it was just an animal to human jump. And then they said, ‘Oh, no, it’s spread from human to human.’ ‘Oh no, it’s spread really efficiently from human to human.’ ‘Oh no, it’s spread by people who don't have any symptoms.’ If we had known that from day one, many, many more alarm bells would have gone off.
ADAM SILVER (NBA commissioner): David Ho, a world renowned virus expert, was brought on in the early ’90s to be an adviser to the NBA, based on his HIV and AIDS research. And completely coincidentally, I ran into Dr. Ho in late January at a Brooklyn Nets game. We were chatting and I was asking him at that point — not thinking necessarily that this coronavirus would have a huge impact on our business — but what he was hearing coming out of China? And he said that his lab was beginning to focus almost entirely on this coronavirus. I called him the next day and said, ‘Doctor, I’ve been thinking about it. Would you mind advising the league in the same way you did back in the early ’90s?’ He said absolutely.
LAUREN LEMOS (Los Angeles restaurant owner): We had had a trip planned to New York in March. We were going to go visit a friend. And in early March she was like, ‘It’s about to get really bad here. I would think about canceling your trip.’ But we were mainly worried about things being closed — versus like, getting sick or spreading a virus. We were still thinking about going.
BARRON LERNER (New York internist and medical historian): We were still going out to dinner. We had theater tickets, I remember for March 13. So it wasn’t like I had great prognostic abilities.
Everybody had their theory. You should wear a mask, you shouldn’t wear a mask. It was OK to elbow bump, it wasn’t OK to elbow bump. This is spread by aerosol, this is spread by particles. And so many of these things were wrong — over and over.
TIM BUCKLEY (social studies teacher in Brooklyn): I was celebrating a friend’s engagement one night and her mother was there. And she wouldn’t shake my hand — she offered her elbow. It was the first time I had seen or even heard about anyone doing that. And it actually struck me as rude. I wasn’t hip to that yet.
SILVER: I was at the NBA during the SARS epidemic, during H1N1. You’d go to China, people would be wearing masks, you’d be temperature-checked at the airport. That’s how this felt — yet another virus that was sort of foreign to the NBA. It wasn’t front of mind to me.
But these are players who, for a living, play roughly three-and-a-half games a week. Three times a week, they’re in arenas, contained structures, 19,000 people or so. Then they pick up and go to another city. Often, when they’re not playing games, they make public appearances — hundreds, sometimes thousands of people around them.
So based on advice we had gotten from Dr. Ho, beginning around late February, early March, we decided to test players who were displaying symptoms associated with this virus.
ERIC WALDEN (Salt Lake City Tribune reporter who covers the Utah Jazz): I had just come off of a four-game road trip with the team at the beginning of March. The first game was March 2 in Cleveland. We then went on to New York and Boston, two of the cities which became very early players in the COVID scare in the United States. Looking back, it’s crazy to think about how little we knew about it. In Boston, in particular, you’re thinking back to being in these tiny little locker rooms. You’ve got players in there, you’ve got trainers, team attendants cleaning up, you’ve got media coming in post-game, everyone just kind of crowded around all these guys. And no one’s thinking anything of it.
@realDonaldTrump, March 9: So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!
SPRAGUE: In late February, there was that huge outbreak at a Biogen conference in Boston. I had a patient who'd had contact with someone who was there, and she was like, ‘Dr. Sprague, I'm having a bad cough and a fever.’ ‘Oh my gosh,’ I said, ‘we need to get you a COVID test.’ Then I spent eight hours trying to get her a test — just calling everybody at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. That’s when I realized we didn’t have a plan.
LIVELY: By the first week of February, I was the first person in the grocery store with a mask on and gloves on. People were looking at me like I was nuts. I ended up canceling all my meetings by the middle of February. I just started saying, ‘I’m going to voluntarily stay home.’
FAUCI: There are a lot of people [who] criticize, saying, ‘Well, why did you change your tune?’ You didn't change your tune. You learned more each day about what was going on. And it [soon] became very clear that this virus was spread by people who had no symptoms, which means there was an incredible amount of infection below the radar screen that we weren’t picking up yet. As soon as that became clear, and we saw community spread, it was inevitable that it was going to explode.
NOAM BRAMSON (Mayor of New Rochelle, N.Y., one of the first virus hot spots): In early March, I received a phone call from a colleague in New York City letting me know that there had been a positive coronavirus test for a New Rochelle resident who worked in New York City. That was my first indication that the virus had arrived in New Rochelle.
I think our initial take — and this is true, not just of the city, but also of county and state authorities — is that we were dealing with a serious but localized outbreak within the house of worship that the index patient belonged to. And so the initial strategy treated that as a sort of kitchen fire. Let’s try to knock it down. Let’s try to prevent it from spreading further. And if we can accomplish that successfully, then maybe we’ll nip this challenge in the bud.
