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Hold your breath, we're going in

I’m no germaphobe, agoraphobe or hypochondriac, and I don’t avoid people for no reason. I have plenty of reasons, all personal. I don’t dislike my fellow humans; I simply don’t trust them.

So given the choice I’d rather avoid large, crowded public spaces. It’s very possible this feeling can be traced back to an experience I had at Disneyland about 20 years ago. We knew, based on our shuttle driver’s exclamations and the large lighted sign warning us that the park was full, that we should expect long lines and shoulder-to-shoulder traffic that New Year’s eve. What we didn’t fully appreciate was that when close to 100,000 exhausted parents and their screaming children are crammed into the bottleneck that is Disneyland’s Main Street minutes after the fireworks show ends, the happiest place on Earth suddenly becomes, contrary to what the brochure would have you believe, an absolute hellhole.

As countless speakers amplified Disney music on repeat and the scent of French fries and waffle cones wafted through the air, all of us poor saps who paid $150 a pop for this experience suddenly and simultaneously became aware that we .... couldn’t ... move ... one ... tiny ... little ... inch. It was a chest-to-back human traffic jam, or, as Pumbaa might have put it, Hakuna Macrappy. And for somebody like me whose imagination in such predicaments immediately turns to a dozen terrible what-if scenarios (bomb, gun, stampede, Mickey!), it also happened to be a little scary.

That was especially the case when the crowd seemed to flex and condense at one point, forcing me to yank my then 4-year-old son out of his stroller as it was slowly sucked into the human vortex. We never saw that stroller again. Good times, good times.

Of course, the crowd eventually did loosen up enough for us to make our way out of the park and into a tram, where I exhaled all over my fellow passengers because that’s what you could do before COVID-19.

So, no, not a huge fan of large crowds. But the person I married loves to go all out for birthdays and Christmas, and is particularly fond of gifting experiences, and that’s why Saturday, March 7, I found myself strolling through a metal detector just inside the Moda Center in Portland, one of approximately 20,000 fans (19,691 to be exact) shuffling to his or her bacteria-infested seat to take in some Trail Blazers-Kings action and maybe a little end times halftime entertainment tossed in at no extra charge. It was my three sons and I, the two youngest pumped up for their first-ever professional sporting event. Oh, I know what you’re thinking and you can just relax — the bathrooms were fully stocked with antibacterial soap.

More than anything, our experience in Portland, which is only a few miles away from where Oregon’s first COVID-19 victim was quarantined, speaks to how abruptly life changed. Three days later the Blazers played their final game before the NBA season was postponed. A week later, just about every other large gathering had been canceled or postponed.

Major decisions from the powers that be were delivered with such rapidity, and their consequences so immediate and far-reaching, that stories being written at the Ashland Tidings office and elsewhere were becoming obsolete even as fingers punched keys. My colleague, Kaylee Tornay, wrote a weighty, well-sourced story about schooling during coronavirus that was out of date only hours later when Gov. Kate Brown decided to close Oregon schools.

To me, the reactions have been fascinating, and the reactions to the reactions more so. I vaguely understand the panic-buying of toilet paper — tip: for the cost of two Costco TP packages you can buy a bidet attachment and be TP-free forever — but those who rebelled against that panic by hitting up bars and clubs will, if the experts are correct, feel pretty foolish in the coming weeks.

And when it comes to this particular problem, one that has us busting out Google to unpack such gems as “ribonucleic acid,” “angiotensin,” and “ACE2 receptor,” we definitely should listen to the experts. Experts like Dr. Susan Smith, a retired internist and oncologist who worked for the University of Arizona and Vanderbilt before retiring to the Rogue Valley about 10 years ago.

Smith posted a video on YouTube (“The story of COVID-19 and How to Flatten the Curve in the Rogue Valley”) earlier this week — ah, those were the days — that explained in clinical terms why COVID-19 is definitely NOT comparable to the flu and, based on a conservative 50% infection rate, local hospitals could see roughly 15,000 patients over the next two months. Of those, Smith notes in a linked handout, an estimated 5,000 will need a ventilator or Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO) machine, which pumps blood from the patient’s body to an artificial lung that adds oxygen and removes carbon dioxide. And if you think that sounds bad, wait until you find out how many ECMO machines we have in the Rogue Valley: zero.

Which is why my dislike of large crowds has suddenly itself become a sort of contagion, one that threatens to shutter local businesses. Andy Card, who owns Oberon’s Restaurant and Bar and Masala Bistro and Bar, both in Ashland, told Ashland City Council Tuesday that the coronavirus-related restrictions, including Brown’s order that restaurants close, could “devastate the Ashland economy.” Exacerbating the problem, he explained, is the fact that banks aren’t extending lines of credit and he can’t even apply for an emergency loan.

What’s the answer? In Ashland, the city has suspended late fees for utilities and pushed back to June 1 the due dates for the lodging and food and beverage taxes. Fine, says Card, but still not nearly enough.

“We need the city to act,” he said, “and it needs to be massive and dramatic.”

Unfortunately, trying to figure out what the city, the state, the country can do to help small business owners during a crisis that has cost them even their most loyal customers is as confounding as trying to muscle your way through an overcrowded theme park. Like it or not, we’re all stuck here, necessarily compressed by the emergency systems we set in place, and by each other.

Suddenly, things that used to matter don’t. Two weeks ago I was disappointed that Damian Lillard flopped against the Kings. Four days ago, my daughter was eating cake at a birthday party for a girl whose mom is a local nurse. Today, I’m writing this from home and my daughter is stretched out on a couch on the other side of the room, nursing a fever and a sore throat.

We had a movie night Wednesday — Lord of the Rings. At one point, as they brace for an attack, Pippin tells Gandalf, “It’s so quiet.” To which Gandalf responds: “It’s the deep breath before the plunge.”

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com.

Joe Zavala