Museum of America in the Pandemic Year, 2020

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Jul 8: President Trump threatens to cut school funding if schools do not reopen fully. He also tweets that he disagrees with the CDC’s “very tough & expensive guidelines for opening schools.” Mike Pence both defends the President’s threat in a press conference later in the day, stating that “the President has made clear … that we think it’s absolutely imperative that every state and territory in this country make – make steps and – takes steps, rather, to get kids back in the classroom to the fullest extent possible.”  He adds, “as we work with Congress on the next round of state support, we’re going to be looking for ways to give states a strong incentive and an encouragement to get kids back to school.” He also explains that “the CDC is going to be issuing a new set of tools” because he does not want the guidance to be “too tough.”  The Supreme Court rules 7-2 to uphold a Trump administration rule that will let employers opt out of providing no-cost birth control if they cite moral or religious objections. Audio transcripts from body camera footage of George Floyd’s final moments emerge. The transcripts reveal that officer Derek Chauvin, who had his knee on Floyd’s neck, told the unarmed Black man to stop talking if he couldn’t breathe, because “it takes a heck of lot of oxygen to talk.” At one point, when another officer, Thomas Lane, expressed concern that Floyd was having a medical emergency, Chauvin said, “that’s why we got the ambulance coming.”

Jul 9: WHO announces that the novel coronavirus can be transmitted through the air after more than 200 scientists sign a letter urging the agency to revise its recommendations. In an updated scientific brief, WHO notes that the virus may linger in the air in crowded indoor spaces and emphasizes that the virus may be spread by asymptomatic individuals. The U.S. sees 60,000 new cases in one day. The Supreme Court rules that New York prosecutors can subpoena eight years of Trump’s personal and business tax records. New York City paints ‘Black Lives Matter’ in front of Trump Tower. The Supreme Court rules 5-4 on Thursday that nearly half of the state of Oklahoma is part of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation reservation

Jul 10: The U.S. sees another record 68,000 COVID cases in one day. Trump commutes Roger Stone’s 40-month sentence. Stone was convicted of witness tampering and making false statements to Congress, among other charges, in the FBI investigation of Russia’s role in the 2016 election. Biopharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences announces that data shows the drug remdesivir significantly reduced the risk of death in severely sick COVID-19 patients. 

Jul 11: For the first time since the coronavirus pandemic began, President Trump wears a face mask as he visits wounded service members at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Disneyworld reopens.

From the Cutting Room Floor...

On a day when the big news is that reporters caught the president wearing a mask while visiting the Walter Reed Military Hospital (he has previously refused the mask, mocking others for wearing them), I had an interaction over masks in the Aldi grocery store today that has left me befuddled. There is a mask-wearing ordinance in my town now, as there seems to be in most descent-sized towns in America. As I stood in the bread aisle, a woman walked in with all of her kids in tow. None wore masks. They tore through the store, the kids completely out of control. Other shoppers acted openly uncomfortable, trying not to let them come too near. But should someone say something to them? What is the right thing to do in this circumstance?

I turn to Dr. Julia Marcus for advice. She is an epidemiologist in the Department of Population Medicine at Harvard Medical School who has been writing about moments like these in The Atlantic for the last couple of months. In her research, Marcus looks for ways to help public health professionals overcome prejudices that they often have towards populations who live on the margins of society.

We begin by talking about her specialty: HIV/AIDS research. In the last decade, pharmacologists have devised a whole class of “Preexposure Prophylaxis” (PreP) medicines. Despite the fact that this PrEP could largely eradicate HIV/AIDS from the population, however, the epidemic continues. Physicians hesitate to prescribe the PrEP to gay men and intravenous drug users, the two groups most likely to be exposed to the virus, for reasons that appear to be caused by short-sighted prejudices masked as “ethical.” Marcus calls on physicians to have empathy, compassion, and realistic expectations of their patients. Their lack of those things, she indicates, “causes real harm to people in a public health sense and beyond.”

This is true of how to treat those not wearing masks, like the family in Aldi. “Anger and shaming actually prevent us from making positive changes with those people who are refusing the masks,” Marcus reminds me. “Research has shown again and again that shaming does not change behaviors. … Even some of the people who understand how toxic shaming is in other areas of public health have engaged in it in 2020 because the target is perceived as being a right-wing, selfish, privileged group. But public health doesn’t get to choose who it helps.”