We were the beta test for America. The immediate measure was to impose a quarantine on anyone who had attended one of two large gatherings associated with the house of worship. Then the containment zone was established by New York State on March 10.
What became clear in retrospect is that there were probably as many as 10,000 undetected cases in the New York metropolitan area by that time. So to extend the analogy, it wasn’t a kitchen fire — the fire was already running rampant through the ducts and the walls. It just simply hadn’t been detected yet.
WALDEN: I get home from the road trip, and the Jazz are playing a game at home against Toronto on March 9. This is when you first see any recognition that something's different. They had a shootaround that morning at their practice facility. Normally, afterward you can come onto the court to do interviews. But this time, we didn’t do that. They set up a conference room next door, and they had spaced seating because they decided that they needed to start creating this 6-foot barrier between media and players.
And that became the famous news conference where Rudy Gobert gets finished speaking, and — maybe this indicates our naivete — but we’ve all got our digital recorders and our microphones sitting on the table by him, and he’s speaking into them. And as he wraps up, he takes a playful jab at this newfound separation between us. He leans down, and he touches all the recorders and all the microphones, including mine. And I sent out this tweet saying Rudy did this funny thing.
Two days later, it didn’t seem so funny anymore.
II. MARCH 11, 2020
FAUCI: It was the most unusual day.
LERNER (New York internist and medical historian): That morning we had a very important conference at Bellevue [Hospital]. It was the first time that the people who run the clinic talked about putting in a formal protocol for COVID patients. We were told if you’re talking to a patient in your office, and they have any of the symptoms, you need to say to the patient, ‘I have to leave the office now’ and put our protocol into place, which involves immediately putting a mask on the patient and taking the patient to down to an area where they could be tested for COVID. But I don’t think any of us thought that anything like that was going to happen that same day.
9:31 a.m. ET: On Wall Street, stocks open lower amid ongoing fears over the coronavirus. The Dow Jones Industrial Average falls more than 710 points within a minute of the opening bell.
FAUCI: I was testifying before the House Oversight Committee] hearing. And during that hearing, I started to, you know, sound the alarm.
10:06 a.m. ET: Fauci is questioned by Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., chairwoman of the committee, on Capitol Hill:
Maloney: Is the worst yet to come, Dr. Fauci?
Fauci: Yes, it is.
Maloney: Can you elaborate?
Fauci: We will see more cases, and things will get worse than they are right now. How much worse will depend on our ability to do two things: to contain the influx of people who are infected coming from the outside and the ability to contain and mitigate within our own country. Bottom line, it’s going to get worse.
FAUCI: I knew it was not going to be received well [because of] vibrations you get from the White House that they don't particularly like you talking about things that are on the one hand true, but on the other hand, alarming. But I just did it.
The history shows that I was not in good stead. If you look at the relationship between me and the president — me and the president's people, me and the president's communications department — I was a little bit of a persona non grata because of... well, not a little bit, but a lot of a persona non grata for what I was saying. But I had to say it, because it was the truth.
10:22 a.m. ET: @realDonaldTrump: Vanity Fair Magazine, which will soon be out of business, and their third rate Fake reporters, who make up sources which don’t exist, wrote yet another phony & boring hit piece.
VANITY FAIR: “He’s Definitely Melting Down Over This”: Trump, Germaphobe in Chief, Struggles to Control the Covid-19 Story Publicly, he sees it as yet another (“Fake News”) media war; privately, he worries about virus-carrying journalists on Air Force One. But cancel his rallies? “I’m not going to do it,” he says.
@realDonaldTrump: The facts are just the opposite. Our team is doing a great job with CoronaVirus!
SILVER: A few national public health officials, most notably, Dr. Fauci — he testified at a congressional hearing on March 11 that the NBA and other leagues should consider playing without fans. But [no one was talking about] shutting down the entire league.
FAUCI: I had a pre-arranged meeting at the White House with [White House coronavirus response coordinator] Debbie Birx and [CDC Director] Bob Redfield to meet with the president, who we were discussing shutting off travel from Europe. ... The hearing was supposed to end at 12:30. But I had to be at the White House at 12:30. So I said, “I have to leave at 11:45.”
And all the press mistakenly thought that because I was on C-SPAN saying things are really bad, it’s getting worse ... that the president got pissed off at me and yanked me out of the hearing, and said, “You better get back to the White House.”
The papers went wild. As I was walking out of the hearing to go to the car to go to the White House, I got followed by like a dozen cameras saying, “Oh, the president called you out of the hearing. Fauci has been called out of the hearing by the president.”
12:26 p.m. ET: The World Health Organization declares COVID-19 a pandemic.
Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, World Health Organization director-general, makes the announcement at a press briefing in Geneva: “In the days and weeks ahead, we expect to see the number of cases, the number of deaths, and the number of affected countries climb even higher. WHO has been assessing this outbreak around the clock and we are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction. We have therefore made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterized as a pandemic.
