Museum of America in the Pandemic Year, 2020

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Sep 12: At a rally in Nevada, Trump accuses Nevada’s Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak of trying to “rig the election” because the Trump campaign had to move the rally out of Reno because of COVID-19 restrictions. Two Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deputies are shot while sitting in their patrol vehicle in Compton.

Sep 13: Michael Caputo, press secretary at Health and Human Services, posts a Facebook video accusing CDC scientists of “sedition” and warning that left-wing hit squads are preparing for an insurrection. He further accuses CDC scientists of fostering “resistance units” within the agency in order to undermine the president. He states: “there are scientists working for this government who do not want America to get better.” A federal judge  blocks the U.S. Postal Service from sending people in Colorado a misleading postcard about voting by mail. The postcard said incorrectly that you had to register to vote 15 days before the election. Hurricane Sally is headed to Los Angeles.

Sep 14: The government announces it will stop screenings taking place at some airports. Pfizer and BioNTech announce they will expand the phase 3 trial of their COVID-19 vaccine by 50% to 44,000, in order to increase their data sample. Trump says that the fires on the West Coast are the fault of bad forest management, not global warming.

Sep 15: Alex Azar, head of HHS, bars all of the nation’s health agencies, including the FDA, from signing new regulations or rules without his signature.  Caputo, HHS press secretary, meets with the marketing company awarded the $250 million “defeat despair” coronavirus ad campaign contract and proposes during the meeting that one of the themes of the ad campaign should be: “Helping the President will Help the Country” and that one of the concept is to communicate an effective mask-wearing PSA. A study published in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report finds that people who recently tested positive for COVID-19 were 2.4 times more likely to have dined out. 

Sep 16: Caputo, HHS press secretary, goes on a two month medical leave. Meanwhile, top HHS officials testify in front of the Senate Appropriations Committee and emphatically underscore the importance of mask wearing to prevent coronavirus transmission.  CDC Director, Robert Redfield, and Brett Giroir, Assistant Secretary for Health at HHS, both warn that, “These face masks are the most important, powerful public health tool we have.” Refield says that vaccines are not likely to be available until the summer or fall. Trump insists later in the day that Refield is wrong.  Redfield then rescinds his claim about the vaccine timeline. A plan devised by HHS and the DOD aims to make a COVID-19 vaccine free for all Americans, with the vaccine being rolled out in January 2021.  Hurricane Sally causes historic flooding in Alabama and Florida. The federal government unveils a plan to make a COVID-19 vaccine free to all Americans, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) says the Trump administration should investigate a whistleblower complaint alleging that mass hysterectomies were being performed on immigrant women in a federal detention center in Georgia. For the first time in 175 years, the journal Scientific American endorses a presidential candidate (Joe Biden).

From the Cutting Room Floor...

Three weeks ago, I awoke in the night with one browser window linked to the cameras set up by as Hurricane Laura scraped across Louisiana. On another browser window, I watched wildfires consume California. I thought this split-screen apocalypse would be a one-time event. But this morning, I’m up early watching Hurricane Sally hit my own state while a friend of mine packs up to leave her home because wildfires are consuming Oregon. We are almost certainly going to be moving into Greek-alphabet-named tropical storms over a month earlier than in 2005, the worst year before this one.[1]

Whereas Laura brought punishing wind, Sally has carried incredible rain and destruction to the Gulf Coast.[2] It is going to be a multi-billion-dollar clean-up.[3] To towns that are almost completely tourism dependent, the one-two punch of the pandemic and this hurricane and subsequent flooding are going to create a barrier to recovery that is hard to measure.

At the same time, Jo Weaver writes me about her family’s frantic evacuation from the “Holiday Farm” fire that has engulfed the state.[4] She had resisted leaving, even though she was under a Level 1 evacuation warning. She packed their bags plus their “birth certificates, the deed to the house, favorite stuffed animals, a paper map in case the GPS died on the way out, instant coffee packets, because I will kill if I don’t get coffee, sleeping bags—you know, survival-in-a-car stuff.” The evacuation warnings in her vicinity were “just jumping up and back” between level 1 and level 3—the “get out immediately” level—so it was hard to know exactly what one’s danger level was. The fires were moving so fast.[5]

After a few days of this not-knowing, the fires themselves became secondary to the smoke and ash. “I seriously couldn’t breathe even with my N95 mask on,” she says. Some days the sky was so thick with smoke that it felt like a dome was overhead, they were sealed within a snowglobe. “Like a Mad Max movie, with a red sun dot” in that grey shell. Outside, nothing but “raining ash and the smell of burning—reminded me of Pompeii.” She began thinking about what kind of look she should have on her face if she was to be buried in ash for centuries. Two centimeters of ash coated every tree and plant. Sweeping it only created clouds. She prudently taped up her doors and windows, but it didn’t help. When she drove to the store, the smoke plus “just all the ash whirling” made her feel disoriented, nauseated. Today, with the air quality at a level never before seen in Oregon, she felt compelled to leave.[6] She’s going back east to her parents, thankful that they can still accommodate the whole family, fully recognizing her privilege: her relatively secure finances and a job that allows her to work remotely.