I understand her, but it does seem to matter that privileged people are putting their selfish needs above those of the public good.

“It’s not about condoning all behavior,” she interjects, her voice steady. “It’s not about allowing someone to not wear a mask in the grocery store. It is about stepping back and asking why they’re not wearing a mask. It’s about not dismissing their reasons as being stupid and not shaming them and, instead, it’s about coming up with ways to reach them and change their behavior…. I am also not pushing for tolerance, per se. I am pushing for compassion, which is different. … We see everyone as vectors for disease before we see them as human beings.”

She agrees with me that there is also some falseness to our anger sometimes. I’ve noted this year that every time a story appears of people congregating at the beach or refusing to wear a mask indoors, the internet explodes with each person retweeting their indignation. Showing outrage on social media about an issue can now give you “likes” and retweets, i.e., cultural legitimacy. The public shaming we do—not to mention the “hygiene theater” associated with it—is not really rooted in an actual concern for public health so much as it is a concern for looking sufficiently vexed, hoping for group approval, virtue signaling—every bit as much as we’ve seen during the protests this summer.

At the end of our conversation, I asked Dr. Marcus what lessons we have to learn from this experience so that we don’t make the same mistakes again. Her reply is not encouraging: “What’s hard is that the lessons are the same lessons we had already learned before and we are just re-learning them over and over again.”

If only we paid better attention to history.

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Contributors' Voices

On February 12, 2020 I left my main residence in Tuscaloosa, Alabama for my international residence in Getxo, Spain. I embarked on a 4-month research trip where I would look for information to finish the book I was working on, and used this second home as a base from which I would travel around the rest of the country. For the first three weeks, everything went perfectly fine. I went to Bilbao, Vitoria and Pamplona and had productive visits at governmental and ecclesiastical archives. Come March, things started to change, first gradually, then swiftly.  

In the beginning we all thought we knew the situation: this was one of those weird viruses that sprouted somewhere in Asia, and it would not go far from there, as we had seen in the news years earlier with SARS and MERS. February went by with little to no change to our usual life. During the first week of March, things started to seem different. Italy was getting a few cases of COVID-19, and European authorities began to monitor the situation closely. I decided to go back my childhood hometown so I would be closer to family and friends for a few days. The news kept saying we should wash our hands for 20 seconds, and be careful about hanging out in crowded spaces, so I took a few days off from my research work and visited friends and family in their houses.  

On March 12th 2020 the Spanish government mandated a national lockdown. All citizens were told to remain in their houses for 15 days, and avoid going out for any reason that was not purchasing food or medicine. I bought enough food to last me for two weeks, and prepared to stay home while the situation evolved. The first couple days, I could not believe how many people were still going out constantly. Surely not that many people needed to buy groceries or medicine all the time. I suspected the mandate was being ignored to a point, which was confirmed once authorities started fining citizens for hanging out and talking in parks and streets. Only then did the streets finally become deserted. A couple days after the confinement started, the two parks right next to my apartment were sealed off by the police, an uncomfortable sight that cemented in my mind the reality that I was living: the rare threat of a never before seen virus.  

From this point on, I stopped seeing any friends. I still saw my parents every day, for two reasons. On the one hand, they are retired elderly who I was legally allowed to take care of, so I visited them every day and brought them food, newspapers, and other necessities. On the other hand, I had had lunch with them daily for the preceding two weeks, so we figured that whether we were healthy or unknowingly infected, by that point it did not matter, we had been vastly exposed to each other already. As I walked the 5-minute walk from my apartment to my parents’ house every day, I kept being shocked at seeing a the normally buzzing streets absolutely shut down. It was like a perennial Sunday at 3pm that would never end. I figured it would not be too hard to be in my apartment and my parents’ place everyday, after all I had plenty of work I could do on my computer to finish my book even though doing further archival research was impossible, with all national services paralyzed country-wide. I considered ending my trip early and returning to the US, but doing so in the middle of the pandemic upswing seemed like a bad idea. Seeing the news report how thousands of travelers were stuck in airport customs for hours, probably infecting themselves at higher rates, for multiple days, cemented my decision to stay as the right choice for that time. 

