I have never experienced a Memorial Day like this year’s. There are flags at half staff for the fallen soldiers of innumerable wars and for more than 100,000 fallen U.S. citizens and 350,000 …
I have never experienced a Memorial Day like this year’s. There are flags at half staff for the fallen soldiers of innumerable wars and for more than 100,000 fallen U.S. citizens and 350,000 global deaths from the coronavirus pandemic. Beaches are open with families frolicking, yet on the streets of Hoboken, NJ, stores stay shuttered. The sidewalks are the stage on which the play of grief, bewilderment, defiance, joy, stoicism and confusion are unfolding. This is the stage where our mettle during this crisis is being observed.
We have no effective treatments and no cure. We seem to accept that many will die as the pressure to reopen business grows. Countries across the globe emerge from their worst days while our country’s response is fragmented, confused and incoherent. I’m an average citizen; I provide no front-line services, I have no medical expertise, yet I am desperate to be part of the solution. What gets me through my days is a simple pledge: I protect you. You protect me.
I am the volunteer treasurer of a small vacation community. This job is normally little more than depositing dues payments, writing checks and sending out financial statements to our 60 members. This year, we are faced with decisions that put us, in a small way, at the center of a coronavirus response. Our community typically operates from mid-May through mid-October. The questions that faced us were should we open, could we open and, if so, how? I was scared that my decision could put others in peril.
Many of my city neighbors relocated as the extent of the pandemic became known. Many of our summer community members had hoped to do the same when the weather warmed. We are a repurposed Catskills bungalow colony that, while quaint, lacks insulation and water infrastructure to handle colder temperatures. As a board of directors charged with the health, safety and security of the community, we felt it was up to us to set terms.
Under Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plan to gradually return the state to normalcy, seven criteria needed to be met before a four-stage reopening process could begin. Our region, which encompasses New York City’s northern suburbs and our mostly rural county, has yet to meet the critera. Our vacation community is not essential and its operation would introduce new potential infection vectors to ourselves and our neighbors. The majority of our board felt that this was sufficient grounds to keep our community closed. In addition, state-mandated halts in construction and late frosts had set us behind in getting our wells up and running. We didn’t have sufficient tests to request a permit to run our water system. The decision was made to delay our opening.
The blowback was fast and furious. Our community lists, usually home to rental queries and contractor recommendations, lit up with debate: What right had we to make this decision? We were denying people access to their second homes. Other communities were opening up so why couldn’t we? We were all adults and could certainly be trusted to do the right thing.
I was stunned by the vitriol of the comments.
The county’s Department of Health took some wind out of our sails by issuing us a temporary water permit and we had to backtrack. We compromised by opening the community with a recommendation not to visit until the region at least met the base requirements. We locked all common indoor spaces and reminded residents to wear masks and maintain proper distance based on the CDC guidelines.
This is not the end of the discussion by any means. Decisions need to be made about our outdoor amenities and how best to safeguard our employees, contractors, visitors and residents. The board members’ opinions were heavily weighted by not only consideration for our members but also our impact on the greater community around us.
My frustration with this crisis is how little I feel empowered to be part of a solution. My services do not seem needed and the only solid civic instruction we received was to stay home. I quickly realized, though, that I did have one power and that was to model behavior.
I’ve chosen to stay put. I live less than two miles as the crow flies from midtown Manhattan but I haven’t been there since early March. Before the pandemic, I traveled there daily for work and entertainment. I wear a mask when I leave my house and restrict my visits to the grocery to once a week. A mask may not save me or you, but it does demonstrate my willingness to try. I walk, bike and run with a mask.
I love the anonymous masked stranger I pass on the street and especially the little kids behind the tiny funny masks making the best of it all. Yet I am anxious when I see an unmasked stroller approaching me who represents a violation of my pledge.
This is our moment.
I protect you. You protect me.
Charles Rubin is a systems engineer, amateur baker and essayist living in Hoboken, New Jersey and Lake Huntington, New York.