CHATTANOOGA, TENNESSEE—This morning, I raise the blinds on our third-floor windows and see snow: white flakes line the curbs and speckle the windshields and hoods of parked cars. But it’s April in Tennessee, and I look again, and the snowflakes are cherry blossoms whipped from branches by the wind on the backside of last night’s rain. The fact that I mistook spring for winter feels emblematic. Snow out of season wouldn’t surprise me. Very little would surprise me now.
Two weeks ago, the bars and restaurants were packed. On March 14, I took a photo of a sidewalk sign in front of the brewery on our block. The sign was a kind of flowchart: “Is Everything OK? Yes or No.” Both answers led to the same bottom line: “Come In and Have a Beer!” I texted the photo to a friend in quarantine in New York City. Here’s the problem with the red states, I wrote.
Things have changed—the bars and restaurants are now all carry-out, for one—but have they changed enough? Governor Bill Lee’s “Safer at Home” order went into effect Wednesday. It isn’t a mandated stay-at-home or shelter-in-place order. I’m not sure what it is. A list of recommendations citizens are strongly encouraged to follow. Lee said he chose not to issue a stronger order because “it remains deeply important to me to protect personal liberties.”
Personal liberties. The man who owns the Airbnb next door to us lives in Atlanta, so I was surprised to see him walking down our street last night. “Georgia’s governor just issued a shelter-in-place,” the man said, “so we figured we’d come up here to ride things out. At least we can walk to get take-out. Some friends of ours are going to come up later this week to stay with us, in case you see them around.” I’m half-angry and half-certain we would have done the same thing.
The couple at the end of our street work in health care. He is an internist, his wife a registered nurse. They’re young, early thirties, and had their first baby in November. The baby, born prematurely, was in the NICU for two weeks before coming home. Last week, I saw them out pushing a stroller and waved. From across the street, I watched as the father reached beneath a pile of blankets to pluck out the baby, lifting him high so I could see his chubby, wide-eyed pinkness.
From my upstairs window, I see another neighbor’s car pull into its parking spot in front of our townhouse. She is a nursing assistant who works the night shift. We often wave to each other in the mornings, when I’m just waking and she’s just getting home. How are things at the hospital, I asked a few days ago—me in my PJs letting the dog out, she in her scrubs.
Getting crazy, she said, walking toward her door. Just crazy.
It’s a beautiful day, sunny and cool. In the afternoon my daughter and I take the dog for a walk in Jefferson Park, children on bicycles veering wide as they approach. They know the drill. We make it a point to smile and wave to everyone we pass. It feels of supreme importance, at this moment in history, to be intentionally friendly in whatever ways we still can.
When we get home I find an email from Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, with the subject line “It’s Time to Shelter in Place.” It seems that Mayor Berke is ignoring Lee’s “advisory” and will sign an enforceable citywide shelter-in-place order, to go into effect on Saturday. An hour later, another email: Governor Lee changed course and has announced that he’s issuing a shelter-in-place for the state of Tennessee, effective immediately.
Whiplash, trying to keep up with who’s ordering what. We’re already experiencing enough chaos without this back-and-forth. Why didn’t the federal government issue a nationwide shelter-in-place at the get-go, the way other countries did? What happens when one state’s shelter-in-place ends, while others continue? Do states still under quarantine close their borders?
We are still one nation, not fifty individual countries. Right?
Still, I’m glad we’ll have some boundaries in place this weekend. Last Saturday, my teenage son and I rode our bikes to the Riverwalk park. We took a shortcut through the empty stadium parking lot, where a group of teenagers clustered around the open hatchback of a parked car. They were holding drinks and laughing, speakers whomping out a base line. Tailgating at the end of the world. It should have looked like fun.
Jamie Quatro is the author of the novel Fire Sermon and the story collection I Want To Show You More. Her work has appeared in Ploughshares, The Guardian, The Paris Review, The New Yorker, and elsewhere. She lives with her family in Chattanooga, Tennessee. (April 2020)