As the United States braces for a long Covid winter, many people have been reflecting on the early spring, when the first wave of shutdowns transformed work, leisure and social life overnight.
Millions of Americans, stuck at home from mid-March through the spring, threw themselves into digital distractions and ancient hobbies, intermittently checking social media to see how everyone else was holding up. Today, memories of those first few months inspire a mix of visceral dread and jokey nostalgia for the collective experience of binge-watching “Tiger King” and hoarding cans of beans.
But most people seem to agree that the pastimes popularized back then would be best left in “early quarantine” — an unofficial period in U.S. history that began on March 11, when news broke that Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson had been diagnosed with Covid-19; the NBA shut down after a positive test; and the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. Its end date is looser and more subjective: the first day you gathered with friends (or strangers) off Zoom, perhaps, or the week nonessential businesses reopened in your city.
Early quarantine feels like a lifetime ago. Most of its trends faded when restrictions lifted and people ventured outdoors. But with cases rising and temperatures falling, it might be time to break out the puzzles and yeast once again: In California, and perhaps more places soon, lockdowns are back.
The earliest of “early quar” pastimes was panic shopping. In the HBO docuseries “How To With John Wilson,” a familiar mid-March scene unfolds in a New York City supermarket: frenzied shoppers form a serpentine checkout line, their carts piled high with toilet paper and canned goods. (The show’s frustrated host ends up trying to buy sliced tomatoes from a Burger King.)
Though it was a useful coping mechanism for stress and lack of control, stockpiling made it much harder for people to find the food they needed. Separately, studies have found that much of that food purchased in bulk ultimately ended up in the trash.
Then came the stress-baking craze. Flour and yeast disappeared from supermarket shelves, sourdough starter became a hot commodity, and feeds overflowed with handsome loaves.
But after a while, aching forearms, flour-bombed kitchens and misshapen lumps of half-risen dough gave way to a collective realization: bread making might be best left to the professionals.
New food trends blossomed almost daily: homemade pickles, shallot pasta, recreations of McDonald’s Egg McMuffins. TikTok popularized whimsical, photogenic treats like whipped Dalgona coffee, colorful cloud bread and “cereal” made from miniature pancakes.
And then: vegetable regrowing! City dwellers became windowsill gardeners, placing the root ends of scallions and romaine hearts in glasses of water and tracking their rebirth. While not the fastest way to acquire fresh produce, this made some kind of emotional sense at the time: The plucky little scallions felt like romantic symbols of cottagecore self-sufficiency.
Screen Time, Increased
People watched TV, of course. Several of the most popular shows of early quar were, fittingly, about captivity: Two Netflix dating shows, “Love Is Blind” and “The Circle,” placed their subjects in hermetic pods and made them flirt remotely. “Tiger King” focused on caged beasts and their master, who seemed to thrive beyond any boundary — the law, good taste, basic tiger safety protocols — before winding up in jail.
Musicians released gimmicky songs about the virus in multiple languages; Charli XCX opted, instead, for heartfelt lockdown mixtapes. Rappers and R&B singers battled on Verzuz. A wild-eyed, rambunctious album from Fiona Apple captured the bouncing-off-the-walls zeitgeist. Swarms of celebrities released Instagram singalongs, to mixed reactions.
Politicians became pandemic talk show hosts: Governor Andrew Cuomo took the midday slot (for which he has been awarded an Emmy), focusing on infection data and practical precautions, while President Donald J. Trump continued to proffer nightly political broadsides and appraisals of dubious treatments.
Social life fully migrated online. Friend groups organized Zoom happy hours. Tinder matches tried out Zoom dating. There were Zoom bar mitzvahs and substance abuse meetings and weddings and orgies and theater recitals and funerals (even fraudulent ones). Families arranged virtual reunions, with members around the country bragging about Costco hauls and griping about lockdown protocols; inevitably, an uncle or grandparent would set their background image to outer space or a tropical island.
Video games like Animal Crossing gave rise to crucial social hubs. There were Instagram DJ sets and strip clubs, Second Life cyber raves and Minecraft music festivals. TikTokers memorized the “Savage” dance. Redditors commiserated over unemployment insurance. Beyoncé rapped about starting an OnlyFans.
Creative productivity itself became a battlefield: You should write a book in quarantine, some urged, just like Shakespeare! Others felt they owed it to themselves to luxuriate in sloth and self-care and sweatpants.
People moved their living room furniture and hurled their sweaty bodies around as advised by Chloe Ting and Adriene Mishler. Spendier exercisers with the space bought new equipment; there were so many Peloton bike orders that deliveries were backlogged.
Digital overload gave way to more analog activities. People sought out used bikes and cars in order to safely experience the outside world. Panicky evening walks became a daily ritual, even if only to the liquor store. People dove into puzzles, Backgammon, tie-dying, knitting, fostering dogs, cutting their own bangs.
But distractions only went so far: the term “doomscrolling” emerged to reflect the dark moments when time alone led us inexorably back to the news.
‘Hygiene Theater,’ Performed
Hygiene rituals became essential to sanity. Hand sanitizer prices spiked — there was extensive price gouging — and finding the stuff became a sort of nationwide scavenger hunt.
People were encouraged to memorize 20-second musical snippets to sing while washing their hands. Some sanitized mail and groceries before bringing them inside. Stores performed what The Atlantic later dubbed “hygiene theater”: complex displays of sanitization that ultimately had little effect. In May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed its guidelines to mention that touching surfaces “isn’t thought to be the main way the virus spreads,” as opposed to respiratory droplets spread among people in close quarters. (Still, some shoppers continued to wear disposable gloves to the supermarket but resist masks.)
There were fights between roommates over differing comfort levels around hygiene and social distancing, captured in a New Yorker article about a group living arrangement that disintegrated dramatically.
Attempts to hammer out a new social contract from thin air led to the social media shaming of people who’d broken rules that hadn’t existed weeks before, like influencer families who traveled across state lines.
With supply chains for personal protective equipment in disarray, people cut up old T-shirts and sewed masks by the thousands to donate to hospitals, where nurses were clad in trash bags.
At night, people clapped and banged on pots out their windows to honor emergency medical workers. This communal outpouring of respect reached a campy apex with Priyanka Chopra on a balcony, clapping rhythmically to no one.
Planning for the future during early quarantine meant imagining arbitrary dates when normality would return. The lengths of time seemed determined less by science than by the ability to conceptualize how long one could withstand confinement. Weddings and music festivals and movie releases were delayed in spasmodic bursts. By June everything would be fine. No? Well, certainly by August. After three rounds of rescheduling, Coachella is now reportedly set for October 2021.