Covid-19 diary: Part 1

March 23, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
March 23, 2020

On the afternoon of Thursday, March 12, I did some shopping at a home-improvement store and picked up a pizza. Then I headed home and went inside, where I would stay for nearly 72 hours straight. With a very few notable exceptions, which I’ll probably write about later, I remained in the house until Sunday the 22nd.

Around 2:30 that afternoon, I started up my car and drove to a nearby automated teller machine. After withdrawing some cash, I hopped on Interstate 85 for the long drive to my parent’s home outside New York City.

In this still-early stage of the American coronavirus pandemic, everything I do outside my home — and even many things I do inside — is worrisome. When I reached to put my ATM card in the slot, part of my bare finger brushed against the housing. I cursed myself, because I’d taken out a pair of disposable gloves prior to pulling up to the automatic teller. I sheathed my hands in order to complete the transaction.

I’d only been on the interstate for a quarter of an hour when a Triangle television station emailed me a news alert with the headline “UNC, WakeMed ask public to donate masks, sanitizer and gloves.” If anyone tries to tell you that our country was prepared for this pandemic, they’re misinformed or they’re lying.

The interstate was a little more crowded than I expected in the cities I drove through. But away from urban centers, the highway seemed emptier than normal for an early spring Sunday evening. I had plenty of time to realize that, dammit, I hadn’t brought any DVDs or board games with me for what I expect to be a month’s worth of sheltering in place. After night fell and the temperature began dropping toward the 40s, it dawned on me that I’d also neglected to take a jacket with me — perfect, since snow was forecast for Monday.

Ideally, I would have driven from Durham to my destination in a straight shot, without pit stops. But nature calls, and my car only had enough gas to get me about halfway from Baltimore to the Delaware state line. So I took a left exit for the Maryland House rest area.

Almost immediately I was annoyed. I guess I’m more accustomed to stopping 15 miles further north at the Chesapeake House plaza, which is located at mile marker 97 on Interstate 95. The Chesapeake plaza has gas stations on either side of the main building, which is pretty convenient. But the Maryland House plaza only has a gas station on the north side.

My plan had been to get gas and then use the bathroom and wash my hands. But I wasn’t sure if there’s pedestrian access to the central Maryland House structure from the north parking lot. My options, it seemed, were to gas up, double back to the main building and then head north again after taking care of business; or to stop at the main building, fuel my car and forego washing my hands.

After hesitating for a few seconds, I decided to park and relieve myself. There weren’t many cars in the lot, which was mildly reassuring. At least some people seemed to be staying home in an effort to slow the spread of Covid-19.

As I approached the entrance, I noticed that the convenience store in the southeast corner of the main building was closed.

I walked into the building, trying to suppress a grimace as I handled the doors. Oh well — I’d be washing my hands in about two minutes.

Most of the dozen or so businesses inside the building were dormant. On the eastern side of the structure, Dunkin Donuts was open, as was the convenience store in the northeast corner. Of the 10 or so food counters on the western wall, only one was open. Eating areas had been cordoned off; tables and chairs had been removed. The space was eerily depopulated.

I took this all in as I wandered around, trying to spot the men’s room. When I noticed that it was in the southwest corner of the building, near where I’d come into the building, I had to pull a U-turn.

A notice was posted by the entrance to the men’s room. I hurried by, mainly in an effort to keep my distance from other people, but the Maryland Transportation Authority seemed to be asking travelers not to steal toilet paper or paper towels.

Part of the men’s room had been closed for cleaning. A number of urinals were occupied. I wandered deeper into the room and found a clean-seeming stall in an otherwise unoccupied bank.

When I emerged, I was eager to wash my hands. This proved to be a bit tougher than anticipated.

The first two — or was it four? — faucets that I tried didn’t dispense any water. Then I found a functioning sink, but it was annoying because the faucet released liquid for only a second after I mashed the button. I could rinse off one hand, but then I had to press a potentially contaminated button to rinse off the other. And because the buttons were located beneath a short metal ledge, there was no way to use an elbow to save my hands from germs or viruses.

The hand dryers were the most battered-looking Dyson Airblades I’ve ever seen. (This is no small feat, because I believe both the Maryland and Chesapeake travel plazas were fully renovated over the past two years.) These were the models that users lower their hands into, and I hate them.

I hate them because using them is like playing that old board game Operation: If your hands aren’t steady, they touch the edges of the machine. This happened. Great — potential contamination! Also, these Airblades have a tendency to spew droplets of water everywhere; I felt some touch my face and neck. Also great — another opportunity to be exposed to the very contaminants I was trying to eliminate!

I was fairly hungry, but I didn’t want to buy anything. Touching stuff merchandise, a shelf or counter, a cashier’s hands, or coins or bills dispensed as change means taking the risk of contracting disease. And I didn’t relish the thought of rinsing off — let alone drying — a candy bar or a bag of potato chips or pretzels.

However, there was a bank of automatic dispensers just outside the men’s room, and I decided this represented relatively a low risk for disease. I settled on the ice cream machine, which accepted credit cards.

Except it didn’t accept credit cards — it rejected first one and then two cards that I tried to use. Sighing heavily, I searched my pockets for a $5 bill. After straightening its corners, I fed it into the appropriate slot. Then I pulled one of the credit cards out of my back pocket and used a corner to punch in the number for a chocolate chip ice cream sandwich. (Were my fingers touching the corner of the credit card that had touched the machine, or were they on the same corner I’d held previously? It was impossible to know.)

With that accomplished, a suction tube lowered from its holder near the top of an enclosed space as the holder maneuvered toward the appropriate bin. A vacuum whined and the tube acquired one plastic-wrapped sandwich, which was then dropped into the dispensing area.

I blanched, because I hadn’t thought this part through. To get the sandwich, I’d have to push open the door and reach in. However, I was able to push the door with an elbow, daintily insert a hand and grasp a corner of the sandwich’s clear plastic bag without physically putting my skin against any part of the vending machine. Success!

Then I had a sinking realization. The ice cream sandwich cost $4. I had given the machine $5. I searched the dispenser’s front and noticed a small metal flap about a foot and a half below the payment slot. Presumably four quarters were waiting for me behind that flap.

I decided that I’d rather abandon the cash to someone else than touch the machine again. Safety first, after all.

With my prize clutched in my lukewarm hand, I strolled back to the main doors and pushed through them. I could do this without pressing my bare skin against anything foreign because I didn’t have to pull anything open.

Back at my car, I tossed the sandwich into the front passenger seat and fired up the engine. Backing up proved to be a challenge, because the driver of the pickup truck parked to my right was calling to and chatting with someone (presumably one of her passengers) who was standing more or less directly behind my vehicle.

When I made it out, I drove to the far side of the travel plaza and cozied up to an unoccupied gas pump. Donning hygienic gloves, I pulled out one of the credit cards, inserted it into the reader and got the fueling process started. As the gas poured into my car, I stood flexing my gloved hands. I didn’t spend a lot of time looking, but everyone else seemed to be using their hands.

Once the tank was full, I replaced the nozzle and the cap. I asked for a receipt and tucked it in a back pocket. Then I skinned off the gloves and tossed them into a trash container, which — thankfully — didn’t need to be pushed open to accept garbage.

All of this, of course, would have been much safer to do if I’d had any hand sanitizer or sanitary wipes in my car. Unfortunately, I didn’t. Still, I thought that my pit stop had been done about as safely as possible given the circumstances.

After I merged back onto the highway, I opened up the ice cream sandwich and scarfed it down. It was delicious.

The rest of the drive was fairly mundane. The roads were mostly empty through Northern Maryland, Delaware and the whole of New Jersey.

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