The other night, I walked by a crowded bar. Inside, I saw dozens of people clustered together without masks, laughing and drinking. In an adjoining room, a DJ played ’80s classics to a throng of writhing and jerking bodies.
Six weeks ago, before I took up temporary residence in the South, I would have looked with horror at such a bacchanalian scene, seeing it as a selfish and self-destructive display of disregard for Covid safety protocols. Over half a million dead and nearly 30 million cases in the U.S. A cratered economy, thousands of livelihoods lost. And still, these people had the gall to dance indoors, breathing and sweating all over each other.
But after just a few weeks living in the South, I found my baseline viewpoint shifting. Now, as I peered inside the barroom window, watching this display of fun — of heedless, reckless, legally permitted in-person conviviality — I felt a sharp and surprising pang boil up. I was jealous.
My girlfriend and I had abandoned New York City nearly a year earlier. We had good reason to leave. We had just signed a lease on a Brooklyn apartment that turned out to be nearly uninhabitable, as the landlord was unable to finish building out the kitchen or getting the hot water running on the promised time frame. And our old lease had come to an end.
Back then, there were all kinds of rumors floating around — that the military was going to seal off the city from the rest of the country, that helicopters were going to fly overhead and spray disinfectant, that this thing might just be the end of our modern world. The urban shutdown we could see coming meant we’d be stuck sheltering in place, spending the next god knows how many months in our new below-code apartment, fighting with the landlord and taking cold showers. Fortunately, I had grown up just a few hours away from the city, in northeastern Pennsylvania. And so we headed for safer lodgings, packing our clothes and our 16(ish)-year-old cat, Alfie, into my Subaru CrossTrek and driving to my parents’ cabin in the woods, in a part of the country where houses can still be had for $50,000, or less than the cost of a Manhattan parking spot.
Though I did not know it at the time, it was the start to what would be an itinerant year, in which I got to see up close how people in three different states, under three very different state governments, responded to the worst pandemic in over a century.
Things in my corner of rural Pennsylvania were good. Quiet. I spent my days working, my nights hanging around with my girlfriend, parents, and Alfie. (Plus, on occasion, a large brown horse who lived in a stable down the road.) At that point the pandemic seemed insurmountable, causing thousands of deaths per day and leaving the global economy in its worst state since World War II. We watched from a distance as loved ones fell sick, heard stories about people we knew succumbing to the virus. And stories about so, so many we didn’t know.
Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, was even calmer than it usually is. The state generally enforced a relatively strict Covid policy where, depending on the week, outside dining might be allowed but masks were always enforced. Even in an area that’s seen a huge surge in Republicanism (read: the party of Covid denialism), most people respected the Covid guidelines and maintained their suggested six feet of distance. For a while, little changed. The spring stretched into summer, which morphed into fall. We cooked, we went on walks, we bought a kayak. We fed Alfie his mountain of medication. And then we cooked some more.
In September, as the days grew shorter and the air crisp, we made a plan to leave Pennsylvania. After months of dispute with the Brooklyn landlord, we had managed to break our lease and recoup some money. Neither of us expected to have to return to in-person work in our Manhattan offices for at least another year, sometime in the fall or winter of 2021. We could go anywhere, so long as it was in America. Warmer states beckoned. We promised ourselves we’d travel responsibly, driving instead of flying and stopping only for gas and bathroom breaks. We’d use at-home PCR tests both before and after we hit the road.
And so we plotted a route south to Florida, where it was approximately 8,000 degrees warmer and where we both had friends and family, to a small city about 30 minutes outside of Miami called Hallandale Beach. We’d stay there for a while, then drive about 500 miles north, this time to Bluffton, South Carolina. (The calculus in choosing Bluffton was equally unsophisticated: It was near the water and we found a relatively cheap Airbnb.) We set a date for our departure, December 18, and spent the next two months assuring our parents that we’d be careful and promising Alfie that warmer days were ahead. (We also spoke with some friends in the medical community who told us that, so long as we remained vigilant about testing and social distancing, we weren’t at risk of Tulum-level condemnation.)
Our drive from Pennsylvania to Florida was a blur, with time marked more by the shifting topography — snowy peaks giving way barren woods and, finally, swampy wetlands — than the hours passed. Then, approximately 1,275 miles after we set out, we were in Hallandale Beach, in a cramped ground-level apartment that featured enough faux marble and full-length mirrors to look like a Scarface knockoff. As we settled into Hallandale — which looked to be at least 70% strip mall and 15% skyrise hotels — I wondered, why did we leave Pennsylvania, again?