I had not signed up for home internet service in my apartment because I expected to not be there much during my months-long stay in Spain. Little did I know an internet connection was about to become the most necessary aspect of daily life. The first couple weeks were tiring and boring, but absolutely doable. When you have no internet at home, you realize how much you rely on news delivered to you digitally. I exhausted my 8GB phone plan way faster than I expected. I did not even hesitate when I saw the option to upgrade my plan’s capacity to 16GB, giving myself some breathing room. That was my monthly internet data allowance: 16GB. Your usual data plan back in the US has either no limit, or a limit of 1000GB – and in my american household, we get close to maxing out that plan every month. Now I had to train myself to use 0.16% of the data I regularly consumed. So I relied mostly on RSS feeds on my phone, switched all my apps to data saving modes, and basically trained myself to use my phone less. That lasted for 3 weeks, when the lack of distractions allowed me to complete a ton of work. What I did not consider, was that the “entertainment” provided by work to pass the time would eventually wear out. That’s when the problems started.  

By day 30 of being alone in my apartment, life started to get strange. Looking out the window felt like a cruel game of Groundhog Day, one where I learned to love rainy days just so there would be something new and different to notice. The lack of psychological stimulation disrupted my sleep patterns and sleeping through the night became impossible. I would wake up at 3AM thinking it was 9AM, only to realize how early it was and, upon trying to go back to sleep, I would spend the next 4 hours tossing and turning like a bad case of jetlag. Eventually I would give up and start watching some Netflix I had downloaded at my parents’ house, with their painfully slow internet connection that has not been upgraded since about 2007 – the cruel joke being that they were supposed to get 300mbps fiber internet in March, but with the country paralyzed, they ended up getting their installation done in June, one week after I had returned to the US. The initially exasperating internet experience at my parents’ house became something I learned to live with, and later really appreciate, as it was certainly better than having nothing at all despite their repeated service interruptions.  

By confinement day 45, work became insufferably boring, Netflix became an energy draining chore, even my daily exercise routines lost their freshness. Everything became harder, days had started to blend together, and I was living in a haze. I stopped going to the balcony, or looking out the window, keeping the latter mostly blocked with an opaque curtain. Looking at an outside world and not being able to participate in its freedoms made things worse, so it felt better to ignore the world. I would fight existential thoughts about humanity, about whether we would all die or be fine, whether we would cure this virus or live confined forever… it was stressful enough that I looked for any reasons to distract myself. Up to this point, the most joyful moments had been those group video-calls with friends and family we did every week, where I would carefully watch my data usage to avoid running out of it for the month. By now, however, I was having noticeable mood swings. I would be happy and turn aggressively sad, I would be bored and get euphoric in an instant, all changes motivated by the smallest, most insignificant things. Bump my elbow against a door? Life was the worst and I found little reason to even try to be happy. The tea came out specially tasty? Everything was amazing and this virus thing would be over soon.  

On confinement day 60, the restrictions on mobility were somewhat relaxed, although not by much. I figured nothing would really change and being able to briefly go outside only meant that it was a calculated risk to balance mental sanity and physical health. While at this point I was psychologically exhausted of being alone most of the day, every day, going outside seemed like a losing proposition, little more than an opportunity to get infected. I remained confined at home, after all, I would finally be able to fly back home to the US 24 days later. What was 24 more days after the previous 60? Part of me worried I was developing what was Spaniards call síndrome de la cabaña, a psychologically damaged state where one begins to fear the outside and secludes further from society. I told myself I was making a rational judgment where an hour walking outside did not justify the potential health risk. I had finally finished the facemask I had been hand-sewing, a project that was effective against this respiratory pandemic and consumed an ungodly number of hours (I missed my sewing machine). I had already fixed several issues with my apartment, like worn-out kitchen cabinets and little things here and there that we are always in my to-do list but had remained untouched for months. Finding new home-improvement projects was getting challenging, so I hand-sewed more masks, washed all the sofa cushion covers, I showered more frequently not because I needed it but because it was something to do… I was finding excuses to consume more time until my departure.  

