Perspectives of a Person in Quarantine
Earlier this week, news outlets began to report New York’s second known coronavirus case, the first in Westchester County. When it was discovered that the patient was a person I knew and had interacted with, the situation began to hit home.
For those unfamiliar with the COVID-19 situation in Westchester county, the impact was significant and unique. Patient zero*, if you will, is like most everyone reading this: someone’s child, a parent, someone who went to work everyday to assist clients and care for his family, and who would then go home. He also was like me, someone who identified as a member of a closer knit religious community, who would attend services at synagogue on a weekly basis. We had the same friends and attended the same social events.
News outlets quickly reported the impact of a single individual’s footsteps on the greater community (I’m in the video). Typical protocol at the present intends to identify individuals who may have come into contact with the person who has been infected with the virus, asking them to quarantine and possibly test. You might expect your family to isolate. You may expect your colleagues to isolate.
But as I said, our situation was significant and unique.
Patient zero was a part of a religious institution, the same institution I am part of. We were at the same services. He was a mere few feet away from me. And he attended the same party as me the next day. What makes our story unique is that when it became known that our community member and congregant had been infected, our community and our amazing spiritual and lay leadership stepped up, notifying our government of the potential impact on the rest of us. We self identified as a community in a way that communicated our unwavering unanimous support for him, and as a result, hard decisions were made: our synagogue has been closed and will continue to be closed through March 15. The impact on this is somewhat monumental because holiday festivities are cancelled and cannot be rescheduled. A bar and bat mitzvah party were cancelled. Imagine that: spending a year and a half working to learn your bar mitzvah Torah reading (not an easy feat, for those in the know) to have it cancelled. It can’t be rescheduled either; the specific portion is only read once a year. (A virtual bar mitzvah occurred on Zoom, but these are atypical circumstances in these trying times.)
And we all — the hundreds of us who were at a variety of events that weekend — were forced into self quarantine.
Since then, several individuals I know and have interacted with even more closely have tested positive, and it was evident we are not dealing with a ripple effect; this is an earthquake.
I can’t tell you how strangely beautiful it is to be in this situation. Admittedly, it is also frustrating, somewhat annoying. My four children are in quarantine as well, because students in their school have tested positive. (The impact on my family has been covered by NBC in this video, Fox in this video, Fox Business in this video, Fox News in this video and interview, our local News 12 in this video, CNN in this video diary, Tamron Hall in this video, USA today in this video, FTF in this video, 60 Minutes in this video, the BBC in this audio interview transcription, and Healthline in this article.) Our entire family is homebound, so we are “homeschooling” while simultaneously working as close to full time as we can under the circumstances. The schoolteachers and administration have been amazing, though, and the children are engaging with each other in virtual classes over Zoom (and attendance is being taken!); the leadership is keeping the parents abreast of updates via Zoom and email as well. Yet the quarantine is serious. We are unable to even really go outside, except in our yards. I am deprived of running, even though the routes I run on are almost always empty and desolate, and if I saw someone, I would simply make sure I maintain the recommended distance of six feet. It has been requested that within our homes, we even maintain a distance of six feet from each other for the time being; I cannot hold or kiss my children. It is difficult. Truthfully, I often forget. (It shouldn’t matter if we are all under quarantine, though, right?)
But there has been so much more that has arisen from this time of isolation: solidarity. The greater community, those not impacted by the quarantine, have banded together and helped us in our time of need. Neighbors who do not know us have stepped up to offer assistance for errands and shopping trips. A hashtag, #NewRoStrong, has been created by our very own neighbors on behalf of the greater community in support of our situation. Friends and family from far away sent their well wishes, care packages, texts, and called to check in. My seven-year-old daughter shared her sentiments in this school assignment she wrote while in quarantine on how “kindness counts.”
Perhaps the biggest and most beautiful thing for me about this situation is my own inner community, the members of the Young Israel of New Rochelle. Once this began, we created our own WhatsApp groups to keep each other abreast of what was going on. We discussed the communications from the Department of Health. We coordinated meal deliveries. We shared photos of food being sold at our local supermarket’s takeout counter. We posted messages from other entities similarly impacted. We sent messages of strength to one another. We watched Yeshiva University play basketball alone — but together. We asked questions. We got answers. We joked. We joked some more. We laughed. We might have even cried.
We respected the quarantine and stayed put. Hundreds of us, stuck in our homes, went nowhere. I cannot tell you how weird it felt on the Sabbath knowing we were all confined to our homes in a 1.5 mile radius, but couldn’t be together as a community and as a family. I admit I felt a real void. My rabbi’s deeply moving letter sums up similar sentiments in the most beautiful way.
But our phones on the weekdays — from about 8am until midnight — wouldn’t stop buzzing.
Those who know me intimately know that I struggled in this community when I moved in seven and a half years ago. Part of that was because I had been unaware of untreated postpartum depression that I had since the day I moved in until only about a year ago. As a result, I became more socially withdrawn with the birth of each subsequent child, and eventually hit rock bottom and didn’t attend synagogue services for almost four years. I simply didn’t identify with the community and the members therein.
In late 2018, with my depression reversing, I began making a foray into the social scene again. I make every effort to attend services weekly now. But admittedly my absence has taken its toll on me: I’m no longer exactly a new member (and many new ones have since joined) but I’m not really in cahoots with the old folks either. Socially, I admit that it still poses difficulties. My husband and I are also relatively introverted, he significantly more than I am, so I find it difficult to walk up to someone and even say hello. And when I do, what next? This is a daily struggle for me. Much of the community bonding outside the synagogue walls is built upon lunch parties with friends, and as I am not a cook (and wouldn’t dare serve my guests takeout), even that becomes a barrier.
But there is an interesting dynamic when you’re in a WhatsApp chat truly united by a very strong common thread of geography, religion (as this case happens to be), a situation with serious urgency (which is key), and membership, but no one is physically together and the only thing we all see onscreen is a bunch of letters.
Perhaps my intimidation in the true public forum is that of not really fitting in. Each of us has our own friends, and when we congregate in the big social hall, like attracts like: the older members talk among their friends. The younger members and their children sit at the little kiddie tables and they do the same. A hello and pleasantries may be exchanged, but my socially awkward introverted self still finds it difficult to even do that. And so, often I don’t.
But being in a chat where we are all in the same room, not segmenting ourselves off into clusters, all “wearing the same clothes” (the identifiers being our names, in this case — I am fairly certain we are all wearing pajamas at this point anyhow), has given me tremendous amounts of comfort to freely communicate with my neighbors without intimidation, without fear. The spotlight is on all of us identically; we are all equally part of the same conversation. There aren’t little groups of people off to the side. We can all share and feel like equivalent contributors to the conversation. We aren’t competing. We are all adding value and supporting each other in a situation that is unpredictable and unfathomable. We are offering support to those of us who have tested positive and we are sharing our stories about our own experiences when testing. It is quite beautiful to see.
Finding your way alone in a social community composed of large families (spanning multiple homes) and friends who already have selected their posses is isolating, but perhaps for the first time, I don’t feel so isolated. Which is ironic given the fact that a quarantine is an isolation.
We are at the epicenter of the Jewish quarantine in New York, and I have never felt so proud to be part of this community.
As they say, this, too, shall pass. But I almost wish it didn’t have to.
*While the media has used this designation, this is not my personal opinion. It is uncertain how Westchester patient zero got infected. Our friend was considered “patient zero” simply because he became sick enough to require hospitalization, though he could have caught it from any other local as well. For the record, our community holds that the spread did not “begin” with him, though that may appear to be public perception. The bottom line is, the facts are uncertain.