SAN FRANCISCO – Six. 250. Billions.
Six is the number of feet to keep between us, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Groups larger than 250 people shouldn’t gather, California Gov. Gavin Newsom proclaimed Wednesday. And billions, economists increasingly fear, could be lost if spending grinds to a social-distancing driven halt.
“People’s inboxes now are just all, cancellation, cancellation, cancellation,” says Kristin Banta, who runs an eponymous event planning company in Los Angeles. She was just leaving the industry’s largest conference, The Special Event, in Las Vegas. The mood was glum.
“We’re trying to tell clients, why don’t we put this on pause and revisit rather than cancelling,” she says. “If it continues, it’ll level my industry.”
Banta is hardly alone in fretting. Cancelled, closed or postponed to date: the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament, Disneyland, Broadway shows, Coachella’s fabled music festival, Austin’s South by Southwest culture conference, and an alphabet soup of sports leagues: basketball’s NBA, hockey’s NHL, baseball’s MLB and soccer’s MLS.
And those are just large marquee events. In cities and towns across the nation, schools are closing, public auctions are going online and music clubs are shuttering.
Fans of the Sweetwater, a small venue just north of San Francisco owned by Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir, learned Thursday that as of Friday the venue would close indefinitely. When full, it holds 300 people, 50 over the state’s new group-gathering limit.
“This is an unprecedented situation,” read management’s email. “This affects all of us. Thank you for your support and understanding during this difficult time.”
These drastic and sudden mass cancellations have no equal in modern time. But they do have a century-old precursor: the 1918 Spanish Flu, which killed 50 million globally and 675,000 here, back when the U.S. had only 100 million people.
Responses to that pandemic varied. Philadelphia officials insisted on going ahead with a Liberty Loan parade despite warnings about large gatherings. Just three days later, all of the city’s 31 hospitals were full. By week’s end, 2,600 were dead. In contrast, Seattle officials banned public gatherings and closed schools, saving lives.
“In 1918, for the first time in American history, we had a sense that we needed to manage something at a national level,” says Nancy Tomes, distinguished professor of history at Stoney Brook University in New York, and author of the academic paper “Destroyer and Teacher: Managing the Masses During the 1918-1919 Influenza Pandemic.”
In her paper, Tomes points out that officials across the country quickly realized that as difficult as social distancing would be to enforce, it was the only way to try and flatten the curve — a now-popular term referencing the need to spread out the number of cases over a longer period of time so health care systems can cope.
That’s what officials hope will happen here as a result of this new large-event ban. Currently, COVID-19 has infected more than 1,700 in 45 states and killed at least 40; globally, the tally is 128,000 infected and 4,700 deaths. But some projections are ominous. German leader Angela Merkel recently said 70% of Germans may get COVID-19.
In California, Gov. Newsom seems to be preparing for the worst. His state is among the hardest hit by the virus, with more than 200 cases, and on Thursday he issued a sweeping order allowing the state to commandeer hotels to treat patients.
Preparation is good. But there are societal costs that come with turning up the level of alarm.
Xenophobia is on the rise, with Asian-Americans taking the brunt of the vitriol. A coughing jag is sure to elicit a concerned look at best. And the unseen nature of the villain just heightens the tension.
That same fearful specter was at work in New York in the 1950s, when an unknown bomber was killing citizens with homemade devices left in public places. For Michael Cannell, author of “Incendiary,” which chronicles the bomber’s spree, there are unmistakable parallels to today’s coronavirus attack.
“In both cases, people knew and know intellectually that the statistics generally are in their favor in terms of serious harm,” says Cannell. “So then as now, the reality of the threat and the public behavior in response to that threat can get really out of whack.”
Cannell says New Yorkers stopped going to stores, movie theaters and many public places. Those who did venture onto the subway eyed fellow passengers with suspicion.
“We don’t want to attribute coronavirus with insidious intelligence, but it operates the same way as that bomber did,” he says. “Its invisibility gave it the power to create anxiety.”
Coronavirus has shut down Italy
For a good look at what possibly awaits Americans, just look at Italy.
Leaders there recently locked down the country after its cases spiked — currently there are more than 12,000 cases of COVID-19 and 800 deaths in a country of 60 million, second only to China’s 80,000 cases and 3,100 deaths out of 1.3 billion people.
Life under lockdown in Italy:My quarantine, a worried wait for a test result – and relief
All shops, restaurants and schools have been closed. Citizens are allowed to go out only to shop for food; once inside, they must keep their distance. For Italians, who have taken the draconian measures to heart and left once famous piazzas and churches deserted, the isolation has been trying.
“Italians are a very social people, so this impediment to their normal social behaviors is consuming and draining and saddening,” says virologist Ilaria Capua, director of the One Health Center of Excellence at the University of Florida, Gainesville. “This has permeated the life of every single Italian.”
A former member of Italian parliament, Capua is frequently in touch with friends and relatives back home. While the social hardships are putting a strain on everyday life, most Italians understand that such isolation is critical to turning the virus tide. And their experience can serve as a guide, Capua says.
“Italy is under a microscope now, one that Western countries look at and start to worry,” she says. “So Italians are to be commended in their drastic reaction. It’ll save lives there and in any other countries that can exploit their experience.”
Americans are about to live their own version of the Italian experiment, with shut-downs and cancelations growing by the hour.
Use tech to beat the coronavirus blues
So now it’s a matter of trying to figure out how we’ll all get through it.
Historian Tomes says today’s coronavirus pandemic differs from the 1918 crisis in one fundamental way: the ability for us to stay connected through technology. But, she adds, if the push for social distancing lasts many weeks it could transcend tech’s ability to keep us happy.
“As much as we can shift our work and school and personal lives online, I think in the end we’ll realize there’s a deep need for the face to face,” she says. “We may, after all this, discover more appreciation for being with each other.”
We are in fact hardwired to need each other, something that our coming period of enforced distancing will test, experts say.
When California Institute of Technology researchers subjected mice to two weeks of social isolation, the animals grew more aggressive and fearful.
“Clearly as humans we get something special out of being in a large movement, socially or politically,” says Moriel Zelikowsky, who led the Caltech experiment and now is an assistant professor at the University of Utah’s Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy. “Cancelling big events has an impact on us if only because they are ways for us to feel connected to other people.”
Zelikowsky says when faced with a prolonged separation from our usual social groups — be it the usual card game, basketball outing or PTA meetings — the best course of action is to try and get that same sense of connection and social contact from what’s available.
That could be family, friends or a simply run in the park where you’re passing others at a medically prudent distance.
In fact, the best solution if you can swing it is to literally take a hike.
The virus isn’t transmitted in the air, you likely won’t run into many people, and you can be reminded that life goes on.
“Being out in nature in any way is so good for our mental health, and we’re going to need that,” says Elissa Epel, professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. “These are uncertain times, and none of us has an instruction booklet for how to deal with a global pandemic.”
To that end, Epel has few suggestions when it comes time for your state, city or town to adopt some measure of social distancing.
First, embrace anxiety but shun panic. Anxiety “is normal and healthy” and heightens our senses, helping up make critical decisions. Panic, she says, “just brings out the worst in people and makes us selfish.”
Second, if you’re in a group setting with family or friends, set aside time for coronavirus-free conversations, at-home recreation and self-care.
And third, reach out to others in need to remind us of our shared humanity, she says.
“We may be in this for the long run,” says Epel. “If social distancing means a period where we’re limited to seeing very few people, then find a way to make a social connection even if it’s virtually. It’s the most important ingredient for our human well-being.”
Follow USA TODAY national correspondent Marco della Cava: @marcodellacava