TROYE (national security adviser to Vice President Mike Pence): In the White House, we knew to expect that announcement, which led to some internal discussions. “OK, we’ve been downplaying the case numbers. The president has been sort of vocal about it not being a big deal. And the cases were going to go away but then we have this announcement coming from the WHO that’s flat-out saying we have a serious problem on our hands. And this is global.”
GHEBREYESUS: We have never before seen a pandemic sparked by a coronavirus. This is the first pandemic caused by a coronavirus. And we have never before seen a pandemic that can be controlled, at the same time. … We have rung the alarm bell loud and clear.
LINDSAY (intensive care nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens): Of course we were scared. We knew it was only a matter of time before it came to us.
12:30 p.m. ET: On Wall Street, the Dow sinks more than 1,200 points following the WHO announcement. Back in Washington, President Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and members of the White House coronavirus task force meet about restricting travel from Europe.
DEBORAH BIRX (via The New Yorker): “If we just let this thing ride, there could be two million dead. If we take action, we can keep the death toll at a hundred and fifty to two hundred and fifty thousand.”
TROYE: The European travel restrictions, that was not an easy decision. It was very, very significantly debated, probably for the two weeks beforehand, because there were some very strong opinions in the room about the impact that would have on the economy. I remember Secretary Mnuchin being very upset off the top.
TREASURY SECRETARY STEVE MNUCHIN (via The New Yorker): “Forget about ballgames! Forget about campaign rallies! This is going to bankrupt everyone. Boeing won’t sell a single jet.”
BIRX: “You keep asking me for my data. What data do you have? Does it take into account hundreds of thousands of dead Americans?”
TROYE: Once COVID-19 gets classified as a pandemic, though, I saw Mnuchin actually have a complete change of approach to the virus where he says, “OK, this is serious. And if this is something we have to do, we have to do it.” The meeting continued, and it was decided that [the ban on travel from Europe] was prudent and it needed to happen.
2:04 p.m. ET: @realDonaldTrump: Someone needs to tell the Democrats in Congress that CoronaVirus doesn’t care what party you are in. We need to protect ALL Americans!
LERNER: In the middle of the afternoon, I had a roomful of patients. And I called in a patient of Asian descent. She’d been triaged and the triage said she was fine. She did not have a fever that day; she wasn't breathing particularly hard. I tried to get an interpreter on the telephone to speak her language, but they kept saying, “Sorry, we don’t have any available.” I was busy, so I said, I just have to try to do this in English. I was not wearing a mask. We were told at the time you shouldn’t wear a mask, because the harms outweigh the benefits.
And I had a five- to 10-minute conversation with my patient. Then the phone rings and they say, ‘Doctor, do you still need your interpreter?’ A little part of me said I better be careful. So the interpreter gets on. They start talking.
Long story short, she had had a fever 10 days before with a cough. Since then, she had been markedly short of breath. I thought, ‘Oh, god, this is exactly what we were told this morning.’ ‘You could have COVID,’ I told her. ‘I have to leave the room now.’ My room was boarded up, but I had all these other patients, so I had to go and start seeing them — again, without a mask. It was a jarring. But I finished my day and went home.
TROYE: The vice president was initially going to do the press conference [about the travel restrictions], and I had been prepping for him. But then we were told that the president would be doing the address … and we waited. It was supposed to be at 4:00 PM that day. It just kept getting pushed.
NOAH BIERMAN (Los Angeles Times reporter on White House pool duty): There started to be rumors throughout the morning that Trump might address the country because there was all this building pressure. It was still being decided whether he was going to do it.
TROYE: Eventually it turns into an Oval Office address at night, at like, 9:00 p.m.
BIERMAN: Remember, at the time, Trump is primarily concerned with the market reaction. And so there was an uncertainty whether a speech would calm the markets or concern them. In his mind, he still thought he could control the virus and how the world reacted to it.
Then he has that meeting with business leaders again, an indication of, you know, he’s thinking of this in terms of a market calming issue. And he opened up that meeting, which wasn't all that uncommon. But I think that was an effort by him to reassure the market.
3:39 p.m. ET: Trump addresses reporters during a meeting with business leaders in the Cabinet Room:
“Prior to the coronavirus, it was, it was just all go — and the numbers were fantastic. And we don’t even know what the numbers are now. We’ll have to see. The numbers from a week ago were great and from two days ago were great, but now we’re hitting a patch. And we’re going to have to do something with respect to getting this — getting rid of this virus as quickly as possible and as safely as possible. So we’ll be making, most likely, a statement. I’ll be making a statement later on tonight as to what I’ve decided to do and what our country will be doing.”
Trump is asked by CNN’s Jim Acosta what he would say to Americans who are concerned that he isn’t taking the virus seriously enough. “That’s CNN,” the president replies. “Fake news.”
