As the United States braces for a long Covid winter, many people have pondered early spring when the first wave of overnight shutdowns changed work, leisure, and social life.
Millions of Americans stuck at home from mid-March through spring dived into digital distractions and old hobbies, and intermittently checked social media to see how everyone else was doing. Today, memories of those first few months inspire a mixture of visceral fear and witty nostalgia for the collective experience of watching Tiger King and hoarding cans of beans.
But most people seem to agree that the then popular pastimes are best left in “early quarantine” – an unofficial period in US history that began on March 11th when news came that Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson had been diagnosed with Covid-19 ;; the NBA was closed after a positive test; and the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. The end date is looser and more subjective: the first day you met up with friends (or strangers) before Zoom, or the week non-essential stores reopened in your city.
The early quarantine feels like a lifetime ago. Most of its trends subsided when the restrictions were lifted and people ventured outside. But if the falls rise and the temperatures fall, it might be time to solve the riddles and yeast all over again: the lockdowns are back in California and maybe more locations soon.
The earliest pastime in “early Quar” was panic shopping. In the HBO documentaries “How To With John Wilson”, a familiar scene takes place in a New York supermarket in mid-March: Frenzied shoppers form a serpentine checkout whose carts are piled with toilet paper and canned goods. (The show’s frustrated host eventually tries to buy sliced tomatoes from a Burger King.)
While it was a useful coping mechanism for stress and lack of control, stockpiling it made it much harder for people to find the food they needed. Regardless, studies have shown that much of the food bought in bulk ended up in the trash.
Then came the stress-back madness. Flour and yeast disappeared from supermarket shelves, sourdough starters became a hot commodity, and feeds overflowed with pretty breads.
But after a while, sore forearms, flour-bombarded kitchens and misshapen lumps of half-risen dough gave way to a collective realization: Bread-making should best be left to the professionals.
New food trends blossomed almost daily: homemade pickles, shallot noodles, replicas of McDonald’s Egg McMuffins. TikTok has popularized quirky, photogenic goodies like whipped Dalgona coffee, brightly colored cloud bread and “muesli” made from miniature pancakes.
And then: regrowth of vegetables! City dwellers turned window sill gardeners, stuck the root ends of spring onions and Romaine hearts in glasses of water, and watched their rebirth. While this wasn’t the quickest way to pick up fresh produce, it made some emotional sense at the time: the bold little spring onions felt like romantic symbols of self-sufficiency with cottagecore.
Screen time increased
People watched TV, of course. Some of the most popular shows of the early quarter were appropriately about imprisonment: two Netflix dating shows, “Love Is Blind” and “The Circle,” put their subjects in hermetic pods and let them flirt from a distance. “Tiger King” focused on caged beasts and their masters who seemed to thrive beyond any limit – the law, good taste, basic tiger safety protocols – before ending up in jail.
Musicians released tricky songs about the virus in multiple languages; Charli XCX opted for heartfelt lockdown mixtapes instead. Rappers and R&B singers battled Verzuz. A wild-eyed, wild album by Fiona Apple captured the zeitgeist bouncing off the walls. Swarms of celebrities posted Instagram singalongs to mixed reactions.
Politicians became pandemic talk show hosts: New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo took the lunchtime slot (for which he received an Emmy), focusing on infection data and practical precautions, while President Trump continued to offer nightly political broadsides and assessments more dubious Treatments.
Social life has migrated entirely online. Groups of friends organized Zoom Happy Hours. Tinder Matches tried out Zoom Dating. There were zoom bar mitzvahs and drug abuse meetings, as well as weddings and orgies, as well as theater evenings and funerals (including fraudulent ones). Families organized virtual gatherings where members across the country bragged about Costco transports and discussed lockdown protocols. Inevitably, an uncle or grandparent would set their wallpaper on space or a tropical island.
Video games like Animal Crossing led to vital social centers. There were Instagram DJ sets and strip clubs, Second Life cyber raves, and Minecraft music festivals. TikTokers learned the “Savage” dance by heart. Redditors complained about unemployment insurance. Beyoncé raved about starting an OnlyFans.
Creative productivity itself became the battlefield: you should write a book in quarantine, some urged, just like Shakespeare! Others felt they owed it to themselves to indulge in sloth, self-care, and sweatpants.
People moved their living room furniture and flung their sweaty bodies around as recommended by Chloe Ting and Adriene Mishler. Spend athletes with the space bought new equipment; There were so many Peloton bike orders that deliveries lagged.
The digital overload gave way to more analog activities. People were looking for used bikes and cars to safely experience the outside world. Panicky evening walks became a daily ritual, if only to the liquor store. People immersed themselves in puzzles, backgammon, tie dyeing, knitting, grooming dogs, and cutting their own pony.
Distractions only went so far, however: the term “doomscrolling” popped up to reflect those dark moments when time alone inexorably brought us back to the news.
“Hygiene Theater” carried out
Hygiene rituals became essential to mental health. Hand sanitizer prices went up – there were massive price cuts – and finding the material became something of a national scavenger hunt.
People were encouraged to memorize 20-second snippets of music to sing while washing their hands. Some cleaned up mail and groceries before putting them in. The stores performed what The Atlantic later referred to as “hygiene theater”: complex hygiene displays that ultimately had little impact. In May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed their guidelines to mention that touching surfaces “isn’t the main cause of the virus spreading,” as opposed to breath droplets, which spread among people in confined spaces. (Even so, some shoppers continued to wear single-use gloves for the grocery store but resisted masks.)
There was fights between roommates over varying levels of comfort in hygiene and social distancing, which was captured in a New York article about group life that dramatically disintegrated.
Attempts to work a new social contract out of nowhere resulted in people who broke rules that hadn’t existed weeks before, such as influencer families traveling across state lines, being shamed on social media.
With personal protective equipment supply chains in disarray, people cut up into thousands of old t-shirts and sewed masks to donate to hospitals where nurses were dressed in garbage bags.
At night people clapped and knocked on pots out of their windows to honor rescue workers. This mutual outpouring of respect reached a climax with Priyanka Chopra on a balcony and clapped rhythmically in front of no one.
Planning for the future during early quarantine meant imagining arbitrary dates on which normalcy would return. The length of time seemed to be determined less by science than by the ability to imagine how long one could withstand a constraint. Weddings, music festivals, and movie releases have been delayed in convulsive outbursts. Everything would be fine by June. No? Until August of course. After three rounds of rescheduling, Coachella should now be set for October 2021.