Coronavirus: Skirting the Line Between Panic and Dangerous Denial

Jeremy Greenbaum.

As an eternal optimist, I have been happily going around the city over the past few weeks telling anyone who hasn’t already sworn off human contact that this is the cleanest New York and its inhabitants have ever been. People are washing their hands constantly (for 20 seconds at a time!), hand sanitizer is ubiquitous, my gym sent out an email that they are taking extra steps to clean all of the equipment (which more than anything else makes me question what they were doing before), and people are wearing surgical masks in crowds (which is actually a way more contentious issue than I ever thought possible for a piece of paper tied to a string).

In other words, people have been convinced to actually observe the hygiene rules my Jewish mother scared into me from the womb.

All that being said, over the past few days I’ve started to feel a bit weird about how out of alignment my bliss is from everyone else I’m interacting with. The other day, I saw a neighbor on our street and as I went in for a hug she literally jumped backward and screamed, “Corona!” A few hours later, my mom called and asked if I was still taking the subway. I told her that yes, I had actually just gotten off the subway. The silence on the other end of the line was deafening. And then last night, all within a-two hour window, I got a text from my uncle saying my cousin’s upcoming wedding might be canceled, a text from my dad saying his dermatology convention just got canceled, and a text from a friend asking if I still wanted to see the Broadway sh

ow we have tickets for this weekend or if I’d “rather not be out in such a public place.” (Governor Cuomo’s shuttering of events with more than 500 people has since take that decision out of our hands.)

I went to bed with a pit in my stomach last night, and when I woke up this morning I called my brother with the hope that he shared my cool as a cucumber stance on the virus. In about three seconds I realized he definitely did not. My brother, who lives a few subway stops away from me, has apparently already talked to my parents about an “escape plan” to their house in the suburbs and to confirm they had enough “food rations” in case New York City becomes “uninhabitable.”

Okay, first of all, WTF? But second and third of all, why was I not included in the escape plan and are there hypothetically enough rations for me, too?

So here I am, as general hysteria escalates all around me, feeling like I am either the only sane person in America or the only insane one. Worried I was possibly just uninformed, I plunged into a coronavirus super binge. What is it that has people so scared and should I be following suit?

Some media sources, of course, sensationalize newsworthy stories to increase engagement. But as I embarked on my binge, I couldn’t help but get swept up in it. There are containment zones, school closures, voluntary and involuntary quarantines, too many canceled events to count, the threat of a rolling worldwide recession, and most shocking of all… Tom Hanks is infected!

One thing is indisputable: this coronavirus outbreak has the world — and now me — riveted. Some might say I’m late to the game, others might say I’m buying into the hysteria, but as I research what’s going on cracks are definitely starting to form in my optimistic foundation. One minute I’m scoffing at how alarmist everyone is being, and the very next instant I’m tracking every COVID- 19 case in the US on this comprehensive map with accompanying spreadsheet.

My resolve is cyclically crumbling and then haphazardly being rebuilt with each new piece of news I come across. Are my spikes of fear and panic wise and informed or are they premature and foolish? Who Am I? What’s happening? And is my cucumber getting warm?

I am highly tempted to cloister up in a Ziploc sandwich bag with a stockpile of overpriced hand sanitizer as my only companion… but realize this might not be the most productive or effective response. On the flip side, diving headfirst, unprotected into a pool of people is also probably not a prudent choice. So what do I do? What do we do?

As I sit here and watch the spiking infections proliferate, my sense of invincibility is starting to wane. Even more, I’m realizing the responsibility I have to those I love to be extra vigilant about staying healthy. An infection is not only dangerous to the person infected but also to everyone they interact with. So I understand that putting myself at risk also means potentially putting those I love at risk, perhaps even deadly risk — and that really puts the issue into perspective for me.

I’m still a far cry away from quarantining myself for no reason, but I am going to go forward with a bit more healthy pessimism, knowing it’s what we all have to do to get through this scary time… together!

Jeremy Greenbaum is a Broadway actor, writer, and all around lover of stories. He lives in New York City with his boyfriend and a jumbo-sized bottle of gummy vitamins.