4 p.m. ET: The Dow Jones Industrial Average closes down 1,465 points, or 5.9 percent, sending it more than 20 percent below its recent high from February and into a bear market.
4:31 p.m. ET: The NCAA announces no fans will be allowed in attendance at its upcoming basketball tournament. (The NCAA later canceled March Madness altogether.)
4:33 p.m. ET: The Biden campaign announces the cancelation of upcoming in-person rallies and plans to hold virtual events.
“At the request of elected officials in Illinois and Florida, we will no longer hold large crowd events on Friday and Monday in those states. Tomorrow, Vice President Biden will deliver remarks on the coronavirus pandemic, Friday’s and Monday’s events will become virtual events, and the campaign will make announcements about additional details on the format and timing of the virtual events and on future events in the coming days.”
8:44 p.m. ET: The White House coronavirus task force announces a Community Mitigation Strategy for New Rochelle, N.Y., effectively creating a containment zone for the virus.
BRAMSON (Mayor of New Rochelle, N.Y., one of the first virus hot spots): Now, in retrospect, the containment zone was a pretty modest measure. It imposed restrictions on large gatherings within large institutions in the geographic area where there was already a detectable upsurge of the virus. But at a moment when none of us had any familiarity with this kind of exposure to a pandemic, and when the idea of restrictions of any kind was entirely alien to our community and every community, it seemed like a very aggressive step.
To see National Guardsmen and National Guardswomen with masks and, in some cases, hazmat suits, it was the kind of image that you would associate with a dystopian science fiction movie, and not something you expect to see in your local park.
And yet I do think even that misunderstanding may have been, in some sense, beneficial to the national experience, because it helped to underline the gravity of the situation that we were facing. That sense of shock may have been necessary to pull people into this new reality and achieve a recognition that our lives were going to be significantly different for an extended period of time. And indeed it wasn’t long after that the entire country became a containment zone.
The Utah Jazz were in Oklahoma City for a game against the Thunder that was scheduled to begin at 8:10 p.m. ET. But there was a mysterious delay.
SILVER: Rudy Gobert from the Utah Jazz had some symptoms that seemed flu-like, and under the auspices of the Oklahoma City Health authorities, he was administered a COVID test. Around 7:45 on the evening of March 11, I was heading home from the office in New York City. It’s not a very long ride. I’d just gotten into a car when I received a call from our general counsel at the NBA. And he said, we just got a test result for Rudy Gobert — and he’s COVID positive.
WALDEN (Salt Lake City Tribune reporter who covers the Utah Jazz): There was an event in town in Salt Lake City that night. It was a professional wrestling event that my son wanted to go to. So I’m in this arena with a few thousand other people, and my wife texted me. She’s like, Hey, I’ve got the game on the TV and it hasn’t started yet. There's something weird going on.’
SILVER: The immediate issue was, should we cancel the game now? Gobert was not in the arena. He hadn't stepped into the arena. He'd only been around his teammates the day before. The game was scheduled to tip off around seven o'clock local time. So that was going to be in 15 minutes.
Then I saw another call on my cell phone. It was from the principal owner of the Oklahoma City Thunder. And he said, ‘I've just heard that there's a positive case from the other team. What are we going to do here?’ He was standing on the court, and he said, ‘You realize the players are on the floor.’ There were also roughly 19,000 people in his arena. We made an immediate decision to have the players returned to their locker rooms so we could have at least a few minutes to figure out what we were doing.
9:02 p.m. ET: President Trump speaks to the nation in a televised address from the Oval Office.
TROYE: I was watching the address from home with my family. The big question was, How is the president of the United States going to continue to say, you know, ‘it's [not a problem]’ when the WHO was saying, ‘No, we have a serious problem on our hands?’ And so at that moment… you see Donald Trump take a different kind of tone. He’s more serious about the virus.
Trump: “We are at a critical time in the fight against the virus. We made a life-saving move with early action on China. Now we must take the same action with Europe. We will not delay. I will never hesitate to take any necessary steps to protect the lives, health, and safety of the American people. I will always put the wellbeing of America first.”
TROYE: But he also pivots and he says it's more of a foreign problem. It's a foreign virus that's causing this issue.
Trump: [After] taking early intense action, we have seen dramatically fewer cases of the virus in the United States than are now present in Europe.The European Union failed to take the same precautions and restrict travel from China and other hotspots. As a result, a large number of new clusters in the United States were seeded by travelers from Europe.
TROYE: I remember being a little frustrated, because I was like, ‘This isn't a foreign virus problem. This is a global problem that is going to impact a lot of Americans. And we know that there are more cases than we can really kind of predict or tell right now.’ We knew by then that it spread through aerosol. We also knew that you could be asymptomatic and you could be spreading it.
Trump: If we are vigilant — and we can reduce the chance of infection, which we will — we will significantly impede the transmission of the virus. The virus will not have a chance against us. No nation is more prepared or more resilient than the United States.
