It’s a strange thing to be a journalist on the sidelines right now.
But that has been my past two weeks, off on sick leave and on my couch as I healed from a surgery. The increasingly dire situation has unfolded in front of me on TV, with news sandwiched between manic commercials from the Before Times.
Venturing out in Grand Junction has been surreal, but not in a way that jives with images from New York, California or Denver. An astonishing number of businesses are open: the vacuum repair place, the adult store, the oil and vinegar tasting room (not saying I visited any of them, just observing here). Some restaurants have closed indefinitely, but it seems like more are emphatically open, many offering free delivery, some on foot or bike. The hip taco place downtown is even doing margarita jars to go. My favorite coffee shop is now selling eggs and toilet paper in addition to beet-and-prosciutto salads.
Decorum doesn’t seem to matter so much right now. The other day, someone placed face masks on every Main Street statue with a face. Guys in muscle cars have started speeding and revving their engines in the middle of the day, not just late at night.
This massive tear in the fabric of the every day is also bringing people together, at least online. One new Facebook group here has more than 12,000 members and constant updates about where to find baby wipes and milk and how to sign up for Medicaid if you’ve lost your job. Several young people have offered to deliver groceries for older or compromised folks. A retired mental health counselor wants to give people free therapy, at a distance of course. For every post offering help, there is an exponential number of thank yous, happy faces and exclamation points.
This sense of community is comforting, but offline, the busy parking lots outside the big-box hardware stores are discouraging. I went into one with my 76-year-old dad for a much-needed part, and we both felt guilty contributing to the aisles of clustered people, many with their kids in tow. The virus is pretty much all folks are talking about, and I overheard one guy, his two kids hanging on him, describe his skepticism about online learning at the district’s schools. Sure, they can have online classes, but what about folks who don’t have the Internet? Even if kids are given computers, he went on, how many parents even have cars to pick those computers up?
Like many needing an outlet in these stressful times, I try to tune it all out on the trails, and there are so many winding through the rocky high desert here. The other day, I worried as I spotted more cars than I’d ever seen before at a trailhead close to Colorado National Monument (still only about half a dozen) — was I about to imperil my social distancing in the crowded outdoors? But once on the path, I only passed a few people, and pretty much always with that CDC-recommended clearance of six feet.
While nearby mountain communities have been talking about sheltering in place, Grand Junction seems to be straining hard to carry on. A friend of mine held a birthday party for her 1-year-old son the other day, where the entire family drove from home to home, always staying in the driveway so their friends could come out and say hi, without ever getting too close. They put it on Facebook, and I watched and smiled, and then went off to wash my hands yet again — making sure to count to 20, of course.