Jolene LeVahn and three of her Blaine neighbors grabbed their coffee and popped open folding chairs at the end of their driveways.
A global pandemic that is forcing people to hibernate was no reason to give up a neighborhood get-together. So on this afternoon, the kitchen table gathering was going curbside, with asphalt and a front lawn separating the friends.
“It’s was just nice to see each other,” LeVahn said.
All across the country, prescribed social distancing has become the new norm as health and government officials scramble and strain to slow the spread of the coronavirus. And the reminders are nearly everywhere: Nothing is the same as it was just two weeks ago.
Schools are closed, sports seasons have stopped and main streets are nearly empty after bars, restaurants and most businesses were ordered closed. Millions of people have lost jobs, millions more have been told to work from home.
Seven-year-olds who beg for a play date now video chat. Gym rats work out to YouTube videos. Book clubs, yoga classes and church groups connect via videoconferencing apps. Commuter congestion is gone.
An electronic billboard alongside the highway flashes a succession of messages to wash hands for 20 seconds, cover coughs and sneezes, stay home if you’re ill and avoid close contact with those who are sick.
Neighborhoods are eerily quiet even though school is out and many parents are home.
In Stillwater, Annie Cashman, a self-described extrovert, merely waves to her neighbor rather than walk over to chat. Neighbors out for a walk pass by without stopping.
“It’s very quiet,” Cashman said.
Cashman suspected this was coming.
More than a week ago, while on a spring break trip to Lutsen Mountains Ski Resort, she was overcome by a wave of panic as she rode the chair lift. If the virus continued to spread, she thought, “life was going to change.”
Cashman no longer goes to the office, and her social outings have been canceled. Now, she spends her days with her 7-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter, taking in simple joys and pleasures, such as watching her daughter maneuver a ball with her lacrosse stick in their backyard, or walking the family dogs and getting more daily exercise.
“This is exactly what I need to be doing,” she said. “I might get a month here to be with them. It’s what I’ve been craving.”
“My daughter is learning to ride her bike and my son has a new bike from Christmas. They were so happy that it was 5 p.m. and mom was home to hang out with them. For me personally, it’s a big wake-up call.”
Busy lives everywhere have suddenly slowed.
In Minneapolis, Robin Ganser and his two children, fifth-grader Lydia and first-grader Holden, get outside every day — sometimes walking around the lakes, strolling through a local cemetery or stopping at a friend’s home for a porch-curbside chat.
On nearby trails, walkers and runners flock to parks, making a normal workday look like a weekend. All the while, they keep their distance, giving a wide berth as they pass.
“They’re not unfriendly,” said Peter Krause, a regular at Nokomis. he said. “They say ‘hi.’ But people are being respectful of space.”
Still, for many, it’s also a terrifying time as the virus threatens lives and livelihoods.
Fear and confusion have seeped into daily life. A cough or sneeze in public that once might be dismissed now prompts wary eyes to look for the offender. Sniffles or a cough have the afflicted wondering whether they have a seasonal cold or the sometimes-lethal virus. They turn to the internet, scouring for answers.
What are COVID-19 symptoms? Is it safe to handle mail or open the package delivered to their porch? Is there a DIY recipe for hand sanitizer now that it’s a scarce commodity?
“I’m not an anxious person, but I feel anxiety ramping up,” Katy Becker said as a light drizzle fell during a recent walk around Lake Nokomis with her toddler bundled up in a stroller. “I’m really worried about my parents. They’re healthy but they’re in their 70s. I wake up at night and I can’t get back to sleep.”
Amid the uncertainty, there’s panic. People swarm stores, sweeping canned soups, pasta and toilet paper off the shelves.
“It’s a fear response,” said Dr. Kaz Nelson, assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Minnesota. “For our ancestors it was fear of being attacked by a bear or a lion.”
Now, it’s an invisible virus.
“We’re being told it’s a life-or-death issue so the stakes are very high,” Nelson said. Fear, panic and paralysis are universal responses, she added.
There’s a sadness, too, as significant events, such as funerals and meaningful once-in-a-lifetime moments such as weddings and graduations are postponed or canceled.
“People are suffering immensely,” Nelson said.
How long lives will be upended is uncertain, said Malia Jones, an assistant scientist at University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Applied Population Laboratory.
“It depends how firm we can be with social distancing,” she said. “We need to stop infecting people. We just need to pause and slow it down. The world has never seen anything like this.”
And when life returns to normal, there’s hope that some changes forced on people will take hold. Maybe they will forever sing “Happy Birthday” to achieve 20 seconds of hand washing, or actually stay home when they’re sick. Telecommuting and teleconferencing could become the norm.
They may also slow down, taking notice of what they were missing because they were too busy to see.
“We often go through life on automatic,” said the U’s Nelson. “This pause has made me realize what is important.”