BLACKSTOCK (New York emergency physician and health equity advocate): The travel ban worried me. I felt like something bad was going to happen, even if I was still not seeing it in front of me.
9:08 p.m. ET: Tom Hanks, actor, via Instagram: “Hello, folks. @ritawilson and I are down here in Australia. We felt a bit tired, like we had colds, and some body aches. Rita had some chills that came and went. Slight fevers too. To play things right, as is needed in the world right now, we were tested for the Coronavirus, and were found to be positive. Well, now. What to do next? The medical officials have protocols that must be followed. We Hanks’ will be tested, observed, and isolated for as long as public health and safety requires. Not much more to it than a one-day-at-a-time approach, no?”
TROYE: I was sitting on the couch next to my husband with my dogs next to me when the news broke about Tom Hanks. I've probably watched every movie that he's been in. I like what he stands for as an actor. And I remember being really sad and worried, because I thought to myself, "You know, this virus doesn't have any boundaries. It doesn’t matter who you are, how famous you are, whether you're an everyday person, a famous actor, famous politician. We’re all going to be exposed to this.”
WALDEN: Meanwhile, for some reason, the [Jazz] game hasn’t started. So I started looking on Twitter. These NBA writers are mentioning something’s up in Oklahoma City; Rudy Gobert apparently was sick today. And then, right about the time that I was checking it out, my work buddy Andy sent me a text. He’s like, “Hey, Shams is reporting that Rudy tested positive for COVID.”
9:27 p.m. ET: The Athletic’s Shams Charania breaks the news that Gobert has tested positive for coronavirus.
SILVER: All the players were sent back to the locker room, I think I had one more conversation with our office to see whether the Oklahoma City Health authorities were going to direct us not to play. And within that five-, 10-minute period, we didn’t receive any directives. So at that point, I made a decision that we needed to call that game and then work with the team to announce to the assembled crowd that they needed to exit the arena.
WALDEN: Suddenly everything became fast-moving. I sit down next to my son. I start looking around. And then I realize I’ve been on a road trip with these guys for a week. Now I’m in a [wrestling] arena with thousands of other people. And I’m like, ‘I might have it. I might have COVID. We need to go home.’ And so we booked it out of there.
SILVER: At that point, it didn’t make sense to stop games that were in progress. But we had one other game that evening that hadn’t started yet, and that was out in Sacramento. The fans were already in the building. We then learn that one of the officials who was scheduled to work the game in Sacramento had officiated at a Utah Jazz game earlier in the week. So that made the decision relatively straightforward. We canceled the game and announced we were now on what we were calling “a hiatus.”
9:32 p.m. ET: The NBA officially suspends the season in the wake of Gobert’s positive test.
WALDEN: I drove home. I'm listening to the radio as this is happening. And you hear on the radio driving home to season is … indefinitely postponed. And you’re just like, man. We got into unprecedented territory real quick.
SILVER: There’s a [photo] that stands out in my head of Mark Cuban, who was sitting courtside at one of the games. And clearly he gets a text message or some sort of alert on his phone that the season had been suspended.
LERNER: I wouldn’t have said, watching the TV at the time, Oh, it’s interesting that the same day I got infected with COVID-19 was the day everything changed. I wasn't thinking that. But there did seem to be this momentum, like, Oh my God, this is really happening. You almost felt like you were starting to go downhill in a barrel.
LIVELY (Arizona publicist and former QAnon adherent who went viral for an anti-mask tirade): When March 11 rolled around, and they finally announced that it was a pandemic, I kind of freaked out. In my mind's eye, I’m seeing the compounding tragedy that was gonna unroll before us. I can see it like dominoes. The economy is going to crash. People are going to get very, very sick. If what they’re saying is true, a lot of people are going to die. I just had a very private sort of mental collapse.
SILVER: I remember it being a very emotional decision for me. Tens of thousands of jobs are dependent on this league. I ended up sitting in a car outside my apartment building for about 20 minutes on the phone. I was late to have dinner with my wife. I walked into our apartment, and I said, “You're not going to believe what just happened.“ And I felt, you know, this surge of emotion. It was an overwhelming feeling. “I just made a decision,” I told her, “that we’re shutting down the entire NBA.” There was certainly a sense that this was going to have a ripple effect.
BIERMAN: I just remember thinking after Trump’s speech that these pop-cultural events were going to matter a whole lot more than what the president said. Normal people care more about Tom Hanks and the NBA [than politics].
LEMOS (Los Angeles restaurant owner): That’s when we canceled our flight to New York. I remember the news just rolling in fast, headline after headline, story after story. We knew it was the right thing to do. It was surreal to grasp later on that we almost went to New York during this time.
TROYE: There were different factions in the White House when it came to the pandemic. I was in the national security lane, right? More on the side of the doctors and the CDC and trying to figure out how we were going to keep this from spreading. But there was also the political faction of the White House too. And they had the microphone.