With only 24 days to go, I started to make plans. My flight was not until June 4th, but I packed %80 of my luggage on confinement day 62. I guess my brain needed to feel like I had some control over the situation. I became more aware of my own communication with others. A month into the confinement, everyone seemed jumpy, arguing or defensive about every little comment. After 2 months of confinement, I had learned to listen to what I was saying, how I was saying it, and analyze how others talked, which ended up making me listen more than usual. I went from arguing with my family about how effective facemasks were, to talking with them about politics, family, our childhood. I realized that we had been a lucky family where all of us had turned out OK in life, well socially-integrated adults with no real issues regarding health, law or employment. My experience progressively worsened after confinement day 70. I am a cerebral person who analyzes things in life, and I am very aware of the changes I experience. I noticed a drastic reduction in my interest in doing anything. For the first time during the pandemic, I felt myself drift, disengage from friends, family and overall life. I was not afraid to go out, I just stopped caring about everything. I ate because I was supposed to eat at specific intervals per day, but I cannot remember anything specific I did during that last stretch of my stay in Spain. It was as if my brain had finally had enough after 70 days alone most of the time, and it decided to check out until life could start again. I knew this would be June 1st, when I would travel to the capital to fly back to the US shortly after.  

On confinement day 82, I went to Madrid by bus. My flight was scheduled to leave for the US 3 days later. Inter-provincial movement was still prohibited, so I chose to minimize risk and give myself a few days of wiggle-room to ensure I would get to my flight even if I had trouble getting to the capital. I spent those 3 days in the apartment of a childhood friend and his girlfriend, who graciously offered to host me until I left. They had been working remotely and staying home for weeks too, and I sensed they desperately wanted to spend time with a familiar face as well. As far as we knew, we were all healthy or at least asymptomatic, so we all considered my stay an acceptably low-risk strategy. Until this moment, I had never been to the capital to do such little nothing. We spent the 3 days at home, enjoying each other’s company, making meals together, and playing with their dog Cooper. Despite being exhausted of staying indoors after 81 days of confinement, this much human interaction made my brief stay with them one of the most wonderful experiences of this trip. And at least, they had reliable, high-speed internet I could use while they worked in their home office.  

On confinement day 86, I got up early, put an N95 mask on – I bought a couple specifically for the trip – and took a taxi to the Barajas airport. I figured this was a lower-risk option than taking the metro, where lots of people were riding to go to work. On the way to the airport, a cruel realization dawned on me: I had been in Spain for 4 full months, and I had seen my family and friends even less than when I visit for 2 weeks for Christmas. With an intense feeling of frustration over a mostly wasted trip – not a complete waste, since at least I finished my book and sent it to my editor – I paid the taxi driver and entered Barajas. The atmosphere at the airport was eerie, because it was mostly normal except for how empty everything was, and of course because every single soul was wearing a mask. My face, and everyone else’s, remained covered the whole time, and at that point I was quite used to wearing one, so it didn’t change the experience in any meaningful way. There was one benefit I hadn’t thought about, however: I have never boarded a flight so fast. Our plane was about 1/3 full, which made for a striking view once inside. I flew with American Airlines, who smartly switched the original 777 to a 787 because it is divided in 3-seat clusters, allowing for social distancing with the minimum loss of usable seats. The flight was completely uneventful, other than some nervous and uncomfortable faces when we all briefly took our masks off to eat the provided meal. I had the impression that everyone was eating much faster than usual in order to put their masks back on.  

The real surprise came upon entering the United States. Immediately upon stepping out of the plane, we were greeted by airport workers who went through a checklist of questions with each passenger. Surprisingly, they did not take our temperature, even though the CDC document we were given clearly stated that this was a necessary step before re-entry. I took my 14-day symptom tracking chart and headed to customs, which was, as expected, mostly empty. It was a breeze to get through, although I found it ironic that, despite there being only about 150 passengers, the electronic passport checking system crashed and we ended up entering the traditional way. I was even more perplexed upon entering the next terminal of the Dallas DFW airport for my final, regional flight home. Not even half the passengers were wearing a mask. Coming from one of the most stringent lockdowns in the planet and having seen nothing but masked people for the past two months, walking through DFW felt like a surreal, dream-like experience. Had these people not seen the news? Did the United States not get the scientific evidence based memo that masks greatly lowered chances of spreading contagion? Had mask-wearing in public not been made into a law with stringent fines for incompliance like in Spain? Puzzled, I sat as far away from unmasked customers as I physically could while waiting for my second flight. This delivered the second shock of the day: my small regional flight from DFW to BHM was a tiny plane (one of those with 1 line, the aisle, and 2 lines of passengers) which was absolutely, completely packed. I could not believe it. What was the point of socially distancing until now, if then the airport didn’t care an iota about it, and American Airlines was packing passengers, coming from both the US and international locations, all like sardines? Mask wearing or not, it would make zero difference when we were all sitting a few inches from each other.  