All these disasters signal to her something even more unnerving. “It’s clear and obvious that we as a country are fucking ourselves.” It’s not just the fires, it’s the rumors that “Antifa” set these fires. “Even natural disasters push us apart.” She believes that the Portland protests are still continuing even in the face of this, but that even in her neighborhood, people are divided over who is responsible for what. Should we blame the cops, the protesters, the “white extremists” who do the looting or the “white extremists” who fire off the tear gas at the protesters? Underneath that, she wonders “will my kids have an ordinary lifespan?” If we cannot handle something straightforward like a killer virus—if even pandemics divide the country into two roughly equal, opposite chunks—how will we address the heat that’s coming, heat that will start fires sooner, that will make hurricanes wetter?

Her advice for our future era of climate change? “Buy a bus.” “Property is optional.” “Agility is the most important thing.” “Survive.”



[1] Gabrielle Calise, “We’re Running out of Hurricane Names during the 2020 Storm Season,” Tampa Bay Times, September 14, 2020,

[2] “Hurricane Sally Blasts Ashore as a Powerful Category 2 Storm, Bringing Punishing Rain, Flooding,” CNBC, September 16, 2020,

[3] Sarah Lynch Baldwin, “Hurricane Sally Aftermath: Flooding Threats Expand across the Southeast,” September 17, 2020,

[4] Telephone conversation with author, September 15, 2020.

[5] “EXCLUSIVE: Dashcam Video from First Night of Holiday Farm Fire,” KEZI News, September 15, 2020,; News Staff, “Holiday Farm Fire East of Springfield Burns Area Nearly 4 Times the Size of Eugene,” KVAL, September 9, 2020,; Shane Dixon Kavanaugh | The Oregonian/OregonLive, “Holiday Farm Fire Ravages Oregon Towns, Premier Outdoor Playground near Eugene: ‘Catastrophic Damage,’” oregonlive, September 9, 2020,

[6] Joseph Winters, “Oregon’s Air Quality Is so Far beyond ‘Hazardous’ That No One Knows What It Means for Health,” Grist (blog), September 11, 2020,

Read more

“Oregon man describes start of Holiday Farm fire in Lane County,” The Oregonian, September 16, 2020,

Nina Melhoff, “Lake Oswego family narrowly escapes Holiday Farm Fire,”  KGW News Eugene, September 16, 2020,

Chris Terrill, “Why Are Wildfires Becoming More Unpredictable?,” Stormrider: Fire Storm, Spark, Little Dot Studios, August 14, 2020,

Northwest Sawyer, “Escaping The Oregon Wildfires! Fire within 100′ of my house!!!” September 12, 2020,

“Dozens dead and thousands displaced in West Coast wildfires,” CBC News, September 12, 2020,

“Hurricane Sally Slams the Alabama Coast,” Max Olsen Chasing, September 16, 2020,

Calise, Gabrielle. “We’re Running out of Hurricane Names during the 2020 Storm Season.” Tampa Bay Times, September 14, 2020.
Hanauer, Nick, and David M. Rolf. “The Top 1% of Americans Have Taken $50 Trillion From the Bottom 90%—And That’s Made the U.S. Less Secure.” Time, September 14, 2020.
Rodriguez, Sabrina, and Marc Caputo. “‘This Is f—Ing Crazy’: Florida Latinos Swamped by Wild Conspiracy Theories.” Politico, September 14, 2020.
Rosenfeld, Richard. “Perspective | Crime Is up. But It’s Not Because People Are Criticizing the Police.” Washington Post, September 14, 2020.
Holley, Peter. “Desperate for a Coronavirus Cure, Uninsured San Antonians Flock to Healers and Psychics.” Texas Monthly, September 15, 2020.
Hsu, Hua. “The New Monuments That America Needs.” The New Yorker, September 15, 2020.
Lovan, Dylan. “‘Say Her Name’: City to Pay $12M to Breonna Taylor’s Family.” AP News, September 15, 2020.
Garber, Megan. “Do You Speak Fox?” The Atlantic, September 16, 2020.
Platt, Meagan. “Press Release: Whistleblowing Nurse from Detention Center in Georgia Reports Unsafe Practices That Promote the Spread of COVID-19 in ICE Detention.” Government Accountability Project, September 14, 2020.
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Additional Links
  • Woodward, Bob. Rage. Illustrated Edition. Simon & Schuster, 2020.