It was discussed that any type of mass gathering right now would be a really bad idea. But there was hesitancy to cancel the president’s trips and rallies because we were in an election year.
There was a lot of pushback from the chief of staff in our office. He wanted the vice president out there, and he was annoyed that the advice of me and Dr. Birx and others was that we have to stop traveling.
10:19 p.m. ET: The Trump campaign finally cancels an upcoming event scheduled for March 19 “because of the coronavirus outbreak.”
LERNER: It’s very hard to mobilize people for a theoretical pandemic. And everybody, myself included, was hanging on to an optimistic thread that this going wasn’t gonna be so bad. But by the end of that day, you couldn't really say that anymore. Enough things were happening. The world was changing.
Late Wednesday, schools across the country start to cancel classes, including this preschool in Los Angeles:
Dear Families: While there are still no known cases in our immediate community or school, after careful deliberation, the School will close its campus starting this Monday, March 16, for two weeks. Our hope is to reopen Monday, March 30th.
TROYE: This is only the beginning, is what I was thinking. The national security staff, a lot of the more junior staff, the doctors — they knew that this was going to be significant. And it was something that we needed to get ahead of and continue messaging because every day mattered. Every moment mattered. So you did see the tone change: OK, we’ve got to get more aggressive on this. Unfortunately, that message eroded along the way.
FAUCI: I knew it was going to get worse. But when I said get worse, I thought we were gonna reach, potentially, the model that Debbie Birx and I were talking about — anywhere between 100,000 and 240,000 [deaths] at the very most. In fact, I thought 240,000 was a bit of an exaggeration.
LERNER (New York internist and medical historian): If I could go back in time and tell myself one thing on March 11, 2020, it would be that my assumptions about how this epidemic is going to progress need to be questioned, and that the faith that I and others have in the world of science and public health was going to be severely challenged. It would have been good to know early on that one thing we were going to be confronting was not just the virus, but the resistance to public health.
FAUCI: There was such a confluence of things in this country that lead to the fact that we did very, very poorly compared to other countries.
LEMOS (Los Angeles restaurant owner): After March 11, we were absolutely terrified. What is the responsible, ethical thing to do when you have a public-facing business? We understood that shutting down [Lemos’s restaurant] Wax Paper would mean never reopening. There wasn’t any promise of emergency assistance. We had no real savings. Our margins are tight. Our overhead is huge. We have to sell sandwiches to survive.
On March 12, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announces that gatherings with 500 people or more would not be permitted in the state, and capacities at other venues would be reduced by 50 percent. Broadway is shut down as theaters go dark.
BLACKSTOCK (New York emergency physician and health equity advocate): By the end of that week, we just started seeing these patients coming in looking exhausted and fatigued. They looked like they had the flu, but their flu tests were negative. The coronavirus had arrived.
LINDSAY (intensive care nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens): On Friday the 13th, I'll never forget, I had a late evening meeting with my team because we were starting to see our volume rise. We knew that our traditional use of four ICUs would not suffice. So we had identified another area, a fifth ICU, that was being prepped for patients. I left here after six or seven that evening. And by Monday morning when I came back, it was like the floodgates had opened. I did not know where so many patients had come from.
LIVELY (Arizona publicist and former QAnon adherent who went viral for an anti-mask tirade): That week the reality set in — the avalanche of information, uncertainty, confusion, panic, distress. I was just absolutely drowning. And I couldn't catch my breath.
WALDEN (Salt Lake City Tribune reporter who covers the Utah Jazz): After my exposure, I got a call from one of the one of the main people at the Utah Department of Health: This is what we know, this is what we don’t know and can’t know, here’s what you should expect. Two days before, I’m laughing about Rudy Gobert touching my microphone. Now, suddenly, I’m being told, Don't leave your house for two weeks.
LERNER: The next step was to get tested. On Tuesday I drove in. I normally take the train, but that was obviously not an option. I was finally wearing a mask. Quietly went to where I was supposed to go. I didn't schmooze with anybody. I got my test and came home. The next day I found out I was positive.
WALDEN: I was not able to get a test.
LERNER: I was lucky. For the first day I had aches and a fever, pretty bad. After that, it was just weeks and weeks of exhaustion. But it was still scary. Here I was, somebody who had been pretty careful. I had followed the rules — and I had gotten it anyway. That told me this was a disease that was not going to be very predictable.
SPRAGUE (Massachusetts pediatrician, internist and mother of three; advocate for school reopening): I was three months pregnant when we really started surging. My husband is a doctor too. What if we both get COVID? we thought. Where do we send our kids, who are probably going to have it too? Not to our parents. Because if we get sick, they'll die.
We knew there was COVID everywhere. But there wasn’t anything to offer people. People were calling in with fever and cough and we were like, We can’t see you.