Upset by the gradually worsening security measures throughout my return trip, I was careful to sit in the right-most back seat of our car as my husband drove us home. I made sure I touched as little as possible, I lost count of how many times I had used hand sanitizer by that point. Once home, I went straight to our guest room, I took my clothes off, dropped them into a separate laundry basket and took a shower. I self-quarantined in this room for 14 days, having brought a desktop computer, monitor and laptop to be able to work on top of a dresser. This bedroom-office situation was dense and uncomfortable, but I had plenty of practice with being confined in Spain for weeks, and at least now I had properly fast internet.  

By the time my self-quarantine ended I showed no symptoms, so I was likely not sick or contagious. I had finished a 99-day long confinement ordeal. Overall, I’m impressed by how fast I was able to move on from the psychological stress, the physical discomfort, and the emotional drainage of the whole experience. I was certainly ready to socialize again, although the idea of seeing more than 2 friends at a time seemed overwhelming. Even if we were socially distant, it implied a lot of emotions to process. There were a lot of people I had not seen in months, and after being alone for so long, seeing many of them at the same time felt like something I could not take on. We started to hang out in our yards, 6 feet apart or more, seeing a few friends at a time, and things slowly became pseudo-normal. There was only one caveat: while Spain had become freer and returned to a new normality towards the end of my trip, the United States never contained the spread of the virus properly, cases kept rising, and one could not safely get back to anything approaching normality.  

It has now been a month since I have been back in the US. I see friends twice a week, at a distance. Backyard hangouts have become our norm, or walks around the neighborhood, all of it while socially distant. Eventually we will get closer and closer, but I don’t see that happening anytime soon due to the rising COVID19 cases. As long as people don’t wear masks and the general population keeps behaving in unsafe ways, none of us can be relatively safe from infection. Even just going to the store where some customers remain unmasked implies that one could get sick and not know about it, be asymptomatic, and spread the disease among friends. I hope mask wearing becomes mandatory nationwide, like it did in Spain. It is the only way to measurably reduce contagion rates – as is the case now in Spain – and the only way for now that will allow close groups of friends and family to get closer again, with as minimal a risk of infection as possible. It’s the only way to get back to some sort of normalcy until effective palliative treatment or a vaccine are made widely available. In the meantime, I appreciate no longer being alone. 

Xabi Granja, July 11, 2020 

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Penn2Flo, “Together Again! Reopening Day of Magic Kingdom Walt Disney World” (July 11, 2020),

“Woman Sits on Floor in Anti-Mask Temper Tantrum,” Now This News (July 10, 2020),

“Donald Trump wears mask in public for the first time and defends Stone decision,” The Sun (July 11, 2020),

Sarah Cooper, “How to Mask,” TikTok (July 6, 2020)


*If the pdf thumbnails are not appearing, please reload the page.

Long, Jack. “Ohio State Alumna Protester Died from a Complication with Undiagnosed Genetic Disorder.” The Lantern, July 10, 2020.

Alonso-Zaldivar, Ricardo. “COVID-19 Heroes Must Jump through Hoops for Workers’ Comp.” AP News, July 11, 2020.
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Additional Links
  • Cramer, Maria, and Johnny Diaz. “5.7-Magnitude Earthquake Hits Near Salt Lake City: ‘The Last Thing We Need Right Now.’” The New York Times, July 10, 2020,

* Timeline summaries at the top of the page come from a variety of sources:, including The American Journal of Managed Care COVID-19 Timeline (, the Just Security Group at the NYU School of Law (, the “10 Things,” daily entries from The Week (, as well as a variety of newspapers and television programs.