Florida is generally known as a strange place; the Gold Coast is no exception. In Hallandale, I saw mohawked rollerbladers sharing the sidewalk with guys who wore bedazzled button-downs and shiny new sneakers. I saw preppy boaters sporting polo shirts and MAGA hats. I saw old people. Lots and lots of old people. What I didn’t see, at least not as often as I’d have liked, were masks. When we landed in Florida, it was like we’d entered a different timeline — one where Covid still existed, but was nowhere near the existential threat we felt it to be in the Northeast. At first, I was incredulous. I’d walk by the park in the morning and see the basketball court swarmed with guys who apparently couldn’t remember to bring their masks or their shirts to play a game of pickup. I’d survey the nearby beach and find it teeming with sunburned tourists whose beach chairs were practically touching.
But slowly, as the days crept by and the restaurants’ dining rooms remained packed, my girlfriend and I, who’d remained steadfast in our approach to social distancing, grew less confident in our moral high ground. Were we being too cautious? Were we the conspiracy theorists? That’s not to suggest we abandoned our prevention practices (we didn’t), but still — it’s alarming how quickly your convictions can feel less firm, silly even. Still, any time we noticed our commitment to NYC-style cautions flagging, all we had to do was look at the spiking Florida case counts to keep us on track. We’re still employed and we’re still healthy, we’d remind ourselves; we need to stay mindful of that.
After six weeks in Florida, we headed for Bluffton, a marshy coastal town of about 20,000. At first glance, Bluffton seemed like an ideal place to ride out a pandemic winter: It’s sleepy, temperate, and full of beautiful Spanish moss and old oak trees. But once we got past the aesthetics, we found the same situation as in Florida: Covid appeared to be a faraway threat in people’s minds. I felt myself the object of raised eyebrows and sidelong glances when I walked down the town’s main street wearing a mask.
On our second night in Bluffton, we went to pick up burritos from a nearby greasy spoon. As we went to go sit on a bench and munch on our dinner, the owner of the restaurant ambled over to ask where we were from (our accents gave us away). Unprompted, he then unleashed a 10-minute diatribe about the pandemic: How Trump took way too much heat for our national response, how masks don’t even do much to prevent its spread, how God made Covid in the first place and we need to embrace what’s clearly God’s will. I wish I could say I fired back with a list of counterpoints but I just stood there mumbling “Uh, gotcha, gotcha,” over and over like I was partaking in some kind of bizarre liturgy. After the man finally left and we’d wolfed down our meals, I went home feeling like a coward. I chalked it up to being blindsided and vowed to have a ready response next time.
I got my chance to make good on that promise a few days ago. My girlfriend and I had taken our kayak out on the May River, where we met a local commercial fisherman I’ll call Brent. Brent was also out kayaking, and given the conditions — outdoors and windy, with plenty of separation — I was able to see he had a pleasant smile. We all got along great, laughing and telling stories as we paddled alongside one another while maintaining a distance safe by both Covid and kayaking standards. By the end of the afternoon, Brent and I exchanged phone numbers. You can imagine my excitement when, after months of spending time with only my girlfriend and a cat, Brent texted asking if we’d all like to meet up. Sure, I replied. What’s a good outdoors spot? The texts that followed caused my stomach to tighten. He explained that no, he and some friends were heading to a brewery — inside a brewery — and we were welcome to join them. I wanted to ask him whether he knew anyone who’d fallen sick. Whether he cared about what this pandemic has meant for so many people. But I also wanted to ask him, “Will it be fun?” Instead, I just said no thanks and explained that we were avoiding unmasked indoor activities. “Have a good night!” he replied. And that was that.
And then I wondered if I and my roving caravan — traveling from town to town, taking in the sights, visiting with family, and leaving a biological footprint wherever we went — were really being much more careful than Brent. I’d abandoned a safe place in Pennsylvania to instead immerse myself in two wholly different environments, places where Covid was treated more as a nuisance to be weathered and than a life-altering global event. I’d read the reports about some Southern states’ lackadaisical response to Covid, but I naively thought, well, I don’t know exactly. I guess I didn’t think. But now I am having to.
The other night, when I walked by that bar with the DJ, I could have sworn I saw Brent in there, leaning over the countertop. But of course, I can’t say for sure; I didn’t dare get close enough to confirm my suspicions and say hi.