One thing I wasn’t worried about, though, was the school closures. I was like, Great, we’re going to lock down and then it's going to be over. I really didn't have any sense of how long it would go on for.
BLACKSTOCK: Literally within weeks, towards the end of March, I started seeing a change in my patient population. it went from very racially and socioeconomically diverse to mostly Black and brown New Yorkers who were essential workers and service workers.
LEMOS: We cannot work from home. Our staff cannot work from home. But how do we keep everyone safe?
BLACKSTOCK: These patients didn’t have the luxury of working remotely, from home. So many of them were MTA workers — on subways, on buses. They were delivery people. They were exposed and at risk whenever they went to work. Every day, it just got worse and worse.
LEMOS: The problem was that very quickly the message from above morphed into “local business can’t shut down — local business stimulates the local economy.” And then we’re a food business, so they started calling us “essential.” So we had a conversation with our staff. We said that the only way that we could stay open would be to ensure that we are doing everything we possibly can to keep everyone safe. We started wearing masks before it was mandated. We took away our patios before they told us to. And we told our staff, You can make the choice now if you're comfortable coming to work. If you're not, we understand, and we’ll do everything we can to bring you back when you're ready.”
But since then, not a day has gone by that we have been afraid of getting sick. It wasn’t long, for instance, before people started showing up without masks. We became like security guards overnight. It makes you want to slam the door in their face. They’re putting so many other people at risk.
LIVELY: It started to trickle into my news feed: “Here's what they're not telling us about the COVID-19 pandemic.” You click on something about prayer or spiritual enlightenment or self-empowerment. And then it would transform into conspiracy theories.
FAUCI: When you have a common enemy, namely the virus, you’ve got to do things ... with some leadership from the central part — some support, some guidelines. But what we happened to have, by pure happenstance, was the height of divisiveness in our country. We were at the epitome of divisiveness in a year that called for unity, cooperation, collaboration and doing things in a uniform, productive way.
In fact, we [even] had the politicization of a public health issue. Wearing a mask or not wearing a mask became a political statement. Going into a crowded place indoors without a mask, and not worrying about it — that was a political statement.
LIVELY: Within weeks, I found myself in this echo chamber. I went into denial about the pandemic as a coping mechanism. And there was QAnon to comfort me and tell me, “Oh, it's not real. It’s not happening.” It was a digital brainwashing.
TROYE (national security adviser to Vice President Mike Pence): I think we underestimated how dangerous disinformation can be in a situation like this. The pandemic could have played out a lot differently if we had been unified on the messaging — if we had not made mask-wearing a political issue, and if we had taken the virus seriously from day one.
LIVELY: By May, I had been pretty effectively radicalized. That’s when they opened up Arizona again. I ended up getting a lot of my business back. But this time, when I came back to work, I had a completely different mission. “You can't force me to wear a mask” — all that stuff.
I was having nightmares about the stuff that I was reading. I was thinking that every day was Judgment Day, literally. My husband had tried to tell me to get help a hundred times. ‘I'm worried about you,’ he would say. ‘You're not okay. This stuff is junk.’ But I would just become more and more withdrawn. QAnon basically grooms you to believe that anyone who tells you this is wrong is one of the bad guys. So I started to not trust my husband.
One day he said, “This is it. I am giving you an ultimatum. You need to choose between this life, and this family, or QAnon.”
So I left. It was the 4th of July. I had been in a hotel room for a couple days already. I had no intention of going home. The world was probably going to end any day anyway. I went to Target for some supplies.
As I was just driving there, I was just thinking just how angry I was — that this pandemic had happened, that the New World Order was trying to kill us. I just felt absolutely robbed of my life. I'd seen a meme that kind of connected everything for me. It said, “First, they put you in the masks, and then they put you in the boxcars.” You know, this is the next Holocaust. I have relatives who died in the Holocaust. So when I saw the masks at Target, I just lost it. All of that rage and grief and panic and fear just came out of me.
LIVELY: It’s hard to watch even today — just hearing the level of pain in my voice and witnessing myself having a medical episode like that.
BRAMSON (Mayor of New Rochelle, N.Y., one of the first virus hot spots): At first, the idea of closing schools for four weeks was utterly horrifying. You know, the scale of disruption that will be visited upon families and youngsters was almost beyond contemplation. But here we are now, almost a year later.
SPRAGUE (Massachusetts pediatrician, internist and mother of three; advocate for school reopening): My daughter was going to our town preschool. They shut down around March 11, and that felt like absolutely the correct thing to do. It was the messaging: We all need to stay at home. But then it never restarted.
BUCKLEY (social studies teacher in Brooklyn): I think the 11th happened, and the following week there was no instruction. Teachers had a week to prepare for remote learning and then we jumped into it. I was definitely relieved for my own safety, the safety of my family and the safety of everyone in my school community. I know the CDC says now that schools aren’t responsible for a lot of spread, but I didn’t have that information at the time. I was concerned every day that we were still going into the building that harm was being done and that spreading — the virus was being spread in schools.
