In mid-February 2020, it was just a typical day at work. There was some news a colleague had brought up over lunch that a “novel coronavirus” had been discovered in China and there were outbreaks in Seattle, but not in San Francisco yet. The office building where we worked had put out a hand sanitiser stand in the main lobby but otherwise nothing else was any different from usual.
Anthony had been scheduled for hip-replacement surgery on 27 February, and I had already spoken to my manager about taking a few days off work with a few weeks of working-from-home after that. We had been planning to be staying home for a while, so we had done a big grocery shop, and cooked big meals to be frozen so that we had ample easy meals while Anthony was recovering at home post-op. This turned out to be prescient to what was to come later.
On the day of surgery, I went with him to the hospital and stayed all day. Visitors were still allowed but the hallways and waiting rooms were all relatively empty. Everybody was diligently using hand sanitiser after touching anything. The operation went well and Anthony got discharged after 2 nights in hospital.
In the following week, the news of this new virus started getting alarming. It was probably on Wednesday or Thursday morning that Anthony asked me to go to Whole Foods that very day, to stock up on non-perishable foods and some other essential groceries. Even though it was mid-day in the middle of the week, the supermarket was busy, and shelves were already thinning out and store employees were scrambling to restock whatever they could. It was probably the most stressful shopping trip in my entire life.
On 11 March 2020, the WHO declared that the epidemic had become a pandemic, but the CDC and Trump administration refused to impose any restrictions or guidelines. California took the lead in imposing some restrictions to try to curtail the spread of the disease. Some restaurants and cafés had started closing or shifting to takeaway and deliveries. At the time, the CDC was not recommending wearing masks, only hand-washing, alcohol-based hand sanitiser and social distancing.
I already made a dinner booking for Anthony’s birthday on Sunday, 15 March 2020 at Mr. Jiu’s in SF Chinatown. I checked with the restaurant, and they were still open and honouring reservations, but have adjusted the dining room layout to allow for more space between customers. We considered his post-op mobility and the pandemic situation, and decided to go ahead as it was a special occasion. We had no idea (same as everybody else) as to what was going to happen in the coming weeks or months. It was a subdued atmosphere at the restaurant. I think most people, like us, suspected it would be their last meal out for a while.
The next day, the City of San Francisco announced that from midnight 17 March, all residents of SF City and County are to shelter at home, with all bars, restaurants, most retail outlets and offices to close. That was The Moment when we knew shit was getting bad. Little did we know that this three week order would extend through the rest of 2020, and COVID-19 would continue to rage on across the world a year later.
The trip back to Australia in October to December was a brief but much welcome (and needed) respite, where things almost felt normal again. Our first restaurant meal in Sydney, indoors and seated, felt very, very weird indeed, after 7 months of only home-cooked meals and takeaway or deliveries. While walking around on Oxford St, Newtown on a Saturday night, I even felt a little claustrophobic with hardly any room on the footpath to stay 1.5 m apart from everybody else.
Upon arriving in Portugal, we had 2 weeks of relative freedom, similar to Australia, even though there was a much higher number of cases. But this was short lived, as rapidly rising case rates due the loosening of restrictions over Christmas and New Year, combined with the new, more infectious B.1.1.7 strain of SARS-CoV-2, the whole country went into lockdown again on 15 January. This is after being lauded for handling the first wave of infections well in 2020. It’s now just over two months of us getting very familiar with the inside of our apartment, but one year on, we’re better prepared and better informed, so it’s not as scary, and with effective vaccines being rolled out, there is light at the end of the tunnel now, even if it is months or even years away from when things can get back to ‘normal’ again.
Yesterday, we took the train into Lisbon as we had a few errands to do, but also to spend the day walking around the city. It’s the first time since we were last here on holiday in 2019. We had made a few trips into the city a few times prior since moving here, but there were strictly to get stuff done then back home. While technically the country is still under lockdown, the PM has announced a gradual re-opening plan and daily new cases are now below 600, which is well below even when we arrived in January.
The weather was brilliant, and it was quite a stark difference seeing the city now, compared to September 2019, revisiting some of the same locations we had previously been. With the complete absence of tourists, and hardly any people out and about, everything seemed calm, quiet, and peaceful, even in the middle of the city.
We got a takeaway pizza and sat at one of the parks that overlooked the city and the Tagus river. It was just bliss. We wandered through side and back streets with our cameras, discovering interesting architecture, murals and hidden plazas. We took some photos. To finish off the day, we ordered some traditional Portuguese food from a highly regarded taberna (“tavern”) to take back home (since restaurants are still closed for dine-in customers) which we thoroughly enjoyed with a fine drop of Portuguese white wine. It was a perfect day out.
What a year this has been, but it’s not over yet. Some other European countries are now battling their third wave of infections, and have closed their borders. People are still suffering and dying around the world. The vaccination rollout has been slower than expected due to many issues. We all still need to stay diligent and not lose hope or patience. Stay safe and stay strong, we will get through this.