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Notes from the future: A view from New Rochelle, N.Y., where “social distancing” started

America, I know where you are headed, because I’m already there. We in New Rochelle, N.Y., became the experts at social distance, physical distance, early on. A “hot spot” – “New Roch-HELL” – “a problem area” – throw at us whatever you have because we can take it. Here at a forefront of the pandemic, we may not know what is coming in the days ahead of us, but our recent rearview mirror is your new normal.

Our usually quiet skies have been filled with the spying eyes of helicopters hovering, trying to get the sweeping shot of what an imaginary circle, a containment zone, looks like — a circle that contains no one and nothing, most certainly not a virus.

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There is no rest for the weary in the containment zone, a city of rumor and gossip, cameras and microphones. We take news reports in with quiet indignation, headlines about our diverse, messy, quite wonderful small city spurring silent fury as parents try to reassure their children, who have now been home for days on end, that everything is fine, everything is normal, we are all the same.

“Do you know where the testing site is?” a driver yells from his car, a young woman huddled in the passenger seat.

A neighbor’s daughter gets an email from a dance studio in a neighboring town telling her not to come to class anymore: this was weeks before dance classes everywhere were canceled altogether.

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A contractor tells a friend that he won’t be finishing the work on her basement any time soon, not wanting his workers to enter her house.

Amazon leaves packages on the sidewalk, not the front steps. Connecticut courts announce that we aren’t welcome in their buildings. One Facebook “moms” group from a neighboring town wondered if Metro North should continue to stop at our station.

My personal breaking point, the first of what I knew would be many, came when Major League Baseball announced the cancellation of the remainder of spring training and the delay of Opening Day, perhaps my favorite day of the year.

My relationship with my beloved Boston Red Sox has been complicated in recent months with the departure of Mookie Betts, whose No. 50 graces a substantial proportion of my daughter’s clothing. There may not be crying in baseball, but there certainly is crying when we are told baseball won’t be how we spend our days inside.

My daughter’s school was among the first three to be closed on the East Coast. It sits smack in the middle of the circle drawn by New York’s governor, a circle that didn’t know how our community ebbs and flows, who goes where and belongs to what, thinking only that anything within a mile of Young Israel of New Rochelle, the Orthodox synagogue where the first cases emerged had to be shut down.

Both inside and outside of the zone, families made the difficult decision to cancel b’nai mitzvah celebrations, opting to have just a handful of family members attend as the young man or woman awkwardly reads the Hebrew from the ancient scrolls, elbow bumps accompanying the quiet affirmation of “MAZEL TOV” uttered by those of us watching on laptops and tablets, 21st century access ensuring a proper and supportive crowd.

But it’s not the same. Nothing is the same.

A neighbor left salad ingredients the author needed on her steps.

A neighbor left salad ingredients the author needed on her steps. Image by Amy Bass

We take to our front steps with mugs of coffee each morning, the early spring sun warming our bare feet as we check in with each other across our lawns . Conversations circle around which grocery stores are open, how dry everyone’s hands are from the incessant washing, and whether or not a run to the pharmacy to get some paper towels is really worth the risk.

“Does anyone have any ranch dressing?” one calls. We exchange recipes via texts, leave requested ingredients on one another’s steps, and Venmo cash to the local organizations who are helping feed the food insecure, especially those who count on the schools for two of their daily meals.

Inside, our children use Facetime to complete science projects, text each other their anxieties, and wonder if perhaps going to school wasn’t that bad after all; my daughter has continued her violin lessons virtually, which is kind of awesome.

Makeshift offices cover kitchen tables, dogs thrilled that petting and walking is now an all-day affair, while we all share the “schedules” that we create each day to try to do our own jobs while our children do theirs.

The author has turned the dining room into an office/teaching space. Her husband has taken over the den as his NBC command center, and their daughter goes to “school” in the kitchen. Image by Amy Bass

The personal trainer down the block holds sessions via Zoom; I am teaching my own students at Manhattanville College via Blackboard; and the human-resources professional next door is on Zoom for hours a day, meeting after meeting.

To be clear: no one told us to do this. We did this before we had to, before the governor closed things down, before the first testing site opened on Glenn Island, a beautiful public park on our Long Island Sound shore. We followed the lead of our Orthodox neighbors, those who self-quarantined after the first case went public, deciding that if we could get through 14 days at home with no symptoms, the peace of mind would be worth it.

We try to focus on the good – the time with family, the long walks, the drinks with neighbors on the patio, sitting six feet apart. But there is a sense of loss, of fear, that permeates everything.

Here near the island of deadly disease testing I’m missing warm days, carefree ways, and, still, baseball. There’s little peace of mind, and too much free time. We haven’t been packing school lunches or navigating the time crunches of the morning commute. We haven’t been dining out or buying cookies from the Girl Scouts. We aren’t shuffling down crowded streets, our feet pounding concrete, enjoying the city nights as spring descends.

We are a ghost ship, the Mary Celeste, the Flying Dutchman, a city adrift with few signs of life. But we are here, strong, creating community in ways that can’t be gauged by crowded tables in coffee shops, but rather by daily phone calls from our mayor and the online assignments from our teachers, small acts that ensure we feel supported and brave, sure of the future that we can help create if only we keep doing this for a little longer, accepting the new circadian rhythms as they come.

You can do this, America. Stay in, stay safe. The sooner we shut it all down, the sooner you shut it all down, the sooner we will get it all back.

Amy Bass, a journalist based in New Rochelle, N.Y., is a professor in the sports studies department of Manhattanville College, and the author of the 2018 book “One Goal.”


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