SPRAGUE: In the spring and summer people came out of hiding in Massachusetts. They started doing physicals with their kids again. And that’s when I saw that people who had to continue to go to work and who maybe didn't speak English as their first language — their kids had not participated in remote learning. They were like, “Oh, the school year was over in March.” I realized that the kids who need the most and are going to get the least out of this model.
It got to the point where, in one week, I saw children with suicidal ideation. I saw adolescents with eating disorders. I saw kids feeling like they were failing. And then on top of that, I had all of these working parents, working from home, struggling with their kids doing badly with hybrid and remote schooling and needing to start antidepressants.
Meanwhile there are articles coming out in the medical literature suggesting that the transmission of COVID between teachers and kids at school is really low, in this controlled environment with the proper precautions.
So I wrote a letter to our local school committee in support of evidence-based return of our kids to school. Fourteen physicians and scientists and health care providers signed it. But then a committee member crafted a rebuttal, and she said that parents and community members need to stop saying that kids are suffering because it's bad for kids’ morale. “Suffering is starvation,” she said. “It’s being abused. It’s not remote school.” I was brokenhearted.
SILVER: Shutting down wasn't all that complicated. What I quickly learned to understand was far more complex is, how do you restart? And how do you restart under these highly unusual circumstances? Is it appropriate to restart, for that matter? And so I’d say relatively shortly after that evening, all my attention turned to what's the new normal for us, or is there going to be a way for us to operate during a pandemic?
In early June, the NBA voted to resume the season, with games being held in what became known as “the bubble” — an isolation zone at Walt Disney World in Florida.
SILVER: When I now look at the year that’s transpired ... I’m proudest of how we found a way to reopen rather than the fact that we may have been the first to shut down.
LIVELY: Later on that afternoon, after Target, I’d come to get something from my house. The video had started to go viral at that point. My husband just took one look at me and he made the executive decision to call the police.They decided to take me to a psychiatric facility, where I spent three days being evaluated, making these continuously delusional claims about Q. They realized I was having a manic-type episode that displayed itself as a psychotic break because of all the information I was consuming.
It was like hitting rock bottom for alcohol or drugs. My husband had filed for divorce. I had lost 100 percent of my business. I was basically the most-hated person on the internet. I had a choice at that point: I could end my life right now, or I could get myself some help and get serious about dealing with everything that led up to that moment.
TROYE: If I could go back to March 11, 2020, I would tell people that this virus is very real. This is way more serious than anything that we’ve faced before. The sooner we can come together to counter it, and do everything we can collectively, the better off we'll be.
SILVER: A year later, I feel fairly optimistic. I have a sense that certainly by next season, while there may be some changes in protocols, I at least can imagine scenarios of full buildings. I’m beginning to have a sense that things are returning to … a sense of normalcy.
FAUCI: [Asked if the U.S. is past the worst of the pandemic] You know, I hope so. … Now’s the time to really put the pedal to the floor here and just say, let’s go get people vaccinated. ... I tend to think that even though there's a lot of verbal expression of vaccine hesitancy, when people start to see that vaccine becomes available, and a lot of people are getting it, and there are no really bad adverse events, and they're making actually the numbers of infections go down, I think there’ll be a lot more people who will be willing to get vaccinated. Yeah, so there’s a really good chance that we will do fine.
In December, Lindsay became the first New Yorker, and possibly the first American, to receive an authorized coronavirus vaccine. She received an ovation from health officials and others gathered to watch the injection.
LINDSAY: From the minute that needle pierced my flesh, I started to feel hopeful. The weight was lifted off my shoulders. I could not believe that in less than a year we had a vaccine, and that I was actually getting it.
Everyone knew that I was a fierce advocate for vaccination before then. And I would openly say that as soon as the vaccine arrives, can I be the first on line? I'm a woman and I'm a Black woman taking this vaccine. How powerful is that? Because I know my Black community was so disproportionately affected and are the ones with the greatest hesitancy about vaccines. This was a powerful platform.
LERNER: On March 11, 2021, I’d like to think I'll be wiser than I was on March 11, 2020. That we’ll all be wiser. I’m going to be looking at the numbers hopefully still coming down, more people getting vaccinated, the weather getting warmer and saying, Hey, things are getting better here. As opposed to the last March 11, when it seemed like the world was crumbling down — and it actually was.
But having said that, if there’s another lesson we’ve learned from all this is that opening up things too fast, that saying the worst of it is over, that thinking we know what we’re doing — all those ideas are problematic. Let’s take it slowly. Once things are getting better, let’s not make the same mistakes again. And let’s just get this thing behind us.
With additional reporting by Hunter Walker, Caitlin Dickson and Sam Matthews
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